Ronnie Lee has a nice belly button.
That’s what I remember from an April afternoon at Mac Court in 1974. I got a good look at his navel maybe a dozen times as he leapt above or flashed past me. He wore a dark t-shirt that rode up when he jumped, revealing said belly button, which spent a ridiculous amount of time dead even with my eyes.
Lee had flubber in his shoes. Two months before our pickup game, he leapt to the Mac Court balconies and hooked the ball down over Bill Walton to score in Oregon’s stunning win over UCLA’s national champions. Lee hung in the air forever that night, as if breathing pure helium.
Playing him in an impromptu game two months later, I can say: Once Lee soared, he could field dress a deer before he came down. “Excuse me, Mr. Lee. Sorry to trouble you. But would you be ever so kind as to let us know when you are coming back to the court?”
On that spring day, Lee moved from “gifted athlete” in my eyes to the exalted status of gym rat.
These days “gym rat” has a different meaning. Modern usage says it’s someone devoted to fitness and staying in shape.
In my day, it meant someone who spent every waking hour in they gym working on basketball skills. They often weren’t the most gifted athletes. But they were relentless practicers. Payton Pritchard: gym rat.
Gym Rats: Pritchard, VanSlooten, Rigsby
This isn’t meant to demean gifted athletes. They work hard developing their talents. But when you watch them, you see that God gave them special abilities.
Gym rats are different. They might not be as naturally talented. But they dribble in the garage until their hands bleed — on the way to becoming a Boston Celtic.
The distinction seems relevant now after watching 10 or so games by Oregon’s basketball teams.
Newcomer MBB player Brennan Rigsby is a gym rat. Women’s newcomer Grace VanSlooten, mondo gym rat.
Lee earned the distinction in a way that admittedly isn’t entirely aligned with the qualifications in evidence here. He clearly was graced with talent.
But he got my gym rat label because of what happened on that April afternoon nearly a half century ago.
I worked at the Oregon Daily Emerald campus newspaper. Our sports editor told us that on Saturday afternoons the doors to Mac Court were sometimes open. One sunny Saturday, four of us headed up there. We played half-court at the north basket, two-on-two, one point per basket, keep the ball if you score, first to 15 wins. The place was utterly empty. Every bounce echoed off the hanging balconies.
Ronnie Lee Wants to Play Pickup With Us?
Then Lee walked in. He came through the north doors on University Street and headed southeast across the floor, going to an appointment. He wore a light jacket over a dark t-shirt, with brown pants and rubber-soled street shoes.
Part way across the court, he stopped.
Hey, he said, I’ve got a little time. Can I play?
Ronnie Lee. Can he play with us at Mac Court?
Could Jesus pray with us at St. Peter’s?
Someone pointed out that we would have five players total.
That’s okay, Lee said. Give me one and we’ll play the other three.
Lee is 6-4. The tallest guy on our team was 6-2ish. The shortest was maybe 5-9. Guess who we gave him.
We lost the first game 15-2. Lee, still in street shoes, mostly shot from outside or sliced through three of us for lay-ins.
Say Hello to His Navel
Game two, he moved to the post. That’s when I got to know his navel. He had mad back-to-basket moves, which, incidentally, were entirely unneeded. If we collapsed on him, he simply jumped straight up, twisted to face the basket and swish.
But he kept working back to basket, with drop steps and fakes to up-and-unders. He was working his skills, over and over. That’s when it hit me. He’s a gym rat. He hadn’t come to Mac Court that day intending to play. But he had a few minutes and couldn’t help himself.
The second game ended early at 13-0. Lee apologized but he had to leave. That was lucky for him because, as I later decided, we had been about to go on an epic run to win the game.
The whole point of that story is gym rats. Watching Rigsby and VanSlooten this season is a joy. It’s been a while for either team. And it has me wondering. Who were the most memorable gym rats in Oregon history? I’d love to know who the Forum Irregulars consider their favorites. And as a tiebreaker: Is Sabrina a gym rat?
My answers: Luke Jackson and Sabrina (duh).
Love to hear from others.
Los Angeles, California
Top photo: Cover of Ducks Illustrated magazine
Bob Rodes, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester, Tennessee.
Drex came to Oregon from the Alaska bush at a time that Dan Fouts, Ahmad Rashad and future New York Giant great George Martin (a freshman dorm mate) roamed Autzen. He was Emerald editor-in-chief before going on to a 44-year career at newspapers in New York, Alaska, Nevada and California. He spent half of his career at the Los Angeles Times, including stints in New York and Washington D.C. bureaus, where he was foreign affairs editor.
Drex worked in news, not sports, but did occasionally indulge his passion for football and once covered a tickertape parade for the New York Yankees. He directed investigative stories in 2008 that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service. He retired in Los Angeles but has a season seat at Autzen and flies up for most home games.
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