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Shelton might have been greatest athlete in Oregon State history
Lonnie Shelton wasn't the greatest basketball player in Oregon State history.
He might have been the greatest athletic package, though, ever to don Beaver togs.
"I've never been around a better athlete in my life — ever," says Tim Hennessey, an OSU teammate of Shelton, who died on July 8 at age 62 in Westminster, California, from the effects of a heart attack.
"Lonnie was Karl Malone before there was a Karl Malone," says Paul Miller, another teammate of Shelton during his time at Oregon State.
Shelton was the best player at OSU during his three seasons (1973-76), averaging 16.2 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting .540 from the field in his 80 games.
The 6-8 Shelton — who would go on to play 10 years in the NBA, helping Seattle to the 1978-79 championship — was listed at 235 pounds during his years at Oregon State. His teammates found out that wasn't quite accurate.
"We're at California one year and they have one of those Toledo scales in the visitors' locker room," says the 6-8 Miller, who weighed in at 188 pounds. "Lonnie gets on there and it reads 259. We were just in shock."
But Shelton wasn't just enormous.
"We would do drills at practice, and he was the fastest, most agile guy in the team," says Rich Plante, a guard who was a senior during Shelton's freshman season of 1973-74. "His ability to move was amazing. He was quicker than our guards and small forwards."
Shelton played for Ralph Miller and with such talent as Steve Ericksen, Doug Oxsen, Ron Jones, Charlie Neal, Rocky Smith, George Tucker, Donny Smith and Rickey Lee while at Oregon State. Shelton's last two OSU teams were good enough to go 10-4 in Pac-8 games and finish second in the conference.
The Bakersfield, California, native was part the greatest regular-season victory in Oregon State hoops history, on Feb. 15, 1974, when the Beavers knocked off No. 1-ranked UCLA 61-57 before a raging, rollicking full house at Gill Coliseum.
The John Wooden-coached Bruins arrived with a 50-game conference win streak that stretched over four seasons. They had won an unprecedented seven straight NCAA titles and nine in 10 years stretching back to 1963-64. Over the previous seven seasons, the Bruins had lost a total of five games. The UCLA front line featured Bill Walton, Dave Meyers and Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes. With Ericksen battling Walton in the trenches and sophomore Miller hitting 8 of 10 shots while scoring 16 points and freshman point guard "Ice T" Tucker — Shelton's closest friend — nailing four straight free throws over the final 33 seconds, the Beavers brought down a dynasty.
Two years later, Oregon State was at it again, blowing out the No. 3-ranked Bruins 75-58 in Corvallis. Long-time fans will remember Shelton's steal and breakaway dunk — in an era when the dunk wasn't legal — in the final minute with the victory secure. (The dunk shot returned to the college game after a nine-year hiatus the following season.)
"I was concerned at first, because I didn't think the game was over," Paul Miller says. "But looking back now, it was OK, and the crowd went crazy. The great thing about the dunk was, the ball hit Richard Washington in the forehead after it went through, which made the crowd go even more crazy."
Shelton always saved his best for UCLA, the school for whom he'd dreamed of playing as a kid growing up in Bakersfield. The Bruins' loss was the Beavers' gain.
Lonnie was one of five children — four boys, one girl — raised primarily by his mother, Jewel Shelton (Lonnie's full name was Lonnie Jewel Shelton).
"It wasn't a broken family, but a poor family," says Buzz Caffee, who was Lonnie's basketball coach during his senior year at Foothill High. "The father was there, but not very involved. Lonnie grew up in a very poor part of town. There wasn't much money at home, but Jewel was a wonderful, loving lady."
"I went to his house," says then OSU assistant coach Jimmy Anderson, who recruited Shelton. "It was a pretty humble abode. Very nice mother. I don't think I ever met his dad."
"Bakersfield is a tough town, and there are bad parts in Bakersfield," says Miller, a native of San Luis Obispo, California, who now lives in Corvallis. "Lonnie was from the worst."
"He came from nothing," says Hennessey, who was also a year ahead of Shelton at OSU. "The first dentist he ever saw was in Corvallis."
Caffee, 76, had been Foothill's athletic director through Shelton's years at the school.
