Pilgrimages: Coming of Age

As I grew from adolescence and gained more personal freedom I was able to venture to sporting events on my own. From my teenage years to young adulthood my love of sports was now in full bloom. My pilgrimages were now of my own doing.

The New Orleans Superdome: It took Louisiana politics to new heights but in 1975 the most glorious sports structure the world had ever seen, The Superdome, opened for business. I remember being so enamored with the thought of my home town getting this glorious building that one day on the Pontchartrain Expressway riding in the backseat of my Aunt’s car I exclaimed that if I was going to die I was glad it would be in front of the Dome, as my Aunt had narrowly missed colliding with two other vehicles. And the Dome was still under construction.

It was the home of the Saints, the Sugar Bowl, and the New Orleans Jazz. It hosted Super Bowls,boxing matches, college basketball games, concerts, conventions, and anything else you could think of. I watched my Saints win glorious victories and suffer gut wrenching defeats. I watched Pete Maravich sink jump shots, and LSU upset Georgetown on a last second shot by Ricky Blanton. I saw national championship and state championship football games. When my high school basketball team won the state championship in 1977 we were guests of the New Orleans Jazz. It was my home away from home and was only three miles from my front door. And after a wretched defamation during Katrina it was restored to to even greater glory. If they sold burial plots next to it I would be first in line. And why not, as it was constructed over an old cemetery!

Lambeau Field: The home of the Green Bay Packers is like no other football stadium. A perfect bowl there is not one bad seat. The building is a shrine to championships that date back to 1919, to a team owned by it’s community in a town of just over 100,000 people. They come from all over the midwest wearing Green and Gold and whether they are undefeated or winless they  fill the stadium and cheer with relentless abandon. They love the Packers unconditionally. Even if they lose they comment on the good things the team did. I have been there four times and each visit has been unique. After the game fans line the narrow drive that leads out the stadium to the street so they can pay homage to their heroes as they drive from the stadium. The cheers are just as loud in defeat.

Tulane (Fogelman) Arena: I loved college basketball in the 70’s and 80’s. New Orleans had the City Series with Tulane, Loyola, University of New Orleans, Xavier University, Dillard University, and Southern University in New Orleans all playing round robin games. Xavier, a predominately African-American Catholic school that competed in the NAIA had Bruce Seals, Donald “Slick” Watts, and James “Shirt” Williams. Seals and Watts went on to play in the NBA. Dillard had Billy Ray Hobley who played for years with the Harlem Globetrotters. UNO had Wilbur Holland who led them to the NCAA Division II national championship game and later played for the Chicago Bulls. Loyola played in the series for one year and then dropped sports. Their best players, Ernie Loesch, Gary Kardzionak, and Phil Hicks, all transferred to Tulane.

UNO played in a band box called the Chamber of Horrors but later moved to the state of the art Nat Kiefer Arena on the lakefront. Xavier had the Barn and SUNO the Castle. But for me no place was like Tulane Arena. Once again I was just three miles from my house to the tiny gym on Willow St. You could buy a ticket at the door and with only 3,000 seats the place was LOUD! Tulane played against nationally ranked teams such as Louisville and Memphis State in the old Metro Conference. Southern Miss was a big rival as was LSU. I remember watching Tulane play Marquette, a team that a year later would win the NCAA championship. My heroes were Pierre Gaudin, Bruce Bolyard, Arthur Bibbs, Tony Beaulieu, and of course the great Phil Hicks. Every Mardi Gras after Tulane’s first basket beads were thrown on the floor stopping play! And with beer sales encouraged lets just say it was a tough place to play. When Tulane shut down basketball in the mid 80’s over a point shaving scandal I was heart broken. When they brought the program back in the early 90’s I was a season ticket holder.

Death Valley: I know many of you think I am referring to Tiger Stadium on the campus of Louisiana State University and that is a special place. But while I root for LSU I have always been a son of the Crescent City with sentiment for Tulane and the Saints surpassing anything I felt for the Tigers. The Death Valley I am referring to was on the campus of Isidore Newman School in Uptown New Orleans. It was a hell hole gym that was home to the Newman Greenies.

A small elite private school Newman was a basketball powerhouse in the 1960’s and 70’s. I would go watch games at the Newman Invitational Tournament and later just regular games they had. I watched them play suffocating man to man defense and run a precision motion offense with relentless screens and backdoor cuts. But more importantly I was in awe of the atmosphere. Numerous pennants reflecting district and state championships. The mural on the back wall telling you what you already knew. That you were in Death Valley home of the Newman Greenies and they were going to beat you. I played there my senior year and it was no picnic. We squandered a nine point lead in the fourth quarter. I even blogged about it. That gym was a part of my coming of age in a decade where basketball was finding it’s feet and in 1979 two guys named Magic and Bird would change the game forever!

Wrigley Field: I was never a die hard baseball fan but I always had a sense of history and a love of nostalgia. When I was visiting an old friend in Chicago back in 1985 I decided to go to Wrigley. I have been back three more times and each visit is moving. I realize that I am sitting in seats and standing on ground that has been in continuous use for decades. Watching a scoreboard that remains unchallenged by progress. Sharing a common experience with fans that have long since passed on. If only they would just bring that goat onto the field and lift the curse!

I am no longer young but my list grows. I have watched the Red Wings play in Joe Louis Arena, visited Hinkle Field in Indianapolis where Butler plays, Hoosiers was filmed, and the real life Milan High School defeated Muncie Central. I even visited the Collosseum in Rome. But older eyes don’t have the vitality that young eyes do. You reflect backward as you get older, appreciating what you are seeing. But when you are young the world is waiting for you. Experiences are new and fresh. Possibilities are endless. You think you have all the time in the world. And you are right!




About Merrill Wautlet

I am a finance professional and volunteer coach. I have also served in a leadership role for numerous non-profit and civic organizations. For a complete profile feel free to check me out on Linkedin.
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1 Response to Pilgrimages: Coming of Age

  1. Michael Schofield says:

    Great memories about wonderful sports arenas. How about Loyola Field House with its elevated court or the old Jesuit High School Gym where the goal was like a big vacuum cleaner hose (at least for me) or the KU Field House in Lawrence, Kanasas, the mecca of college basketball arenas?

    Nice job!

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