Saturday, November 2, 2019

Dorm Days - The Penthouse Chronicles Part 7: Beer Money Part 1

The weather is slowing things down a bit at ol' Rosie, so it's time to bust off another entry before things get busy! After a few years of personal reflection on this blog, as well as a couple goofy stories and ranting about football, I figured that it's time to get back to my roots, dumb, boozy college stories. And since I'm closing in on twenty years gone since that era, I've got to get a few more out before I lose those memories forever. Anyway, after a seven-year absence, here is the latest installment of The Dorm Days...

Dorm Days: The Penthouse Chronicles ~ Part 7 
"Beer Money, Year 1 ~ "

Folks, this one takes you back to the earliest days of a three-year stretch at Westminster. I'd been on campus for two days and I received a phone call from my golf coach DP, he wanted to see me in his office. "Shit, I'm already in trouble? I just moved in!" was my thought as I took the two minutes to walk across campus to his office. Clearly, my mental state was setting me up for academic success. I popped into his office and sitting next to him was TC, our esteemed college's new (and first in about fifteen years) head Basketball Coach. I'd recognized him from several great University of Utah basketball teams from several years previous.

"Nickas, have you nailed down an on-campus job yet?" DP inquired.

"I've just kinda gotten settled, coach. I've only put on a couple decent twisters since I've moved in. Haven't really thought about a gig yet, we haven't even started class." I replied.

"Smart-ass. You're getting work-study money right? You do know, they don't just give you that cash don't you? You kinda have to earn it."

"Really?" My dipshit punk side started to show.

"Any thoughts as to what you want to do?"

"Well Coach, let's just say, I'm probably not too cut out for a librarian gig. Is there anything in the athletic department available?"

"That's why I called you. This is TC, We're coaching basketball. The first team this school has had in twenty years, and I think we've got something for you with the team if you're interested."

That head still looks weird on that old logo.

"Absolutely." I'd only ever really had jobs in recreation and athletics up to that point, running a driving range right up until the day I had moved up to Salt Lick. Little did I know, I'd probably never have a regular-grown-up-people's 9-5 gig ever. I still had some inkling about being a (probably terrible) therapist at that point. But a chance to get in on the ground floor of a new athletic program was intriguing. And I knew how sports on this campus were looked on by the community as a whole. There hadn't been anything but soccer on that campus for nearly twenty years and even that program was kinda hidden away from the campus at large. Athletics were just kinda getting going there. And were kinda looked at by the campus community as a whole as the bastard child of Westminster. As a new athlete myself, I was pretty excited to have a chance to be a bigger part of the department as a whole. Kind of that "whole world's against us" kind of ethos that was embraced by folks like myself made this offer very tempting. 

"Good." DP said, "You're going to be our new Video Coordinator. You'll be filming practices and the games as well as running our film exchange program with other schools. You've run a video camera before have you?"

"Uh, yeah Coach." I really hadn't, and I had no idea what I was getting into, but hey, as my favorite Flintstones character, that weird pterodactyl that did the dishes and and served as a record player would say, "SQUAWK! It's a living."

I'd be this guy's secret service agent.
Coach TC was oddly silent, but as he rose to shook my hand, he said a few things that I'll never forget and always take with me and treasure. "Nickas, I can't understate how important this job is. This is something you're going to need to take tremendous pride in because if you do a shit job, we'll lose." So, no pressure, huh?

After a solid weekend of drinking and sort of bonding with my new roommates, "The Zoo" from the Scorpions blasted into my brain via clock radio at 5:00 AM the following Monday. I threw on a tracksuit and schlepped across campus to the Payne Gymnasium. Payne was one of the oldest buildings on campus and it showed. The pipes clanked, somehow it was freezing-ass cold in there at 5:00 AM in early September, and there was zero in the way of acoustics, so every ball hitting the floor thundered through the building. My kinda joint. The guys were warming up for the last unofficial practice before formal sessions were going to begin the next day. I met Justin, the team manager and he helped me run the cable from the film room to my video pit way up in the corner of the gym. A little unconventional but the bleachers weren't high enough to film from the side. This was the best spot to capture everything. Rather than scrolling back and forth, I'd have to shoot and zoom from the far end of the floor to up close. "Nickas, get down here," TC hollered. I wandered down to the floor as he gathered the team around. "Guys, this is Nickas. He's gonna be our new film guy. So he's gonna capture every screwup, loaf, or mistake you make in every practice and every game. He's the eye in the sky and he'll see it all which means I'll see it all." Now, I'm getting nervous. I'm gonna be Public Enemy #1 with a bunch of 6'8 guys. "But he's committed. He's every bit a part of this team as you guys are. So welcome him." That was kinda nice. The guys all shook my hand and introduced themselves. I felt better.

