If it is true that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then where is ugly? In the eyes of the beheld? This is a question that worries Kurt Rambis, whose 20/400 vision makes him far more likely to be beheld than the other way around. In his thick glasses with heavy black frames, Rambis looks as if he were wearing welder's goggles, and he plays basketball with the subtlety of a blowtorch. But few players know better than Rambis how to turn ugly into a virtue, which is precisely what he has done during the past two months as the starting power forward for the Phoenix Suns.
If looks could kill, Rambis would never have survived his first season, nearly a decade ago, with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was playing in front of people who had been lifted, tucked, stapled and liposuctioned until they all looked strangely alike. Rambis was different. "I remember getting laughed at because of the glasses," he says. "The attitude seemed to be 'What are you doing here?' "
Now the question is, What is Rambis doing in Phoenix? Since his first game with the Suns, on Dec. 15, the 6'8", 213-pound Rambis has helped turn Phoenix into a championship contender even though his game remains as confounding as ever. At the end of last week, he was averaging 7.3 rebounds and 7.2 points a game, which ranked him dead last in scoring among all Western Conference starting forwards. And yet his first game as a starter for Phoenix on Jan. 9 also marked the beginning of a single-season, franchise-record 10-game winning streak. In February, the Suns had another string of victories, nine, and more recently lost two of the five games Rambis missed because of a sprained ankle.
"Kurt is a guy who doesn't care if he gets a shot all night, and he'll still dive for every loose ball," says Atlanta Hawk coach Mike Fratello. "He's not a guy you can go to offensively, but he's a great complementary player when you've got guys who can score. Then he can just go about doing the things that win games."
March 19, 1990
Phoenix has no trouble throwing up big numbers, with forward Tom Chambers fourth in the NBA in scoring (26.9 points per game) and point guard Kevin Johnson averaging 21.7 points and 11.1 assists through Sunday. "We beat everybody by out-scoring them last year," says Sun coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "Now we want to beat them with rebounding and defense."
With Rambis, Phoenix has been doing just that. In the 27 games Rambis had started for the Suns through Sunday, Phoenix's young guns had an average victory margin of 10.7 points, 5.5 higher than before he broke into the lineup. The Suns held opponents to fewer than 100 points in 13 of those games. Best of all, after struggling to a 7-10 record without him, the Suns were 24-3 with him.
One of those victories was a 135-114 crushing of the Golden State Warriors in Phoenix on Feb. 16. That night the Suns gave away 5,000 pairs of lens-less horn-rimmed glasses, an item that has become one of the franchise's biggest-selling souvenirs at $3 a pair. KJ, who appreciates that Rambis does so much "dirty work" under the boards, calls the glasses "Dirty Kurts." When the Warriors came out to warm up before the game, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin and even 7'7" Dinka dunker Manute Bol were wearing the glasses. On any given night, it's not uncommon to see hundreds of fans at the Coliseum wearing Rambis glasses.
"I think if you really want to show someone you accept them, you put yourself in their shoes for a while," Rambis says. "I do feel wanted, and it's a good feeling. Especially after being teased about [my appearance] for so long."
Rambis, who was drafted out of Santa Clara by the New York Knicks in the third round of the 1980 draft, is in his ninth season in the NBA, which is an astonishing fact. "There are people with a lot more talent than I have who have been weeded out of the league, because they couldn't put their egos aside to fill a role," Rambis says.
It is a lesson in perseverance that when Rambis finally made the NBA on his third try it was with a Laker team that seemed, at least on the surface, to be everything he wasn't. If ever a team were created in the image of the city it played for, those 1981-82 Lakers were it. When the citizens of L.A. looked in the mirror, what they saw reflected was tinsel and glitter. What they did not see was a shaggy figure in thick glasses who looked like every drifter who ever had his picture drawn by a police sketch artist.
From the moment he arrived at the Lakers' training camp, Rambis knew he had his work cut out for him. "Jerry West [then a special consultant to the L. A. front office] showed up one day and said, 'Who invited the geek in the glasses to camp?' " Rambis recalls. Linda Zafrani, who was then promoting tennis and volleyball matches at the Forum for Laker owner Jerry Buss, heard about her future husband two months before she actually met him. "Jerry Buss thought Kurt was the laughingstock of the camp," she says. "None of them could believe he had even been invited."
Hearing this now, Rambis lowers his head and stares straight ahead. "He was this total nerd," Linda continues.
"O.K., O.K.," he says, interrupting her gently, "I think you made your point."
Los Angeles had been pounded in the first round of the playoffs the previous spring by Houston's Moses Malone, so in an effort to fortify the Lakers physically, general manager Bill Sharman had offered Rambis a tryout despite having just signed 6'10" Mitch Kupchak to a long-term contract. Rambis had just returned from an idyllic year in Greece, where he had played for a club team and lived at the beach after being released twice by the Knicks the season before. "Even if I was good enough to play for the Lakers," he says, "I wasn't sure I wanted to."
Convinced he would soon be heading back to Greece, Rambis made little effort to form lasting friendships with the Lakers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar kept waiting for Rambis to open up. "He didn't say anything for six weeks," Abdul-Jabbar told the Los Angeles Times. "I thought he was a mute.... We were at a restaurant in Salt Lake with a couple of guys and Kurt was at another table. I said, 'Kurt, say something.' He said, 'What?' I said, 'That's enough.' "
Rambis survived training camp but was immediately buried so deep on the bench that his appearances became a kind of running joke with the hipper-than-thou Forum crowds. Fitzsimmons, who was then coaching the Kansas City Kings, remembers the first time he saw Rambis play: "I thought he was terrible. Awful. Ran terrible, looked awful. The crowds in the Forum would just go wild when he would stumble in for a layup after all those gazelles. I think I even said at the time that the Lakers were never going to win a championship with him playing for them."
