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Love Triangles: Pittsburgh adored its World Team Tennis franchise

Sunday, September 10, 2000

By Rick Shrum, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

It isn't the Heisman Trophy, it isn't the Stanley Cup, and Frank Fuhrer doesn't have a prominent place for it.

Fuhrer needed a minute or so to pick through his South Side office before finding the Bancroft Cup. The rare yet underappreciated Bancroft Cup.

"It's still sitting here," he said finally, huffing and puffing mildly at the beer distributorship that bears his name.

After 25 years, the Bancroft has lost some luster and most of the esteem it once had. But to Fuhrer and a small yet passionate corps of local tennis devotees, the Bancroft remains a brilliant bauble. To them, this cup runneth over with memories.

The Pittsburgh Triangles earned the Bancroft Cup in 1975 by winning the championship of World Team Tennis. Sparked by three Grand Slam champions, coached by a revered Vincent Price look-alike and assembled by a candid and cantankerous millionaire, they raced to the league's best regular-season record, then won four of five playoff matches to win the cup.

Three Super Bowls, two Stanley Cups and a national collegiate football title have been secured by Pittsburgh teams in the intervening quarter-century. But not since the 1968 Pipers of the old American Basketball Association has there been a more bizarre -- and, perhaps, more lovable -- group of champions in this city.

Evonne Goolagong was the modest star. Vitas Gerulaitis was the flamboyant star-in-waiting. Mark Cox and Kim Warwick provided strong male support, Peggy Michel and Rayni Fox on the female side.

The distinguished-looking Vic Edwards, an internationally renowned instructor, directed them to the championship. Then, 14 days later, he was fired, a juxtaposition that somehow was appropriate among the goofy goings-on of the WTT at that time.

There were groupies, Kenny Rogers the most prominent. He picked a fine time to latch onto the bandwagon. There were G-Men -- and women -- and G-Men T-shirts, all supporting Gerulaitis. There were personnel moves and other off-court surprises seemingly every day.

It wasn't always easy, but at a time of heightened tennis awareness, the Triangles presided over the courts of WTT.

'Why not tennis?'

Chuck Reichblum remains a proud father. World Team Tennis was his brainchild, conceived in Pittsburgh in 1973, born a year later.

"The concept was that in a tournament, a fan really had no one to root for unless he had a favorite player," Reichblum said. "There was an explosion of sports leagues at the time, so I thought, why not tennis?"

Why not, indeed. Reichblum and Bill Sutton, a Downtown attorney, got together and formed the league. "We had a news conference in New York and were selling franchises," said Reichblum, owner then and now of Century Features, which syndicates sports features for newspapers and currently publishes the "Knowledge in a Nutshell" series of books.

"Surprisingly, we got calls from all over the country," Reichblum said. "About two months later, Billie Jean King's husband [Larry] announced the same thing [a team-tennis concept]. What they did was take our idea. Bill, being a lawyer, called them and said we created this thing and were selling franchises. We met them.

"One thing they brought to the table was Billie Jean King. She was excited about it and she could bring other top players in. She also wanted to make tennis for everyone, not just the country club set."

King became player-coach of the Philadelphia Freedom. "Remember the Elton John song?" Reichblum said, chuckling. But she wasn't the only renowned figure to commit to team tennis. Amid a backdrop of skepticism, John Newcombe, Virginia Wade, Rod Laver, Ilie Nastase and a young Chris Evert were among those who joined.

"We thought we'd have trouble getting players, but summer was a perfect time for us," Reichblum said. "We took off for Wimbledon and finished by the U.S. Open."

To many, particularly those steeped in tradition, team tennis seemed to be a radical change. Even some players who signed with the new league were wary. Reichblum, however, was willing to take chances and hoped the public would, too.

"This was revolutionary and appealing," he said. "This was the beginning of the women's movement, and women would be as much of the team as men. We came up with the idea for colored uniforms when almost everyone wore white. We used colored balls, which were not in common use then. We had cheering, which was against tennis tradition.

"Tennis players were not structured to play on a team, as football players were. They grew up competing as themselves. But they enjoyed the team concept."

