Hoops star re-Counts his illustrious career
The only man to participate in a Final Four, earn an Olympic gold medal, win two NBA championships and play in NBA Finals in five of his first six pro seasons lives in a townhouse on the 12th hole at McNary Golf Course in Keizer.
Mel Counts is a name the state's veteran basketball fans will recognize, but his achievements go beyond what he accomplished at Marshfield High and Oregon State. The sweet-shooting 7-footer played with seven teams in a 12-year NBA career, winning a pair of titles with the Boston Celtics and serving as backup to two of the greatest big men in hoop history — Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
Counts, who made it to the NBA Finals six times, played for three Hall of Fame coaches — Slats Gill, Hank Iba and Red Auerbach.
Counts, who played varsity at Oregon State from 1961-64, is remembered as one of the biggest names in the school's 119-year basketball history. He still ranks first on the Beavers' career list with 1,375 rebounds despite playing only three varsity seasons. His 15.4-per-game rebound average is unlikely to ever be challenged.
The Coos Bay native ranks fourth on the OSU career scoring list with 1,973 points, having just been passed by Beaver senior Tres Tinkle. All three players ahead of Counts — Gary Payton, Steve Johnson and Tinkle — played four varsity seasons. And in the case of Johnson and Tinkle, four-plus because of redshirt years.
"I don't have an ego about it," Counts said. "I do have pride that I accomplished in three years what they've done in four. We didn't have a 3-point shot back then, either."
Counts, 78, looks in great health and remains at his playing weight of 225 pounds. He has sold real estate in the greater Willamette Valley for the past 42 years.
"I work out four or five days a week, try to eat pretty good and get rest," Counts said in a recent interview. "A little wine now and then helps, too."
Counts has always been a glass-half-full type of person. It has served him well.
"Everybody has some baggage in their life, but you get over that," he said. "Attitude can make or break you. Your marriage, your relationships with people, whatever — I've always tried to have a good attitude."
Though Counts grew up in a broken home — his father, Frank, divorced his mother, Vernice, when Mel was a toddler, and wasn't much involved in Mel's life — he enjoyed his childhood in Coos Bay, calling it a "great adventure for me."
"I learned to hunt and fish," Counts said. "I started duck hunting in the seventh grade. I loved growing up there, loved the wildlife activity. Plus, it was a hard-working, down-to-earth lumber town."
Counts was fortunate to have a father figure in his grade-school basketball coach and sixth-grade teacher, Frosty Mulkins.
"He really made an impression on me," Counts said. "I needed a role model at that age, and he taught hard work, responsibility, sportsmanship, being focused."
Counts was a two-time first-team all-state performer at Marshfield, leading the Pirates to back-to-back runner-up finishes in the A-1 state tournament in 1959 and '60. By that time, he was on his way to being a Beaver.
"They started recruiting me when I was a sophomore," Counts said. "They brought me up to a lot of games. (The OSU women's team's) slogan now is 'We are Family,' and I felt that way about the program then. I felt warmth. They embraced me and took me in. I fell in love with the coaches and the campus and the school."
Counts became the most dominant big man in OSU history, averaging 22.2 points and 15.4 rebounds in his career — 26.7 and 16.9 as a senior. As a junior, he led the Beavers to the Final Four in Louisville, where they lost to eventual champion Cincinnati in the semifinals.
"I had two disappointments in going to Oregon State," Counts said. "One was not winning that Final Four, and No. 2, we only beat the Ducks (11 of 13) times."
Counts ranks second on the OSU single-game scoring list with 48 points against Louisiana State in 1963. Fifteen times, he scored 30 or more points in a game. During Counts' three seasons, the Beavers went 71-18 and made the NCAA Tournament every year.
Playing for the legendary Gill, Counts said, "was incredible."
"My senior year, two teammates and I came up with 136 Slats Gill sayings," he said. "He always talked about the stars' job was to score points, rebound and lead the team. For the substitutes, who are No. 8, 9 (in the rotation) — show it during practice. Everybody will get an opportunity to show what they can do. For 12 years in the NBA, I was that sub. Slats' teaching helped me. I always tried to be the best teammate, even when I wasn't playing. I tried to display a good attitude and help my teammates.
"I didn't get to know him well (personally), but I had a high regard and respect for him. All the players did. He was loved and liked and respected by the players. He helped my attitude and mind-set toward the game. I owe him a lot."
Among the athletes who played with Counts at OSU were Terry Baker, Steve Pauly, Frank Peters, Jim Jarvis, Jay Carty and Scott Eaton.
"We had a lot of dual-sport athletes," Counts said. "Terry and Scott played pro football, Jim and Frank played pro baseball, Steve Pauly was a great decathlete. Nine of our 13 players from the Final Four team were from Oregon. It shows we have some great athletes if we can just keep them from leaving the state."
After his senior year at Oregon State in 1964, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal in Tokyo, joining players such as Bill Bradley, Luke Jackson, Larry Brown, Joe Caldwell, Walt Hazzard and Jeff Mullins in beating the Soviet Union 73-59 in the championship game.
"Unbelievable experience," Counts said. "We didn't have any superstars like the '60 team did with Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, but we had a good group of players.
