As the city celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Century 21 Exposition, Seattle Center’s sports facilities played host to an amazing collection of world-class athletes, games and events.
By David Eskenazi and Steve Rudman
The Next 50 is a six-month celebration, underway at spruced-up Seattle Center, aimed at marking the 50-year anniversary of the 1962 Century 21 Exposition (Worlds Fair), an event that began as a promotional stunt to put Seattle on the map, but wound up shaping the future of the city.
Sports played a prominent role over that half century, the Seattle Center grounds hosting a constant variety, from the Totems of yore to the Rat City Roller Girls today.
By unofficial count, more than 300 athletes who ultimately entered various sports’ Halls of Fame sweated through epic moments beneath the Space Needle, the roster including a host of basketball and hockey legends, numerous Olympic gold medalists, boxing champions and Grand Slam tennis winners.
The fair also provided Seattle the opportunity to become an NBA city, which led to Seattle becoming NFL and MLB cities. In addition to the Center’s long-time marquee tenant, the Sonics, the Center created space for the Totems (WHL), Breakers (WHL) T-Birds (WHL), Sounders (NASL), Cascades (World Team Tennis), Smashers (International Volleyball Assn), Seadogs (Central Hockey League), Reign (ABL), and Storm (WNBA), all, save the Storm, having come and gone.
One of the Centers primary venues, Mercer Arena, site of hundreds of hockey, basketball, tennis and volleyball events, is now shuttered, a mere storage area. Golden Guyle Fielder once peppered goals past hapless netminders there.
Memorial Stadium, site of thousands of prep football games, is due to meet the wrecking ball as part of the Center’s planned renovations. Brazilian legend Pele once dazzled Seattle soccer fans there.
KeyArena remains useful as an athletic emporium now only for Storm and Seattle U. hoops, but for many years Lenny Wilkens, Bill Russell, Slick Watts, Fred Brown, Jack Sikma, Gus Williams, Nate McMillan, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Ray Allen stalked its planks.
For 50 years, Seattle Center athletic facilities served as veritable houses of highlights, some great, some awful, many funny, all memorable. These are some favorites that date to the World’s Fair:
Leafs, Totems Christen Coliseum, Sept. 30, 1964
Built in 1962 to house Century 21s World of Tomorrow exhibit, the newly christened Coliseum hosted its first sports event, a hockey game between the Stanley Cup champion Toronto Maple Leafs and the Totems, who were not up to the task, losing 7-1.
A Seattle hockey-record crowd of 8,601 watched future Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich bang in two goals in a rout that could have been worse. Bob Gray, the second of two Seattle netminders, thwarted four potential lamps in the final eight minutes.
Seattles goalkeepers left the Coliseum cross-eyed, observed The Seattle Times.
Seattle U. Derails Texas Western, March 3, 1966.
Texas Western entered the Coliseum 23-0 and sporting a No. 2 national ranking. With 11,557 watching, the Chieftains, following 19 lead changes, handed the Miners their only regular-season defeat, 74-72, when Tom Workman swished a shot with 53 seconds left.
Less than a month after the loss, the Miners became the first all-black team to win the NCAA title when they upset heavily favored Kentucky, coached by Adolph Rupp.
Totems Finish Playoff Sweep of Canucks, April 23, 1967
Seattle’s broom job on Vancouver, completed with a 3-1 win in front of 8,367 at the Coliseum, became the first in a Western Hockey League finals since a 1959 Totems team accomplished the feat. Seattle’s Howie Hughes knocked in what proved to be the game winner with 3:11 left on a rebound shot, provoking Hughes’ teammates to bury him under a pile in front of the Canucks’ cage and a standing ovation from the the crowd.
Sonics Launch A 40-Year Run, Oct. 20, 1967
California entrepreneurs Dick Vertlieb and Don Richman spent three years in a quest to operate an NBA franchise in Seattle. Their diligence paid off when the Sonics launched with a 121-114 loss to San Diego at the Coliseum.
