If Ron Lee, the best college basketball player you never heard of, continues to render himself unto obscurity, we may have to call in the Argentine Firecracker to get him some attention. Even then, Lee undoubtedly would pass her to a teammate.
The tricks the young man has employed in what appears to be an ongoing search for anonymity include getting born into an athletic family with three older basketball-playing brothers, growing up in the hockey ghettos of suburban Boston, going to college in the fur-trapping wilds of Oregon, refusing to shoot on balance, to go to his right or to score many points, and, finally, shooting so miserably every time he ventures outside the West that Easterners have a vision of a Lee named Pinky, not Ron.
Two years ago when he was second in the Pacific Eight in scoring and was the first freshman to be named all-conference, Lee played at Providence and found nothing would fall for him. In the Kentucky Invitational, he also looked shaky as Oregon was routed. Last season, when he led his league in scoring and played a large part in Oregon's upset of UCLA, the only time Lee left the West was to play in the Jayhawk Classic. Once more he performed poorly.
It almost happened again last week in Pittsburgh when the Ducks, gentlemen-scholars whom UCLA's John Wooden has labeled "wrestlers" and others have called "The Kamikaze Kids" in tribute to their frenetic style, came rumbling into the Steel Bowl. Though it was heavily favored, Oregon barely avoided drowning in the mucky confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.
Duck Coach Dick Harter favors tough, coming-at-you defense featuring various forms of the slam, the knock, the swoop and the dive. Lee, who is of like attitude and has a 6'4", 195-pound body to emphasize his point, leads the team in welts, bruises and frenzy. Harter claims Lee is second in ability only to David Thompson among current college players. "He has had 'Celtic' stamped on his forehead since birth," the coach says.
Oregon's style did not account for Lee's missing 16 of 21 shots against Penn State on Friday as the Ducks won 76-40, but it did help him make eight steals and totally disrupt State's attack. The game also was perfect proof of what West Coast observers have maintained all along: even when Lee does not score, he invariably hurts the opposition.
Harter called the performance "Ron's worst ever," but nobody was fooled. Penn State's John Bach said, "Lee's what we call a CYO player. He dives and deflects and grovels for loose balls. He doesn't play like a pampered All-America, but he's legit." Others echoed the praise. "A star who goes to the floor like that is a real star," said Duquesne Assistant Coach Jim Sims.
The Iron Dukes themselves came off the floor from last season's 12-12 record and stunned bitter rival Pittsburgh 100-94 to reach the final against Oregon. New Coach John Cinicola has junked Duquesne's old deliberate offense and turned his smallish crew into a zesty, scrambling outfit that depends on beating the opposition down the court. Despite being outrebounded 62-39 and repeatedly burned by Pitt's marvelous freshmen, Larry Harris and Mel Bennett, the young Dukes stuck to their plan. They kept coming and coming, built a lead, lost it and then came on again. They simply wore the Panthers into the floor.
Duquesne received 24 points from Roland Jones and leadership from Guards Norm Nixon and Oscar Jackson. After the emotional victory, Nixon, 6'2" and about 20 pounds lighter than Lee, pondered Oregon and its star. "The man doesn't look like he can shoot," Nixon said. "He's got muscles, but I'm no weakling myself."
On Saturday, Nixon gave Lee all he wanted as Duquesne scored nine baskets off its fast break in the first half and led at the intermission 38-32. Again Lee was terribly cold with his ugly, off-balance, look-Ma-I'm-throwin'-it-up-there shots. Nevertheless, Center Gerald Willett seemed to get a rebound every time Lee missed and kept the Ducks in the game.
Then, during a two-minute span early in the second half, Lee came through with a series of plays that brought Oregon from a 50-48 deficit to the 58-50 lead that set up the victory. Biceps rippling, he hit an 18-footer and followed a Willett basket with a wondrous tip-in. When Forward Stu Jackson made a short jumper, it was 56-50 Oregon, but here came Nixon dashing toward the midline to start another Duquesne fast break. Suddenly Lee was in the way, blocking Nixon's path and taking a brutal charge. It was Oregon's ball. On the inbounds play, Jackson passed to Lee cutting across the foul line. In one motion, he received the ball in midair, pumped and lofted in another basket to give the Ducks an eight-point margin. With Lee later controlling a semi-delay offense to protect Oregon's lead, his team won the game and the championship 90-82.
Despite missing 17 of 25 shots, Lee had had his moments. "When I'm frozen, I'm really frozen," he said. But he also had helped ice Duquesne with seven rebounds, seven assists and two blocks of fast-break layups that came on leaps high over the rim. It was a versatile performance worthy of a player who has finally matured from being "Russell Lee's brother" into one who is known in Boston as "the black John Havlicek."