But in December, Kupchak suffered torn knee ligaments, and in succession, veteran forwards Jim Brewer and Mark Landsberger played themselves out of what had been Kupchak's job. Finally, in desperation, coach Pat Riley let Rambis play for 25 minutes against the Indiana Pacers one night, and he responded with two points and 14 rebounds. He started the next game and was out of the starting lineup only twice the rest of the season. It was no coincidence that with Rambis helping on the boards the Lakers unleashed what was certainly one of the most incendiary fast breaks in the history of the game during the playoffs that year, defeating Philadelphia 4-2 in the championship series.
Still, Rambis's talents were comparatively obscure (Riley praised him publicly on several occasions that year for his ability to inbound the ball), while his gawkiness was not. "I think I've always had a pretty good grasp of the way I look and the way I play," he says. "I've never been poetry in motion. But the way I felt was, so what if I didn't look like the other guys, so what if I didn't play like the other guys, as long as what I did made them better and we won?"
Which they did. While Rambis was in L.A., the Lakers won four NBA titles. And it was during this time that Rambis grew into a cult figure with his own following, known as Rambis Youth. This mangy confederation consisted of teenage boys who wore black horn-rims to games in Los Angeles and stood silently behind the press table with signs remonstrating angrily against what they thought was a media conspiracy against their hero.
Rambis had a mutual friend invite the Rambis Youth to meet him for lunch at a restaurant in the Forum. "I was going to tell them to knock it off, because I thought they were mocking me," Rambis says. "I didn't think it was right for them to make fun of me. But before I could utter a word, they started telling me how great I was. They wanted me to get recognition, and that was their way of attracting attention to me."
It is instructive to remember that the very first Rambis Youth was, of course, Rambis himself. Growing up in the California towns of Ridgecrest, near Bakersfield, and Cupertino, near San Jose, Rambis was of that species of hominid known as Nerdus erectus, which roughly translates from the Latin as "geek with raging 'mones." He got his first pair of glasses in the third grade, and puberty was upon him before he could see it coming. "I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself, and I'm still shy from being a weird-looking kid," he says. "I not only had glasses, I was taller than everybody else, and all my height was in my legs. When I stood up, it looked like my pants were up to my chest."
It didn't help that his older brother—by 18 months—Randy was the star quarterback of the football team, started on the basketball team and pitched for the baseball team at their high school. "He was a much better athlete than I was," Kurt says. "I was in his shadow. People always said, 'Oh, you're Randy's brother.' That used to drive me nuts."
Eventually the rest of Kurt's body caught up with his legs, and he took his brother's starting spot on the basketball team. "It always makes you feel really good when your own brother tells you you wouldn't even be playing if you weren't such a big geek," Kurt says. Randy went on to pitch in the Cleveland Indians' organization until he suffered a torn rotator cuff five years ago that ended his career. He now cleans pools for the school system in Cupertino.
One of the most amazing aspects of Kurt's career is that he and Riley were able to coexist for seven years. "The Lakers never had a dress code until Kurt played for Pat," says Linda. Riley found it particularly galling that Kurt carried a beat-up black satchel on road trips. "Other guys have sharp Adidas bags," Riley once railed to a reporter. "He's got this black satchel, like the kind you would have a bowling ball in. And it's, like, vinyl. He doesn't ever bring a garment bag or a suitcase. That's all he ever brings, could be a week."
In the end, Rambis finally broke off his relationship with the Lakers, not they with him. Riley had turned over Rambis's starting spot, which he held for nearly five seasons, and most of his playing time to A.C. Green. "Riley told me I was a limited player and that I could never improve," Rambis says. "He said some things I really didn't appreciate." In July 1988, Rambis became an unrestricted free agent and left to sign with the Charlotte Hornets, a first-year expansion team.
He might never have left Charlotte, but the Suns were desperate to get him after losing Tyrone Corbin to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the expansion draft. Just as Rambis had been in L.A., Corbin had been a somewhat limited, but nevertheless invaluable, part of Phoenix's surprising success last season.
"We made a terrible mistake," Fitzsimmons says in reference to the Corbin move. "It was dumb." The Suns had protected forward Tim Perry, their No. 1 draft pick from a year earlier and a noncontributor, and Armon Gilliam, whom they would trade to Charlotte for Rambis and two second-round picks. "The deal for Kurt had to be made. We were struggling. I kept trying to tell people in a nice way that Chambers and Gilliam couldn't play together, because they couldn't stop anybody. Kurt can stop some people, and the ones he can't stop he at least slows down."
Rambis also has been hitting at a .532 clip—not bad for a guy who was never supposed to improve. "Kurt's still looking awkward," says Kevin Johnson. "When he spots up for that jump shot, it's the ugliest thing in the world."
But sometimes even the ugliest things can be beautiful if you've got the proper corrective eyewear. Rambis has already spoken up in one of the Suns' team meetings—not bad for a mute. "I just thought it was time for me to open my big mouth and tell them what I thought of them as an outsider," he says. "I wanted them to know that they had an excellent team, that there was no reason for them to be down or lack confidence." This time Rambis, the perennial outsider, did not wait for acceptance to come to him. This time he would open up his arms and touch the Suns.