Photo by Anthony Mair
Photo by Gabe Zapata For regulars and employees at the Thomas & Mack, Stretch has become “almost part of the building.”
Nobody refuses Stretch. The longtime UNLV basketball fan is a fixture in the tunnel of the Thomas & Mack Center after every home game, collecting autographs until the last player has left the building. Tonight, the Rebels have just finished off Boise State, and Stretch is joking with Kendall Wallace. Stretch doesn’t bother to ask Wallace, a fifth-year senior guard, for his signature. He probably has it 30 times by now. Instead, he performs one of the many bodily contortions that earned him his name, wrapping his arms completely around his head and putting his hands on his face. Stretch is double-jointed in his shoulders, and he enjoys shocking people with his physical stunts.
“I can touch my left ear from four different directions,” he tells Wallace, who has caught this act dozens of times. Most of the Rebels have some sort of interaction with Stretch after every home game, joining a long list of UNLV players before them. It is a tradition as old as the Thomas & Mack itself, one that took root before there was even a University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
A lot of people claim to be diehard UNLV fans, but only Stretch brings Rebel history with him—literally—to every game. He carries a worn Las Vegas Stars tote bag that has been reinforced, waterproofed and stuffed to capacity with Rebel programs, magazines, newspapers, photos and other items—the oldest dating to 1976. “That bag of his must weigh 100 pounds,” says usher Ron Hutchings, who has worked at the Thomas & Mack for 15 years. The bag contains autographs from nearly every significant UNLV basketball player of the last 35 years. Stretch hauls it to each game because “I never know who I’m going to run into.”
On this late-February night, it’s former Rebel forward Eldridge Hudson (1982-87), who gives a friendly shout before giving Stretch a hug. El Hud’s response is similar to many ex-players when they run into Stretch, a walking reminder of their glory days in a UNLV uniform.
“He’s got every magazine from back in the day when I was here,” Hudson says. “He’s always been right there. He was showing me photos I don’t even remember. He showed me one magazine that had us with Siegfried & Roy. I’m like, ‘Dude, let me get that. I don’t even have that.’”
The bag’s greatest treasure—a poster from the ’80s with a rendering of UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian and the Thomas & Mack—is stored in a cardboard tube. When a friend gave it to Stretch four years ago, the artwork was framed and contained no autographs. It now has 55 signatures (three are duplicates) from players or coaches from the Tarkanian era (1973-92), with the only significant omissions being ’70s stars Lewis Brown, who died in September, and Eddie Owens. Stretch says he wouldn’t sell it for less than $100,000.
“Everybody says, ‘That should be in a frame,’” he says. “I can’t get it autographed if it’s in a frame.”
It’s easy to spot Stretch. Amid a sea of red-clad Rebel fans during a sold-out game, he stands out in Section 101, wearing the same baby-blue Charlie Brown Construction windbreaker he’s owned for more than 30 years. His game-day attire includes a custom-made red baseball cap with flames on the bill that pays homage to Nevada Southern University, which became UNLV in 1969. The hat reads “58 NSU 68” on the front and “69 UNLV 06” on the back, with the last number being the year he had the hat made.
Stretch began rooting for the Rebels during the 1967-68 season, cheering for NSU stars such as Cliff Findlay and Bruce Chapman. Findlay, now a successful automobile dealer in the Valley, is a regular at UNLV games and familiar with Stretch’s dedication to all things Rebel. But even he was surprised when he was approached for an autograph several years ago.
“I had Bill Russell at the game—the Bill Russell—and Bill Russell doesn’t sign autographs,” Findlay says. “So, [Stretch] came up to me, and I told him, ‘Hey, Bill doesn’t sign autographs.’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t want Bill’s autograph, I want your autograph.’ So Bill and I laughed about that for a long time.”
Stretch, 55, used to focus solely on gathering Rebel signatures, but added opposing teams to his routine about 20 years ago. He still gets each Rebel at least once a season, and makes a point of getting whoever is on the cover of each program to sign four copies of it. He also used to take Polaroid photos of players and have them sign the images, but he became unable to do that when Polaroid went digital in 2009.
