The SI cover boy confronts a physical nightmare

  As faithful readers of the “Mad Hoops” website may have known, we did a book signing Dec. 18 at Matt Knight Arena – Freudian slip there; I began typing “McArthur Court” (old habits die hard). We had a distinguished foursome of players from the Kamikaze Kids era of the 1970s, including Ronnie Lee, the unquestioned superstar.

  There was going to be a fifth, but Gerald Willett got to his parking place a 10-minute walk from the arena, forgot his proof of Covid vaccination, walked back in the chilly evening air and had the shakes. So he took a pass.

  Life is often that way these days for Willett, a perpetual equation of balancing pain tolerance and better-part-of-wisdom decisions.

  Way back when, he seemed maybe the most unlikely of the Kamikaze Kids to hit it big – and not because he was the only one to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated. You can make a strong case that of all the players who came through Dick Harter’s program during that high-energy, seven-year run, Willett rose above everyone in wringing every last drop from his ability.

  He was a wiry, 6-8 center from the local school, Churchill High. His offensive skills were limited, but he was a tireless worker in Oregon’s man-to-man defense. It became a signature Duck strategy for Willett to front bigger centers and Harter would piece together weak-side help.

  The steadiness of Willett’s offensive numbers in his three varsity years – 9.0, 10.8 and 10.1 – reflect his reliability. And he averaged eight rebounds as a sophomore and 7.2 as a senior.

  And of course, when the Oregon schools ambushed Bill Walton-led UCLA in the span of 19 hours on a February weekend in 1974, it sent Sports Illustrated scrambling to redesign its cover. Out popped a shot of Gerald Willett, wresting another rebound from the Bruins. He still gets copies in the mail from autograph seekers.

  On the golden Eugene afternoon that Oregon completed UCLA’s “Lost Weekend,” the Ducks held the vaunted Walton to five field-goal attempts and 11 points.

  “I loved it, to put it bluntly,” he said, recalling the era. “I loved Dick Harter, not everybody did. I kind of played a style he liked. Maybe I wasn’t the most talented player in the world, but I was sure determined to get it done. I wanted it very badly.”

  In Eugene, his name became synonymous with dependable effort, but later, he would invariably hear “Gerald” butchered, with the conventional soft “G.” His hard G came courtesy of the name of his father’s favorite cousin in Oklahoma. Like me, Willett says he’s never heard the name pronounced elsewhere as he says it.

  After Oregon, he played in Spain for a time, and eventually got a tryout with the NBA Trail Blazers. But an accident playing high-level badminton derailed that pursuit; on the Fourth of July in 1978, he was across the net from former UO guard Burt Fredrickson – “He could smash everything,” Willett says – Willett whiffed on a return and the birdie nailed him flush in the left eye. He spent nine days in the hospital, weeks more of rehabilitation, and he says he lost significant peripheral vision.

  At that point, he gave up professional hoops and put to work his degree in business finance to go into property management.

  He married, had a couple of girls who played competitive basketball, got divorced, and eventually became “dad” or “papa” to his girlfriend’s kids.

  It was in 2004 that everything changed, when he was repairing a dishwasher at his mother’s house, and he got in a hurry. He didn’t shut off the electricity. This is how he described it when I interviewed him in 2018 for Mad Hoops:

  “I worked with electricity all the time,” he said. “I worked with an electrician, and he could grab it live. I found out how he did that, so I did it all the time.”

  But he didn’t immediately notice a fine spray on his hand.

  “The electricity came out of the ground,” he said. “I felt it come out of the ground. It got stuck in my brachial plexus.”

  Now, he says, “I’m permanently messed up with that electricity. It fried my left arm through my brachial plexus (a nerve center in the shoulder) and eight inches up my spine. It blasted two or three parts of my brain. I couldn’t even think for two or three months.”

  Doctors told him he had a 50-percent chance of a heart attack in his condition. Willett says, and you don’t know if he’s making gallows humor, that the other 50 percent spend their time in contemplation of taking their own lives.

  He says he has no sense for when he’s hungry or thirsty. That part of his brain got fried. “For five years, I could hardly function,” he says. “I was just waiting to die.”

  Instead, he lived. He managed, if precariously. He gets muscle spasms and lives with a “dagger in my back that never goes away, like somebody sticking you with a hot knife.”

  Muscles seize up. Five years after the electrocution, he was working a job in Salem, “everything shorted out,” and it took him five hours to drive the 65 miles back to Eugene, so grotesquely contorted was his torso from his left shoulder to his neck and head.

  “I tried everything from snake venom to acupuncture,” Willett says, and acupuncture proved beneficial.

  He began studying Eastern medicine, took to meditation and found that cannabis helped as well.

  “I wouldn’t be alive without it,” he says. “I started doing CBDs and smoking marijuana. I got more relief at that point than I’d had in years. I’m down at the dispensary every weekend, loading up on concentrate to make it through the week.”

  It’s not perfect, but it’s Gerald Willett’s life. At one point, a doctor, taking note of the physical toll, asked him, “Is this how you live every day?”

  “Every day,” Willett replied. “Every second.”