Picture Perfect With Ron Lee
Posted: July 1, 2011
I’m sitting in the juice bar of a health club in a pleasant suburb half an hour north of Los Angeles, waiting for one of my childhood heroes. I’ve come armed with a basketball, a Sharpie, a trophy and a bag full of memories. I was actually nervous on the drive up. I work in Hollywood, and while it’s not like I see mega-stars every day or have them over to the house to play poker every weekend, I’ve met a few people over the years whose names are widely recognizable, and never really felt the butterflies. But this morning, my stomach’s doing giddy rolls and dives…which is probably appropriate.
At 11 a.m., having just finished his weekly basketball game, Ron Lee turns a corner behind the club’s check-in desk and comes into view. I stand up; I’m wearing a purple Suns shooting shirt with the old western-style lettering so I’d be easy to recognize. He spots me, and a wide smile spreads across his face as he waves. As we walks over, it’s clear he’s in great shape – maybe not a pound over his playing weight. No braces on his knees, no tape on his fingers, no hitch in his gait. It’s fairly amazing, given the playing style of his younger days.
As he gets closer, I notice there are several chairs and a table between us. Instinctively, reflexively, I take a step back.
In 1976, the Suns were coming off their first NBA Finals appearance. They’d come out of nowhere to stun the defending champs, the Golden State Warriors, in the Western Conference Finals, then stretched the legendary Boston Celtics to six games before bowing in the championship series. Starting two rookies, and with a young superstar at guard in Paul Westphal, the future for Phoenix was bright. The NBA and the ABA had just merged, so all new talent coming out of college was going to wind up in a single league. And because they’d only finished two games above .500 the previous season, the Suns were headed for a high draft pick, 10th overall. Known as an undersized finesse team, they were looking to get tougher.
Ron Lee was touted as a swingman coming out of the University of Oregon, which is somewhat laughable now when you consider he was listed at 6’4” and 193 lbs. These days, he’d be a risk as an undersized shooting guard (and the rap on him as he left college was that his jumper was suspect), and viewed as not a natural point guard. What he was, however, was a guy who’d been named All Pac-8 (it wasn’t a Pac-10 back then) four years in a row, Pac-8 Player of the Year in 1976, and the NIT MVP in 1975. He departed Oregon as the school’s all-time leader in points, assists and free throws. His teams at Eugene were known as the “Kamikaze Kids,” defensive bulldogs that backed down for no one, not even the mighty UCLA powerhouses of the time, led by Bill Walton. Ron was a prodigious multi-sport athlete, and was drafted by both the NFL and the North American Soccer League despite having played no football or soccer in college. He was known as tough, unselfish and coachable. In the eyes of then-Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo and then-Coach John MacLeod, he was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Suns fans at Veterans Memorial Coliseum came to know Ron Lee very quickly in his rookie season of 1976-77…usually because he had landed in their laps in pursuit of a loose ball. He seemed to spend more time on the ground than on his feet, more time crashing over the first three rows than on the court itself. No basketball in an opponent’s possession could be considered safe, because Ron was always in the passing lanes, or swiping at ball-handlers, or simply wrestling the ball away from them without so much as saying, “Excuse me.” He also turned out to be able to shoot just fine, averaging more than ten points per game, as well as more than three assists and tallied a team-leading steals total. Ron had a tremendous Afro and a ready smile, and was voted to the league’s All-Rookie Team, and the Suns’ Most Popular Player – ahead of Alvan Adams and Paul Westphal, who had only led the squad to the Finals a year before, and Dick Van Arsdale, who was only the Original Sun.
Everybody loved Ron Lee. But no one loved him more than the kids. We bought kneepads because we wanted to dive like he did. We imitated him in our driveways, crashing to the hoop with no concern for personal safety (to our parents’ chagrin). We actually enjoyed playing defense. We called him “Taz,” short for “Tasmanian Devil,” because he had as much energy as the famous cartoon character, never sitting still for even a moment. On the court, Ron seemed like a big kid himself, playing within the team, but with unstoppable enthusiasm and an evident sense of enjoyment. He symbolized the sheer fun of the game, the thrill of doing what you loved in life and giving it everything you had. Ron Lee was ours.
I was playing youth basketball at the Phoenix Jewish Community Center at the time. The Suns had a close relationship with the PJCC in those days. It was their official practice facility, and you could go into the gym pretty much at any time, plunk yourself down on the bleachers, and watch the players come and go for workouts. There wasn’t another pro team in town – the Suns were the city’s pro sports identity, and its biggest celebrities. When our basketball season ended, the PJCC usually imposed on a Sun to hand out the trophies on awards night. I happened to get a trophy for Most Outstanding Sportsman, which I think had less to do with skill and more to do with remembering to shake hands with the other team, the night Ron Lee was handing out trophies. I walked up, took my trophy, someone snapped a picture, I looked up at my idol with total awe, he said something to me about sportsmanship and smiled, I walked back to my seat, and I figured life would probably never get any better. Over the years, I’d look at that picture often, and it would never fail to make me smile.