"As far as I'm concerned, the MVP of our team was coach Hank Iba. We went to Pearl Harbor for 2 1/2 weeks to prepare for the Olympics. We practiced 2 1/2 hours in the morning and 2 1/2 hours in the evening. Hardest I ever worked out in my life. In Tokyo, we'd play a game in the morning and work out in the afternoon.
"It was a thrill to beat the Russians and step up on the podium and receive a gold medal. To this day, I regard that as the best team award I've gotten, even more than my (NBA) championships. To represent your country is more meaningful."
The taciturn Iba was as old-school as you can get, but Counts enjoyed playing for him.
"He was a great coach," Counts said. "He lived and died basketball. We were prepared mentally and physically. We worked as a team. He brought us together like that and made us ready to take on the other teams. It was an experience I hold dear to my heart today."
Less than a year later, Counts was an NBA champion as a rookie with the Boston Celtics. Playing with greats such as Russell, Sam and K.C. Jones, John Havlicek and Don Nelson, Counts averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
"It was great, coming from winning gold with the Olympic team to a team like that," he said. "They had their veterans and Bill Russell, one of the greatest team players to ever play the game. ... I was fortunate to begin my (NBA) career that way."
Counts played his first two NBA seasons for Auerbach, generally regarded as the greatest coach in league history.
"He understood the game and knew how to get players up for a game," Counts said. "He'd light that cigar up when we had a game won. He did that one time in Philadelphia and they were throwing cans of beer and garbage at him. We couldn't get out of there fast enough."
Counts reveres Russell, the Celtics' center and leader during that era.
"If I'm starting a team today, I don't care who you have — (Michael) Jordan, anybody — I'd pick Russell," Counts said. "He won two NCAA championships at San Francisco. He was a 1956 Olympic champion. He won titles 11 of 13 years with the Celtics. How can you compete with that? He didn't have to score. He'd block shots, rebounds and do what it took to win. He brought out the best in his teammates."
Counts played 5 1/2 seasons with the Lakers, reaching the NBA Finals three straight years, the last two backing up Chamberlain.
"It was a great time," Counts said. "When you're playing with superstars, it elevates your play. We played one stretch of five straight games with only seven players, and we won all five. When you have Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on your team, that can happen. We called ourselves the 'Magnificent Seven.' It was enjoyable to play there, but we just didn't quite get over the hump."
Who was the better player — Russell or Chamberlain?
"I'd have to pick Russell," Counts said. "The better individual player? Maybe Wilt. But Russell was a winner."
Counts considers Russell his greatest teammate, and the best player he played with or against.
"But Wilt was right there, too," Counts said. "I remember I was with Phoenix and we were the Lakers' 30th victim (in a 33-game win streak). Wilt backed me down and I was under the basket, and sweat came off of him onto me, and I was just drenched. He always had to change his uniform top at halftime. The only player I ever saw do that was Paul Silas. Wilt's arms were bigger than your legs. He was chiseled and he had a 42-inch arm length.
"One year when I was with the Lakers, we were down 3-1 in a seven-game playoff series against Phoenix. In Game 5, Wilt blocked 16 shots and we beat the heck out of (the Suns). When Wilt wanted to take over a game, forget it. Wilt had his little quirks and characteristics. He wrote a book, and I don't know if what he said there was all true."
Counts played in an era of great big men in the league, going with and against the likes of Hall of Famers Russell, Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Thurmond, Bob Lanier, Walt Bellamy, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton and Zelmo Beaty, among others.
"You had to be ready, and you couldn't back down," Counts said. "If you did, then they had your number. There was no way to check Jabbar. His hook shot was unbelievable. He was way above the rim. I was more the big forward in today's terms. I didn't play as well with my back to the basket as some players, but I could shoot from the outside."
Counts' rookie contract called for him to make $12,000, with a $3,400 bonus for winning the title. His largest contract was $80,000, a pittance compared to today's NBA, with an average salary of $7.7 million.
"I have no regrets," Counts said. "I played in an era with a lot of Hall of Fame players. I was blessed to be on good teams. I learned to adapt and be flexible."
After retiring as a player in 1966, Counts moved back to his home state.
"I've traveled all over the United States, and there's no better place to live than Oregon," he said.
Counts continues to sell farm land, acreage and residential housing in the greater Willamette Valley. "You're independent and you have to be self-motivated," Counts said. "Unlike politicians, you don't get paid until you get the job done. I like the independence. I like being my own boss."
Mel's wife, Nadora, died of cancer in 2017 after 53 years of marriage. They had five children together who gave them 26 grandchildren.
"Nadora introduced me to God and brought the faith and passed it on to our children, who have passed it on to their children," Counts said. "She had such wonderful virtues. You're not with somebody for 53 years and not miss them. I miss her every day. It's tough, but somehow you survive and go on."
Mel's grandchildren have helped him continue to enjoy life.
"What a treat," he said. "Grandkids are a lot easier than raising your own. It's really fun. I take them out to eat for their birthdays. It's the gift of time. We get to spend time together. What a wonderful experience that is, to talk with them and listen to what they have to say. I'm very involved with my grandkids."
Counts goes to several Oregon State football and men's basketball games every year, but he owns season tickets for women's basketball.
"I like watching them play," he said. "I have a granddaughter who plays for St. Paul (High). She's a point guard, and I go watch her play. The guys are great, but with the girls, there's not the ego in it. They're fun to watch."
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