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After years covering team, demise leaves personal void
By Craig DeVrieze / QUAD-CITY TIMES

“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s business.”

— Michael Corleone, on whacking the cop protecting The Turk,
who put out the hit on Mike’s pop in “The Godfather.”

I would not care to advocate a consequence quite that dire for the Hall-of-Fame twerp who put out the hit on my late father’s favorite professional basketball team.

Metaphorically speaking, though, I am not adverse to slapping the little point guard around a bit.

In fact, I have. And, watch your back, Isiah. I’m not done.

This column is not business. It is personal.

And not just because that “No cheering in the press box” coda you might have heard about is just so much impractical nonsense.

It is human nature for sports writers to develop a fondness for the people and stories that we cover on a regular basis. A few of us are able to mask such softness behind a natural tendency toward cynicism and bitterness. Others lack those gifts.

At any rate, I do take personally the end of the Quad-City Thunder beat that I have covered since before the team existed.

If I may go Al Gore on you for a minute, I like to think I invented the Thunder.

You’re excused if I have blah-blah-bored you with this nonsense before, but my story — and I’m sticking to it — goes like this: While I was writing about former United Township and future Thunder guard Brent Carmichael’s bid to make the La Crosse Catbirds in 1986, it was suggested by then-Catbird coach Ron Ekker that the Q-Cs were a natural CBA market.

I wrote as much, and former Rock Island attorney Marvin Schrager subsequently picked up the ball, enlisted Anne Potter DeLong and several other community-minded investors and, voila, a future Isiah Thomas victim was born.

Sadly, memories are the only rewards left now to those of us who invested our hearts and support in the Thunder over the years.

They are pretty precious payback, though.

Foremost among the many of those that occurred to me as I detailed the team’s demise these past few days was the joy my father, Frosty, took from following the Thunder in its first — and his last — few years.

Although the old coot is to blame for two of my most aggravating afflictions — an inherited love for both the Cubs and Bears — Dad never much was a fan of basketball until the Thunder came into being.

He learned to love them because I covered them. And among the last, best moments we shared as father and son was attending together one game at Wharton that I was not working.

We had reasonably good seats in the bleachers, but not near good enough, seeing as how Dad was bothered by a bum hip, but mostly because I was accustomed to sitting courtside, fast by the action.

After a half, I tossed aside professional decorum and we grabbed a couple of table-front seats right next to the opposing bench. Dad got a kick out of the ongoing commentary provided by Cazzie Russell, the witty former NBA star who then was coach of the Grand Rapids Hoops.

He got a much bigger kick out of being razzed for being some kind of big shot by an uncle who happened to be stuck in the cheap seats behind us.

A few months later, that uncle passed away. Dad went a week behind him.

I forever will remember that Thunder moment as my Field of Dreams-like opportunity to “have a catch” with my father.

He died in March 1990, which means he enjoyed the Thunder’s most Golden Years.

Those were the days of Charley Rosen at “The Phone Booth.” Of Bill Musselman at his green-leather-coated, manic and maniac best. Of Von McDade’s half-a-game stay on the Thunder roster. Of Crazy George’s toddling, dribbling minions at their ball-bouncing, brain-banging best.

They were the days of “The Iceman Cometh Back,” that too-brief, monthlong Thunder career of NBA great George Gervin. Forever high on any list of CBA lore will be the delightful December night when George “guarded” his younger brother Derrick. And vice-alleged-versa. That’s a matchup that resulted in 43 points for George, 39 for Derrick and a still — and now forever — Thunder-record 172-122 victory.

Dad didn’t get to see the Thunder’s first CBA championship season in 1994, the one fueled by the hustle of Barry “The Human Floorburn” Mitchell.

But Don Mason did. God bless him.

Mace was a Quad-City original, one whose fanny was familiar to virtually every barstool from here to Barstow, and an original Thunder staffer whose gregarious personality and wry sense of humor put the Quad-City in the Quad-City Thunder.

Some of that team spirit was gone when Mace died in the spring of 1995. By then, the early blush of success was off of the Thunder, and too many vacant seats at the too-spacious Mark were robbing the Thunder of that wonderfully intimate atmosphere that rocked “The Phone Booth.”

What remained was a can-do attitude, bought and paid for by the grand dam, Mrs. DeLong, who was determined to keep professional basketball in her native Quad-Cities, almost at any cost.

When, finally, she was forced to surrender, Jay Gellerman stepped in, with the same civic-minded mission. And Fred Radunzel — not quite a founding Thunder front-office force but close — hung in there with him.

Last year was Fred’s final year. He never missed a game in the long-coveted and overdue role as general manager and never let on that the cancer he was fighting was winning. As such, he forever will epitomize the brave battle against long odds that our Thunder waged for survival.

Like so many of our own, Fred’s life was enriched by his association with the Thunder.

By friendships with grand folks such as Barry Sumpter — the Thunder’s playing ambassador; and Dan and Mauro Panaggio, the father and son who made the Thunder the CBA’s winningest franchise throughout its 13 seasons.

By the Thunder work of superbly talented players such as Chris Childs, Derek Strong, Anthony Bowie, Kevin Gamble, Tate George, Rudy Keys, Harold Ellis, Steve Scheffler and the handful others who turned their days here into years of NBA success.

And by the likes of Mitchell, Bill Jones, Jimmy King, Maceo Baston, Bakari Hendrix, Alvin Sims and ad infinitum who never quite got their fully NBA due, but might yet, and who won our hearts with winning efforts.

So many others — players, staff, fans and foes — merit mention, of course. But this column has to come to an end.

Like all good things, so too do our Days of Thunder.

And, personally, that breaks my heart.  

Portions of qcthunder.com use information from the Quad-City Times that is no longer being linked to on their site.