In the final minutes of Oregon's 56--51 upset of top-ranked UCLA
and Bill Walton in a 1974 Pac-8 game, Ducks coach Dick Harter
turned to Gerald Willett, his junior center, and warned, "Be
ready for anything they throw at you." Harter didn't have to tell
him twice. "You had to be at your best against them," Willett
remembers. "Anything less, you didn't stand a chance. And Walton,
if you blinked, was a step ahead of you. I'm not necessarily
talking foot speed--he might make a pass or beat you to a spot.
He was a special player." Willett finished the game with eight
points and six rebounds, one of which landed him on SI's cover,
while Walton scored 11 points and had eight rebounds. Though
Willett never played in the NCAA tournament or the NBA, his
coach's advice served him well during a short-lived, but
eventful, pro career in Europe.
The Portland Trail Blazers chose the 6'8", 207-pound Willett late
in the 1975 draft but cut him in training camp. He signed with
Barcelona-based Cotonificio de Badalona and quickly became a fan
favorite because of his aggressive play. On Nov. 21, 1975, that
aggressiveness nearly got him killed. Tension was already high in
Barcelona because Spain's dictator, Francisco Franco, had died
the day before, and the population of the Basque regions had
moved quickly in calling for a break from the national government
in Madrid and the establishment of home rule. Badalona's opponent
that night was Real of Madrid, and, Willett says, "all hell broke
loose when I got called for a [questionable] foul."
Upset by the call, someone on Willett's team threw a chair onto
the court, further inciting the crowd. National guardsmen, who
routinely patrolled the arena, rushed onto the court. "I looked
up, and one of the Guardia was standing a few feet away, pointing
his rifle at my head," Willett says. "I ducked and ran into the
locker room." Calm was restored, Willett returned, and Real
Madrid won the game.
Later that season a policeman pulled a gun on Willett in a
dispute over the player's driving; another time lightning struck
the team plane, sending the aircraft into a nosedive that the
pilot was barely able to pull out of. "I thought I was coming
home in a box," Willett says. Shaken but undeterred, Willett
played another season with Badalona and wound up as the league's
leading rebounder (14.9) and fourth-leading scorer (27.5).
January 27, 2003
After he returned to the U.S. in '77, Willett was struck in the
left eye while playing badminton and lost 33% of the vision in
that eye. The injury ended his NBA dreams. Willett still lives in
Eugene, Ore., where he manages property, buys and sells real
estate and runs a basketball academy that he started 12 years
ago. He is divorced and has two daughters. "People still ask me
to sign that SI issue," says Willett, who over time regained all
but 5% of his vision. "You can barely see my face, but I've
learned that you don't need to see everything."
Before he started dealing in real estate and running a basketball
camp, Willett spent two action-packed seasons in Spain.