The Kansas City Kerfuffle, 1976

[Dick Mackey covered the NBA in the 1970s for the Kansas City Times. He made the most of his front-row seat in Kemper Arena marvelling at the amazing Tiny Archibald, Jimmy Walker, Sam Lacey, Scott Wedman, and the rest of the Kansas City Kings. Mackey was known as a tireless reporter, probably a little too much so. In 1978, while on assignment to cover the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, he suffered a massive heart attack in the back of a cab. Mackey died a week later at age 49.

But about two years before this tragic twist of fate, Mackey sat front-row in Kemper Arena for a real game to remember between the Kings and their arch-rival Chicago Bulls. The date was March 21, 1976, and the two combatants just weren’t getting along. What follows is Mackey’s great sense of humor and commentary on this unfortunate NBA action. To buff out Mackey’s commentary, I’ve added a few extra details from the Times’ accompanying news account of the game, written by George Koppe. It ran on the front-page.]


About that brawl down at Kemper Arena on Sunday afternoon . . . don’t ask Kansas City guard Jimmy Walker what happened, other than his Kings won the back-alley slugout, 112-101, to retain their half-game lead over Detroit in the Midwest Division playoff race. 

Other than that, Walker seemed to be like any one of the 7,256 fans who were caught up in flying chairs, swinging elbows, and the verbal violence that led to four technical fouls. In that respect, it was a typical Kings-Bulls game. 

Emotions, however, weren’t the only casualties of the day. Tom Boerwinkle, the bulky Bulls’ center was carried off the floor on a stretcher, suffering with what he described as temporary paralysis. That occurred with 1:42 left in the game. An arm-locking struggle for a rebound with Bill Robinzine caused the injury as both players went crashing to the floor. 

Boerwinkle, who complained of a pain in his lower back, was taken to Research Hospital where he was released after X rays proved negative. 

“I can’t get up,” Boerwinkle moaned as he sprawled on the floor under the Chicago basket. 

Those four words constituted the only sobering comment uttered throughout the bitterness that underscored this 2-hour, 22-minute study in vengeance. What had transpired before that was something else again—a raucous outburst that started with a loose-ball foul against Jack Marin of the Bulls and wound up with technicals being slapped on Marin, Ed Badger, the Bulls’ assistant coach, and eventually Coach Dick Motta. 

Tiny Archibald

The incident was the second time in less than a year that police have gone into the Kemper Arena stands to separate Bulls’ players and fans. Near the end of last season’s playoff loss to the Bulls, a scrum of fans threw aerosol spray cans onto the court, several landing near Bulls’ guard Norm Van Lier. Stormin’ Norman led a Bulls’ charge into the stands, and the police  were forced separate the two groups. After the game, while Van Lier was being interviewed on television, police attempting to keep fans away were spit upon by fans after having been ordered to move. A scuffle ensued, but no arrests were made. 

Last night’s Battle Royale started with 4:12 to play and the Kings up by nine, 97-88, following a nine-point scoring spurt by Larry McNeill, Tiny Archibald, Ollie Johnson, and Walker.

Marin, normally an advocate of non-violence, drew a technical foul when he voiced his objection to the loose-ball foul call. That touched off Badger, who automatically was ejected with back-to-back technicals.

“Larry (McNeill) jumped on him,” Badger later explained. “I just want them (referees Jim Capers and Lee Jones) to be consistent. I gave Capers his first college game. I thought he’d be more advanced than that. It’s the first time I’ve been ejected in 15 years.”

But the worst was yet to come. 

Capers and Jones gave Badger 30 seconds to leave the arena. As Badger left for the dressing room, instead of moving aside a blue plastic chair on the Chicago bench in order to reach the runway that leads to the locker rooms, he picked up the chair. Badger carried the thing several steps before throwing it about five rows up the aisle of section 122. 

Actually, Badger didn’t throw the chair, per se. Nor did the fan at whose feet it landed. Not knowing what to do, the fan kicked it back down the aisle steps toward the Chicago bench.

But Motta was unaware of the intent, only the result, particularly when the chair bounced and accidentally hit his leg. His reaction sent fans, players, and police rushing to the Chicago bench. 

“Motta thought the guy had thrown the chair at him,” said Kings’ assistant general manager Larry Staverman. “Motta picked up the chair and headed into the stands.”

The tall, burly Staverman, an ex-professional basketball player for the old American Basketball League (ABL) Kansas City Steers, stepped between Motta and the fan, as police and members of the Bulls rushed to the scene. 

“There was a lot of pushing and shoving going on,” Staverman said, “but nobody got too aggressive. Nobody hit anybody, but there was plenty of talking.”

Norm Van Lier

A policeman, who declined to be identified, said several Bulls, including volatile Van Lier, began pushing with police officers to get at fans with whom they were exchanging angry remarks. “He pushed me a couple of times, and I pushed him a couple of times, but it wasn’t anything, really,” the officer said. 

Staverman said the angry Motta was demanding that the fan be arrested, or at least removed from the arena. But the Kings refused, saying that the fan had not meant to throw the chair at him and was not at fault.

“A guy hit me with a chair,” he said. “Somebody threw a chair at me from the stands, and it hit me in the leg. I should have let it go, but I just wanted to see who it was.” (Motta was asked afterwards if he had “gone after” the fan. “If I’d have gone after him, he’d of known it,” Motta declared. “Besides, there was a woman in front of him.”)

When play resumed, Tiny missed the free throw assessed against Marin, then hit both of Badger’s to make it 98-88, with 4:11 to play. 

But an offensive foul against McNeill started to turn things around in a game that seemingly had no direction, and Boerwinkle added to the uncertainty with a layup and a hook to cut the Chicago gap to seven, 99-92, with 3:14 left on the clock. 

Walker, who has a happy habit of hitting clutch baskets for the Kings, took the worry out of being close with a [traditional] three-point play that established a 10-point spread. 

But here Rick Roberson, who filled in well when Sam Lacey left with an injured left knee, rocked the boat when he blew all three free throws on a backcourt foul against Boerwinkle. Tiny, who finished with 25 points, cashed in on a technical foul against Motta that coincided with Boerwinkle’s injury. 

With 1:41 to go, that nine-point lead should have done it. But as “the Walk” said, “This was a funny game.”

Chicago’s Bob Wilson threw one in from the right side, and Bob Love had an opportunity to cut the Kings’ lead to five when he was fouled by Robinzine. Robinzine then made the mistake of popping off and getting a technical. 

Love missed the technical free throw. But he made the foul shot and, with 1:35 to play, the Kings had only a six-point margin to show for their efforts. But 17 seconds later, “Walk” and Ollie Johnson combined for four straight free throws. With less than a minute to play, that did it.

In the aftermath, Motta was asked to explain the volatile chemistry that exists between these Midwest Division teams. In doing so in a down-playing fashion, he succeeded only in adding to it. 

“Rivalry? What rivalry?” he asked. “When you got the two worst teams in the league, what kind of a rivalry is that? No, not the worst. Make that two of the three worst. Detroit’s worse.”

With the season series complete and the Kings taking it, 6-1, that should hold things until next season. Outside the arena, the remainder of the crowd laughed about the incident and gave one another eyewitness accounts. The fan who kicked the chair was nowhere to be found. 

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