Walt Hazzard scored 32 points for Seattle in a game played on Friday the 13th in front of 4,473 fans, many of whom heeded Vertliebs urging to show up in ties and tails, fitting attire, in Vertliebs view, for an inaugural.
A Remarkable Totems Rally, April 20, 1968
In the long history (1958-75) of the Totems, the club never treated its constituents to a more remarkable rally than the one they fashioned against the Portland Buckaroos in Game 2 of the WHLs Patrick Cup finals. The Totems fell behind 6-2 after two periods, then scored twice in the first minute of the third, and again halfway through the period to slice the Buckaroos lead to 6-5.
With a minute to go, Seattle pulled its goaltender, and tied the game with 19 seconds left. Guyle Fielder delivered the game winner in OT in what Bill Schonley described as the greatest comeback in Seattle hockey history.
Lenny Wilkens Returns To Seattle, Nov. 12, 1972
No trade riled the populace as much as Sonics owner Sam Schulman’s decision to deal Wilkens, the first superstar in the city’s young pro sports history, and throw-in Barry Clemens to Cleveland for Butch Beard. The swap became a catastrophic mistake. Without Wilkens, the teams player-coach, the Sonics slipped to 26-56.
His coaching replacement, Tom Nissalke, was fired after 45 games. His playing replacement, Beard, averaged just 6.6 points and lasted one year.
Sonics fans expressed their displeasure over the deal the first time Wilkens returned to town, booing Beard and their own team — 4-10 at the time — while wildly cheering Wilkens with a two-minute standing ovation. Wilkens had 22 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in leading the Cavaliers to a 113-107 victory.
Soviet Red Army Thumps Totems, Dec. 25, 1972
The world champion Russians launched an American tour at the Coliseum and surprised no one in the audience of 12,367 by scoring a 9-4 victory over a Seattle team that actually played its best hockey of the season.
Facing an early 3-0 deficit, the Totems played the Soviets to a 4-4 deadlock through two periods, then wilted.
Said Bryan McSheffrey, a former Totem who played on loan from the Vancouver Canucks, Theyre robots. They could play 24 periods without getting tired.
First Prep Championship Football Game, Nov. 23, 1973
Memorial Stadium hosted the first AAA (now 4A) state title high school football game in the first year of the state playoff system, the Kentridge Chargers upsetting the states No. 1 team, the Wenatchee Panthers, who had surrendered only seven points all season, 26-24.
The winning touchdown came on a pass from Randy Westendorf to Leon Minter. Steve Robbins, a future UW kicker, booted a 41-yard field goal and converted three extra points for Wenatchee.
Boone Kirkman vs. Jimmy Ellis, Dec. 12, 1973
A popular Renton heavyweight, Kirkman battled numerous times at the Seattle Center, his first bout of national consequence coming against Ellis, a championship contender. The fight drew 10,072, and Kirkman fans had barely settled into their seats when Ellis sent Kirkman sprawling. But Kirkman survived his decking, and a severe third-round beating, doing just enough to score a split decision, one of the highlight wins of his career.
Russians vs. Totems, Jan. 5, 1974
The Totems Big W line, Dave Westner, Dave Wisener and Don Westbrook, exploded for four goals in the first two periods, dazzling 12,710 spectators and bewildering the Russian hockey team 8-4, which Seattle coach Phil Malone had labeled the best team in the world. The Russians can use all kinds of excuses for this one, said Maloney.
The chewing gum was no good. It wasnt a bad game for them. Our guys just played well. Everybody thought wed be trampled.
NBA All-Star Game, Jan. 15, 1974
Played in front of 14,360, the West defeated the East in large part because of two West reserves. Detroit’s Bob Lanier won the MVP award after scoring 24 points, and Seattles Spencer Haywood contributed 23 and 11 rebounds. The game became notable for two reasons.
For the first time, NBA statisticians recorded steals, blocks, offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds.
As a backdrop, the host Sonics created an entire weekends worth entertainment, including Motown star Dionne Warwick, to surround the game. Todays NBA All-Star Weekend can trace its roots to Seattle, 1974.
