|Wyoming’s old War Memorial Fieldhouse played host to college basketball more than 30 years ago before the school welcomed a state-of-the-art 15,000-seat arena. Notice that as sports writers, we actually sat next to an elevated floor which sat on the mud as we shivered to death during the game.
As a young sports writer with the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1978, I loved covering college basketball. I got my first real experience of the enthusiasm and the electricity of the beat when I was sent to cover UNLV in the 1977 NCAA Final Four at the Omni in Atlanta.
However, the next year UNLV went from the heights of the NCAA playoffs to the reality that the school had been placed on two years probation. Since I covered the Final Four in which UNLV lost to North Carolina 84-83 in the quarter-final round, I also earned the right to cover the team the next two years.
It was during the 1978-79 season that I suddenly discovered one of the most challenging road trips in college basketball when UNLV traveled for back-to-back games against the University of Wyoming in Laramie and Colorado State in Fort Collins. The team landed in Denver where we all climbed into a city bus for a trip that made the Bataan Death March look like a cakewalk.
The city bus was rickety and seemed almost as cold as the outdoor temperature. I vividly remember the players complaining about the transportation. When they talked, you could almost see the steam coming out of their mouths.
When we arrived in Laramie, one of the coaches stood up in the bus and immediately warned everyone not to wear Rebel red jackets. He further explained that the folks of Laramie weren’t fond of Las Vegans and the less we wore red, the better off we would be.
Laramie is definitely an interesting city; and it’s very cold during the winter with temperatures nearing the low teens or lower at night. UNLV Basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian and I stood along the railing of a Holiday Inn after arriving for the showdown with the Cowboys.
“Can you imagine living here?” Tark said looking at the snow-covered parking lot while listening to someone attempting to get a car started. “It’s so cold you can’t even start a car around here.”
What Tark didn’t realize was that the outdoors weren’t the only challenge. We were about to find our way to War Memorial Fieldhouse, a 5,000-seat multi-purpose arena that opened in 1951. When we walked into the place, I immediately noticed that the floor was sitting on mud considering that War Memorial was tantamount to a cow palace that could also be used for rodeos.
It struck me as I looked around that I should have warn insulated rubber boots not only to combat the mud but also keep me from getting frost bite. As I got closer to press row, I also noticed that my seat was literally in the mud.
Worse yet, I also noticed instantly that the indoor temperature of War Memorial was so low that you could safely hang meat throughout the place. I think I asked someone about the temperature in War Memorial only to hear that the thermometer froze.
As I sat down in my seat, I discovered (a) that my seat was about 40 below zero and that I had to look up to see floor that was sitting atop the coldest mud surface since the Arctic Tundra.
I immediately realized that my teeth were chattering and the only thing missing was a Zamboni; a hot toddy and a ski jacket with one of those hoods found only in Siberia. I was sure I’d see a flock of geese flying out of center of the floor and some guy with a double-barrel shotgun ready to record a kill before the Honkers headed out the hole in the roof.
I mean, I came to cover a big-time college basketball game and I kept looking around to see if I was in the wrong place. Surely, the basketball court was supposed to be a hockey rink and UNLV-Wyoming was actually going to be replaced with an exhibition National Hockey League game featuring the Los Angles Kings and the Chicago Black Hawks.
Things got worse, though, when I got out my trusty manual Corona typewriter and plopped it down on the table. It was so cold inside War Memorial that the keyboard seemed frozen and the more I attempted to push down on the keys, the more I realized that I might be better off taking notes with a hammer and a chisel – as long as I had a pair of gloves to keep my fingers from freezing.
The UNLV team was a good one with the likes of 6-7 center Earl Evans from Port Arthur, Tex., 7-foot UCLA transfer Brett Vroman and Tony Smith, a 6-3 Detroit, Mich., guard who was deadly from as far away as half court.
However, Wyoming would win the game although I’m not sure of the score primarily because I suffered from a severe case of brain freeze for about three days. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the UNLV reserves which had to be shivering to death on the sidelines.
I mean, this was the only arena in the country where cheerleaders were supposed to wear thermals. The visiting teams had a definite disadvantage especially when the visitors lived in areas of the country where 70 degrees above was the norm in the winter; not 70 below indoors.
When I finally got home, I wrote a column about War Memorial Fieldhouse. I told how the place made the parking lot at the Laramie Holiday Inn seem like a heat wave; and that the venue was so cold that homeless people would take the streets of Laramie over a night inside War Memorial.
I think I also told of how prairie dogs stuck their heads out of the floor several times during the game waving banners saying “This place sucks” and the dust was worse than off-road racers face during the Baja 1000.
The Cowboys of Wyoming eventually returned to play UNLV at the old 6,200-seat Las Vegas Convention Center, so I visited to cover the practice. As I stood courtside, I heard someone say “Excuse me. Is your name Mike Henle?”
I looked to see the man asking the question was a big guy with a cowboy hat and one of those heavy leather jackets. I suspected that he was from Laramie and I just knew he wanted to body slam me over the column I wrote making fun of War Memorial Fieldhouse.
Instead, the guy walked over to me and stuck out his hand.
“I want to thank you for that column you wrote about War Memorial Fieldhouse,” said the man, who I swore was 6-foot-8 and weighed 280 pounds. “You did all of us at the University of Wyoming a big favor.”
At 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds, I just stood there in disbelief. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Nowadays, they have the Cowboy Joe Club and I was sure the Cowboy Joe of 1978 wanted to tar and feather me. I mean, we were warned going into the town that residents of Laramie didn't like desert rats anyway, and all I did was invite a severe beating.
“What do you mean?” I asked fearing that I was about to be destroyed by a real Wyoming cowboy/
“Well, we have been trying to get the Wyoming legislature to realize that we need a new basketball arena for years and your column was excellent,” the man said. “It was perfect and it was just what we needed.”
I stood there in disbelief. While I had thought I was going to be pistol whipped by the big guy with the big cowboy hat; I discovered that I was actually a hero in his eyes. I must have resembled someone who had walked across a railroad track just before a freight train came speeding past at 100 mph.
The University of Wyoming now has a state-of-the-art 15,000-seat arena with controlled environment that from the outside is all 21st Century. When looking at pictures of it, I like to think that maybe I had something to do with its creation; all thanks to a goofy column I wrote about ice-cold War Memorial Fieldhouse more than 30 years ago.
That said, I think I might go back to Laramie someday. After all, as it relates to the University of Wyoming basketball program, my name might even be on the wall for helping make the arena possible.