An unconventional game film angle, to say the least. But at
least there were some steps to sit (and pass out) on.
Those early 5:30 AM practices were brutal. We weren't going to be able to start practicing in the afternoon until Volleyball was done at the end of October, so every day, my ancient-ass clock radio would startle me awake at 5:00. Barely enough time to get a coffee in me and get set up before the guys started the first Celtic Drill of the morning.

My birthday that year fell on a Wednesday night and I had the dubious honor of turning twenty-one that day. With Big Nick, The Nate, Dowder and all the other maniacs I was running with at the time rooting me on, I took part in an unofficial 21-shot tradition after after my "History of the World Wars" class. For some reason, me turning 21 was a big deal. Besides Jerry, who was like 40, I was the first one to hit that magical age. This was like an event. I could hook up the younger fellas, and even the mormon girls down the hall got in on the act and baked me a cake in the shape of a Michelob bottle. Pretty hilarious when I think about it actually. Anyway, that night I got, as the kids these days say, "pretty faded."

"HELLO ME! MEET THE REAL ME!" bellowed Dave Mustaine out of my cranked-to-eleven clock radio at 4:45 AM the next morning. I hit snooze one and a half times before taking a 30-second cold shower to wake up and busted my ass down to Payne. I got my gear set up and the fellas were up and running. With our first games coming up in a week and a half, TC was installing new offensive sets at a rapid pace. The whole team lingered at the far end of the floor for most of the morning so I didn't have to do much. My mind started to drift to things like helping my coach recruit me some new teammates, midterms and fall-break coming up, and whether that cute girl from Alaska that lived across the hall from us was single or not when suddenly the shout of "TEAM TOGETHER" startled me to alertness. I looked at my watch, 7:52 AM. I'd passed out. The team ran their last sets at the basket underneath me, my camera was still focused on the far end of the gym. I tore down my gear, rewound the tape, labeled it, plopped it on Coach's desk and scooted off to the student center for coffee and breakfast. "Maybe he won't watch the whole thing." I (rather poorly) tried to convince myself, "After all, we were at least 25 practices in already. He wouldn't still be breaking down 2 1/2 hours of PRACTICE tape a day still, right?" My thoughts drifted back to that first meeting in DP's office. "IF YOU DO A SHIT JOB, WE'LL LOSE." I was screwed.

Two days went by, and everything was business as usual. I had kind of forgotten about the incident and had shot a couple of my best practices yet. I was kind of in "game-prep" mode as well, getting used to smoothly following the ball up and down the court and being able to widen the shot enough to see the whole half-court on both ends. Maybe I should've gone to film school. The end of practice hit and to close each session, coach would pick one of the players to hit two foul shots. If he made them, practice was over, if he missed one, the team would have to run a sprint up and down the court. Before he picked the player, coach bellowed, "NICKAS, HIT STOP ON THE TAPE AND COME ON DOWN!" I hustled into my office, hit the clicker and jogged down the stairs. "Goddamn, Nickas is doing a great job for us. He's turning into a regular Scorcese with that camera in his hands. Isn't he Daron?" Coach DP nodded. I started to smile a little bit. "...Until two days ago. Did the tripod get stuck or something?" He looked at me with those steely blues. He knew. "There was a good 45 minutes of the shot locked in on an empty far-end of the court there."

Old punk asshole Nickas would've tried to make something up on the spot, but I was really enjoying this job and I really felt like I was improving and bringing something important to the table for the first time in my life. I manned up, "Coach, Wednesday was my birthday and I had a few too many. I fell asleep at the wheel. I apologize."