"Lonnie was always big and a little awkward," says Caffee, retired and living in Bakersfield. "But he was a natural when it came to sports — the most unbelievable athlete anybody around here has seen, and Kern County is a hotbed for good athletes. None of them could hold a candle to Lonnie. He could do anything. He was a man amongst boys."
Shelton was a prep All-America football player as a defensive end and tight end. He was California state champion in the discus. "He'd run sprints for us as a freshman and sophomore," Caffee says. Lonnie was the best player on Caffee's basketball team. And he had an October birthday.
"He was 17 when he arrived at Oregon State," Caffee says. A man-child.
Shelton got more college interest for football than for basketball. Notre Dame, Nebraska and Southern Cal were among the schools that offered football scholarships.
"Everybody in the country was after him for football," Caffee says.
But Shelton preferred basketball, and Oregon State was in pursuit. Anderson first saw him during a game his junior year at Foothill.
"He was jogging up and down the court, not hustling much, and not showing much quickness or movement," says Anderson, retired and living in Corvallis. "I was disappointed."
A few months later, Anderson watched him again in a summer-league contest.
"His team was pressing full-court, and I could see the athleticism and skills he had," he says. "He was out there steaIing the ball, leading the breaking, stuffing, dominating both ends of the floor. I told Ralph, 'This kid is something else.' I had misread him.
"We knew he was being recruited for both football and basketball. A couple of schools thought they'd get a free one by using him in both sports. We concentrated on one thing. We went after him really hard for basketball."
Shelton, Caffee says, got on UCLA's radar late. The Bruins already had offered their full complement of five scholarships — two of them to Marques Johnson and Richard Washington, the latter from Portland's Benson Tech.
"Wooden proposed a deal that only Lonnie and I knew about," Caffee says. "The Bruins would offer him a football scholarship. Lonnie would play football and basketball as a freshman, then switch over to a basketball scholarship after his freshman year.
"Lonnie was a little hurt by that. He shed a few tears over it. But once he made his decision, he knew he was going to a good college in Oregon State."
The Beavers had an in with Shelton because of a Bakersfield connection. OSU All-America guard Freddie Boyd, an East Bakersfield High graduate, had been taken in the first round of the 1972 draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. Forward Donny Smith, a '72 East Bakersfield High grad, had signed with the Beavers and would also be a freshman in 1973-74. Smith would wind up being Shelton's first roommate at OSU.
"Oregon State had a hell of a basketball program going," Caffee says. "And don't underestimate Coach Anderson's part. Jimmy is a whole lot of reason why Lonnie went there."
And why he stayed.
"Nobody had mentored Lonnie in any way, on and off the court," says Plante, now living in St. George, Utah. "Jimmy had to take him under his wing to grow him up as a man over those years he was there. Jimmy is heavily responsible for Lonnie's success. Jimmy did a lot of things behind the scenes in those years."
"Jimmy took a lot of those kids under his wing," Caffee seconds. "Ralph was a little ornery, but Jimmy buffeted Ralph well. They knew what they were doing when they kept Jimmy there with Ralph.
"And Oregon State was an honest program. Freddie never got a penny out of it. Lonnie never got a penny. There were people (from Bakersfield) sending them some money to get by, but it didn't come from Oregon State."
Shelton arrived in Corvallis late in the summer of 1973. It didn't take him long to make an impact with his Oregon State teammates.
"He was this naive kid with amazing athletic talent," Plante recalls. "We started scrimmaging, and here was this smooth, elegant athlete, but just learning the game in every way."
Ericksen, a 6-11, 230-pound senior during Shelton's freshman year, was matched up with Shelton often in those late-summer pickup games at Gill Coliseum.
"We were playing half-court games, just goofing around," says Ericksen, who lives in Tigard. "Coach (Dave) Leach was there. This new guy, Lonnie Shelton, was huge. I remember how solid he was. I'd be backing him into the key. It was like hitting a brick wall, and he wasn't even bracing himself.
"Somebody would throw a pass and he'd reach up and grab it out of mid-air. You don't think a guy that big can be that quick. I remember telling Leach, 'Wow, this guy is good.' And he had a big grin on his face.
"Lonnie would have been an unbelievable college football player. He'd have been better than in basketball — that's how good he is. I asked him once, 'You working out with weights?' He said, 'Never touched them.' He was naturally built strong."
