Unlike some Arizona State fan, I have never spit on a college basketball player. Unlike Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, I have not shoved a college basketball fan.
I have done worse.
On Feb. 20, 1967, I threw an egg at UTEP’s Nevil Shed. It hit him in the knee at the moment the defending national champions beat my beloved Utah State Aggies in double overtime, 79-75.
Nobody knew who threw it. Police and USU coach LaDell Anderson marched into the bleachers at the old Nelson Fieldhouse looking for the basketball felon.
UTEP coach Don Haskins vowed to never play in Logan, Utah, again.
After the events of the last week, at ASU and in Lubbock, Texas, I thought about that long-ago day. I feel worse now than I did when Shed clutched his leg and the entire UTEP team looked into the sea of unhappy faces, searching for the idiot who brought an egg to a basketball game.
It scared me straight.
Why do fans spit on players? Why do players feel the urge to shove a loudmouthed fan? I should know. I used to be one of the worst fans in college basketball.
In the winter of ’66-67 I had for the first time, a job and enough money to buy one season ticket, in the bleachers immediately behind the USU bench. I think it cost $75, which was a lot of gas-station shifts for a high school sophomore.
I sat immediately behind an older gentleman who wouldn’t shut up or sit down. He rode the officials with such incessant babble that it often distracted me from my first mission, which was to cheer to excess against the Aggies’ opponents, especially BYU and Utah.
On the day of the year’s final home game, against the much-feared Miners and Nevil “The Shadow” Shed, I put an egg in my coat pocket. I planned to place it on the seat of the blubbering fan near game’s end. He would, of course, sit on the egg and I would exit the season with a feeling of satisfaction.
But the game became so intense that no one in the bleachers sat down in the overtime sessions. The Aggies couldn’t stop Shed. The refs blew a few calls (of course) and when the buzzer sounded I grabbed the egg and threw it, not toward Shed, but at Irv Brown, who would go on to become, in my opinion, the leading basketball referee I’ve ever seen.
Brown seemed to work every big game imaginable in the old WAC and Pac-8 days, and by 1969 called his first of six Final Fours. He was flamboyant. He was an easy target.
After all these years, by chance, I bumped into Brown at the Arizona-Colorado game last winter at Boulder’s Coors Special Events Center.
Brown is a radio talk-host in Denver and, to my pleasure, talked at length about the difficulty of calling games in Logan, at Bear Down Gym and elsewhere.
“The old Utah State fieldhouse and the one at Utah were as boisterous as any place I ever worked,” he said. “The fans rode me from the minute I walked out for warmups.”
I asked if he remembered the game in which UTEP’s Nevil Shed got hit by an egg.
“I remember two fans confronting me in Logan after they lost, I think, to Notre Dame, but no egg-throwing,” he said. “I saw a fistfight in a game there, maybe two brawls up there.
“The game is far more civil now than it was then.”
At 79, Brown’s memory remains sharp.
In 1967, USU’s Pete Ennenga punched Utah’s Jeff Ockel in the face. Blood everywhere. Fans running onto the court.
A year earlier, USU’s Tom Stewart floored Utah’s George Fisher with a punch to the chin. It was an absolute melee.
Because there was no ESPN and no Internet, few outside of Utah ever got the news. There were no suspensions, no scandal.
When my dad took me to my first USU-BYU game, Aggies center Darnel Haney and BYU’s Dave Eastis got into a bloody fight that spilled into the bleachers. The game ended with USU All-American tackle Merlin Olsen, of all people, escorting the referees to their quarters.
School presidents Darryl Chase of USU and Ernest Wilkinson of BYU met and declared zero tolerance, insisting college basketball must be played in a more civil environment.
A year later, USU guard Dennis Nate played the game of his life against BYU. Much like Arizona’s T. J. McConnell, Nate was a floor-burn specialist, a hustler whose attitude and hustle were infectious.
He scored 19 against BYU that night, the Aggies won 88-69, and when Nate was removed from the game, with the ball still in play, a jubilant fan ran across the court to shake his hand.
You can’t do that any more, you’d be in lockup all night, but it sure beats spitting, shoving or throwing an egg.