"Thanks for being honest. Line up with everybody. Charlie is gonna hit two free throws. If he makes them, all is forgiven, if he misses, you're sprinting too." He tossed the ball to Charlie and gave him a nod. I knew what was coming, And fuck it, I'd earned it. Charlie never missed foul shots, but the first one went up and CLANK! Off the front of the iron. I finished a good five seconds behind our slowest guy, but I did my sprint. My new buddy Dane had his name called and made the first one. Coach gave him the staredown. Number two went up...CLANK. Up and back again. I haven't sprinted since the baseball days. I was already getting gassed. But the guys were clapping for my fat ass as I waddled over the line. He called Mitch up and mercifully he swished them both. Mitch never missed. Ever. I started back up the stairs to disconnect my gear. Coach yelled at me, "Where you going? You just ran with these guys, I told you that you were part of this team, get in the huddle. Also, never do that shit again. 1-2-3,"

"TEAM TOGETHER" we all shouted. I should've just been happy he wasn't going to fire me, but right then, I fully bought in. Whether I liked it at the time or not, I really needed that. Coach had a way of making you want to take a bullet for him. And I would never put any hint of risk to the job again.  

A week later, Justin quit as team manager, and we hired my buddy and fellow three-time intramural football championship winning quarterback teammate, Sean to take over, but it was clearly a job for more than one guy. So my job started to evolve a little bit. I'd still be doing the occasional practice tape, and handling film exchange with other schools, as well as shooting all the game film, but now I was down on the floor handling half the manager duties as well. This included prepping mock opponent jerseys with athletic tape so we'd get the numbers right, sweeping the court, mixing the gatorade, getting guys ice during film sessions, rebounding during shooting drills and so on. I started working pretty long hours. My work-study agreement called for fifteen a week, but there was just too much to do in that timeframe. The season was imminent. Coach like the work I was doing and gave me a couple extra bucks an hour for the effort. I'd worked golf jobs back home for six years at that point and the only raise I'd ever gotten was when they raised the minimum wage to $5.15 an hour right before I moved. It was nice to feel rewarded.

Coach Steinke. Legends call him "Legend"
We'd finally moved to afternoon practices, and thankfully I was able to adjust my class schedule to accommodate it, transferring one of my history classes to the morning session. One afternoon, I was filling the water jug about a half hour before practice when Coach Steinke asked me to come and rebound for him for a minute. Coach Steinke was a legend at that school. He'd coached about every sport the college had for fifty years, hung around through the hiatus, and from what I could gather was about the only member of the athletic department that was universally loved college-wide from the maintenance guys, to the faculty and all the way through administration. I stood under the hoop and he worked a half-circle from fifteen feet. I was just trying to hit him in the hands with my shitty passes, but he worked that circle for a good ten minutes, must've take 150 shots and I think I can count the amount of times he even drew iron on my fingers. Swish after swish. I think he was 70 years old at the time and that still might be the goddamndest thing I've ever seen. 

A noted boat-driver and his boat.
One of my duties was running the film exchange program. I'd contact schools with which we had common opponents and swap game films with them. It got me in really good with the folks down in the school mail room. And they'd take extra care even when I had a personal package get shipped my way, sometimes keeping the mail room open an extra ten minutes so I could still pick up my stuff after practice. We were about three weeks into the season, and despite being a brand-new team, we were holding our own, sitting at 3-3 as our non-conference season got going. We had an exhibition game against Weber State coming up, and since we were just small potatoes and all, I contacted their film guy directly. The guy's name was just Smoke. At least that's all I knew him as, I'd actually known him for a couple years. He worked in a similar capacity at my JC, Eastern Utah. First met the guy at my cousin Gus' house during the Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield fight. Yes, THAT Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield fight. Anyway, we shot the shit over the phone about that and two days later, I got two packages from the film department at Weber State. A game film of a game they'd played against Montana Tech (One of our conference teams, so it was a two-fer) and another tape. This one was just labeled "Motley Stuff For Coach Nickas." I wasn't a coach of anything, but I am a Motley Crue fan. Maybe it's just a bunch of videos or a concert film or something. I took that one home and jammed it in the dorm VCR. It was the Pam Anderson/Tommy Lee porno. Needless to say, I didn't edit any clips of one of the greatest drummers of all time steering a boat with his dong while saying "It's all good" into our game prep clips. The roommates got a kick out of it though.

