After watching UN’s thrilling basketball victory over San Diego State last week, I was once again reminded of my first round ball coach, Jim Aiken. When I left you last week, I was in the midst of my first meeting with Aiken prior to my first practice.
After I felt I had convinced Coach Aiken that my hands were indeed big enough for basketball and that my mother actually did sleep with clippings under her pillow, our first interview continued to move forward. He rather politely asked if I had found a bed in Lincoln Hall Dorm and I replied in the affirmative. “Did you find the Gow House for breakfast this morning?” I answered that I had in the company of George Vucanovich. “OK”, he said, “Your next stop is over at the registrar’s office. See Mrs. Rhoads and get your classes lined up. Practice starts tonight at 6:30. Any other questions?” I noted to him that my wooden army footlocker, with all my clothes and other gear had not arrived on the same Greyhound bus upon which I had hit Reno around last midnight. However, I had called Greyhound this morning and they said the footlocker was at the station. “Should I get another cab to go pick it up?” I asked Aiken. “No, no! Here, take my car!” And with that, he threw me a set of keys. I envisioned tooling into town in a big Chrysler or Caddie—or a Buick at least. “Where is it parked?” I inquired. “Here, right outside!” And with that he strode over to the window and pointed out a dull green coupe parked outside the main gate of the school.
When I made my way down to the car I found that it was a vintage Dodge or Plymouth, probably a 1934 or so and that it had a tiny passenger compartment but fortunately sported a rumble seat. Unfortunately, my footlocker had some pretty sharp corners and when I took it out of the rumble seat in front of Lincoln Hall, I spotted some new tears it had made in the well-worn leather of the back seat. Carefully closing the rumble seat cover, I could only hope that Aiken would not be opening it again in the frigid winter weather. Apparently he didn’t, since he never mentioned the condition of his car for the rest of the semester.
That night I went to my first practice in the old, Old Gym (now gone) and it was a creaky facility—built much along the lines of the “Y” gyms of the early 20th century. The dressing rooms were upstairs and they opened on to a running track. It didn’t look as though the seating could take care of more than a couple of hundred people and the floor and baskets had seen decades of wear.
One of Aiken’s favorite “warm up” drills was to place a player on each side of the basket while he stood at the free throw line and tossed the ball at the back board. The object of the drill was to get the rebound away from the other guy. I was paired against another freshman, Ed Diercks. Aiken flipped the ball and Ed and I leapt for it. Unfortunately, my right elbow caught Ed’s two front teeth and broke them off. Both of us were bleeding pretty good and Ed was looking on the floor for his teeth when Aiken came over and noted, “That’s the way to fight for the ball!” He told Ed to head for the dressing room and get a wet towel for his mouth. He slapped a good sized piece of adhesive tape on my elbow while he noticed Ed crying pretty profusely. Turning to the team manager, Clayson Triguero, he growled, “Give me that ball!!” Looking up at Ed, who was upstairs by now, Aiken whistled the ball at him and struck him smartly in the head. “Big sissy!” he exclaimed. Most of the practices that followed that first one were of the same sort—full contact basketball. It didn’t take long to figure out that Aiken was using the basketball season as a method of keeping his more talented football players in shape, rather than trying to impart any round ball skills to them.
The heart of the Nevada team that year was Sparks native Alf Sorenson, who was a gifted athlete that could play the major sports equally well and could disport himself very creditably as a boxer. It seemed that Alf was pushing some ten years in age advantage over us seventeen-year-olds but it didn’t matter since he was in such great shape. He played the point guard position and was the obvious choice for team captain.
Other strong players included center Smokey Smoleuski and forward Cliff France, both towering inside men for that era. Medium sized Pete Simon was an excellent shooting guard and the rest of squad included Ben Coren, George Vucanovich, Jim Clarkson, Buster McClure, Bobby Durham, Ken Sinofsky and this writer. Clayson Triguero served as Manager.
All told we had a rather lackluster season beating some town teams and getting our clocks cleaned by powerful service teams like the Alameda Naval Base Five in the Bay Area. Trips with Aiken driving Donner Summit were also adventurous since his eyesight was questionable as ratified by the coke bottle thick glasses he always wore.
Since I was one of the latest additions to join the team that year, I found myself constantly being placed beside Aiken on the bench during most of the games. One night in particular stands out as he grabbed me by the knee and growled, “Get in there for Spencer—he’s really screwing up!” When I informed him I was Spencer, he turned and squinted at me and said, “Oh, all you guys look alike to me. Get in there for number nine!”
Once the basketball season was over, I saw little or nothing of the Coach, until one day on the bulletin board in Lincoln Hall my roommate George Vucanovich and I chanced to read a notice that said, “All men on scholarship report for spring football practice today at 3:00 pm at Mackey Field.” Looking at each other we agreed that we were not on football scholarships so that it probably didn’t apply to us. We skipped practice and the next morning as we waited in line at the Gow House for breakfast, a checker asked our names. He looked at a paper in front of him and said, “Coach says no food for you two until you show up for football practice!” Needless to say we reported to the field house that afternoon on empty stomachs. Our first day of spring practice consisted of a three-hour scrimmage with full pads. I hadn’t played high school football so Aiken had to hand dress me in the strange equipment. I had numerous misadventures on old Mackay but somehow got through it. Once spring practice was over I never ran into Aiken again that year—but haven’t forgotten him to this day.