Relentless Ronnie Lee embodied Kamikaze Kids
EUGENE — When he was in college, he was the poster guy for the Kamikaze Kids. In the NBA, his tag was "The Tasmanian Devil."
Ronnie Lee's DNA surely features ample doses of hustle, intensity and unbridled energy. It all helped make him a pretty fair basketball player — one of the best ever to play for Oregon.
When you include performance, productivity, showmanship and fan appeal, he may be the greatest Duck hooper of them all.
The 6-4, 205-pound southpaw guard was the straw that stirred the drink in the mid-1970s for Dick Harter's "Kamikaze Kids," who terrorized opponents with a hustling, physical style of defense that won a lot of games. At Oregon and during his six years in the NBA, Lee led the league in floor burns.
Lee, 67, remains Oregon's career scoring leader 44 years after playing his last game for the Ducks. Though he played his home games at legendary McArthur Court, his No. 30 jersey hangs in the rafters at the Ducks' current home, Matthew Knight Arena.
And now he is back living in Eugene, retired and still brimming with vim and vigor.
"I've lived in a lot of places, but I like living here best," Lee said before sitting down for a podcast in the condo he shares with two of his children next to Eugene Country Club. "It's fantastic to be back. I always told myself when I was going to retire, I wanted to come back to Eugene, because it's been (the scene of) one of the better parts of my life. I enjoyed the people, I enjoyed the university, I enjoyed the (basketball) program."
Wikipedia and Basketball Reference refer to him as "Ron Lee," though he was never anything but "Ronnie" soon after stepping onto the University of Oregon campus as a freshman in fall 1972. A product of Boston who still carries the region's "brogue" accent, Lee was the youngest of four sons to Gene and Barbara Lee. The parents split up when Ronnie was young; the boys lived with their mother and his grandmother, Dora Kemp, until he was 11. Then they moved in with their father, a motorcycle cop.
"Mom had the toughest part of that deal," Lee said with a smile. "She had to raise us when we were young boys. We were all into sports. She had to go all over the place. In time, my father took over, because we were at the age where we had to be disciplined, or he had to make sure we stayed out of trouble. Him being a police officer, we definitely didn't get into mischief. We couldn't do anything wrong.
"But the support she gave me through my life was important. Nobody really recognized her for that because (by the time he rose to athletic prominence) she was on the outside. She never got the credit that she deserved."
There was plenty of basketball talent in the family. Russ was a 6-5 shooting guard at Marshall who was the sixth pick in the 1972 draft but played only three NBA seasons, with Milwaukee and New Orleans, averaging 2.9 points in 97 games. Another brother, Gerald, played professionally for years in Finland.
"My oldest brother, Eugene, was a point guard and pure shooter at Marshall," Lee said. "He got in a motorcycle accident that ended his career. I was probably the worst shooter in my family."
Due to their father's friendship with Boston coach Red Auerbach, the Lee boys often got to attend Celtics games and meet some of the stars, leaving an indelible impression on the youngest.
"It was fantastic to step into the Boston Garden as a youth, and knowing guys like Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Bob Cousy, Coach Auerbach and Tom Sanders personally," Ronnie said. "We got to see players like (Wilt) Chamberlain and Walt Frazier come in and play. Sometimes they'd have doubleheaders and you'd see two games. It was like a kid's dream."
Unlike his brothers, who attended inner-city high schools, Lee was bussed to school in suburban Lexington, an hour ride from his home between the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods. Since he was playing sports, he often stayed overnight with host families in Lexington.
Lee was the captain and lifeblood of the basketball team, leading Lexington to a 51-0 record and back-to-back state championships as a junior and senior. He threw the javelin a New England-record 234 feet and played goalkeeper for the soccer team one season, earning team MVP honors. Ronnie never played for the school's football team, though, on father's orders.
"But I played in tackle football games outside of high school," Lee said. "I remember one day we were playing and one kid said, 'Take it easy on me. My knees are sore.' I told the guy, 'You're talking to the wrong person.' I liked contact sports. It was fun for me. I never worried about it."
Lee's high school coach was Rollie Massimino, who would later become head coach at both Villanova and Nevada-Las Vegas. Harter had come to Oregon from Penn in 1970 and used his East Coast connections, along with his relationship with Massimino, to recruit Lee despite a 6-20 record his first season in Eugene, including 0-14 in Pac-8 play.
"The people had a lot to do with it," Lee said of choosing the Ducks. "And I liked the idea that we were playing in the Pac-8 against teams like USC and UCLA. At the time, UCLA was the No. 1 team in the country — what a challenge. With Oregon being at the bottom, we said, 'The only way to go is up.'"
Lee, chiseled even as a freshman, entered college the first season in which freshmen were eligible for varsity play. In Harter's system that season, all freshmen started with the junior varsity. Lee lasted one day.
"The first day, I practiced with the JVs," Lee said. "Then I watched the varsity practice and thought, 'I want to stay down.' It was so intense, so hard. But when I went up there, I realized that's the way it was going to be for four years, and I enjoyed it.
