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Of Spitz, Claudia's and basketball in a different era

by: COURTESY OF MATT SPATHAS - Jimmy Anderson (front) is joined by (left to right) Frank Peters, Jeff Stoutt, Rick Raivio and Mark Radford at a Claudia's basketball team reunion Wednesday night.Homage was paid to a foregone era Wednesday night at Claudia's Tavern in southeast Portland, a period of time when sports in the city was simpler, less sophisticated and maybe, more fun.

At least that's the way it appeared in the documentary "Claudia's," shown at its namesake sports pub to about two-dozen former players and perhaps 100 family, friends and sports fans who packed the sports pub to watch things the way they used to be.

The 17-minute film about the semi-pro basketball team that dominated the local AAU picture from 1963-85 was edited and produced by Portlanders Teri Danielson and Sonia Halvorson, a class project for the Northwest Documentary School that was amateur but looked anything but.

"I can't imagine any professional film company doing a better job than Teri, Sonia and their crew did with this one," said Matt Spathas, oldest of three sons to Gene Spathas, the owner of Claudia's who sponsored the AAU quintet for more than two decades. "It was sensational."

Marty Spathas, Matt's younger brother, now owns Claudia's and hosted a party that covered a generation and more of Portland's basketball past. There were Jimmy Anderson, Ray Blume, Mark Radford, Jeff Stoutt, Willie Stoudamire, Jim Cave, Paul Gloden, Eddie Grossenbacher, Bob "Pudgy" Hunt, Tim Hurley, Jimmy Johnston, Frank "The Flake" Peters, Rick Raivio, Mike Richardson, Billy Holt and John Dougherty. And there was Don Gass, a former University of Portland player and father of Danielson.

"My dad was the inspiration for the project," said Danielson, 48, a food consultant an amateur cinematographer. "As a kid growing up, I'd listen to him tell stories about (playing for) Claudia's. There was something about the stories that hooked me."

The film -- which premiered at the Northwest Documentary School Film Festival at McMenamin's Mission Theater last month -- chronicled the story of Claudia's and those who lived it.

When Claudia's sprung onto the AAU basketball scene in the early 1960s, there were no Trail Blazers.

"We were the only game in town," said Peters, the Portland restaurateur who starred on the Oregon State team that reached the Final Four in 1963.

There was no American Basketball Association or any of the other lesser pro leagues that began to appear in the 1980s and proliferated in the '90s and beyond.

The central figure in the film was Walt Spitznagel, who coached Claudia's for all of its 22 years of existence. Spitznagel, now 86 and living in Bellevue, Wash., was heard only in audio through a telephone conversation, but his presence in the film was felt through the recollections of those played for him.

"A lot of people have said I should have written a book about all the stories over the years with Claudia's," Spitznagel told me Wednesday in a phone conversation from his Bellevue home. "And they're right."

Spitznagel was a former University of Portland outfielder whose love for sports was unabated.

"Spitz' whole life was sports," said Tom Workman, a former ABA player who played two seasons for Claudia's. "There was never a sports event he missed, and he never bought a ticket."

In 1962, Spitznagel had coached the Netkap Tavern team that won in the Portland Basketball Association city league title. After the season, the tavern burned down, leaving Spitznagel without a team. Shortly thereafter, he stopped by Claudia's for an adult beverage and struck up a conversation with Gene Spathas.

"I didn't know Gene," Spitznagel said. "We started talking about basketball. He'd had a team that season, but they never beat anybody. At some point, he asked if I'd be interested in running his team. I said, 'Yeah, but I'd have to be the one to control it.' He said, 'I'd want you to use the players I have now because they support the tavern.' "

That didn't set well with Spitznagel, who had a bigger vision.

"I said, 'Gene, I wouldn't use one of those players,' " Spitznagel recalled. "I told him, 'I'd get college and ex-pro players we can win with. I'm not going to spend a 100 hours a week on guys who can't win.' I told him we'd get good ink with some household names in Portland."

Spathas saw it as a chance to get some publicity for his tavern, but there was more to it than that.

"Dad loved sports, and he loved the community," Matt Spathas said. "He liked being around the guys. He had a blast doing it. It was good PR, and he liked the camaraderie. He liked staying connected to the sports world and wanted the guys to have a place to play quality basketball."

Over the next 22 years, Spitznagel was a man of his word, landing ex-collegians such as Raivio, Peters, Jim Jarvis, Chuck Rask, Steve Pauly, Jim Boutin, Charlie Neal, Stan Walker, Vince Fritz, Leonard Williams and Rob Closs. And during Spitz's time with Claudia's, the team featured former or future NBA or ABA players such as Jarvis, Radford, Blume, Workman, Jim Marsh, Greg Smith, Dale Schlueter, LaRue Martin, Jim Barnett, Phil Lumpkin, Cincy Powell and Steve and Nick Jones.