Only one person has ever cut Stretch off. As you might suspect, it wasn’t a Rebel. And it really doesn’t constitute a snub. Former pitching great Greg Maddux, a longtime UNLV supporter, put up the stop sign, but only after the future Hall of Famer had signed 41 times. Stretch says that’s his record for one person’s autograph, but Dave Rice begs to differ. The Rebels’ first-year head coach estimates that between his two seasons as a UNLV player, 11 as a UNLV assistant coach, six visiting from BYU and this season, he has signed items for Stretch more than 100 times.
Dick Calvert, the public-address announcer at UNLV basketball games since the 1971-72 season, has also been approached for his signature a handful of times over the last four decades.
“I’ve known him forever and ever, but I don’t really know him,” Calvert says. “I couldn’t even tell you his last name. We used to call him ‘Superfan.’ He gets autographs from everybody. He’ll get an autograph from a Rebel Girl, an usher—I don’t know what he does with all of them.”
★ ★ ★
Stretch saves everything. The perimeter of his apartment’s living room is cluttered with boxes containing hundreds of Las Vegas Review-Journal sports sections and autographed programs from UNLV men’s and women’s basketball games, Rebel football games and Las Vegas Stars and 51s baseball games. In one corner, pizza boxes are stacked halfway up the wall. A worn armchair sits in the middle of the room, across from a 27-inch TV with an antenna connected to a digital converter. The TV sits atop a chest of drawers filled with old videotapes and papers of all sorts, including various Internet printouts about the Kennedy family. Bags containing rolled-up posters and more boxes are piled up where a dining table should go. The only table in the room has a half-finished puzzle on it; and underneath that puzzle are several completed ones stacked atop each other on pieces of cardboard.
A cabinet rack across from the table holds boxes of baseball and basketball cards, mostly complete sets, dating to the mid-’80s, along with Stretch’s Clark High School yearbooks. (He likes to mention that he graduated two years after former Rebel guard “Sudden” Sam Smith.) Stretch, who also has more than 200 autographed baseballs, has hidden some of his more valuable memorabilia among the clutter so intruders won’t find it.
Even the items on display in the apartment are arranged scattershot. The wall above the couch is filled with 21 framed photos of UNLV players and coaches that Stretch received years ago from a friend. The juxtaposition of former center Richard Robinson, a four-year bust at UNLV in the mid-’80s, next to all-time great Reggie Theus seems peculiar, but in Stretch’s world, all Rebels are treated equally. On an adjacent wall, a photo of Yankee legends Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hangs next to one of former Stars infielder Homer Bush. There is a homemade Rebels sign autographed by the UNLV cheerleaders, a signed photo of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller and a team photo of the 1985 San Diego Padres, a squad scattered with former Stars. Stretch also has his father’s old baseball mitts, which look like they date to the 1950s, hanging on the living room wall. “You can still catch a baseball in them,” he says, giggling as he slips one of the gloves on and pumps his fist into the pocket.
One side of the apartment’s hallway is lined with plastic shopping bags filled with empty plastic two-liter containers. Stretch’s refrigerator is covered top to bottom with photos of family members and season-schedule magnets for UNLV men’s and women’s basketball and the Stars/51s dating back to 1993. The rest of the kitchen is essentially unusable. Two golfing trophies that Stretch’s father won in the ’60s sit atop the back of the stove. The stovetop is littered with assorted odds and ends, including a glass jar filled with tabs from aluminum cans. When asked about the significance of the tabs, Stretch shrugs.
“I collect everything,” he says.
★ ★ ★
Bradley “Stretch” Stirling was born in Cedar City, Utah, in 1956. He moved to Las Vegas seven years later after his father took a construction job here. Long before he ever attended a Rebels game, Stretch showed an inclination to save almost anything imaginable.
“When he was a little kid, he would rub blankets until he would get the little fur balls off of them,” says Stretch’s mother, Darlene Wilder. “And I would find whole handfuls of these inside of his drawer. I would throw them away, and he never missed them—but he would save them.”