"I was used to it, playing for Coach Massimino. He was just as intense as Coach Harter at the defensive end. I liked the guys we had, the program. I wish Doug Little could have stayed longer. He was definitely the type of player we wanted. He played the way Coach Harter wanted."
Little — a burly 6-3 forward known as "Cowboy" — was a senior during Lee's freshman season.
"We were co-MVPs on that team, which I thought was a big deal," said Little, retired and living in Eugene. "To be put in the same category with Ronnie was an honor. He was very unselfish, very talented. His defense was second to none. His hustle was second to none. He was the guy I most enjoyed playing with in my four years at Oregon.
"Like me, he had a sixth sense to know where the ball was going and how to get it to you. We were the locomotives who drove the train."
Lee drove it for three more years, aided by such talent as Greg Ballard, Stu Jackson and Ernie Kent.
"Ronnie was a phenomenal athlete," said Kent, who was a year behind Lee but played three seasons with him at Oregon. 'He could have played pro soccer or football, given his strength and toughness.
"He was a grown man compared to the rest of us, one of the best players in college basketball at the time because of how hard he played, how tough he was, and such a competitor. He was just a winner. He would claw and scrape to beat you. I don't care if it was basketball, poker or whatever you were playing, he was going to beat you."
Lee did it often. During his career, Oregon went 81-41 overall and 33-23 in conference play. But only one Pac-8 team advanced to the 32-team NCAA Tournament in those days, and it was always UCLA. During Lee's junior year, the Ducks were 21-9 and reached the NIT semifinals, and he was named the postseason tournament's MVP. His senior season, Oregon was 19-11 and 10-4 and tied for second in the Pac-8.
Lee was a four-time first-team all-Pac-8 selection and a second-team All-American as a junior and senior. He was the first Pac-8 Player of the Year as a senior in 1975-76.
Lee's scoring consistency was astounding — 18.7 points per game as a freshman, 18.8 as a sophomore, 18.4 as a junior and 18.6 as a senior. In his four seasons, Lee scored 2,085 points, grabbed 580 rebounds and dished 543 assists. He owns the school single-game record with 17 assists and once had eight steals in a game. His shooting percentages weren't impressive, though — .418 from the field and .738 from the line.
"Ronnie wasn't a great shooter, but he hit so many big shots," said Kent, who would go on to serve as head coach at Oregon and Washington State. "He won a lot of games being able to have the toughness to want the ball and make the play at the end. He was such a competitor."
Added ex-UO teammate Rob Closs: "Ronnie wasn't the purest of shooters, but he'd go after his rebound and put it back in better than anybody I've seen. He was relentless. And he made a lot of last-second shots from a long ways out."
Closs played junior varsity his freshman year, then redshirted during Lee's senior season in 1975-76. He often wound up matched up against Lee in practice.
"Some days I'd have great practices against him," said Closs, retired and living in Lake Oswego. "But if I made a jump shot, the next thing I knew, I was going to be on my butt. He didn't like that very much.
"Ronnie was everybody's idol. He was built like a Greek god, and it was all natural. He was a very charismatic guy. I'd argue Ronnie captivated Eugene like no one other than Steve Prefontaine, and maybe Marcus Mariota. There were divorce cases where the wife would get the car and whatever else and the husband would get the Duck basketball tickets. That was mostly because of Ronnie."
But Lee didn't act like a big shot; far from it.
"One of the nicest guys I've ever met," said Kent, now retired and living in Portland. "Just a tremendous man with his character and personality. When you have that kind of talent, particularly on the stage he was on — the star of the Kamikaze Kids — he would go out of his way to make anyone feel at ease in his presence. He loved kids; he was like a Pied Piper with the kids at the youth camps he worked."
"Hey," said Lee, laughing, "I was a kid myself. Even in college, I'd read my Richie Rich comic books. I love kids and helping them grow."
Lee revels in the memory of playing in Mac Court, which was nicknamed "The Pit."
"You'd have to get into a uniform and walk onto the court to understand what it was like to play there," he said. "We'd be in the locker room downstairs and we could hear the people stomping (in the stands). That alone pumped us up. Then going upstairs and walking through the doors and seeing 10,000 people yelling and cheering — it was unbelievable the support we got.
"When we dived (for loose balls, or just for effect) into the stands, the students would protect us. The opponent would go in (for a loose ball) and it was like the Red Sea. It's an experience I'll never forget."
Lee even liked the "Kamikaze Kids" monikor.
"It fit us, right?" he asked. "We basically gave up our bodies to dive for the ball or play defense."
Lee holds the distinction of being selected in drafts of three pro sports. The NBA Phoenix Suns took him with the 10th pick of the first round in 1976. Despite not playing high school or college football, he was drafted by the NFL's San Diego Chargers in the 12th round. And with only one year of high school soccer experience, he was chosen by the NASL's Portland Timbers in the fourth round.
