From (near) perfect Pennmanship to Kamikaze chaos, Bilsky saw it all
Posted On April 28, 2021
For Steve Bilsky, the night of April 5 brought back memories. And not all of them good ones.
That was the occasion when Gonzaga took its season-long undefeated streak into the national-championship basketball game against Baylor, and came out of it with its first defeat of the season, an 86-70 comeuppance at the hands of the Bears.
“They got punched early,” Bilsky said over the phone. “They got behind a really good team playing its ‘A’ game. That’s what happened to us.
“It was eerily similar.”
The name Bilsky may not necessarily ring a bell with longtime followers of Oregon basketball and the Kamikaze Kids. But he has a distinct niche in that story, having spent a couple of years in Eugene (the first as a grad assistant) early in the Dick Harter era after starting at guard for Harter on the uber-successful Penn teams of 1970 and 1971.
Of course, the last game of that Quakers era is the sore rubbed raw, a 90-47 loss to Philly rival Villanova in the NCAA round of eight after Penn had run off 28 straight victories in a season in which – much like Gonzaga exactly 50 years later – the national title was attainable.
Bilsky, retired after 20 years as Penn athletic director, has a clearer window than most into the wiles of Harter, having known him as first a player, and then in the early years of Harter’s Oregon regime, as staffer. Put Bilsky squarely in the camp that says something changed with Harter in the move to Oregon, something that made him, well, crazier – my word, not his – more out-there, more a believer in an extreme style of play.
I think a couple of factors fed into that, but Bilsky advances another one: Harter ran roughshod partly because there was nobody to keep him in check. The athletic administration couldn’t do it. Nobody on the coaching staff did, either, and Bilsky found himself speaking up.
“He didn’t have anybody to kind of put him in line,” Bilsky says. “The year I was officially in there, I was the only guy who spoke up . . . “
Once, as the coaches convened privately, a steaming Harter said of a player, “The selfish son of a b—- . . . “
Recalls Bilsky, “I remember saying, ‘No, he’s not. He’s a good guy.’ There was really nobody to kind of challenge him.”
Bilsky said he spoke with other ex-Penn players who had read “Mad Hoops” who expressed surprise at how Harter pushed the envelope at Oregon.
“Nothing in that story came close to describing the experience at Penn,” Bilsky says. “He wouldn’t have gotten away with it. There was nothing at Penn anywhere close” to what became routine at Oregon.
And keep in mind, Bilsky, who played a post-Penn year professionally in Israel, missed the first awful season of Harter at Oregon, when the Ducks went 0-14 in the Pac-8. He thus got there at the same time as the wunderkind Ronnie Lee, the preeminent Kamikaze and the UO’s career scoring leader.
Bilsky, near his mid-‘20s, was still capable as a player, and Harter availed himself of that asset. He would insert Bilsky into some scrimmages, specifically to test the freshman Lee.
“He was raw,” Bilsky says. “I was more seasoned, and there were times when I outplayed him.” Once, Harter pulled Bilsky out and asked him to ease off, so Lee’s confidence wouldn’t be diminished.
In the book, I entertained the topic of how Harter’s regime would have played in a world with social media. I figured it would have driven him crazy, and he’d be a coach who bans his players from Twitter. But Bilsky introduces a different thought, that Harter would have turned social media to his advantage.
“If anything, he would have endeared himself more to the public,” Bilsky says. “I don’t remember him having a coach’s show. He could turn on the charm, he was a good-looking guy. He was calculating. This was not a guy who was spontaneous. He was very well-researched, well game-planned. If he’d had the opportunity to be seen more publicly, he would have charmed everybody, including his doubters – if there were any.”
Bilsky saw Harter periodically during the coach’s 26-year tenure in the NBA and says, “No question he did mellow in the NBA. One of the things he said to me was, ‘Steve, I carry a clipboard and I’m paid half a million dollars. I don’t have to worry as much about whether we win or lose.’ I think he was sincere. I think he grew comfortable in the second-banana position.”
Only one thing in the book surprised – no, shocked – Bilsky. Athletic director Norv Ritchey recalled starting Harter at a salary of $23,000. Allow for inflation over 50 years, and that’s still a ridiculously low sum by today’s standards.
But salaries were crazy-low then. When John Wooden died in 2010, the Washington Post put his highest salary at UCLA at a mere $32,500. When Harter replaced longtime coach Steve Belko at Oregon in 1971, the Eugene Register-Guard cited a salary of $15,500 for Belko. Bilsky raises a logical point: That Harter’s income may have been supplemented by his camp at Oregon.
The year has brought Bilsky and his old Penn teammates to a couple of anniversaries – it’s 50 years since their graduation, and of course, the golden one commemorating the Quakers’ ’70-71 season, the one with a top-five ranking (it was No. 3 in mid-March) for the final 11 weeks.
A Penn grad, he says, made it a passion to hunt down bits of film on that team and helped to turn it into a documentary called “The Perfect Season.” One of the narrators of the original footage was a longtime Philadelphia radio and TV voice, John Facenda, he of the commanding pipes best known on old NFL Films.
“I don’t love watching it,” Bilsky says, “because I know the ending wasn’t so good.”
A lot like Gonzaga’s — perfect, almost.