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Mark Madden: Pittsburgh Triangles deserve to be remembered

August 4, 2018

Philadelphia Freedoms Coach Billie Jean King yells encouragement to one of her players during a world Team Tennis match with the Pittsburgh Triangles in Philadelphia on Monday, May 6, 1974. Ms. King lost her opening match to Evonne Goolagong in the leagues first night.

I just watched a double feature on HBO: a documentary about Billie Jean King, and the “Battle of the Sexes” movie that dramatized the 1973 tennis match between King, then in her prime, and 55-year-old hustler Bobby Riggs.

Serena Williams is a better player. But King changed tennis, and the world.

Thinking of King made me reminisce about Pittsburgh’s forgotten champions: The Triangles, who won World Team Tennis’ crown in 1975.

The Triangles existed just three years (1974-76) and were owned by Frank B. Fuhrer, one of Pittsburgh’s best sports owners.

Fuhrer ran the Triangles (and also indoor soccer’s Spirit) with ruthless efficiency. Many dream about Mark Cuban owning the Pirates. I’d choose Fuhrer. Fuhrer badly wanted to win and made sure that desire trickled down.

Fuhrer folded the Triangles after the 1976 season partly because the team’s star female player, Evonne Goolagong, was pregnant and couldn’t play. He mooted returning to WTT after Goolagong gave birth but ultimately declined.

In 1976, player-coach Mark Cox resigned his coaching duties. Fuhrer didn’t see the point of hiring a successor. All the players had individual coaches, and the lineup mostly made itself.

So Fuhrer made Dan McGibbeny the new “coach.” McGibbeny was already GM, PR director and director of player personnel -- all at one low price. He had zero tennis background.

The Triangles promptly won nine in a row.

McGibbeny sadly succumbed to cancer just a year later, at 26. One memory persists: Not long into McGibbeny’s tenure as “coach,” the Triangles hosted King’s New York Sets at the Civic Arena. McGibbeny, overwhelmed by the situation, sat on the Triangles bench before the match, head in hands.

King sneaked up on McGibbeny from behind, slapped him on the back, and exclaimed, with a broad smile, “Hiya, Coach!”

King was the heartbeat of WTT, the league’s co-founder and star attraction.

WTT was incredible. History disagrees, but I considered it extremely marketable.

The courts were color-coded. Each match was one set each of men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. No-ad scoring was used: A game wasn’t 40-all, it was 3-3, and the next point decided the game: Sudden death.

WTT put equal weight on what men and women did. As King said, “Equal pay, equal treatment, equal respect, equal everything.”

The best players in the world participated, and the Triangles had no shortage of those: Goolagong won seven Grand Slam singles championships. She and Triangles teammate Peggy Michel won women’s doubles at Wimbledon in 1974. Ken Rosewall won eight Grand Slam singles titles. Vitas Gerulaitis won the Australian Open in 1979.

Gerulaitis may have been the most popular Triangle. A group of Gerulaitis fans called the G-Men noisily filled several rows of seats at home matches. Gerulaitis often hosted postmatch parties at his residence. Open to the public.

It was a wonderful atmosphere. Weather permitting, the Civic Arena’s roof was opened. The crowd was vocal, but not rude. The matches moved quickly.

Tennis works in a team format. WTT proved that.

After the Triangles folded, Cleveland’s Nets played some of their home games at the Civic Arena. But it wasn’t the same. The Nets included Bjorn Borg and Martina Navratilova. But Pittsburgh won’t support a Cleveland team.

WTT folded after the 1978 season. It restarted in 1981 and still exists today in truncated form. Top players make scattered appearances but generally don’t play. The Philadelphia Freedoms still exist, but Elton John doesn’t care anymore.

But Pittsburgh will always have Aug. 25, 1975: The host Triangles beat the San Francisco Golden Gaters, 21-14, in the third and deciding match of the WTT final. Gerulaitis beat Tom Okker in men’s singles 6-1. Goolagong beat Betty Stove by the same score in women’s singles.

Almost seven thousand went through the turnstiles at the Civic Arena that night: 6,882, to be exact. Pittsburgh loves a winning team.

It’s a shame more Pittsburghers don’t remember that one.

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