“Are you Ronnie Lee?” a 40-something Oregon basketball fan asked, with a mixture of certitude, wonder and excitement in his voice.
Yes, it was Ronnie Lee, Oregon’s career scoring leader still. And it was also Doug Little — the Cowboy — and Ken Stringer and Burt Fredrickson, early pillars of Dick Harter’s Kamikaze Kids era. They were brought together for a five-man book signing Saturday night, and I was happy to be the facilitator and get out of the way while they did the heavy lifting.
It happened before and during No. 1 Baylor’s visit to Matt Knight Arena. We signed copies of “Mad Hoops,” my retrospective of that frenzied era, and especially since I worked in Eugene during the Harter years (1971-78), it was a treat to hang with those guys for a couple of hours, to recall their college days and to feel a little of the camaraderie of old teammates experiencing again the warmth of their bond.
In the researching of Mad Hoops, I wondered continually at the will of those guys to keep going, to keep grinding through those unspeakably demanding practices, to endure the harangues and the mental pressure.
Stringer told me he needed the scholarship to get a degree. But he added that the glue that made it doable was the brotherhood of the roster, the fact that players depended on each other to survive the rigors. And even that they were motivated to a degree by a need to “show” Harter – in essence, to succeed in spite of him. The collective will helped them do that.
Now it’s 50 years since Harter launched that era – the anniversary came Dec. 1 – and you can sense that deep kinship among the players. Mostly, they only see each other every few years, but they’re of a special fraternity, and nobody can change that.
Stringer and Fredrickson live in southern Oregon, Stringer as owner of a company that makes licensed sports products, Fredrickson as a retired general sales manager for a car dealership, now “addicted to golf.” Fredrickson packed along a worthy display of artifacts from the era – an autographed basketball under glass, a period promotional calendar and a photo gallery. All he was missing was the Kamikaze Kids drinking glasses a local business hawked, and somebody happened by and said he still had a set of those.
Lee came back to Eugene several years ago, where his impact was transcendent, and he still plays rec-center basketball on the UO campus. No doubt Little would too – he was really the original Kamikaze, the guy who made diving on the floor fashionable a year before Lee got there – but he’s dealing with a kidney ailment and has turned to a regimen of medication geared to diminishing the need for dialysis.
Anyway, they told stories. They reveled in the memories. They remembered things they couldn’t repeat.
In 1974, Harter took the team on a summer junket to Australia. Except in those days, such a trip could be ridiculously long and the competition would never end. Most foreign trips nowadays are of the 10-days-or-so variety, with perhaps four or five games.
The Ducks, believe it or not, played 19 games on the trip, won all of them, and were gone 30 days.
They stopped off in Tahiti for a game en route, and were lodged in a dowdy motel. Players complained about it, so the Ducks were moved to a military installation with concrete floors, and, says Stringer, cockroaches running a three-man weave everywhere. It became a dilemma – pull the blanket hard over your body to protect your hide, or expose yourself to the steamy tropical air.
“And the coaches were in a resort!” Stringer exclaimed.
That was the game when Harter, displeased at the Ducks in the first half, threatened at halftime to invoke a curfew and his relaxation on drinking alcohol on the trip. So Oregon went out and won by 40.
Today’s college hoops has turned vastly different. The transfer portal is, in many eyes, a pox on athletics. Imagine what Harter, who had only a junior college player or two his entire tenure, would have thought of the transfer portal. (And imagine how many Ducks might have entered it.)
Saturday night, the five of us sat behind tables in a hallway mere feet away from a glimpse of Baylor and Oregon. I walked out to catch a few minutes, and was struck by a vast section of empty seats as the No. 1 team in the nation, the defending champion, labored below. The crowd was 7,682, and the vibe, while engaged, seemed light-years from the throbbing, foot-stomping, scoreboard-bouncing sellout gatherings at old McArthur Court.
Which was better, this place or that one, I asked a couple of the players.
“The Pit,” they said.