"My guess is in less than 24 hours (after a player was cut by a pro team), Spitz was calling, asking him to play for Claudia's," Johnston said.

Martin, a former No. 1 draft pick by the Blazers, was a short-term member of Claudia's.

"We were playing at Clark College one night, and it was a full house," Spitznagel said. "He went up to stuff the ball and show off to people. Somebody undercut him and he broke his wrist. That was the end of LaRue playing for Claudia's."

The pros had to appeal for reinstatement of their amateur standing with the AAU. Spitznagel made the players do that on their own. He handled everything else.

"I don't remember Spitz doing a whole lot of on-court coaching," Workman said. "He was the organizer."

"He knew the limitations of what he could do," Johnston said. "He just sort of orchestrated the whole thing."

With the talent on hand, there wasn't a need for a lot of structure.

"We'd get in a huddle before a game and Spitz would ask, 'What do you guys want to do?' " said Cave, a former Oregon State guard. "And everybody would say, 'Let's do this.' It always worked."

Claudia's won eight state AAU championships and several Northwest titles. There was competition from such as Dr. Bernard's and the Multnomah Athletic Club, but Claudia's was almost always king.

"This was before the old ABA, and when we started, there were eight NBA teams," Spitznagel said. "There was no other place for a good player to play. I'd schedule 40 to 50 games a season. We played a lot of junior-college teams, and we'd play the freshman teams from Oregon and Oregon State as a preliminary to the varsity games. I'd tell the guys they could go back and play to a full house before their own people. And I convinced pro guys to forget about their ego and reapply for amateur status. They'd have to sit out one year to become eligible."

Schlueter, an original Blazer in 1970-71, had been out of the NBA for a year when he joined Claudia's in 1978, in no small part with hopes of attracting interest from an NBA club.

"I was still competitive, and I wanted to keep in shape," said Schlueter, who was interviewed for the film. "I thought there was still potential to get back in the NBA."

Toward the end of that season, Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas were hurt and the 6-11 Schlueter was signed by Portland, playing in 10 late-season games. Claudia's got a mention in a Sports Illustrated article because of it, one of Spitznagel's proudest moments.

Smith had been waived by the Blazers and was retired when he played four seasons with Claudia's from 1977-81.

"I wasn't doing anything and I missed basketball," said Smith, also a part of the film project. "Spitz asked if I'd play with them, and I went through the appeal process. It was a lot of fun, playing against local guys and with a very good group of players. We won a lot of games."

There was plenty of good stuff in the film, but the focus always worked it way to Spitznagel, a character if there ever was one and a lifelong bachelor until getting married at age 70, long after he had retired from a career in the grocery business and later as a longshoreman.

"Playing for Spitz was a thrill a minute," said Johnston, a former University of Idaho guard. "He was like a combination of Doug Moe and Jerry Tarkanian. Like Moe, he'd be roaring up and down the sidelines, gesturing. Tark had the towel he chewed on. Spitz rubbed his hands together.

"Spitz was pretty accepting of guys. If you could play ball and you played hard, you were OK. Your off-the-court stuff was your business."

But you'd better play good ball.

"Your job security was only as good as your last game," said Johnston, who played with Claudia's longer than anybody, from 1977-85. "Spitz thought nothing of picking somebody up during the season and having him replace somebody in the lineup. If there was a better player out there, your spot was vulnerable."

The Claudia's players weren't paid, other than free drinks and food at the tavern after games. Through 22 years, Spitznagel never made a dime, either.

"I did it because I liked the sport, and I got to know a lot of great guys," he said. "When Chuck Rask got inducted into the Pac-10 Hall of Fame a few years ago, he called me and asked me to attend. That made me feel good, knowing you did something good for him. I know the guys really appreciated having a place to play on a team that was trying to win. The beer always tasted better after wins."

AAU basketball became a casualty of the proliferation of pro basketball in the 1980s. There was the ABA and other minor leagues sprouting up by then, and the opportunity to play in Europe.

"That was the downfall of AAU basketball, when you could go anywhere in the world and get paid for playing," Spitznagel said. "That killed the AAU."

Toward the end, Claudia's had to find competition in a league in Seattle. That meant traveling most weekends.

"We'd be going up and down I-5 for two or three games a weekend for three or four months," Spitznagel said. "That got old. I finally told Gene, 'I'm not wasting every weekend anymore.' That's when we hung it up."

Wednesday's film showing turned into a joyful reunion for a number of the area's basketball luminaries, many of whom I feel fortunate to call friends. It was great to reconnect with such as Raivio, Radford, Blume, Stoutt, Cave, Hunt, Peters and Johnston, among others. There was plenty of esprit de corps working through the room. It's a fraternity that hung a lot of paddles on the Claudia's wall over the years.

Danielson and Halvorson made it happen. Nostalgia has never been more fun than it was for a couple of hours Wednesday night at Claudia's.

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