By Douglas Perry, The Oregonian; April 12, 2019
Connie was standing in Pudgy’s Hayden Island apartment, looking around at her new boyfriend’s living room for the first time, when a knock rattled the door.
Pudgy – Connie was still getting used to her date’s unusual nickname – answered it, greeted the unexpected visitor and invited him in. Connie blanched.
“Here’s this spooky guy,” she recalls. “This … fire hydrant.”
The fire hydrant’s name was Dick, but friends called him Bugsy – because he looked like a gangster. He was short, massively muscled, flamboyantly dressed.
Bugsy entered with the rolling gait of a boxer, a large briefcase in one hand. He swallowed the shot of bourbon he was offered. “Then,” Connie says, “he eats the glass. He eats it! Blood is running down his chin as he’s chewing.”
“Dick, that’s my only glass,” Pudgy told him, annoyance edging his voice.
Connie, nervous, felt the moment float before them. She had no idea what this strange interloper was capable of. Bugsy burst into tears.
“I’m sorry!” he bellowed, blood spraying from his mouth. “I’m so sorry!”
Sobbing, his shoulders heaving, he popped open his briefcase to reveal an incredible stash of cocaine and gems. He blubbered something like, “Will this make us even?”
Connie was shocked by all of this, but, thinking back on her few dates with her new beau, she also began to realize something. This was just another day in Pudgy’s world. And she liked being a part of it.
Bob “Pudgy” Hunt has pulled idiosyncratic people into his orbit throughout his 80 years on the planet. People with nicknames like Snooze and Snooky (and Bugsy). People who legitimately could be described as con men, rebels or just plain crazy. Pudgy might even have been business partners with the notorious skyjacker D.B. Cooper.
For this reason, Pudgy’s life offers a Zelig-like view of a long-gone Portland, when the city was still down and dirty, a place that a guy like Bugsy could confidently prowl with his stuffed briefcase and odd habits.
Except that Pudgy, so named because he was almost 12 pounds at birth, deserves the spotlight himself. For years, he and Connie, who married in 1982, ran Portland’s East Bank Saloon, which served as a second home for obsessed sports fans and, for a time, members of the Trail Blazers.
Pudgy was an Oregon sports star himself, from the days when that meant something other than money. Growing up in Svensen, a small town near Astoria, he played pretty much every game available: football, baseball, basketball, various track-and-field events. He was good at all of them too – very good.
He played on an Oregon prep-football all-star team. Legendary track coach Bill Bowerman badgered him to throw discuss for his college squad. And for 50 years Pudgy held the state’s all-time high-school basketball scoring record, until Lake Oswego’s Kevin Love finally surpassed the Knappa High star’s 2,584 points.
All this despite the fact that Pudgy should have been dead before adolescence.
He was 9 years old when he and his cousin Jimmy came upon a leaky lighter on the street and took turns trying to ignite each other’s shoes. When that bit of tomfoolery got old, Pudgy slipped the lighter into his pocket. Whoosh! The boy suddenly went up in flames.
Pudgy insists he felt no pain when he was on fire. “I didn’t pass out,” he says. He was too busy running home as fast as he could.
He was burned over 70 percent of his body. The melting flesh fused his left arm to his torso. The doctors told his parents he would die in a matter of days.
“But I kept on livin’,” Pudgy says.
He underwent dozens of skin grafts. When he finally came home, he laboriously taught himself to walk again. Soon he was playing sports, almost feverishly, one after the other.
When Pudgy wasn’t on a court or ball field after school, he worked as a lumberjack and a fisherman — because that’s what everybody in Svensen did.
Pudgy, nearly 6’5” by the time he graduated from Knappa High in 1957, accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of Oregon. He showed up on the Eugene campus — and for the first time discovered there was a downside to growing up in a bucolic small town.
“At UO, every guy [on the basketball team] was better than anyone I’d played in high school,” Pudgy admits. At the first few practices, he says, “I had trouble getting a shot off. It was really hard on my confidence.”
Basketball was always going to be a part of his life. Pudgy was sure of that. But he was beginning to consider the possibility that it wouldn’t be his life.
Pudgy met Dick “Bugsy” Briggs at UO, where they belonged to the same fraternity.
“People were afraid of him,” he says of Briggs. And for good reason: Briggs had an explosive temper and could be viciously violent, especially when drunk. But he was also intelligent, funny and a loyal chum. All of this – the good and the bad — appealed to Pudgy.