Ronnie actually gave pro soccer a thought. After he was cut from his last NBA team, the Detroit Pistons, in 1982, he moved to Seattle was going to try out for the Tacoma Stars of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
"Then I moved back to Phoenix and there was an indoor team there that I dressed down for," he said.
Lee's best seasons in the NBA were his first two with the Suns under coach John MacLeod. He made the All-Rookie team and then led the league the next season with 225 steals — still a franchise single-season record — despite playing behind starting guards Paul Westphal and Don Buse.
In Phoenix, he won the Most Popular Player trophy in a vote of the fans. A furniture store offered a free waterbed to the fan who could most accurately guess how many times he would hit the floor in the Suns' 41 home games (it had to be in triple figures). The second year, playing with the likes of Westphal, Alvan Adams, Walter Davis and Garfield Heard, Lee helped the Suns to a 49-33 record. It was the only time he finished an NBA season with a winning record.
"It was the best team I was on, and they used my talent," Lee said. "There were only certain teams I was a fit for. Phoenix was the perfect fit. Those guys could all score. It wasn't so important for me to score (though he was fourth on the team with a 12.2-point average, behind Westphal, Davis and Adams).
"I had the opportunity to do other stuff. I was a team-oriented player. When you're like that, you don't fit in sometimes. When I went to the other teams, it didn't work out as well."
After leaving the NBA in 1982, Lee played three years in Italy, then moved to Sweden as a player and coach and spent almost 20 years there. After he retired as a player — he served as a player-coach for a while — he coached men's, women's and age-group youth teams in the country. To make ends meet, he did a number of menial jobs.
"I worked for a cleaning company, delivered newspapers and worked with kids at a park," Lee said. "Anything I do working in life, it's an experience. Then you appreciate the people who do those jobs."
Lee met his wife, Karin, in Sweden. They've been a couple for 33 years, though she is living in Southern California. She is the mother of Ronnie's two youngest children — Cassandra, 32, and Ron Jr., 25 — who were born in Sweden and live with him.
Ronnie's oldest daughter — Clarice Hayward-Lee, 36 — competed in track and field for Oregon in early 2000s; when she graduated, she was fifth on the school triple-jump list, and she still ranks ninth in the event indoors.
Cassandra and Ron Jr. spent most of their formative years in Sweden but speak flawless English.
"I have the only accent we have in the family, because I'm from Boston," Ronnie said, smiling. "When people out here ask me what position I played, I say, 'I play gawd.' They say, "God?" I have to go, 'I play the G-spot, OK?' Because they can't understand me."
Lee said he enjoyed living in Sweden.
"It's very family-oriented," he said. "I loved the weather. The winters reminded me of Boston. I picked up snow-skiing at the age of 47. I wasn't as good as my kids, but I was able to get up and down a mountain. And thank God I knew how to fall."
About 2005, Lee moved to Oak Park, California, in Ventura County, primarily for his two youngest kids, who liked the weather and the challenge of playing basketball against better competition. Ron Jr. wound up playing at Arizona Western JC and Central Methodist, an NAIA school in Missouri.
"He's a better player than I was," said Ronnie, who worked in maintenance for a Marriott Hotel in nearby Agoura Hills for 12 years. "The difference between him and me, I'd run my own mother over. I don't know if he would. After the game, I'm there with a Coke and a smile. During the game, I'm out there to win."
In late 2017, the Lees moved north to Eugene.
"It's changed a lot since the '70s," Ronnie said. "The people haven't. I still enjoy the people and everything else. But now they're playing at Matt (Knight) Arena instead of Mac Court. The facility is unbelievable. The locker room is huge. I said, 'If they had this when I was playing, I'd have lived here.'"
Lee is in great shape. He remains close to his NBA playing weight of 230 and still plays pick-up ball at the Eugene Rec Center three days a week.
"I go in Monday, Wednesday and Friday and play with the young kids, including my son," he said. "I go shoot with Cassandra on Fridays. She beats me (in shooting games) sometimes. We play tennis Tuesdays and Thursdays. I can't see myself walking or running for exercise. That's just not me."
Lee attends both men's and women's games at Matt Knight Arena.
"I love watching the girls play," he said. "They play so well together. It's unbelievable. My daughter's in love with that team."
Does Lee really sleep only three hours a night?
"I hate to say, but yes," he acknowledged. "Last night, I went to bed around 4:30 (a.m.). Bot up around 7. It varies. Sometimes I have to force myself to go to sleep. A lot of times I just stay up and watch TV until 4."
The ever-present energy Lee had as a kid remains.
"It's just something that I've always had," he said. "If I'm not doing one thing, I'm doing the other. My mother used to say if she heard the ambulance, she'd head straight for the hospital, because it had to be one of us kids."
Lee is a grandfather now to boys aged 6 and 4.
"They're a lot of fun," he said. "I'm lucky. I'm still friends with my former teammates, from Stu Jackson to Ernie Kent to Greg Graham to Doug Little. I try to keep in contact with them. I mean, I've been blessed. I don't need anything. I don't have a bucket list. I've done everything I want to do."
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