Fast food, the 494 strip and pickup basketball molded a sportswriter

A man wearing a light blue t-shirt in front of a white fence.
Bloomington native Steve Rushin's second memoir "Nights in White Castle" chronicles his teen years in the Twin Cities suburb, and how it led to his career as a sports writer.
Rebecca Lobo | Courtesy of Little Brown

For all the people who dream of becoming a sportswriter, few actually make it. In his new memoir, “Nights in White Castle,” Bloomington native Steve Rushin describes an unlikely route to a staff writer job at Sports Illustrated.

As a teenager growing up in the Twin Cities suburbs, Steve Rushin said there was a routine.

"The night always seemed to end at White Castle," he said.

It was the food that drew him and his friends as well as the company. Some were eccentrically dressed, drunk, bleeding — or all of the above.

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"You could say you ate 20 hamburgers and you lived to tell the tale, and you got to see this theater of night people that you wouldn't otherwise see if you were sitting at home," he said.

An illustration of a red car and street light and book title.
Steve Rushin's memoir "Nights in White Castle."
Courtesy of Little Brown

This is Rushin's second memoir. His first, the acclaimed "Stingray Afternoons," followed his early life in the ‘70s in the Minneapolis suburb where a cool bike or the latest toy was all he needed for a perfect life.

The new book picks up in the ‘80s.

There are stories of using recently acquired drivers licenses to cruise the 494 strip. At the time the freeway was lined with clubs, discos and hotels, and the teens would drive up and down staring at the bright lights.

“The 494 strip in my universe as a kid was every bit as famous as the other strips: the Vegas strip, the Sunset strip ... these strips that would make the newspaper” he joked.

Being underage, and with little money, they couldn’t go into many places on the 494 strip, like the Carlton Celebrity Room, but they could always dream they were able to see national acts. They would buy memberships which allowed them access to the Holiday Inn pool near the airport where they would watch for the glamorous flight attendants and the occasional Vikings player.

As a sports nut with a facility for writing, he used an old Royal manual typewriter to pound out stories about Twins, Gopher and North Stars games he saw. He also reported on his own games. Rushin played for his high school, Bloomington Kennedy, which not only made it to the state championship, but triumphed over rival Bloomington Jefferson to get there.

Steve Rushin reads section in his book about being Bloomington Kennedy team member
by MPR

Yet Rushin never showed his pieces to anyone. He was mortified when his mother found one he'd thrown in the waste basket and passed it round her bridge club, even as they praised it. He was cripplingly shy.

"I still don't like calling for a plumber or ordering a pizza," he said.

Just the idea of going up to an athlete and asking questions was beyond him. Then he noticed a radical change to a nearby home.

"There was suddenly a half a basketball court in this house's backyard, and you just didn't see that,” he said. “Nobody had a court in your backyard. You might have a hoop in your driveway."

Rumor had it the house belonged to former Gopher starter Flip Saunders, who'd become a coach at Golden Valley Lutheran Junior College. Steve and his friend Mike hung around outside a few times in case Saunders came out. Then Mike, who was far from shy, opened the mailbox and found a letter addressed to Philip Saunders.

"And so, while I stood at the foot of the driveway,” he recalled, “Mike walked up the driveway, knocked on the door, Flip's wife Debbie answered. Mike asked if Flip lived here. She said yes, and essentially Mike's next question was, 'Can he come out to play?' We were invited to shoot hoops in the back yard and Flip joined us."

Saunders later coached the Gophers and three NBA teams including two stints with the Timberwolves. But for Rushin, it was much more significant that those backyard games evolved into a two-on-two summer tournament. Charged with naming the contest Rushin came up with the “Saunders Hoops Invitational Tournament,” perhaps as much for the acronym as anything else. Given Saunders’ connections, skilled college and future NBA-ers turned up.

"It was a ‘Star Wars’ bar of basketball players," Rushin said. "And I was a ninth grader enthralled with these guys."

Rushin wrote about these games, too. Then Sports Illustrated published a piece about a backyard basketball tournament in Michigan. It spurred Rushin to write a letter to the editor praising the story but pointing to the Saunders Invitational.

"Alexander Wolff, the author of that story, wrote back to me and said, 'I'd love to hear more about this. I'm writing a book about pickup basketball in America.’"

Rushin wrote back. It was a classic foot in the door, and years later led to a career at Sports Illustrated.

The struggle to overcome his shyness took longer, as he explains in "Nights in White Castle." He'll launch the book 7 p.m. Tuesday at Magers and Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis.