Doug Little: The first, and an unforgettable, Kamikaze

  When last we heard from the University of Oregon basketball program, Coach Dana Altman was putting it to the people of Eugene for a turnout of a mere 3,300 fans for an NIT game with Wisconsin at Matt Knight Arena.

  Crowd size was never an issue back in the days of the Kamikaze Kids, “a magical time,” in the words of Doug Little, who essentially ignited the whole thing. It was not only magical, it was pulsating, it was breathtaking and in Eugene, it overwhelmed everything around it, including football and track and where to purchase your next supply of weed.

  Little died Thursday evening, and with him went the spark for the whole phenomenon. Longtime fans will readily, and rightly, remember Ronnie Lee, still Oregon’s career scoring leader, as the planet around which the other stars aligned, but a bit before Lee came Little, providing a bridge from one tired regime to the bolt-upright, military precision of the Dick Harter era.

  Lee got there as a freshman in 1972. Little was already a junior, having spent a season under the mercurial Harter, who brought his scorched-earth style from Penn in replacing Duck coach Steve Belko.

  It can hardly be said Little turned Oregon around that first year under Harter. Matter of fact, the Ducks went 6-20, and in the season finale in Corvallis, an Oregon State male cheerleader commandeered the P.A. mike and congratulated Oregon on being the first team to go 0-14 in the Pac-8.

  Harter inherited a team of spare parts, but one unexpected gem in the ample, 6-3 ½ Little. He was the consummate garbage man, a forward who seemingly got every loose ball, ferreted out every rebound and when a lot of nights were done, had also contributed 20-some points. He averaged 15.2.

  He was then, and forever, “The Cowboy,” a nickname he got under Belko when one day he flung up an ill-advised shot in practice and Belko barked, “Young fella – take that shot back to the rodeo!”

  After that fretful opening season under Harter, Lee showed up from Boston, part of Harter’s first real national recruiting class, and found somebody who played a kindred game in Little.

  “I thought he was a perfect match for what Harter was doing,” Lee told me Friday morning. “We were basically about the same.” Lee chuckled. “But different parents.”

  That year, the Ducks went 16-10, fueled by Lee, who averaged 18.7 points, and Little, who was good for 17.7 points and 6.1 rebounds. Back in 2018, when I got with him for Mad Hoops, my retrospective on that era, Little told me it rankled him that he was left off the All-Pac-8 team, honors which went to Lee, Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes of UCLA, Rich Kelley of Stanford and Louie Nelson of Washington.

  “They’re not gonna put two guys from the third-place team [on the all-league unit],” Little said, “which I think I deserved.”

  If that was a sour post-script to a banner season, it was merely a bookend to the start. On the night before preseason practice was to begin in mid-October, Little and a buddy spent the previous night downing beers at a campus hangout, Duffy’s at 13th and Alder. Waking up the next morning, Little, the putative senior leader to the touted incoming freshmen, had the cojones to call a manager and tell him to relay the word that he was sick and wouldn’t be at practice.

  “Just a wild-hair kind of a deal,” he mused in 2018, “which was completely wrong.”

  An infuriated Harter allowed a team vote to let Little back on the squad, but only with extra, grueling sprints after practice and an edict that daily, he run up the eastern hills of Eugene in the pre-dawn hours and ring Harter’s doorbell. Soon, Little had his girlfriend drive him most of the way there, near a house where Little would turn on a hose and splash water on his face – sweat to Harter’s eyes.

  As it turned out, somebody – Belko, Little —  fell asleep before Little’s sophomore season in 1970-71, when he played precious few minutes on a veteran team and averaged 2.7 points.

  “I should have redshirted,” Little told me. “That should have been my responsibility. I didn’t take that up and I should have. It was a wasted year.”

  It prevented him from a fifth year in 1973-74, when he would have been playing with Lee and a freshman in Greg Ballard, two high NBA first-round draft picks. Oregon might have been nasty, albeit in an era when only league champions could make the NCAA tournament and UCLA still ruled the West.

  Little spent most of his post-collegiate days in the lumber business in Oregon. In 2017, he came down with what he initially took for the flu, but after he coughed up blood, he went to an emergency room and he startled a nurse with a blood-pressure reading of 235 over 135. Soon, he was diagnosed with End-Stage Kidney Disease and ordered to four-hour dialysis treatments three times a week.

  Later, there would be an amputation, then two additional, and in recent weeks, his body giving out, Little was confined to a hospital bed. The end came with his family by his side.

  Much of his other family, his old teammates, visited him in the last days. That included Lee, who had always felt a connection to Little.

  “We loved the game,” Lee said. “We didn’t think about when we dove for the ball, that we’d get hurt. It was just something we did.”

  Before the crowds became enthralled and the city turned delirious, Little did it first.