Ron Lee does not hurdle the chairs to get to me in the juice bar of his gym, just gracefully steps around them, shakes my hand, smiles, and sits down. I’d called him a week before, having seen a “Catching Up With” article spotlighting him on azcentral.com, learned he lived not too far from me, e-mailed the reporter with my credentials as a Suns.com blogger and a copy of the decades-old photo of me with Ron, and asked if he wouldn’t mind passing my contact info along to the former player so I might meet him and write a blog about him. My idea was to re-create the photo, all this time later. When Ron and I spoke on the phone, and I made my unusual request, he didn’t pause for a moment, just invited me up to his gym the following weekend.
After he sits down, we talk about the game he just played. He’s good-naturedly frustrated with his teammates, who “aren’t hustling enough,” and he smiles when he says it to make sure I understand he knows he’s playing with weekend warriors who don’t have NBA experience. We talk about his son, who’s appearing on major college radars as a hoops prospect. We talk about his own career at the University Oregon, where he was a transplanted East Coast kid from Boston’s tough streets (he still has a Boston accent) who fit right in with Coach Dick Harter’s hard-nosed philosophy, and where he became a hero still revered today, his retired number hanging in the rafters of the school’s basketball arena. Through our conversation, he’s never still, shifting positions in his chair, gesturing animatedly, saying hello to other gym patrons coming and going, giving career advice to twin sisters who have aspirations of moving beyond high school basketball to college. His eyes are always twinkling, his voice filled with energy. He’s happy to talk.
Aside from the Suns’ Finals run the previous season, Ron tells me he didn’t know anything about Phoenix before he got there, but he was just “happy to be anywhere, playing at the next level.” Veteran forwards Garfield Heard and Curtis Perry were his mentors, showing him the ropes in the locker room and helping him adjust to his new city. He remembers the fans and being instantly accepted. “It was a great fit,” he says. “Coach MacLeod used me just right.” He remembers the injuries that decimated that year’s squad (“We were so banged up”), and he remembers finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Adrian Dantley (Amazing side note: Over three consecutive seasons, the Suns had two Rookies of the Year in Adams and Walter Davis, and one runner-up). He remembers, “We were loaded the next year, when we drafted Davis and traded for Don Buse.” He led the entire NBA in steals that year. “They can never take that away from me,” he says proudly. “I don’t know if anyone else has ever led the league in steals coming off the bench.” He remembers dropping 31 points on the Philadelphia 76ers when Doctor J was at the height of his powers. He remembers good times in Phoenix.
Then, he remembers being called into the Suns’ offices and being told he’d been traded to New Orleans, along with rookie forward Marty (“Maaah-ty,” Ron calls him, with his Boston accent) Byrnes, for the league’s defending rebounding champ, Truck Robinson, in an effort to make the Suns tougher up front. He didn’t want to go, and he was right to be apprehensive. He wound up stuck on a bad Jazz squad with Pete Maravich and Gail Goodrich, both of whom played a lot of minutes, needed the ball in their hands, and weren’t exactly purveyors of Ron Lee-style defense. Ron popped a hamstring, and missed most of the end of that season. “The whole thing was a mess,” he recalls, shaking his head. But, he points out with a wink, “the trade didn’t wind up doing the Suns a whole lot of good, either.” And it’s true. The Suns stayed playoff perennials, but never made the leap to the next level.
From New Orleans, it was off to Atlanta, “which was not a good fit,” and then a mid-season trade took him to Detroit, where he played for a team rebuilding around a young Isiah Thomas, and he did not have a spot in their immediate plans. “It’s too bad,” he says now. “Three or four years later, when they started getting all those tough guys like Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, it would have been a lot of fun.” After departing Detroit in 1982, Ron headed overseas, playing well into his forties in Italy, Norway and Sweden. He even served as player-coach, although now, he says, coaching is, “out of my system.”
Now he’s back in the States, has been for a long while, and while he’s seldom asked about his NBA days, he remembers them fondly. He doesn’t keep in touch with many people he played with, but he does talk to Marty Byrnes from time to time, joshing about their years in Phoenix and New Orleans, and teasing Marty about the ring he won as a bench-warmer with the Los Angeles Lakers (“I really hate you, Marty,” he laughs). His happiest playing days, it seems to a conversation partner, were at Oregon, but one gets the sense that, had he stayed with the Suns longer, he knows he’d have made memories to rival those of his college years. “Everyone was so nice there,” Ron says. “It was a good team, and we played well and we played the right way.”
I’d showed him the picture of the two of us when he first sat down, and now I pick it up again. I don’t think he remembers me specifically (Short kid? Thick glasses? Couldn’t go to his right? Used to fall down a lot when the ball rolled by, yelling “Ronnie Lee!” No? You sure you don’t remember me?) – he handed out a lot of trophies that night. But when I ask him about re-creating the photo, he hops right up, taking the trophy I’ve brought, and studying the picture. “Let’s see…You’ve got to be standing over here,” he says, positioning me, “and my arm has to be like this…”
The photo we take looks nothing like the one taken thirty-five years ago – How could it? But as I leave, grinning ear to ear, having said farewell to my idol with a handshake, a clap on the back and a broad smile, I realize I feel nine years old again, and Ronnie Lee is, in every way, even though he hasn’t crashed into anything in the entire time we’ve been talking and the Afro is long gone, exactly as cool I remember him.