Don and Ruth Cherry climbed into their car at 10 a.m. and set out for Madison for a 3 o’clock University of Wisconsin basketball game.
A snowstorm was coming. But it would not stop Don and Ruth from getting to the UW Field House, and it would not hinder their plans for that night. They had already booked a hotel room to avoid driving home.
“The game was over at about 5, and we came out and you couldn’t see across the street. Oh, that snow,” Don Cherry said. “We got beat that day pretty bad. But we get out there (to the hotel) and they had a piano bar. We met a bunch of people from Michigan, and we were out there dancing and having fun with them until 1 in the morning.”
Over six decades of Badgers fandom, the 89-year-old Cherry holds an incalculable number of those stories within his steel trap of a mind.
He can name not only players from the 1960s and 70s, but most of their hometowns. Ask him his favorite player and he can’t help but break it down by the decade. He has been front and center for miserable seasons and for Final Four runs.
Cherry, of Janesville, marked 60 years as a UW men’s basketball season ticket holder this year.
“My wife and I, for the first 20 years we had tickets, we never missed a game,” Cherry said. “Then, once in a while, maybe we missed one. I don’t know how many games I’ve seen; I wouldn’t even want to say. I lost my wife eight years ago, but we saw quite a few games. She liked them, too, so we spent a lot of time up there.”
Neither snow nor long stretches of mediocrity could keep him away from the court. But for the first time in those 60 years, Cherry has been relegated to watching his Badgers on the TV. The COVID-19 pandemic meant the only faces in the stands at the Kohl Center this year were of the cardboard cutout variety.
“There’s nothing like being there,” Cherry said. “It’s not the same the way it is. You don’t have the excitement. I think the players, and all the teams not just Wisconsin, it’s affecting the play. You get the fans there, it makes a difference.”
Getting in the game
Cherry would know, having been one of those fans constantly since he was 29 years old.
He and Ruth attended a game against Ohio State back then, and his cousin—the UW’s sports information director—hooked them up with tickets right behind the Badgers bench.
“We beat them 86-67, and that’s when they had (John) Havlicek and (Jerry) Lucas and (Larry) Siegfried, Mel Nowell and Joe Roberts at center. Well, we beat them.
“So we got season tickets, half court, five rows back at the Field House, and we could see right down the center line. We saw a lot of games when there wasn’t 2,000-3,000 people there. But we kept going.”
Cherry estimated his first set of season tickets cost him $3 a game, per seat.
“Now I’ve got four seats, and it costs me $3,200 a year,” Cherry said.
A new building
Roughly two-thirds of Cherry’s 60 years as a season-ticket holder came at a time when the Badgers played at the Field House.
When the Kohl Center opened in 1998, UW had Don and Ruth pick out their new seats.
They were No. 13 in line, based on seniority and Cherry’s involvement on the booster board.
“I said, ‘I’d like to get something close to what I had at the Field House if I could.’ And they said the center section was all taken,” Cherry said. “I said, ‘I’m No. 13 on the list, and you mean to tell me you sold the whole center section?’”
Turns out that entire section was reserved by Herb Kohl, whose name is on the building. Don and Cherry had to settle for seats eight rows back and half a section to the right of center.
So which arena did Don like better?
“I really liked the Field House. It was close to the floor and it seemed like the fans were louder because it was more enclosed,” he said. “I understand they had to go bigger and get something better, but I can remember so many instances at the Field House where it would just rock—actually rock.
“The Kohl Center, it’s very nice. And when it’s full, the Kohl Center is a great place to be. But I kind of grew up going to the Field House. We were part of the faithful 3 and faithful 5 (thousand) for many years.”
Hard to pick a favorite
Ask Don his favorite player over the years, and you’ll get a history lesson.
The Kohl Center days have provided superstars, like Devin Harris, Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Ethan Happ and Kirk Penney, to name a few.
Cherry prefers to look a little further back in time.
“Oh there’s been a lot,” Cherry said. “My favorite probably was Mike Finley. Joe Franklin, 1967, he was really good. I remember he was 6-foot-4 and from Madison Central High School. But he led the Big Ten in rebounding. He could jump out of the gym.
“Late 70s, there was Joe Chrnelich, Claude Gregory. Early 80s it was Clyde Gaines, and Cory Blackwell was one of the best players I’ve ever seen. He played in ‘83 and ‘84. He was from Chicago. … Then Brad Sellers, he was from Ohio. He was in ‘81.
“Danny Jones in the late 80s and early 90s. He was from Rockford Boylan. Mike Finley, Tracy Webster when they went to the NCAA (Tournament) in ’94…
Don recalled seeing Magic Johnson play for Michigan State.
“They won the NCAA in 1979, and we were tied with them, and Wes Matthews went down the court and made one from half court,” Cherry said. “And that’s the last game Michigan State lost that year.”
In a year when going to the Kohl Center has not been an option, taking a trip down memory lane is as good as it gets.
But Cherry can’t wait to be back in the stands supporting the Badgers.
“I don’t go up as much as I’d like to now, but I hope it gets back to where the fans can go. I’d like to go again,” Cherry said. “I miss going up there. It’s different. But I’ll watch it on TV until we can get back there.”