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Thunder needs more Matzens

MOLINE -- Jerry Matzen's heart is worn on his head and chest instead of on his sleeve.

Dispatch/Argus photo by Chuck Thomas

Quad City Thunder `super' fan Jerry Matzen, Bettendorf, cheers on his team during a recent game at The Mark of the Quad Cities.

Indeed, the logo-filled attire worn by the 64-year-old retiree leaves little doubt the Quad City Thunder rank No. 1 when Mr. Matzen's mind mulls the things making this area a special place to live.

``Since the very beginning, I've been on the bandwagon. I've only missed six home games, and we're in our 11th year now,'' Mr. Matzen said during a recent game for the local Continental Basketball Association club.

``I go to all the practices. I think I've seen every new player that's come into the team, even if it's only for a one-day look-see.

``Anybody who knows me, they either talk to me about the weather or they talk about the Thunder, because they know that's where my heart is.''

Some might think Mr. Matzen's amazing allegiance comes from being the winner of the only lifetime pass awarded in club history during a promotion seven seasons ago.

Not so.

``Don't tell management,'' Mr. Matzen said smiling, ``but I'd be here anyway even if I still had to pay for tickets.''

The reason being is that the Davenport native's devotion to the Thunder runs far deeper than free duckets.

``When I was a youngster, I used to go to Wharton (Field House) to watch the Tri-City Blackhawks,'' Mr. Matzen said, recalling this area's link to the National Basketball Association's formative years.

``Red Auerbach was our coach then and it bothered me when the team left and he went on to be the (Boston) Celtics coach and they went on to win all those championships. You can only wonder what might've been if we'd been able to support our team better.

``So when I heard they were going to bring this level of basketball back, I thought, `Boy, you don't get many second chances in life.' So I bought season tickets right away.''

One of just nine teams in the CBA, the Thunder's charm has never been lost on Mr. Matzen.

``It's like Triple-A baseball. It's the training grounds for the NBA,'' the longtime Bettendorf resident said, noting fewer than 50 communities in this country can claim they have a pro basketball team.

``This is where you see all the young guys before they make it in the big time. You also see some guys coming back down to work on their games and get another start. If you're a real basketball fan, this is the place to be.

``Almost every night when I watch an NBA game on TV, I see somebody who either played for us or I saw them play against us, right here, when they were rookies coming up.''

Added Mr. Matzen, ``So many times I see former Thunder players opposing each other on a given night in the NBA, and it's very exciting to me. I just don't know why other people don't feel that way.''

Indeed, the Thunder could use a lot more fans like Mr. Matzen. The team's average attendance has declined from a high of more than 6,000 in each of the first two seasons at Wharton to less than 3,000 per game so far this season at The Mark of the Quad Cities.

``A lot of people would rather sit home and watch football or go bowling rather than come to these games. But to me, there's no better entertainment,'' Mr. Matzen said.

``Look at the players you get to see out here, for crying out loud. Jimmy King, part of the ``Fabulous Five'' at Michigan. Doug Smith and Byron Houston, two NBA first-round draft picks.

``When you have this level of players here, I don't understand why more people don't come out to see it. It's sad.''

It also makes Mr. Matzen mad to think he might be seeing his childhood nightmare unfolding again in his golden years.

``I'm worried this area is taking the hometown team for granted,'' he said solemnly. ``You would think people would be very proud of this team and what it's done.''

The CBA's winningest franchise has never missed the playoffs, winning the league championship in 1993-94.

Thus far this season, the Thunder have the league's best record while rebounding from the franchise's first-ever losing season, a 27-29 campaign last year.

``But when you see a small turnout, you wonder how the owners can afford to keep it going,'' said Mr. Matzen, whose early retirement in 1986 barely preceeded the Thunder's beginning.

``I've been fearful every year. I'd be a very sad person if this wasn't here. I don't know what I'd do with myself, it's so much of my life now.

``I don't even want to think about it. I don't want to see that situation happen again.''

Certainly not in the lifetime of this lifetime pass-holder.

-- By Steve Tappa (January 26, 1998)

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