Jan. 13, 2005
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Editor’s Note: The UI Department of Intercollegiate Athletics will salute the men’s basketball team that advanced to the 1980 Final Four at halftme of the 2005 Iowa Hawkeyes’ home game Saturday against Minnesota. The following was written by Gary Libman and first appeared in the January 2001 edition of the Iowa Alumni Magazine, a publication produced the UI Alumni Association.
At the opening of the 1979-80 NCAA basketball season, senior All-American Ronnie Lester, 81BGS, led Iowa to seven straight wins.
On December 23, the Hawkeyes were headed for their eighth victory, leading Dayton in the championship of the Dayton Classic tournament in Dayton, Ohio. But with seven minutes, eight seconds remaining, Lester was hurt.
“It was an open court situation,” Lester recalls. “I can remember a scramble for the ball and I got it at half court. There was one guy back defensively and I was trying to beat him to the basket. I was weaving left to right as he was retreating, and I can remember getting past him and pushing off my right leg to lay the ball into the basket.
“Simultaneously I think I felt his hand pushing me in the back a little and my knee, after pushing off, kind of buckled and I went down. It was the worst pain I’d ever felt in my life.”
Iowa won the game, 61-54, but the painful right knee slowed Lester, at the time the Hawkeyes’ leading scorer, and developed into a devastating injury for UI basketball. The hobbling of one of the quickest Iowa players ever not only killed the school’s chance to win an NCAA championship, but limited Lester’s once-promising National Basketball Association career.
Former Hawkeye coach Lute Olson clearly recalls the effects of the injury. With Lester healthy, he says his team “would have had a great shot” at winning the 1980 NCAA championship.
But, because of the injury, Lester played sporadically during the 1979-80 season. Then he reinjured the knee in Iowa’s opening game in the NCAA tournament Final Four, an 80-72 loss to eventual-champion Louisville. Lester left the game after scoring ten points in the first 12 minutes, says Olson, who remembers that “the score was tied with Ronnie playing at about 60-70 percent of his capabilities.”
The injury also prevented Lester, experts say from showing his real capabilities in the NBA.
“Injuries robbed him of any opportunities to fulfill his promise,” says Jerry West, former executive vice president of the Los Angeles Lakers and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. “He would have been a tremendous player.”
“Ronnie, had he stayed healthy, would have been the best of the whole group (of players I’ve coached who went on to the NBA). He had the unbelievable quickness, plus shooting ability, plus a great feel for the game.”
Former UI Coach Lute Olsen
Olson says Lester, now 42, would have been a better pro than the magnificent guards Olson’s coached since leaving Iowa in 1983 for the University of Arizona.
“Ronnie, had he stayed healthy, would have been the best of the whole group,” says Olson. “He had the unbelievable quickness, plus shooting ability, plus a great feel for the game.” Lester’s abilities also impressed his Iowa teammates.
“All the players knew Ronnie was the best player on the floor,” says Steve Krafcisin, 81BS, now basketball coach at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City. “If we needed a basket, he was the guy who was going to make it.” “He was the quickest guy I’ve ever seen on a basketball team,” says another former teammate, Steve Waite, 81BBA, 84 MBA. “A lot of players are quick, but Ronnie had the ability to stop on a dime. He could change directions without losing anything. I used to get rebounds on defense and without even looking, throw the ball down court because I knew Ronnie would outrun everybody, even the best guards in the Big Ten.”
It’s hard to see outstanding players hurt, especially when they might win a national championship and complete an outstanding pro career, but Lester’s injury also keenly disappointed Iowans because he was a fan favorite.
“He had this little boyish smile,” says UI sports information director Phil Haddy, 69BA, 71MA. “And he was so fast and such a good player. He won everybody over…. People still feel a warm attachment to him 20 years after he played. He may be one of the best ever at Iowa as far as being beloved by the fans.
“The way he performed was never braggadocio,” Haddy continues. “He just went about being a good person, a good student, and a good basketball person. He was not one of those people who would make a fabulous slam and then parade up and down the court and say, `See what I’ve done?’ He made plays on a regular basis where you would just sit there in awe at his speed. But afterward he just continued to play.”
Lester, still Iowa’s last consensus basketball All-American, showcased his abilities during his first three years on campus at UI. Iowa had finished fifth or below in the Big Ten for seven of eight years before 1978-79, Lester’s junior year. But that season, he averaged 18.7 points per game as the Hawkeyes tied for the Big Ten title. The turnaround revived fan interest and brought Iowa basketball, previously broadcast on radio, a statewide television contract.