“Pudgy likes stray cats,” says longtime friend Frank Peters, a former Portland Beavers star — and a notorious stray cat himself. “He likes a person who is different, who’s always on the edge.”
Briggs certainly qualified as different and on the edge, so it was probably inevitable that he’d resurface in Pudgy’s life after college. By the late 1970s, Briggs was involved in the cocaine trade – and he tried to impress his drug runners by telling them he was D.B. Cooper, the name attached to the unknown man who, in 1971, hijacked a Northwest Orient flight out of Portland and parachuted into myth with $200,000 in ransom.
For his part, Pudgy never had anything to do with drugs or crime. He was a conservative guy who believed in doing things the right way. “He’s a pretty stable person,” Peters says. “He didn’t get out of his lane much.”
But he did introduce Briggs to the man his old college pal would come to believe was the real skyjacker, the man after whom Bugsy would model his criminal persona.
In the early ’70s Pudgy was working as a flooring contractor with his younger brother Dan, laying down tennis courts and gym floors across Oregon and beyond. A California-based Vietnam War vet named Robert Rackstraw was in the same business, and he, Pudgy and Dan teamed up to do some work in the Los Angeles area.
Briggs, needing to get out of Portland for a while, joined the flooring project.
The charismatic Rackstraw, Pudgy had figured out by then, “had a criminal mind.” He was the worst possible influence for Briggs.
“Rackstraw would do things when he was sober that Briggs could only do when he was drunk,” Pudgy told journalist and documentary filmmaker Tom Colbert, author of the 2016 book “The Last Master Outlaw,” which makes the case for Rackstraw being D.B. Cooper.
Those sober undertakings included savagely assaulting a pushy union worker (Dan Hunt witnessed this); stealing a cache of weapons by smashing a stolen truck through a gun shop’s front doors (Briggs was along for that ride); and upending flooring-company competitors through sabotage and theft (Pudgy heard about it from the enraged rivals).
“Rackstraw did [stuff] like that all the time,” Pudgy says.
Despite his first-hand knowledge of Rackstraw, as well as the FBI coming around in the late ’70s to ask questions about the former paratrooper and the skyjacking, Pudgy’s not willing to pin the Northwest’s most famous unsolved crime on him.
“I still don’t think Rackstraw is D.B. Cooper,” he says. “My brother Danny does. He spent a lot more time with him. He believes it.”
However deep Rackstraw’s criminal life went, Pudgy was happy to put the flooring business – and his California partner – in his rearview mirror. He was also seeing less of Briggs. He ran a Portland bar by this time, and he had met Connie, a beautiful legal assistant and litigation specialist 12 years his junior.
“He was a lot of fun,” Pudgy says of Briggs, “but with Connie, I didn’t spend much time with Dick anymore.”
“I tamed the lion,” Connie says wryly.
Perhaps just in time. Briggs was out of control. One night, Pudgy recalls, Briggs brutally beat the estranged husband of one of Pudgy’s bartenders – and then threatened to rape the barmaid. He spent the night in jail.
Soon enough, the crime-and-cocaine life caught up to Briggs. He died in a single-car accident outside Portland in December 1980. He was 41.
Pudgy laments that Briggs never could get himself straightened out. He believes his friend’s problems stemmed from a deep-seated insecurity. That’s what the glass-eating and various other outlandish behaviors were all about.
“He was real smart,” Pudgy says. “He got really good grades at Oregon. He taught in Portland Public Schools for a while.”
Pudgy isn’t a UO alumnus. He transferred to Spokane’s Gonzaga University, leaving behind – for the time being – his burgeoning friendship with Dick Briggs.
He didn’t think he had much of a choice. Heading into his junior year, he saw a strong group of underclassmen coming up behind him on the basketball team. “It looked like I was going to be, like, the ninth man,” he says.
So he jumped ship, heading up to the small Catholic school his father had attended. It was the right decision. He regained his confidence and began to use his left-handed hook shot to devastating effect. He also married a college sweetheart and became a father while there. When graduation arrived in 1962, he knew he couldn’t follow his basketball dream anymore – he had responsibilities.
“I got a letter from the Knicks saying I was welcome to try out, but I would have had to pay my way out to New York,” he says.
He stayed in Oregon. He made a living however he could, including selling cars and logging, but he wasn’t happy. Eventually, his marriage collapsed. And so he returned to what had always brought him joy.
Now in his late 20s, he started playing in Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournaments for a team sponsored by Claudia’s, the Southeast Portland tavern run by Gene and Claudia Spathas.