When Stretch began going to NSU games at the Convention Center with his parents and aunt and uncle, he began keeping the program from each game along with the entire sports section from the following day’s newspaper. Years later, his dad threw away those earliest treasures from the NSU days while cleaning out the garage. He had mistaken the box as trash.
Stretch, the second of four children, developed his love of sports through his father. Robert Stirling was a star athlete growing up in the small town of Hurricane, Utah—participating in football, basketball, baseball and track. Stretch, who graduated from Clark High School in 1975, was unable to follow in his father’s footsteps because of severe scoliosis and was limited to playing church softball and basketball. But he and his father could always share the Rebels.
That changed in 1983, a year that not only transformed the Las Vegas sports landscape, but also Stretch’s life. That April, the Stars began their first season at Cashman Field after moving here from Spokane, Wash., giving the city a new team and a new stadium. And Stretch was a loyal fan right from the start, buying season tickets and getting baseballs and trading cards autographed at every game. That October, his father died suddenly after a stroke, one month before the Rebels opened their inaugural season in the Thomas & Mack. At that point, Stretch’s passion for sports became all encompassing.
“Brad and his dad had gone to the games a lot, but after his dad died, it seemed to be more of an obsession,” Darlene says. “It was like he couldn’t miss a game. It was life-threatening if he missed a game, in his mind.”
It wasn’t her son attending every UNLV basketball and football game that bothered her; it was his insistence on catching all 72 Stars home games each year. After all, he wasn’t simply watching nine innings of baseball and then coming home. He would arrive at Cashman—where he received his nickname from Stars pitcher Pete Smith—an hour or two early for autographs, then hang outside the clubhouse for at least another hour afterward to chase down more players.
“He would drive right from work, go there in his grubby work clothes, just to be there to get these signatures,” Darlene says. “And then he would go out with the guy who closed the place up. We tried to get him to not do that, but he would buy season tickets. And if you’ve got a season ticket, you don’t miss the game.”
Stretch lived with his mother in his childhood home until 1992, when Darlene moved to Toquerville, Utah, after getting remarried. This June will be 20 years since Stretch moved into his apartment, which is just a couple of streets away from where he grew up, near U.S. 95 and Jones Boulevard.
As a child, Stretch was always a bit slower than the other kids. Sometimes he was teased for not fitting in at school. He has a great memory for numbers and dates, though; he can tell you what section of the arena he was sitting in for UNLV games more than 20 years ago. He was diagnosed with dyslexia in high school, long before most people had heard of it, and reading has remained a struggle for him.
He began working after high school, and had regular employment until he lost his construction job in January 2009. The financial hit forced Stretch to first forgo his baseball tickets, followed by UNLV football and women’s basketball. But he never has stopped going to the Thomas & Mack for men’s basketball games.
“I had to keep my priorities straight,” he says.
He started working again a couple of months ago, landing a part-time job at Deseret Industries, although he was forced to shave the beard he’d worn for 36 years.
★ ★ ★
“We always talk about the importance of being consistent in life. And there’s no doubt that he’s been consistent,” says Rice, who still remembers signing for Stretch after his first game at UNLV in 1989. “He’s almost become part of the building.”
Indeed, Stretch has his run of the Thomas & Mack. He usually ducks into the press room at halftime to grab a stat sheet, with no one batting an eye, and sometimes returns after the game to see if there’s any CiCi’s Pizza remaining. He doesn’t even sit in his assigned seat during games. Stretch’s season ticket is in the balcony, but he hasn’t sat up there in 11 years. For the past few seasons, he has sat in Section 101 with Josh Kerr, a season-ticket holder who allows Stretch to use one of his five seats.
“I got these seats for my family, and they can’t come every time,” Kerr says. “So I figured if I’m going to have anyone sit here, I’d rather have a Rebel fan sitting with us.”