Boone Kirkman vs. Ken Norton, June 25, 1974
The Coliseum crowd of 11,039 agonized as Kirkman paid for his share of the $100,000 purse. Kirkman won the first round, but Norton dominated thereafter, snapping uppercuts to Kirkmans chin, scoring almost at will.
As the bell clanged ending the seventh round, Norton, who had thumped Muhammad Ali, dropped Kirkman with a savage blow to the head, rendering Kirkman incapable of answering the bell for the eighth.
Sounders Upend Pele, Cosmos, July 5, 1975
Few Seattle Center sports events attracted as much interest as Peles with the Cosmos. To welcome Pele The Peerless, Seattle fans draped Memorial Stadium in dozens of signs, all saluting the Brazilian legend. Pele didnt disappoint the crowd of 17,342.
Pele demonstrated his mastery, wrote The Times. One on one, none of the Sounders could stop him. His teammates, unfortunately, were unable to score off his pinpoint passes.
Following Seattle 2-0 win, Pele said, through an interpreter, I saw a good audience today. It was the best crowd in North America by far.
Blanchet Wins Game of the Century Nov. 7, 1975
The Times ranked Blanchets 42-35 four-OT doozy over Garfield, played in front of 12,951 at Memorial Stadium, as the prep Game of the Century. Hard to argue.
Both schools entered 8-0 and featured high-profile players who would later star for Washington — Joe Steele and Ken Gardner for Blanchet, Anthony Ållen and Bruce Harrell for Garfield. Tied at 35 heading into the fourth OT, Blanchet tried a halfback pass.
Steele, who already ran for two TDs and caught a five-yard pass for a third, got the pitch, saw Steve Williams cutting across the middle, and tossed the winning 11-yard touchdown.
Haywood Returns to Seattle, Jan. 7, 1976.
In October, 1975, the Sonics traded the towns only superstar, Haywood, to the Knicks. The swap did not wash with many Seattle fans, so when Haywood returned to town a year later, a sellout of 14,096 jammed the Coliseum.
Hours before tipoff, Haywood ripped into Sonics coach Bill Russell, team management and ex-teammates for a variety of Haywood-perceived slights, so when he stepped on the court, a mix of cheers and boos greeted him.
Haywoods appearance had a happy ending for everyone but Haywood and the Knicks, then featuring Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and Phil Jackson.
Geared for an emotional effort, the Sonics raced to a big lead and hung on to win 91-89, Haywood scoring only six points.
After the game, Sonics fans flooded the popular Jake OShaughnesseys bar near the Center grounds. Owner Sam Schulman showed up and bought a round for the house.
Evert vs. Navratilova, Virginia Slims Final, Feb. 6, 1977
Evert had yet to cede the title of the worlds best female tennis player to Navratilova when the two met in a Coliseum match that drew 8,200, appropriate for the two highest-ranked players ever to meet in Seattle.
Evert required only 63 minutes to dispatch the future Wimbledon superstar 6-2, 6-4. That ended a near-perfect week in Seattle for Evert, who rarely left the baseline while cruising through four matches before encountering Navratilova.
There was a question in my mind of which one of us was the best, Evert said. We both want to be number one very badly, and we were both nervous.
Dorothy Hamill’s Ice Capades, Nov. 30, 1977
One year after winning Olympic gold in Innsbruck, Hamill arrived at the Coliseum as the featured performer in The Ice Capades. Her popularity at its peak, Hamill sold out the show, drawing standing ovations after each of her three numbers.
She was and is the draw, wrote The Times. She is an impeccable skater, fluid and strong. She is not flashy, but rather, precise.
NBA Finals, Coliseum, May 21-June 7, 1978
The first of consecutive season-ending matches between the Sonics and Bullets also became the first modern major pro sports team championship event for Seattle, and far more unusual than the 1979 rematch.
The Sonics began the 1977-78 season 5-17, fired coach Bob Hopkins and replaced him with former player Lenny Wilkens, whose emphasis on defense helped produce a 42-18 run to the playoffs.
Once there, the Sonics defeated the Lakers, Trail Blazers and Nuggets. Against the Elvin Hayes-led Bullets, the Sonics ran out of steam, losing a 3-2 series lead and the title when Washington prevailed 105-99 in Game 7 at the Coliseum, in part because of Dennis Johnson’s landmark 0-for-14.
Shortest Seattle Career By A Hall of Famer, June 1, 1978
Long after Wilt Chamberlain retired from pro basketball (1973), he joined the fledgling International Volleyball Association as a part-time player and ostensible league commissioner.
In that capacity, Chamberlain traveled to IVA franchise cities and suited up for local teams needing an attendance spike. His Seattle appearance came in a Smashers match with the Tucson Sky at Mercer Arena.
Although hyped by the local papers, only 1,415 fans witnessed Wilts three-match Seattle career.
Cascades Vs. Apples, Aug. 7, 1978
The match between Billie Jean Kings Apples and the Cascades of World Team Tennis provided one of the Centers kookiest moments. With the match knotted 23-23, Seattles Betty Stove and Sherwood Stewart took a 5-1 lead in a best-of-13 point mixed doubles super tiebreaker.
As King and partner Ray Ruffels passed the scorers table as the teams traded courts, Bruce Below, the Cascades scoreboard operator, blurted, You guys are in trouble now. Billie Jean went berserk, launching into a rant at Below.
When play resumed, the Cascades won two of the next three games for the set and match, after which Ruffels stormed toward Below, grabbed him and shook him like a rag doll. King then became Kong, verbally blistering and shoving umpire Brian Howell.
The following night, the Cascades hosted Indiana at Mercer Arena. Only 846 showed up to witness the greatest example ever of WTT multi-tasking. Below, the previous nights scoreboard operator, drew duty as Mr. Peanut.
NBA Finals, Coliseum, May 20-June 1, 1979.
Seattles championship run ended in a rout, the Sonics whipping Washington 4-1. But because the NBA was in its pre-Bird-Magic-Magic doldrums, the Sonics didnt register much with the sports nation.
CBS aired the series on taped delay in most parts of the country. But in Seattle, the news couldnt have been bigger. The regions first major pro team was feted by a downtown tickertape parade that drew 300,000.
Bjorn Borg vs. Tom Gorman, Aug. 8, 1979
The high moment for the Cascades occurred when Swedens Bjorn Borg, having just won his fourth consecutive Wimbledon and representing the Pittsburgh-Cleveland Nets, helped the Cascades draw a season-high 7,642.
Not often in those days did anyone defeat Borg, but Seattles Tom Gorman, who earlier in his career defeated Rod Laver on Center Court at Wimbledon, sent Coliseum fans home elated with his 7-5 victory.
Sonics 114, Bucks 113 (OT), April 8, 1980.
With six seconds left in OT, in what might have been the greatest NBA playoff series held in Seattle, Milwaukees Marques Johnson seemed to have ended the game when he dunked off a steal to give the Bucks a 113-111 lead.
Then Sonics guard Dennis Johnson shocked all by weaving through 70 feet of the best defense Milwaukee could muster and chucking up a 26-foot grenade with one second to go that gave the Sonics a victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Mercer Island-Shadle Park, March 14, 1981
This AAA boys state basketball title game remains the most controversial in the history of the tournament. It ended when Shadle Parks Greg Schmidt hit a short jumper either before or after the buzzer, giving the Spokane team a 66-65 victory over the suburban Seattle school.
One referee, Chris Manolopoulos, ruled Schmidts shot good. But the other, Dave George, signaled no basket, creating instant bedlam. Fans from both schools stormed the floor, thinking they had won. Soon shoving matches broke out, Mercer Island players bellowed, and Shadle Park players stood in a daze. Finally, Manolopouloss ruling stood, but he was forced to leave the Coliseum with a police escort.
Sonics Game At Coliseum Rained Out, Jan. 5, 1986.
Officials postponed a contest between the Sonics and Suns becaused water leaked through the arena roof to the floor, the first “rain out” in NBA history. The Suns led the Sonics 35-24 in the second quarter when water disrupted the game.