Scoring was on a no-ad basis, not love-15-30-40, and each game in each set was important. Matches consisted of five sets: men's and women's singles and doubles plus mixed doubles. Scores for the five sets were added and the team with the most points won a match.

Reichblum, Sutton and Fuhrer headed the ownership group of the Pittsburgh franchise, known from the start as the Triangles. They also signed a savvy veteran as player-coach: Ken Rosewall of Australia.

Rosewall, a tennis technician and a workaholic, was dealt a couple of aces. Evonne Goolagong, Wimbledon singles champion in 1971, signed a three-year contract. And a 19-year-old with an exotic name and an exotic game and an exotic mane -- Vitas Gerulaitis -- came on board. He also had an exotic lifestyle.

"Vitas had won the West Penn Open in Mt. Lebanon in '73," Reichblum recalled. "He was so flashy -- he would hit the ball between his legs and behind his back during practice. The crowd loved him."

So did Triangles fans, many of whom swooned over the Adonis with the long blond locks. Male and female, they called themselves G-Men and donned T-shirts proclaiming such. Some partied with him.

(In January 1977, less than six months after the Triangles left Pittsburgh awash in red ink, Gerulaitis won his first and only Slam, the Australian Open singles.)

This formidable threesome was joined by Peggy Michel, a solid all-around player and an ideal doubles partner for Goolagong. They would win Wimbledon doubles that year.

Gerald Battrick and Fox, a favorite among male spectators, completed the roster.

Pittsburgh did well in its debut season, reaching the playoff semifinals and finishing second in home attendance, despite some microscopic crowds. The league, overall, had financial difficulties, though.

"The problem with a new league is it takes awhile to make money," Reichblum said. "We were so under the gun to get going, we took on owners without deep enough pockets. Some couldn't keep things going."

Keeping things going at his company had become difficult for Reichblum. He was a league official as well, and WTT and Triangles obligations were consuming his time. So he left team tennis, selling his interest to Fuhrer, who, in a short time, became sole owner of the tennis franchise here.

At season's end, Fuhrer also was elected league president, succeeding Jordan Kaiser.

The title run

The Triangles underwent change in 1975. Rosewall left, replaced by Edwards as coach. Battrick also departed and Cox and Warwick signed on.

Pittsburgh's top attraction also changed -- her name, as Goolagong married British businessman Roger Cawley. She also would be playing for Edwards, the guru who had taken her as a graceful but raw teen player and transformed her into a champion.

The Triangles finished the 1975 regular season with a 36-8 record, best in the WTT. They were playoff favorites, and breezed into the final with a two-game sweep of the Boston Lobsters.

Boston's presence was a flash point for many tennis purists. The Lobsters, led by the hairy and irascible Ion Tiric, had advanced with a one-match, qualifying-round upset of New York, with Billie Jean King near her prime.

Edwards, perhaps the purest purist, was pleased the evening of Aug. 19, when the Triangles iced the semifinal series. But not completely.

"The format for the playoffs is ridiculous," he told The Pittsburgh Press. "For one thing, I know we'd be disappointed had we been in New York's position and were eliminated in one night.

"And it hurts at the gate. I'm sure we could have just about packed this place with New York in here for the playoffs."

There were 2,803 paid at the Civic Arena for the Boston finale.

The Triangles nearly left their lofty aspirations in San Francisco, as they opened the best-of-three championship series with an incredible 26-25 defeat. Edwards' team entered the final set, mixed doubles, with a seemingly insurmountable 24-20 advantage.

Seemingly. Warwick, known as "Ace," lost control of his powerful serve and Michel double-faulted twice en route to a 6-1 loss to Betty Stove and Frew McMillan.

Back in Pittsburgh, before a frenzied crowd of 2,182, the Triangles won, 28-25. Goolagong Cawley probably staved off team elimination with tiebreaker victories over Stove in singles and women's doubles.

Game 3 was at the Civic Arena the next evening, Aug. 25. A boisterous crowd of 6,882 -- more than half the Arena's capacity then -- massed. Stove and Ilana Kloss defeated Goolagong Cawley and Michel, 6-2, in the opening set, but the Triangles rebounded. Goolagong Cawley tied it with a 6-2 victory over Stove, then Gerulaitis and Cox defeated Frew McMillan and Tom Okker, 7-5, for a 15-13 lead.