During games, Stretch keeps his own stats on personally customized scorecards and rarely shows much emotion, no matter how wild the action or tight the score. He sometimes draws pictures of the referees if he thinks they’re making bad calls against the Rebels. But even then, when he encounters the officials in the tunnel after the game, he is cordial. The worst he ever gives them is, “You guys need to go back to Foot Locker.” Often, he’ll get the refs to autograph his artwork of them.
“He gets after the officials after the game once in a while. They all know him,” says Hutchings, who has worked in the Thomas & Mack tunnel for more than a decade. “One time he got after [former UNLV coach Lon] Kruger about taking the ball inside more after they had lost a game, so I had to tell him, ‘Don’t come back here until after Kruger leaves.’”
Despite Stretch’s occasional outburst, UNLV junior guard Anthony Marshall, a Las Vegas native, says there might not be a more sincere fan in the country. Stretch waits after each game not just for the Rebels, but also for visiting teams—armed with markers to match each school’s colors.
“When I was a senior in high school, I would come here to catch some games,” Marshall says. “Even then, he knew who I was. He was supportive of me from Day One. And after every game, no matter if it’s a win or loss, he’s back there telling a joke or something, trying to raise your spirits.
“He talks to the opposing team, too. Most of the time when you go to an opposing school, they usually have one fan who’s waiting back there talking mess, but he’s not like that. He’s supportive on both sides. I haven’t come across another fan like him at any other place.”
“He considers those guys his friends,” Darlene says of her son’s relationship with the Rebels. “Every one of them, even if they don’t know him—he thinks they’re his best friends.”
Darlene is pleased that Stretch has the Rebels to devote his time to, since neither she nor his three sisters, who live in Texas, California and Utah, can be there for him as often as they’d like. Stretch, who is Mormon, still attends church each Sunday. Besides following the Rebels, he also spends countless hours studying his ancestry at the Family History Center, often staying until the place closes.
“He has to be around people. He just doesn’t do well by himself,” Darlene says. “And when I remarried and moved to southern Utah—that’s been 20 years now—that’s kind of left him alone. We don’t get there as often as we would like, but still we try to be part of his life and keep him involved.”
Stretch won’t spend coins, so his mother started rounding up his change when he was a child and created a savings account for him. She has since invested some of the money in a mutual fund. For now, he is able to support himself, but Darlene oversees his finances to make sure the bills are getting paid.
Because of his scoliosis, Stretch can’t have a physically demanding job. His left shoulder is higher than his right, and his sternum follows the same crooked path as his spine. Darlene was once told that her son’s skeleton was so twisted that it could press on his heart and kill him by the time he was 40. In order for doctors to straighten Stretch out, they would have to break all his ribs, fuse them together and insert a rod in his back, and then he would have to be in a body cast for a year.
“His back hurts so bad when he has to lift anything,” Darlene says. “I tried to get him Social Security disability, but he’s never been to a doctor since he’s been on his own—he doesn’t do doctors—so we have no medical record. They keep turning him down. He can’t get any benefits.”
★ ★ ★
It’s difficult to imagine UNLV basketball games without Stretch. As for what he ultimately intends to do with his vast collection of autographs and other sports memorabilia, he really has no clue. His mother would like for him to start selling some of the more valuable items to help pay his bills, but she doesn’t know where to start—and Stretch doesn’t seem eager to part with anything. “I try to clean things out,” Darlene says. “He will let me throw some things away, but for him to throw it away, it’s like cutting his hand off.”
She sometimes worries about her son, especially when it comes to his financial well-being. But Darlene realizes that he’ll keep attending Rebel games as long as he’s able, patrolling the tunnel afterward in his never-ending quest for autographs.
“It’s not him going to the games; it’s not being able to afford to buy the tickets. That’s where I’m frustrated,” she says. “Right now he’s in the hole, and if he’s having to take money out of savings to meet his monthly bills, it frustrates me that he uses money for ball tickets. But that’s his world, and that’s what’s important to him.
“I did tell him, ‘If you can’t pay your rent, you can’t fit all that stuff in that apartment in your car.’ We’ve told him he’s welcome to come live with us, but his stuff is not welcome.”