With Lester at the top of his game and the nucleus of the 1978-79 co-Big Ten champions returning, there was much to be excited about as the 1979-80 season began. Despite injuries to Lester and other talented players, the team finished fourth in the Big Ten with a 10-8 record and qualified for the NCAA tournament.
Lester played in the first four games and, even with its star playing at reduced speed, the Hawkeyes swept Virginia Commonwealth, North Carolina State, Syracuse, and Georgetown to reach the Final Four. Altogether that season, Iowa went 15-2 in games Lester played and 8-8 without him.
Fans gaze back longingly at that scrappy team, realizing that since their day Iowa has not returned to the Final Four. Everyone knew Lester was the heart and soul of the team,” says Haddy. “He was so quick and was considered the premier point guard in the Big Ten. There’s no question people say there was an excellent chance we could have won the national title if he had stayed healthy.”
Although sidelined by the injury for half of his senior year, Lester remains fifth on Iowa’s all-time scoring list with 1,675 points and third in assists with 480.
With such an impressive record, Lester was examined by NBA doctors after his senior college season and underwent arthroscopic surgery. After doctors convinced professional teams that his knee would hold up, Lester was chosen tenth overall by Portland in the 1980 NBA draft and traded to Chicago.
But in practices with Chicago, the knee swelled up again.
“The orthopedic surgeon in Chicago…. Had to cut,” Lester says. “They removed about 80 percent of the cartilage on my knee. Basically, I missed my first year.”
Lester returned to summer school in 1981 to finish his degree in general studies. It was a pragmatic move because his knee never got any better and his pro career lasted only six years. During that span his best season was 1981-82 with the Bulls, when he averaged 11.6 points per game.
It was frustrating, but Lester, who also played with the 1985 NBA champion Lakers, no longer thinks about what he missed.
“I would have liked to have played healthy, even just for a year or two. Just to show people what kind of player I really was. But…. You have to move on.”
After he quit playing in 1986, Lester took ten months to think about his future and decided he wanted to stay in basketball. In 1987, former Lakers executive vice president Jerry West offered him a job in scouting.
“He’s someone I like a lot,” West says. “Not only from being around him as a player [but] watching him struggle with injuries… I never heard a complaint about his life.” West also considered Lester “an unbelievably hard worker and unbelievably detailed.”
Lester puts those work skills to use as one of two full-time Lakers’ scouts. This season he’ll see about 100 games between mid-November and April to evaluate college and high school players. Lester watches players primarily in the Midwest, sharing a home with his wife, Rowena, and daughter, Alexis, 8 in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill. On a typical trip, he’ll fly from Chicago to games in El Paso and Oklahoma City, return home for a few days, and fly the next week to Louisville.
His most numbing scouting experience for the Lakers has been the opening days of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national tournament. “They start playing at 9 a.m. and don’t finish until 11 p.m.,” he says. “It’s eight games a day for two days…. After that, you don’t want to see any basketball for a while.”
The hardest part of the job, Lester says, is frequent travel during winter. His most rewarding work is drafting a player who succeeds.
Perhaps Lester knows talent so well because he’s loved basketball since playing on Chicago’s south side. For most of the time in Chicago, his family lived in a Chicago Housing Authority apartment. His divorced mother left the apartment early each day, taking a train and two buses to a factory job on the west side to support Lester and three sisters.
Because of his economic situation, Lester said basketball represented his only chance to go to college. Today, he returns to Iowa to scout basketball games and for special occasions such as Lute Olson’s installation last September into the Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame. But he also comes back every year or two to visit friends. Among them is John Streif, 70BS, assistant trainer and travel coordinator for the UI athletic department, who was on the training staff when Lester played.
Streif helped with the moving when Lester fulfilled a dream by buying a condominium in Chicago for his mother and two younger sisters.
But Lester’s gift to his family was unknown to most fans. They relate to him based on a complex set of factors says Randy Brubaker, sports editor of the Des Moines Register. Ironically, Brubaker believes, fans may appreciate Lester more because of his injury.
“He was injured late in that senior season,” Brubaker says. “There was always that feeling that if Ronnie wouldn’t have been hurt, you never know what would have happened. I think ending our career like that helps an athlete be remembered favorably by fans. They never really saw him lose the big game— the biggest game when he was fully healthy.”