Two years ago Lee seemed to be swapping one basketball wasteland for another when he decided to switch coasts. Though Oregon's "Tall Firs" won the first NCAA championship in 1939, most of the state's athletic accomplishments have come in boating, running the 15 million meters and things like that. Still, anyplace was an improvement over Boston. Until the late 1960s, high school basketball there was, according to The Boston Globe's Peter Gammons, "white, suburban and horrible."
The four sons of Gene Lee, a motorcycle cop and occasional local legend, helped change that. Now 46, Lee is considered the "Wild Bill Hickok of the Boston police" with his jazzy silver-rimmed shades and collections of motorcycles (including a purple Harley with stereo headset), girl friends and athletic achievements. A compact 5'9", Lee maintains a 30-inch waistline, pitches softball in four leagues, bowls in three, returns punts for a semipro football team and serves as hatchetman in basketball pickup games.
Lee raised his sons alone, and until Ron came along, Russell, a 6'5" forward at Marshall who recently was waived by New Orleans of the NBA, was the family jewel. The first three boys all went to city high schools, but Ron got into the Metco busing program and attended school in wealthy Lexington. There he came under the guidance of a fine defensive coach, Rollie Massimino, now the head man at Villanova.
In addition to defense, Lee picked up some of his intense desire for winning at Lexington. Massimino remembers him playing 10-point games with the coach's nine-year-old son on a short basket. Lee would spot the boy eight or nine points, then he would start jamming the ball like Abdul-Jabbar and come from behind to win every game. "I'd slap the kid up side the head if I had to to win," Lee says, laughing.
A natural athlete, Lee played one year of soccer as a lark and was named league MVP. He took a brief interest in the javelin and set a New England record that still stands. In basketball he led Lexington to two state championships.
"I never wanted to stay home. I didn't want to be dependent on anybody but me," Lee says. So it was that Harter, with his Eastern background at Penn, his Eastern staff and an Eastern style down to his shoelaces, moved in. Oregon was one of the few schools Lee visited outside New England. On the morning after his arrival, he looked out the window, saw the sun and the mountains, and went for a ride in a Piper Cub. He was hooked. "Ronnie is a doer, and there's a lot to do in Oregon," says Harter.
With a metabolism in danger of running amok, Lee maintains a hyperactive pace. He requires only about three hours' sleep. He is up at 4 a.m. to study, play cards, take a walk or go bowling at the all-night Emerald Valley Lanes in Eugene. His endurance as a television viewer—cartoons, old movies, Phyllis Diller, anything—is remarkable. He is reputed to engage in five-hour gym rat games prior to regular team practices. As honorary chairman of the local March of Dimes Walkathon, he once ran 20 miles and then hustled off to a softball doubleheader. Lee is constantly moving, pacing and snapping his fingers, even in serious conversation. As an infant, he fell from the top of a trash can while watching a parade and sheared off one of his eyebrows. It is the last time anybody can remember him being injured.
The evening before he faced UCLA for the first time as a freshman, Lee bowled with his father, who had flown out for the week, and the two made a marathon night of it that Harter still remembers with trepidation. The next day, following a couple of hours' sleep, Lee drove the lane and was jammed by Bill Walton. After that he drove four more times, each foray a success, and finished with 31 points. He is not easily discouraged.
Lee's two varsity seasons have been carbon copies in which he has averaged just under 19 points, passed for spectacular assists, rebounded well and played absolutely savage defense as Oregon has risen to third place in the Pacific Eight. Lee and Indiana's Quinn Buckner, both members of the U.S. team that toured against the Russians last fall, are two of the very few specimens who can stand in there taking a rampaging enemy charge and wind up hurting the other fellow.
In clutch moments Lee can also score, as he demonstrated in Pittsburgh. He had key baskets to win three overtime games in his freshman season. Last year his 26 points brought Oregon from 10 down to victory over Washington. Against Stanford he lost the ball in the dying seconds, got it right back and hit a 30-footer with hands in his face at the buzzer for a one-point win.
Because of heroics like that, Lee is adored in Eugene. "He's the Pied Piper," says Harter. "The kids love him. He disrupts my camp to play hide-and-seek with the younger ones. He auctions off his sneakers for charity."
After his 13-for-46 shooting exhibition in Pittsburgh, the bids for his sneakers may go down. But for the Pacific Eight season, the price on Lee's head remains high.