By Michael Merrill
Michael Merrill lives in Maple Valley and is a 1984 graduate of the University of Washington.
My father, John Merrill, kept the official book at Washington men’s basketball games in the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s. All four of his sons took turns sitting next to him. In those days of basic scoreboards, wooden cards were held up at the bench for the coaches and fans to see the personal foul total on a player after any call. We Merrill boys held those cards.
We got intimate looks at then-Huskies coach Marv Harshman and his coaching opponents. Stories abound about the players and coaches we saw up close. We especially loved watching UCLA coaching legend John Wooden – heck, I am in a 1976 Sports Illustrated picture sitting right behind the Wizard of Westwood, clearly in awe, as he spoke to a player at the scorer’s bench. But my favorite story has to do with Ralph Miller of Oregon State.
In the final minutes of a hotly contested game, I believe during the Lonnie Shelton era, an Oregon State player fouled out. Like all good coaches, Miller made sure to turn the time available for the replacement process into an extra time out. The referee had to go into the huddle to break it up. Miller, grumpy as ever, then shoved his players onto the floor. The new substitute ran straight out, too.
My dad saw his chance. I am a witness: the player didn’t so much as glance at the scorer’s table to fulfill his duty to check in as a sub. My dad kept a first class book, and was a homer to be sure, but he would never cheat. I never before saw him try to call a check-in infraction. But I saw him immediately reach for the buzzer and sound the loud klaxon at the old Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Miller looked over like he saw some sort of demon appear. He was shocked and staring daggers at the same time. The official approached, and got the explanation. The official looked stricken. He did not want to make the call, but with Marv now appearing on the fringe of the gathering, my dad simply repeated over and over: “He didn’t check in. He didn’t even look at me.”
The official finally blew the whistle and put his hands together in the “T”. The term literally is abused these days, so I won’t say Miller literally exploded, but it was very, very close. He charged into my dad’s face. My dad was a small man who seemed even smaller due to a pronounced limp he carried from the left side of his body, which was damaged by childhood polio.
Miller screamed, “You homer son of a (expletive)! You are NOT going to make that call now!” Dad didn’t flinch (I sure did). The official pulled Miller off, but Miller kept shouting and fuming as the Huskies took their shots and went on to win the game.
I caught Marv looking quietly very pleased as he walked back to his chair. Only later did I notice my dad’s hands were shaking just a bit as he recorded the made free throws.
I have forgotten a lot of the details of the game, but what I will never forget are the faces I saw that night. The official pleading with his eyes that he wouldn’t have to make that call. Miller on fire with rage. Marv looking like a cat with a canary. And my dad, firm and defiant behind the knowledge that he was in the right.
Would he have made the same call if a Husky had run out of one of Marv’s huddles without reporting? I don’t know, but I have to doubt it. Maybe that is why the great man, Marv Harshman, showed up at my dad’s funeral at age in 1984 when he passed away at age 69. I also know that my dad would have been highly pleased that his obituary ran on The Seattle Times Sports page, under the headline: “John Merrill, age 69, Bled Purple and Gold”. The night he made that call, when Miller came after my dad, we almost saw if that was – literally – true.
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