It’s still the most telling sports photo I’ve ever seen.
Two kids on a ladder, about to cut the net down from a basketball rim. A typical pose after championship games.
But what’s different is the looks of crushing shock on their faces, mouths wide open, the net beside them hanging untouched.
It was the most infamous moment in Washington state basketball history. I was there, but I’d forgotten my camera.
* * *
I fell in love with hoops when I was 12, when we lived for a year in Chapel Hill, NC. I couldn’t help but become a Tar Heel fan, hiding under my covers secretly listening to games through my crystal radio that I’d built with my grandfather. I cried myself to sleep that horrid night in March of 1977 when UNC lost to Al McGuire’s Marquette team for the NCAA title. Basketball was big enough there that we watched tournament games on TV in my sixth grade classroom.
Yes, during school hours.
I went to Dean Smith’s basketball camp that summer and from then on was determined I would play at UNC someday.
A couple of years and a couple of moves took us to Mercer Island. The basketball culture was everything I dreamed of. Unfortunately, a lot of the guys there had something I didn’t have enough of: basketball talent. I discovered that the hard way when a seventh-grade Quin Snyder exposed ninth-grade me during junior high basketball tryouts.
End of career.
I probably wasn’t as bad as I felt that day. Snyder eventually played in three Final Fours at (respectfully) hated Duke.
But what I discovered the next year made up for it in many ways: the Animal Band. We took pep band antics to a new level. The WIAA hated us, and we found out just how much after a fateful night in March of ’81.
The 1980-81 Mercer Island basketball team is still my favorite team ever, and not because of that night. Of the 12 guys on the team, 10 averaged at least four points a game or more. Only one, Al Moscatel, averaged in double figures at 12 points a game. They were decent but not great that year in the ultra-competitive KingCo (just one league in those days, not two). Didn’t even win their division, but then caught fire, surviving six loser-out games in that year’s playoffs to make the eight-team state tournament, where the Seattle Times’ legendary sports writer, Craig Smith, picked them as the eighth-best team.
So it didn’t discourage our rowdy band too much when they upset #2 Richland in the quarterfinals, blew out unbeaten Lakes in the semifinals, and faced #3 Shadle Park (led by future Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien) in the finals. I was all set to bring my camera to the game, as we were seated right behind one of the baskets. My intent was to shoot the final seconds of the game as we (surely) would win the state title. Click it as the clock, right above the far-end basket, hit zero.
Hard to do when my camera was sitting on the kitchen table.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Seattle Center Coliseum was falling apart prior to its days as Key Arena. The stadium scoreboard broke early in the tournament, forcing the timer to use a handheld airhorn.
Which almost guaranteed that the state championship would go to the wire.
Pepple (son of the coach, Ed Pepple, who went on to win 952 games in 49 years) went to the line with the score tied at 64, with six seconds left. He missed the first free throw, made the second.
Shadle’s Scott Poole inbounded the ball to teammate Dave Ray, who dribbled across midcourt into an MI double team. He passed out of it…
(In my mind’s eye, I can still see that moment, because I was dearly wanting to shoot it. The ball in mid-air, on the pass, the clock over the scoreboard reading 0:00. But time didn’t freeze, and neither I nor anyone else has that picture.)
…to Greg Schmidt, who jumped, gathered it in and shot it before hitting the floor. Nothing but net, and according to at least one official, in time.
It was so late that the MI team, some of the fans, and a lot of us in the band were storming the floor, celebrating. Kyle Pepple and Doug Gregory were up on the ladder about to take the first cut of championship net.
That was when the scoreboard finally changed, 30 seconds after 0:00, and we were joined on the floor by our friends from Shadle Park. Some claim that one official waved the basket off, though video only shows the ref under the basket counting it. At any rate, they later claimed to be so confident of their call that they refused to ask the timer’s opinion (which, if sought, could have overridden the original call, but not unless he was asked). With a hand-operated “buzzer” it would seem to be, even now, a no-brainer to make sure.
Things got ugly. Fights broke out, the Shadle cheerleaders had their purses stolen, the MI players had their warm-ups swiped. Poole climbed onto the opposite basket wearing the net and taunted angry MI fans, who in turn tried to pelt him with rolls of toilet paper. Finally, the elder Pepple took to the microphone to implore us to meet back in the school gym.
When we in the band got back to the gym after midnight, the stands were full, the floor was packed and the atmosphere was as charged as it had ever been for a game. The players even cut down the nets. Inspired by the 1972 Olympic basketball team (another story for another day), the school didn’t even accept the runner-up trophy.
It didn’t get better. Protests were filed, people from both school communities flung recriminations back and forth across the mountains.
The Seattle P-I and Spokane Spokesman-Review went over, frame-by-frame, video of the final seconds. Without a clock visible in the picture, they (of course) came to opposite conclusions.
I rest my case with Bob Robertson, the legendary voice of WSU athletics (and Rypien’s destination the following year). I still have a tape of Robertson’s radio call, which was broadcast statewide:
“Full court pressure now by Mercer Island. Ball in … Five … four … three … two … one … Ray with the ball throws it under and it’s over and they didn’t get the shot…. Yes they did! Oh! Mercer Island got robbed! … They called it good! It wasn’t good! The clock had run down before the shot from the right side and Mercer Island got robbed of the state championship!”
In the end, Shadle Park got the championship trophy and Mercer Island was put on two years probation for its part in the near-riot. The band was specifically called out, even though we’d been quickly whisked from the arena before the real trouble started. About 10 of us picketed the WIAA office, then in Bellevue, over the one-sided response of the state association.
* * *
Why go into all of this now?
A lot of time has passed. Life puts things into perspective. One of the Mercer Island captains, Chris Kampe, died of cancer in 1993. Rypien lost a young son in a similar manner. I even had a former Shadle Park cheerleader as a friend in college. We got along great, unless that game came up, which was usually initiated by my roommate hoping to egg us on.
But that night inspired my career as well, at least on the sports side of things. Strange things happen in sports. I’ve developed a l
ot of sympathy for referees when it comes to the difficulty of making judgment calls, but an almost maniacal intolerance (I admit) of game mismanagement. When something happens at a game I’m covering – like the frenzied, confusing end to the Tonasket-Pateros boys game in December, when the Billygoats ended up with four extra seconds and/or an extra 45 feet to set up their final game-winning shot – it brings back memories of a game that would otherwise be long-forgotten.
It may be just a game. And life is often unfair, sometimes harshly so. But when you’re 16 with a crush on basketball, it’s the kind of thing you never forget.