Gerulaitis then closed out Okker and the Golden Gaters. The G-Man's 6-1 victory gave the Triangles a seven-point advantage, eliminating the need for mixed doubles. Fuhrer's team ruled.

"Two years and a million dollars later, I've come down to this," Fuhrer told The Press, the well-to-do owner sporting a baseball cap and a G-Men shirt.

The aftermath

The afterglow was still warm, the smell of champagne still in the hair when the Triangles -- suddenly and surprisingly -- underwent an upheaval. They became the Florida Marlins 22 years early.

Two days after winning the title, Fuhrer traded Warwick and Fox to the Cleveland Nets for Sue Stap. Twelve days after that, Edwards was terminated.

Fuhrer, at the time, was vague about the Edwards firing, saying: "It was totally my decision predicated on a series of events that occurred with the players and myself during the season."

A quarter-century later, Fuhrer was more specific. "Cawley, the man, said Evonne doesn't want to play if Vic Edwards is the coach next year. That put me in a box. My gut instinct was to say, 'The coach stays, you go.' But the reality was, we needed her."

Attempts to reach the Cawleys in Australia were unsuccessful.

Goolagong Cawley signed for the 1976 season, as did college star JoAnne Russell. Bernie Mitton also joined the team and Nancy Gunter was acquired in a midseason trade for Stap. Oh, and Cox was appointed player-coach.

The Triangles were good, but not a juggernaut in 1976. Goolagong missed several matches with an injured heel. Cox quit as coach at midseason to concentrate on his flagging game, replaced by Dan McGibbeny, the publicity director-turned-general manager-turned coach. When McGibbeny was hospitalized with a blood clot, team doctor Lowell Lubic served as interim coach.

And there was growing turmoil, with Fuhrer at odds with Goolagong Cawley and Gerulaitis.

They reached the Eastern Division final, but lost to New York and King in the Eastern Division final. The Triangles' Aug. 19 match at the Civic Arena, before 2,608, would be their last. By the end of the year, Fuhrer let the team dissolve.

"After '76, I just felt we had no future," Fuhrer says today. "I did not think the league was viable. I thought we couldn't make money."

Playing in the summer, which Reichblum had favored, was a curse to Fuhrer. "If we had played World Team Tennis in the winter, we would have done better," he said in a Post-Gazette interview a few years ago. "In the summer, people are on vacation, they play golf, they work in the yard. They do a lot of things."

Reichblum, however, said it was easy getting playing dates at arenas during the summer, particularly the one at the foot of the Hill District. "The buildings were empty in the summer," he said. "The Civic Arena virtually had nothing in the summer then."

So it would be again. The Triangles weren't the only team that folded, though. World Team Tennis did the same within a year or so. It is back in a new incarnation.

Goolagong Cawley was the most successful of her teammates. She won a second Wimbledon, in 1980, after giving birth to her first child. She also made a major impression on Reichblum.

"Evonne was a baby doll," he said. "She also was the most unpretentious star. I was having dinner with her in New York after she won in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Her picture was on the back page of two New York newspapers. Someone asked for her autograph, and after he walked away, she asked, 'How did he know who I was?'

"She was the most natural player, so graceful."

Gerulaitis did well, winning one major -- the 1977 Australian Open -- and reaching the final of the 1979 U.S. Open and the 1980 French. He rose to a No. 4 world ranking in 1984.

"He always thanked me for pairing him with Rosewall," Reichblum said. "Rosewall always helped him, especially with his footwork.

"Vitas was good and he could have been better if he had settled down."

In the summer of 1994, Gerulaitis was dead. His body was found in the home of an acquaintance. The cause of death was accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 40.

McGibbeny, in his mid-20s, died after the 1976 season. Russell is coaching at the University of Illinois. Michel is working for Newsweek and living in California.

"I thought we should have won it all three years," Fuhrer said. "I thought we had a better team the first year, but they jelled better the second year because they were used to the format. The third year there was too much turmoil.

"We did well, but we should have won it all three times."

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