WEST LAFAYETTE – For the 13-year-old college and high school basketball junkie living just across the Wabash River from the Purdue University campus, it was the ultimate early Christmas present.
Two tickets to the Mackey Arena opener on Dec. 2, 1967. Purdue and all-time Boilermakers scoring leader Rick Mount – the 1966 Mr. Basketball from Lebanon – vs. No. 1 UCLA led by Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and coached by former Purdue All-American guard John Wooden.
I was that grateful 13-year-old whose father was a good friend of then-Purdue athletic ticket manager Joe Dienhart, who was happy to somehow find a couple of extra tickets when it seemed like everyone in Tippecanoe County and Boone County – where Mount's hometown was – wanted tickets for the first game in Mackey, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year.
Having covered athletics as a sports writer for the past 45 years, I have sat on press row in literally hundreds of gyms, arenas and football and baseball venues, but the Purdue-UCLA game 23 days before Christmas 50 years ago is the event I never will forget.
The 1967-68 Boilermakers weren't even a Top 25 team the night Alcindor, South Bend native Mike Warren, Lucius Allen, Lynn Shackelford, Kenny Heitz and little known reserve guard Bill Sweek came to Mackey Arena to face a Purdue team that would advance to the 1969 NCAA championship game against – who else? – UCLA.
The Mackey Arena opener began for me with a tasty hot dog – grilled perfectly – with an ice cold Coke.
Wooden drew a thunderous applause during pregame introductions, but Mount's introduction was even louder. The 6-foot-4 “Rocket” as he is known, was going to play his first varsity game as a collegiate sophomore – freshmen were ineligible until the early 1970s.
What most of the sellout crowd of 14,123 did not know was that Mount had fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot in practice three weeks before the UCLA game.
For more than a week, the Purdue coaching staff prepared to play the mighty Bruins without Mount, the most celebrated Indiana high school player since Indianapolis Crispus Attucks standout guard Oscar “The Big O” Robertson won state titles in 1955 and 1956.
A week after Mount broke his left foot, team physician Dr. Loyal “Bill” Combs summoned Mount to the university hospital, removing a thick cast and inserting an aluminum plate into Mount's left basketball shoe.
Purdue would launch its “Rocket” with Alcindor and Wooden in the house.
The game itself lived up to its billing. And then some.
Neither team led by more than six points, and the obscure Sweet sank a jumper from just across the 10-second line as time expired, lifting UCLA to a thrilling 73-71 victory.
Now 70, Mount still shoots 200 jumpers a day and says he makes “about 82 percent” of those attempts. And in a lengthy interview this past week, Mount, who scored 28 points in his first game in Mackey Arena, said Purdue would have beaten Wooden and UCLA had he not had a broken left foot.
But as I vividly recall, his 28 points kept constant pressure on the national champion Bruins, who really had no answer for Mount's shooting prowess.
In three seasons as a Boilermaker, Mount's Boilermakers were 33-3 in Mackey.
“Nobody wanted to come and play us in Mackey,” Mount said. “Nobody.”
And as this now 63-year-old recalls, not even the great 1967-68 national champion Bruins were comfortable that night playing in what still is known as the house that Mount built.
Jeff Washburn is a freelance writer based in West Lafayette. His columns run periodically in The Journal Gazette.