A tarp duct-taped to the roof during a construction project blew off and the trickle of raindrops soon turned into a steady stream at half court. Some of the 5,679 fans pulled out their umbrellas, prompting referee Mike Mathis to halt the proceedings. The game was re-started the next day and the Suns won, 117-114.
NBA Slam Dunk Contest, Feb. 7, 1987
A relatively new (three years old) addition to All-Star Weekend, the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest, became the first contested without either Julius Erving or Dominique Wilkens, but the first to include Michael Jordan.
A packed Coliseum watched Jerome Kersey, Clyde Drexler and Seattles Terrence Stansbury dominate early. But Jordan received scores of 49-49-50 on three, second-round dunks and a 50 on his final dunk that even had the judges on their feet, clapping.
Socialisms Prettiest Face, March 25, 1987
Dorothy Hamill drew a larger crowd to the Coliseum (12,096) in 1977 than Katarina Witt (9,200) did when she arrived with ice skatings Tour of Champions.
But Witt, the Olympic champion, drew the most ovations, five, and the largest media mob, 17, for an impromptu press conference. Reporters quizzed Witt about receiving 40,000 fan letters from all over the world, about joining the Communist Party, about her celebrity and sex appeal, but largely ignored both her skating and fellow skaters Brian Orser, Brian Boitano, Jill Trenary, Debi Thomas and Elizabeth Manley, reduced to afterthoughts with the East German siren in the house.
Monique Ellis vs. Bobbi Jo Lister, March 1, 1988.
Monique Ellis, wife of Sonics guard Dale Ellis, and Bobbi Jo Lister, wife of center Alton Lister, became embroiled in a fight outside the Seattle locker room 10 minutes after a 114-100 win over the Lakers.
First, Nadia Gordon of Bellevue, claiming to be Moniques sister, kicked and punched Bobbi Jo. Bernita Horton of Seattle, a witness, tried to stop Gordon and was kicked and punched by Monique.
As far as Im concerned, I was mugged, Horton told Seattle police. I just tried to stop a fight and Monique attacked me.
The wife rift began when Alton Lister signed a $4.2 million contract while Ellis could not successfully renegotiate the final year of his deal, worth $325,000 per year. Earlier in the season, Monique and Bobbi Jo engaged in a hair-pulling incident in the Coliseum parking lot.
The Goodwill Games, July 20-Aug. 5, 1990
Competitions in a mix of Summer and Olympic sports took place throughout Puget Sound, many on Seattle Center grounds. Handball drew a sellout of 3,605 for the gold-medal game between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia at Mercer Arena.
The U.S. womens basketball team won the gold medal over Russia at the Coliseum, which also hosted the gold-medal mens game between the United States and Yugoslovia. The Coliseum also marked the spot where up-and-coming boxer Oscar De Le Hoya won the 125-pound weight classic.
Dale Ellis vs. Xavier McDaniel, Nov. 21, 1990
The Sonics stars engaged in a full-blown donnybrook that drew blood in front of the teams offices at 190 Queen Anne Ave. N. When Ellis emerged from an elevator in the buildings lobby, he spotted McDaniel.
The two argued and exchanged punches while a Sonics employee tried to restrain the pair. As they went at it, the fight moved up the street. When it ended, the Sonics suspended Ellis for five days without pay, but took no action against McDaniel, who said, Weve played seven games without him and God knows how many more well play without him. All his practice shots are short anyhow.
Sonics 149, 76ers 93, March 6, 1993
During one phenomenal 15-minute stretch in the first half, the Sonics outscored the 76ers 51-11. During that run, the Sonics tallied 18 consecutive points and held Philadelphia without a field goal. Seattle, which led by as many as 59, had seven players in double figures, including Dana Barros, who contributed 15, eight assists and six rebounds in 29 minutes off the bench.
Sonics Collapse Against Mutumbo, Nuggets, May 7, 1994
Pacific Division champs (63-19), top seed in the West, and a title favorite, the Sonics won the first two opening-round games against the lowly Nuggets, then collapsed twice in Denver and once at home, losing Game 5 in OT.