We stormed into Winter Break with pretty good non-conference record all things considered at 6-7. Coach asked me if I was planning on going home for the break. "Just the same, as long as we're still practicing, I kinda want to stay here and work for you guys."

"You're not obligated to stay, you don't get many breaks at this school, but if you stick around, we can use you."

Since they kicked us out of the dorms for a month, because can't have a bunch of lunatics unsupervised, after all, I moved in with my Aunt's family on the other end of town and commuted to Westminster every day. My uncle was happy to have another snow-shoveler around, my cousin Pete had his big brother hanging out, and my Aunt had someone she could make fun of the Chicago Bears to. I was just happy to still be in the city. I was going to go to Price for a couple days right around Christmas, but I was really enjoying the job up to that point and didn't want to ruin the momentum. But the job was tougher this time of year. Coach wanted a little practice tape and our other manager had gone home, so I would be busting my ass up the stairs to change the camera angle and then back down to take care of my duties on the floor. And those increased as well. It snowed a shitload that Winter, and Payne Gym was like a hundred years old. The roof leaked and there was more than one occasion that I'd have to actually run out on the floor in the middle of a play with a big-ass towel to dry the floor so someone wouldn't slip and hurt themselves and somehow avoid getting trampled by a 6'8" dude. I'm just happy I paid attention to the play design so that I could pick my spots.

The season stormed on, and while I struggled a bit in school, I only got better at the job as things went on. The team seemed to hit its stride too. We got to Frontier Conference play and were actually holding our own. We started the first half of conference play with a winning record at 4-3 and word was spreading around campus that we had a pretty good thing going here. Our first home games were sparsely attended by more than the guy's folks and wives/girlfriends, but students actually started showing up and our tiny little gym would at least sound loud. Anyway, a local cable outfit in Montana used to show FC games on Thursday nights and word got out that they were going to broadcast from Salt Lake as we took on the #5 team in the NAIA at the time, Lewis-Clark State. They stomped us pretty good up at their place in the first half of conference play, but Coach had a plan. And we were going to announce our presence that night.

L-C had the frontrunner for Frontier Player of the year, a dude by the name of Franklin, on their squad. Coach theorized that if we could render him ineffective, our defense would match up well with the rest of their squad. So he put one of the more soft-spoken guys on our team, Pierce, the job of getting in his head. "He'll never see it coming," he said. From the opening jump, the game was highly competitive, and the crowd was the biggest we'd seen so far. Mostly because the Cable company had to build a rather large platform covering a good chunk of our bleachers displacing a good chunk of our burgeoning "Sixth Man" fan group to other sections. But they were into it, they were talking shit and clearly L-C had looked past us. From under my video perch, I could hear Pierce's version of running smack on Franklin, which pretty much amounted to corny dad jokes, but it must've been working because halfway through the second half, he was only 3-13 from the field with two boards.

The fellas.
With about six minutes to go, something set Franklin off. Nobody has any idea what it was, and I doubt it was racial or anything, because none of those guys were that type, but Franklin took a swing at Pierce and it was on. Benches cleared, you could hear the TV guys losing their shit, I may or may not have attempted to wade into the fray myself. When I saw the TV tape, you could see me in the background sprinting down the stairs. It took a couple minutes, but the refs restored order after ejecting both guys. But L-C was now down their best player and six points on the scoreboard and the upset was in play. Mitch hit two clutch threes down the stretch and we'd beaten the at the time unbeaten best team in the league. The few students there, rushed the court, Matt, our new PA guy blasted his Pearl Jam tunes on the sound system and as a program we were on the map.

We finished conference play at .500 that year, bowing out in the conference quarterfinals, but the groundwork was laid for what was going to be a Frontier and NAIA basketball contender for years to come. It was awesome to be a part of getting on the ground floor of something good. And for the first time in awhile, I felt like a part of something bigger than myself. There's a lot of stories from those three years with the team and there will be a "Beer Money Year 2" in the future.

And even though he eventually moved on to bigger and better things, I'd still take a bullet for Coach.