That photograph, of the Eugene Register-Guard’s 1977 boys all-state basketball team, stared back at me for a decade, before I left that paper in 1987 to wreak my own brand of infamy with the Seattle dailies. But the photo comes back, a rebound of sorts, with the news of the death of Bob Fronk, one of the five guys in that iconic portrait.
Standing in the back is Fronk, from Sunset High in Beaverton, rocking the near-shoulder-length hair common to that day. Next to him, arms folded, is Ray Blume of Parkrose. To the left, seated and wearing a bemused when’s-this-shoot-going-to-be-over look, is Dan Ainge of North Eugene. Flanking him, at the right, is the blond Jeff Stoutt of Lake Oswego. And front and center, Afro in full, is Mark Radford of Grant.
All it was, was the greatest basketball class to emerge from the state of Oregon. And still is.
There’s a story in that photograph. In fact, there are a bunch of them. It encircles a good bit of Northwest college-basketball history, and beyond. Some of it, I wrote about in “Mad Hoops,” the pulsating era of Dick Harter’s Kamikaze Kids at Oregon.
Back in times when newspapers had money to spend (and in some cases, initiative), the Register-Guard decided to anoint its own all-state team in 1977. A lot of it had to do with the local kid, Ainge, who was the unquestioned jewel of that class. So, one winter night, the paper invited the families of Fronk, Blume, Ainge, Stoutt and Radford to a dinner in Eugene, an adjunct to a photo shoot.
Have to say, it was first-class. The photographer was the late Brian Lanker, who had come to the newspaper a few years earlier with terrific credentials, including a Pulitzer Prize. He later shot stuff on occasion for Sports Illustrated, including two of its touted swimsuit editions. (Side note: I did a column on him and his first swimsuit shoot in 1984, and subsequently, he attended an SI event celebrating the thing, which included the cover model, Paulina Porizkova. He had Porizkova autograph a 24 x 36-inch blowup of the cover, gave it to me, and I had it framed and hung it in my den. Alas, I believe Paulina is now somewhere in my attic, gathering dust.)
About that time, the Register-Guard, at its old office at 10th and High in Eugene, remodeled a spacious, empty back side of its building and the sports department was relocated. The walls begged for some art, which the photo staff provided in the form of large reproductions of some of its work for sports, including that portrait that ran alongside a story heralding the achievements of the all-state team.
Those would pale in comparison to what came next.
But first, where those accomplishments came to pass: As I documented in Mad Hoops, Ainge broke Harter’s heart by picking Brigham Young over Oregon (and Oregon State).
Harter’s regime was built around recruiting in the East and Midwest, and a lot of people took umbrage at the fact he didn’t seem to care as much about prospects in the West, particularly sparsely populated Oregon. Indeed, he brought his entire staff with him from Penn in 1971 and none of those coaches had any West Coast ties.
The narrative then was that Oregon had put all its eggs in the Ainge basket, while Oregon State was trying to do business with him as well as the rest of the state. And while Ainge’s decision hurt the Beavers as well, they salved their wounds by plucking Radford, Blume and Stoutt. They also recruited Fronk, but he decided to go north to the University of Washington.
Fronk averaged 11.0 points as a junior and 16.7 as a senior at the UW. He died of lung cancer at 62 this week, and as accounts of his passing noted, he buried a deep shot at the buzzer to give Washington a two-point win at UCLA in 1980, the Huskies’ first triumph at Pauley Pavilion.
Bigger headlines came to the others. Ainge was the 1981 Wooden Award winner for BYU, even as Harter lamented dramatically to the Register-Guard about his ’77 signing with the Cougars over Oregon, “I honestly believe he could have been another Jerry West.”
Radford, Blume and Stoutt carved their own considerable path. Oregon State was renowned for unearthing hidden gems – Lonnie Shelton and Steve Johnson were a couple of them – and they struck again close to home. Radford, picking OSU over Santa Clara and Washington, started for four years at Oregon State, Blume for three. Radford averaged double figures all four years, joined by Blume for the final three. They formed the nucleus of OSU’s pressing, fast-paced teams of 1979-80 and ’80-’81. The ’81 team took over the No. 1 ranking nationally in mid-January, and in one poll or the other – AP or United Press International – held it for eight weeks.
Athletically, Stoutt was the least of the five all-state players. But he was a proficient outside shooter who finished among OSU’s top five in scoring for three years.
While it was Ainge who had the decorated NBA career, Blume also had a brief fling in the League and Radford played two seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics. Fronk played in Germany for two years.
Ainge’s decision was no doubt one of the prime forces in Dick Harter’s decision to bolt Oregon for Penn State after the 1977-78 season. His departure then might have been a good thing. The fortunes of Oregon and Oregon State, which had been relatively even to that time (OSU’s Ralph Miller finished with a 12-11 edge over Harter), were about to diverge sharply.
I’ve wondered what might have developed had Harter not been urged to reconsider by Penn State after he initially turned the job down. The Ducks were on an apparent downward arc, the Beavers were soon blazing – thanks to three subjects in that photograph, which, ironically, was emblazoned in the newspaper version with the headline “Oregon Basketball 1977.”