Dee Andros, Oregon State's football coach at the time, would have loved to see Shelton on the gridiron for the Beavers.
"They tried to get him to play football," Plante says. "Every time Dee would see Lonnie, he would drool."
Paul Miller says former OSU assistant football coach Rich Koeper told him a story about Gil Brandt, long-time vice president/player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, making a visit to Corvallis to look at potential pro prospects from the Beaver football team.
"He told Rich he didn't see anybody he was interested in," Miller says. "Then they walked into the Coliseum while we were practicing. (Brandt) watched for five minutes, pointed to Lonnie and said, 'That guy is a first-round draft pick in the NFL.' That was how good an athlete he was."
Jones, a senior during Shelton's freshman season, recalls the early workout sessions.
"He was a little hesitant at first because he was a freshman," says Jones, retired and living in Vancouver, Washington. "Within a short period of time, it was clear Lonnie could do pretty much anything he wanted to do. With his speed and size, there was no one who could get around him. It was shocking."
Miller — a year ahead of Shelton in school — had first seen him play during Miller's senior year in high school when their schools played each other in a Christmas tournament in Arroya Grande, California.
"He was a physical specimen, but a little awkward on the basketball court," says Miller, who lives in Corvallis. "When he came to Oregon State less than two years later, he had improved so much, it was incredible. He was a freak of nature in the early '70s. Nobody had seen anybody that big and strong and could move. He had quick hands and quick feet. That got him in foul trouble a lot, but I always felt like officials didn't believe somebody that big could steal the ball.
"He got me a lot of points when he was in low post and I was at the high post. He was a very good passer. He'd get double-teamed, and I'd have some easy open shots from the free-throw line extended."
Hennessey, a rough-and-tumble 6-5 reserve swing man, had his practice battles with Shelton.
"If you ever watched a Ralph Miller practice, nobody ever called fouls," says Hennessey, who lives in Corvallis. "Try to bring the ball upcourt against Lonnie, he'd foul you. He was a gift from God as far as physicality."
During Shelton's junior year, Miller brought on football player Jerry Wilkinson, a 6-9, 250-pound defensive tackle from the football team who would go on to play two seasons in the NFL.
"Jerry did a great job going up against Lonnie in practice, just keeping him honest," Hennessey says. "But there was no one like Lonnie. He was a man — 6-8 and 260 with a 32-inch waist."
Oxsen, a 6-11 forward who was also a senior during Shelton's freshman year, recalls a game at California.
"There was a loose ball he and (Cal guard) Ricky Hawthorne were going for," says Oxsen, now living in Corvallis. "Somehow, Lonnie beat him to the ball. We couldn't believe it. He was just a phenomenal athlete."
Oxsen laughs as he tells a story about a scrimmage during a practice session that season.
"Lonnie stole the ball in an open-court situation," he says. "It was just him coming down against one of our guards, Carl Runyon, one-on-one. Lonnie was barreling in toward the bucket. Carl backed out of the way and Lonnie went ahead and laid it up.
"Ralph yelled, 'Take the charge!' And Carl yells back, 'No, you take the charge!' Everybody in the place broke up. Even Ralph laughed at that one. No way somebody was going to take a charge with Lonnie going full speed in practice."
It was a tremendous era for post players during Shelton's three years at OSU, with the likes of Washington at UCLA, Greg Ballard at Oregon, James Edwards at Washington, Rich Kelley at Stanford and Steve Puidokas and James Donaldson at Washington State.
"Some of the best big men in the country, and Lonnie was as good or better than any of them," Oxsen says. "He was very physical, with good moves. He could hurt you. It was a lot more fun to play with him than against him."
Shelton's teammates enjoyed him as a person.
"Happy-go-lucky," Ericksen says. "Everybody liked him."
"He was just a sweetheart," Plante says. "A quiet, nice guy, not that outgoing, but never caused any problems. Fun to talk with. A great teammate."
"We played a few practical jokes that Lonnie was like a little kid with," Hennessey says. "He was a good guy with a big heart."
"Lonnie was always very polite," Anderson says. "I never heard him put down anybody. I never heard him swear. He was very naive and trusting. He just wanted to be a good player and teammate."
