On making the extra pass

  Make the extra pass, they always tell basketball players. You’ll get a better shot. The offense will be enhanced.

  There’s a journalistic parallel, and I can attest. On more than one occasion writing daily-newspaper sports over 45 years, I’ve had plenty to do an adequate story. And then the phone would ring, and it was that call you placed earlier, but you didn’t really need it now.

  Marques Johnson was that caller in 2004. I was doing a 30-year retrospective for the Seattle Times on UCLA’s Lost Weekend, the shocking double defeat in the Willamette Valley by John Wooden’s Bruins in 1974 – and remembered in detail in my new book “Mad Hoops.” I talked to Bill Walton and a host of other people, and still, the phone rang early on a Saturday afternoon. I was about to watch a college-hoops game on TV, and truth be told, I wasn’t all that amped to re-engage in the subject.

  And then Johnson, the first Wooden Award winner, was terrific. He recalled the fragmentation of the Bruins. He retraced the team’s fragile state as it neared the end of the Wooden dynasty. I’ll never forget it.

  So in newspapering, just as you make the extra pass in basketball, you make the extra call. And you take it, too.

  No doubt, some of this will resonate with a fellow named Stan Biles, whose name was unknown to me when I embarked on researching and interviewing for Mad Hoops.

  In the process of doing the book, I chronicled the December, 1974 episode of how Rollie Massimino brought his Villanova team west to play Oregon. Massimino had coached the pre-eminent Oregon player of that era, Ronnie Lee, as a high schooler in suburban Boston, and there was ample reason to believe he had helped Duck head coach Dick Harter and his staff attract Lee to Eugene. And therein, one would assume, were warm feelings between the two sides.

  But then, in the late moments of a 116-77 demolition by Oregon of Villanova two days before Christmas, Harter sent his team into a full-court press, enraging Massimino and his staff, which also included Craig Littlepage, one of Harter’s players at Penn. Seems that Harter hadn’t gotten over what will always be the most horrific loss of his career, a 90-47 defeat to Villanova in the 1971 NCAA round of eight when Penn was undefeated.

  That was a different coaching staff, and these were different players. Apparently that didn’t matter to Harter.

  I routinely exchange emails with an old friend, John Akers, editor of Basketball Times, and somehow the topic of the Harter-Villanova spat came up. He linked to me a free-lance story the publication had run years earlier – one I’d never seen – by Stan Biles. The name meant nothing.

  But it was a long, long story. He’d obviously put in some time on it.

  “I probably talked to at least 50 people,” he estimated when I caught up with him recently. “Maybe 60 or 70.”

  That’s about the number of people I interviewed – for Mad Hoops. The book.

  The back story: Biles spent a year as an undergrad at Oregon, then returned for grad school. He signed up for Harter’s basketball class, and, says Biles, “for some reason, he took a liking to me. We spent a long time together.”

  Biles’ future wife, Janet, was a secretary in the basketball office back then. And she also became an adviser to the UO cheerleaders. Biles says she was encouraged by the basketball staff to make the cheerleaders’ presentation more provocative.

  “They were doing this traditional sis-boom-bah, and they wanted to put a little more excitement into it,” he says. “She took over, shortened the skirts and put ‘em more into dance moves.”

  Meanwhile, Biles pondered a coaching career, but decided against it and turned to public service. At various times, he has been on the Olympia, Wash., city council, mayor of Olympia, and the state’s deputy Director of Natural Resources.

  He had been in the stands with his parents that night at McArthur Court and wondered what got into Harter. And for some reason, he kept wondering about it.

  “For years, I thought, ‘Why would a person do that?’ “ he says. “Here’s a guy who helped you land your star player. That bugged me for years, literally. I thought about it off and on. One day, in semi-retirement, (Janet) said, ‘You ought to make a few phone calls and get your question answered.’

  “So I did.”

  He started with Massimino. “That first call led to five calls,” he says, “which led to 15.”

  In journalism, while there’s unquestionable value in digging, there’s also a point of diminishing returns. That didn’t deter Biles’ pursuit. He had to know why Harter sought vengeance.

  In the end, after all the calls, one atop another, Biles came to know what a lot of us knew: It was Harter, being Harter.