“We played for beer,” Pudgy says. “We were thrilled to get free beer.”
They earned it, winning multiple AAU and city league titles. “The competition was really good,” Pudgy says, and he means it.
The competition was good enough that The Oregonian and the Oregon Journal covered the rivalry games (Claudia’s and the Multnomah Athletic Club were bitter rivals) and championship games (usually Claudia’s and The MAC). The Trail Blazers didn’t yet exist.
“There were only nine NBA teams at this time,” says Frank Peters, who, along with being a college baseball star, was a starting guard on Oregon State’s 1963 NCAA Final Four team. His point: With so few teams at the sport’s top level, a lot of good basketball players had “nowhere to play.” After college, guys like him, says Peters, who joined Claudia’s in the mid-’60s, “either played AAU ball or gave it up.”
Pudgy was Claudia’s leader, but not just because he could score.
“He would pass you the ball, contrary to what you might have heard,” Peters says. “He wants people to know that the rumor he had 2,584 points and one assist in high school is not true.”
Pudgy Hunt and Connie Cunningham met in June 1977 at the Bottle Shoppe, the first Portland bar Pudgy operated. The Blazers had just won the NBA championship. Everything seemed possible.
Pudgy noticed Connie first. “She was standing at the bar, with her back to me,” he recalls. “Her figure was dynamite.”
Later they ran into each other again at a restaurant called Reubens. He complimented her feet. OK, that’s a bit strange, Connie thought, but the guy was charming in a rough kind of way. “He was the most authentic person I had ever met,” she says.
Together, the couple launched the East Bank Saloon on Southeast Grand Avenue. It quickly became the place to be if you liked sports and drinking. “Only women who cuss, can recognize a curveball and like guys who don’t change their socks daily are allowed in,” Oregonian columnist Jonathan Nicholas joked in 1982.
Peters — who played with Pudgy and former NBA star LeRoy Ellis on the Portland team that won the inaugural World Masters basketball championship, in 1985 — watched Pudgy and Connie’s relationship take off. It was something to see.
“They were thunder and lightning,” Peters says admiringly. “Two strong-willed people. They had a lot of energy together. Woo-boy.”
At the time, Peters was making the transition from minor-league baseball player to retired minor-league baseball player, and Pudgy was helping him.
“During the off-season I worked for Pudgy for $2.85 an hour,” Peters says. “I was vastly overpaid. I had more fun than the customers. That’s the secret to the bar business.”
The secret for Peters, anyway. The well-known local athlete and better-known local partier started his own bar, which became noted, as The Oregonian once put it, for its “bevy of young beauties.” Peters’ fun ultimately got out of hand. In 1989 he was convicted of statutory rape and drug offenses. He spent more than two years in prison, which he credits with finally putting him on the straight and narrow.
The man whose motto was “Make sure the people who hate your guts are separated from those who haven’t made up their minds” admits he should have followed Pudgy’s example from the start. And he’s thankful that his friend stuck by him.
“Pudgy personally changed my life,” Peters says. “When I was down and got out of prison, he was there. He went to landlords and backed me so they’d give me a chance [to return to the bar business], to win back my reputation. Not many guys would do that.”
Pudgy and Connie retired a few years ago; they sold the East Bank Saloon (it’s now Bit House Saloon) and built a house near the Columbia River, a mile from Pudgy’s hometown. Which doesn’t mean they slowed down.
Pudgy, despite a horrific 2008 motorcycle accident that fractured his neck, now boasts that he can get his Jet Ski up to 70 miles per hour.
More than three decades after they married, the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame inductee teasingly wonders how much his rough, authentic charm really mattered when he was getting to know Connie. It was an unusually hot summer in Portland, he recalls. “I had air conditioning in my apartment. She didn’t. So she spent the whole summer with me.”
He switches to a story about his logging days. A massive, out-of-control log glanced off his head one day, sending his hard hat flying one way and the hat’s owner the other. “An old guy who’d worked in the woods for decades said it was the worst accident he ever saw that didn’t kill a man.”
Connie, sitting next to her husband, says: “Why did you just leap from meeting me to a near-death experience?”
Because, of course, that’s how it goes in Pudgy’s world. Connie knows that better than anyone. She knew it long before Pudgy slipped a dazzling wedding ring onto her finger 37 years ago.
The ring’s setting features three sapphire stones Pudgy had plucked from his pal Bugsy’s briefcase.
— Douglas Perry