Shelton didn't get into serious trouble during his three years in Corvallis. But he did create a few minor issues for his coaches, thanks in part to his friendship with Tucker, who shared an affinity for the party scene and in the words of one teammate, "was a bad influence on Lonnie."
"It wasn't a bed of roses," Caffee says. "Lonnie was a follower. He was a big guy, and he tried to please everybody. He got up there with a couple of L.A. boys and got into some mischief."
Jones recalls a party at the Campus Villa apartments after the 1973-74 season.
"It was on the second floor, and BTO's 'Taking Care of Business' was playing," he says. "Lonnie started dancing, and the whole floor shook. We thought, 'We're going to collapse the floor.' We had 40 people in the living room spilling out into the walkway."
After his sophomore season, Shelton was chosen by the American Basketball Association Memphis Sounds with the second pick — behind only North Carolina State's David Thompson — in the league's 1975 draft. After the Sounds folded, the St. Louis Spirits acquired Shelton's rights.
That summer a pair of brothers who were serving as agents — "flesh peddlers, I called them," says Caffee — worked with the Spirits to get Shelton signed.
"They told the ABA they could deliver Lonnie Shelton," Caffee says.
The agents arranged for a meeting with Shelton to sign a contract in Chicago.
"They rubbed a million dollars in his face," Caffee says. "Lonnie was dirt poor. It was tough on a young person who didn't have any money."
Caffee — who was against Shelton signing the ABA contract — got wind of the meeting and flew to Chicago to intercept him.
"When (the agents) heard I was coming, they moved the meeting to St. Louis," Caffee says. "They took him out on the town with (Spirits forward) Marvin Barnes. By the time I got there the next day, Lonnie had signed the contract."
Shelton quickly decided he had made a mistake, but the NCAA ruled he was a professional and ineligible to return to Oregon State. Shelton then filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, the state of Oregon and Oregon State, claiming he had been coerced into signing by the agents.
For a few weeks, Shelton was in limbo in Corvallis, waiting for a ruling.
"He stayed in the basement at my place," Anderson says. "I hadn't played dominoes before, but I played a lot with Lonnie during that time."
A judge issued an injunction, which allowed Shelton to play 23 games for the Beavers. Late in the season, though, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the injunction and Shelton was not allowed to play the final four games of the season. Oregon State wound up having to forfeit 15 victories with Shelton in uniform.
Shelton was taken in the second round — with the 25th overall pick — by New York in the 1976 NBA draft, the fifth underclassmen selected in that draft. After two years as a starter with the Knicks, he was traded to Seattle, and at age 23 became an NBA champion in his first season with the Sonics. He averaged 13.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in his 10 seasons with New York, Seattle and Cleveland, retiring at age 30 after the 1985-86 season.
Soon after retirement, Shelton returned to Bakersfield and made that his home for most of the rest of his life. He was married three times and had five children, all boys.
The oldest, L.J., was born in Corvallis to Lonnie and his first wife, Paula, shortly after Lonnie's junior season at OSU. L.J. was an offensive lineman who played 10 years in the NFL.
Three of the other boys played college basketball — Marlon at Washington, Titus at Cal Poly and Tim at San Diego State.
"They all have their college degrees," Caffee says. "Lonnie was very proud of that."
Caffee remained close to Shelton through the years. Caffee, Shelton and Boyd owned a shoe store, "Second Sole," together for several years. Boyd, who wound up living in Bakersfield, became a close friend of Shelton's, too.
Shelton's health had deteriorated in recent years, with his weight growing to more than 400 pounds.
"He always had a weight problem," Caffee says. "His mom had a weight problem. They're a big family — big-boned people. Lonnie liked to eat. Then he got diabetes. He'd had a pacemaker put in. He was not in good health when this started happening, but he was still fun to be around. He'd tell stories. He and Freddie had quite a time."
Caffee and Boyd visited Shelton at the hospital about two weeks before he went into a coma following the heart attack. And soon, he was gone.
"He was one of those people who comes along very seldom," Caffee says. "From where he came from to what he became, he did himself proud."
"He was one of the best players we've ever had at Oregon State," Anderson says. "Ralph just loved him. We all did."
Miller hopes there will be a posthumous honor.
"Lonnie should be in the OSU Sports Hall of Fame," he says. "He's one of the best athletes ever to attend the school. He deserves to be recognized as such."
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