It marked the first time in NBA history that an eighth seed beat a top seed, an epic humiliation memorable for the sight of Dikembe Mutumbo, with 15 rebounds and 8 blocks in the clincher, rolling in delight on the Coliseum floor, clutching the ball.
NBA Finals, Key Arena, June 5-16, 1996.
Never did a more uproarious circus come to town than the title series that pitted Michael Jordans 72-win Chicago Bulls against the 64-win Sonics of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and coach George Karl.
Among the Bulls five title teams, this may have been the best. Drained by a brutal seven-game series in the Western finals against Utah and missing defensive stopper Nate McMillan, the Sonics dropped the first two games before returning to Seattle. Game 3 was the series only blowout, a 22-point Seattle defeat.
The Bulls slipped into cruise control and were upended twice, forcing the series back to Chicago. The Bulls took the series in Game 6 with an 87-75 win. The Sonics never reached so much as a conference final again.
The First Man Vs. Woman Fight, Oct. 10, 1999
Media from around the world perked up when the state of Washington sanctioned the first Man vs. Woman fight. After much drama, Loi Chow of Vancouver, B.C., fought Bremerton’s Margaret MacGregor in front of 2,768 at Mercer Arena.
MacGregor won the four-round junior lightweight bout by unanimous decision, drawing screams of approval that the likes of George Foreman, Ron Lyle and Ken Norton never received when they fought in the Coliseum.
Seattle Storm WNBA Championship, 2004
Before the Storms 2004 season, Ann Meyers, writing for WNBA.com, predicted the team would finish last because they have the most questions surrounding them coming into the season.
Behind Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson and newcomer Betty Lennox, the Storm answered all questions in earning home-court advantage against Sacramento in the WNBA semifinals, which the Storm won three games to two.
In the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun, the Storm dropped Game 1 on road, and then returned to KeyArena, forcing Game 3 by winning Game 2 67-65 behind Lennoxs 27. The championship game drew 17,072 fans, the Storm sealing the title with a 12-4 run midway through the second half. The Storms 74-60 victory marked the citys first pro sports title in 25 years.
Ray Allen’s 54-Point Spree, Jan. 12, 2007
15,391 fans exited the Seattle Coliseum shaking their heads in awe after Allen dazzled them and the Utah Jazz by making 17 of 34 field goals, including 8 of 12 3-pointers and all 12 of his free throws, in a 122-114 Sonics victory. Allen also had 10 rebounds and five assists in his best game in a Seattle uniform. Allen came up four points shy of the franchise record, 58 by Fred Brown at Golden State March 23, 1974 at Oakland.
The Last Sonics Game, April 13, 2008
You could win a trivia contest if you knew that Earl Watson led the Sonics in scoring in the teams final game at KeyArena. He had 21, rookie Kevin Durant and Nick Collison added 19 and 18, respectively, and the Sonics defeated Dallas 99-95 in front 16,272.
None in the crowd that night knew for sure they were witnessing the last Sonics game, but all suspected –and fears were realized four months later — when the Sonics bolted for Oklahoma City.
In addition to the above, the Seattle Center hosted NCAA Tournament games, Globetrotter games and numerous Battles of Seattle featuring Gonzaga basketball. About the only event the Center hasnt hosted in the past 50 years is a bull fight.
But it nearly did. In 1967, two Seattle-area promoters, William Leopold and Don Nicholson, sought the City Councils approval to stage a bullfight in the Coliseum as part of the Seafair celebration.
But the citys license chiefs turned them down, ruling that a bullfight ran contrary to a state law, originally enacted in 1901 to halt cock fighting, that prohibited cruelty to animals. The promoters threatened a $200,000 lawsuit, but nothing came of it.
Many of the historic images published on Sportspress Northwest are provided by resident Northwest sports history aficionado David Eskenazi. Check out Davids Wayback Machine Archive. David can be reached at (206) 441-1900, or at email@example.com