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The Gate-Crasher
A backstage pass isn’t the only path to a glimpse behind the curtain. By Steve Johnstone

The springboard for my illicit adventures arrived in 1962 at the inaugural Milwaukee Classic, a holiday college basketball tournament at the old Milwaukee Arena. Co-hosted by Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the event featured those two teams as well as ones from the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Utah. Days before tipoff, I returned home for winter break from my first semester at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. Come Dec. 29, the stage was set for the tourney and a reunion with my high school buddies.

Except for one logistical snag: No ticket. Even my always-reliable friend, who prided himself on a wallet swollen with extra tickets, couldn’t come through. “Forget it, and catch up with us later,” he said. “You’ll never get in.”

It was all the encouragement I needed.

I thumbed a ride Downtown and made a stop at the Schroeder (now Hilton) Hotel. In the lobby, I found a group of Navy cadets who, I correctly surmised, were basketball players. “They sent me over from the arena to give you guys a hand,” I explained to a cadet guarding equipment bags. Moments later, I helped load the equipment and jumped in a taxi with several players. Upon arriving at the arena, I latched onto several duffel bags and walked confidently with my new “teammates” past the ushers guarding the entrance.

That night’s games didn’t really matter. What became memorable was pulling off the caper. It began a series of gate-crashing escapades that lasted for a full half-century.

There were dozens of sporting contests, cultural events, premieres and political gatherings to conquer, including a Super Bowl, a World Series, and other NFL and NBA playoff games, as well as pennant-winning victory parties and closing-night cast parties. Locations ranged from Louisville to Las Vegas to London, with plenty of highlights taking place against Milwaukee’s backdrop. I rubbed elbows with Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Carol Channing. Regardless of the occasion, a sense of pretending and a seemingly credible appearance of purpose, or of making yourself useful, were critical. A gate-crasher should never be caught milling around.

When I returned to college after the Milwaukee Classic, the scheme morphed into something larger: The 1963 NCAA men’s basketball Final Four would be at the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center just down the road from my dorm. I had to be there.

To watch the tournament in style, five classmates and I formed and staffed our own tourney service, one fictitiously, and not creatively, called the Floor and Transfer Service.

We divided into teams of two and contacted three of the four teams – Duke, Oregon State and Loyola University Chicago – upon their arrival in town. “It’s a big, big place,” teams were told of the spacious Exposition Center. “We’re here to make it easier for you.”

It worked like a charm. Each of us netted courtside seats, with four of my accomplices situated on team benches. In my assignment for Loyola, I was on the court perimeter alongside cheerleaders and photographers. And when “my team” won the championship (in buzzer-beating, overtime fashion, no less), I was there celebrating on the court, in the locker room and at the all-night victory party in downtown Louisville.

Six weeks later, the NCAA adventure was followed by my uninvited presence on the presentation stand at Churchill Downs after the 89th Kentucky Derby. It was the start of an annual occurrence that saw me appear in the historic winner’s circle after 18 Runs for the Roses. The exclusive postrace Winner’s Parties were also littered with my presence. For anyone who inquired, I provided a bogus title – “Ceremonial Guard.”

I think planning for the inevitable questions led to my success. Although there were occasions when my attempts were blocked and I was denied entry at one gate, I’d simply take my charade to another entry point. My record is clean. I’ve never been accused, arrested or held for questioning. And I never let my double lives cross; I reserved my mischief and tall tales for gate-crashing all while maintaining a sterling reputation as a father, businessman, neighbor and friend.

When people ask whether I think my daredevil ways could be replicated today, I tell them that technological advances, wireless communications and more stringent security measures would make it more complicated, but not impossible. Whenever human interchanges and judgments are called upon, there’s a margin of error. There remains a sliver of possibility.

I have the mementos and memories to prove it. 

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