Briar Patch

RETURN OF THE OLD PUCKER

THE ASTRODOME HAS REALLY OUTDONE itself. They had the help, though, of Hollywood press agentry and one of the bigger mouths in professional sports, so the Dome can't take all the credit. Irregardless of culpability, it was an impressive show, that King-Riggs tennis match, and it drew the largest media attendance in single-event sports history.

All those publications that always cover tennis or sports had writers there, as well as dozens of magazines that rarely think about covering either. Plus there were sportswriters from daily newspapers all over the world: Australia, Japan, Italy; there were eight sportswriters just representing London newspapers. All of this, of course, is harmless enough, just powerful testimony to the drawing power of ballyhoo and hoopla. The only sad thing about it all is that almost none of those "sportswriters" ever wandered over to an obscure Houston skating rink where one of the most truly dramatic events in sports is about to take place.

Houston seems an unlikely location for the greatest comeback ice hockey ever saw. Ice in Texas has always been something to pour whiskey around, and the notion of skating about on it, no less using it for a playing field, appears alien at the very least. It's strange enough to see Gordie Howe, now gray-haired and a little paunchy, flashing up-ice with that characteristic easy grace, but to see it happen in Houston borders on the bizarre.

Before his retirement in 1970, Gordie Howe had become the greatest hockey player in the game's history, a man who's always called (in the kind of apples-and-oranges analogy that sportswriters are prone to) "the Babe Ruth of Ice Hockey." In a 25-year playing career with the Detroit Red Wings, Gordie Howe had broken every hockey record that imaginative statisticians could invent, not the least of which was his own longevity. Prior to Gordie Howe, the longest career in the bloody, bruising sport spanned 20 years, and that was held by a defenseman. But Gordie was a wingman, like a forward in basketball, and hockey fans always considered it slightly miraculous that he held on as long as he did.

And yet here he is, in Houston of all places, wearing that legendary Number 9 and preparing to play once again at the age of 45. That, one would think, should be drama enough for the romantic pens of sportswriters. Yet there's more. Gordie Howe was not lured out of retirement by the Houston Aero's offer of $1 million plus; he did not leave Detroit, which he had possessed in spirit as much as Stan Musial ever owned Saint Louis, because he hankered after the smoggy, humid air of Houston; rather he came to Texas in order to provide the third leg, the eldest leg, of the first father-son combination in professional sports.

In the Spring of 1973, the same year that saw Houston reeling under the impact of a record three ephemeral snowfalls, the World Hockey Association's Houston Aeros, only one-season old, reached up to Toronto to draft Marty (19) and Mark (18) Howe. Thought to be undraftable because of a National Hockey League minimum age of 20, the two Howe boys were having to content themselves by wreaking fraternal havoc on the teams of Canadian Junior Hockey.

The Aeros' management, convinced that the old NHL rule didn't apply in the newly-created, expansionist, WHA, drafted and signed both younger Howes. Their contracts, it is said, exceeded $2.5 million. As two of the hottest young stars in hockey, they were thought to be easily worth it, and the old NHL teams howled mightily that Houston had snatched off both of them. It was still a few months before Gordie would announce the end of his own retirement.

Perhaps the reason all those sportswriters missed the Howe story is that Houston seemed a strange setting for a hockey epic. But, God knows, Houston has long needed a sports team that can finesse a winning season and the Aeros give promise of taking it all in Hockey. Even before the Howes, they had one of the hottest teams in the new WHA, and ended last season with a ten of 13 winning streak.

Houston is just beginning to discover that hockey is a fascinating spectator sport, both faster and feistier than football. Perhaps with the added human drama of the family Howe, the Aeros will earn the recognition they deserve. Even if they don't play in the Astrodome.

PLAY IT AGAIN, SANDRA

THERE IS A STRANGE MADNESS abroad in the land. Following Billie Jean King's resounding win over Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome, a new gauntlet (or rather, arm bracelet) has been thrown down.

Kilgore's own Van Cliburn has been challenged to a piano-playing contest by a female pianist. Susan Starr vows that if Van Cliburn accepts her challenge she would play "with gloves on—to give him an added advantage."

Ms. Starr has invented a whole new sport to prove her point, and it may well be sweeping the country soon. "I'd like to challenge Van Cliburn and nine other men," Ms. Starr, began, outlining the mechanics of the challenge. "We would all play the same piece behind a screen and dare a panel of judges to figure out who among us playing is a woman."

Ms. Starr's challenge was made in Manila, where she recently gave a concert in a hall where Van Cliburn had played in June. We think it would be a nice competition, but the prospect of sitting through ten renditions of the same piece of music, performed behind a screen, doesn't sound like as much fun as going to the Astrodome.

SPOON BENDER ANALOGY

THERE IS A SORT OF bird, a schematized gull that I've drawn above a triangle, and to the right of the triangle is an enclosed curve. This is the image that I'm trying to project onto and inside the right half of Uri Geller's head, the half that is facing me as he holds

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