Loping interloper with more fundamentals than flash. And boy did he work.
Words By Sam Farmer. Illustration By Victor Juhasz
25 Oct 2018
Not until I spoke to him recently did I realize I had a kindred spirit in one of my favorite players of the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers: the bespectacled Kurt Rambis ’80, whose Clark Kent glasses and Superman abandon when diving for loose balls made him a cult hero. Both of us had a history of basketball break-ins. His came during his playing career at Santa Clara, when the 6-foot-8 forward would sneak into the Leavey Center during off-hours.
“I used to break into the basketball arena all the time,” said Rambis, 60, who served as associate head coach of the New York Knicks through last spring. “We were playing in there whenever it was closed. Doors in the back didn’t lock tight, and if you pulled on them hard enough … or we’d put a little piece of wadded-up paper in there so the latch wouldn’t work.”
For Rambis, all that clandestine practice paid off: West Coast Conference Player of the Year in 1980, and still among SCU’s all-time leading scorers and rebounders. He was selected in the third round by the Knicks, who cut him that summer. He signed with a pro team in Greece, won a championship, and planned to come back for a second season. He was playing summer league ball in San Francisco in 1981 when the Lakers called.
The Lakers already had forwards Jim Brewer and Mark Landsberger and had just signed Mitch Kupchak to a 15-year deal. Rambis had no interest in simply being a camp body.
“I told them, ‘I’m not an idiot. I’m not coming down there to try out,’” he said.
But when head coach Paul Westhead called to praise his grit and toughness, all but assuring him a roster spot, Rambis relented.
“He said, ‘Look, if you just come down to camp and focus on defense and rebounding and initiating a break for me, I promise you’ll have a good chance of making this team,’” Rambis said. “So my mindset is, I’m not going there to be some punk rookie that you’re going to beat up on. You’re not going to be trying to get in shape on me. Because I’m here to kick your ass.”
Though the Lakers were fresh off an NBA title, Rambis wasn’t about to play lifeless traffic cone for the likes of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He had come to earn a job.
“One day I looked around and said, ‘Who’s this guy in the glasses that’s blocking all my shots?’” Johnson told the New York Times. “Then I saw he was pushin’ and shovin’. He even riled the Big Fella a couple of times. I said, ‘Hmmm, this boy can play.’”
At the same time, NBA teams increased their rosters from 11 players to 12, which created more opportunity for guys like Rambis. He made the team and saw a significant uptick in playing time after Kupchak suffered a devastating knee injury 26 games into the 1981–82 season.
Those were the years I used to sneak into the Fabulous Forum to watch games. Typically, a tip to an underpaid usher did the trick. While I was sneaking into the Lakers, Rambis was sneaking onto the Lakers. He was a loping interloper, a shaggy-haired sheepdog surrounded by greyhounds. “I wasn’t part of the Laker team in terms of the grace and athleticism, the speed and quickness,” he said. “I stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Those horn-rimmed glasses were the most distinctive part of that. He wore that nerdy style on the court since he was a rough-and-tumble kid in Cupertino—when his dad, a high school teacher and coach, got tired of paying for replacement frames.
“He went to Gemco, a department store, and asked the optometrist, ‘Do you have an indestructible pair of glasses?’” Rambis said. “They were indestructible. They could lay 180 degrees flat and they still wouldn’t break.”
Rambis, too, was virtually unbreakable. He skidded all over the court, traded elbows with the biggest and roughest players in the league, and plunged into the seats after loose balls. At the Forum, that sometimes meant a dive into a mosh pit of celebrities and other beautiful people, his size 15 Asics splaying this way and that.
Take Game 5 of the 1985 NBA Finals. “There was that IndyCar driver Danny Sullivan,” Rambis recalled. “When I dove through the crowd—I remember seeing him.” But he doesn’t remember seeing the woman with him. “The way I dove, I twisted and I could feel my heel swinging back. There was nothing to do to stop the momentum.”
His heel hit her hard in the face. He apologized. An influential Lakers fan took note. Meanwhile, the momentum of the game shifted, and the Lakers won.
“President Reagan made some comment about it when we went to the White House,” Rambis said. “He said, ‘The Lakers are not only a great team, but they’re also a polite team … like when Kurt Rambis kicked a woman in the face and said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
For many, the most memorable play involving Rambis came in Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals, when he was driving in for a layup and Boston’s Kevin McHale upended him with an unapologetic clothesline tackle. In a sign of the anything-goes times, McHale wasn’t even assessed a technical foul.
“If that happened today, he would have missed the rest of the playoffs,” Rambis said. “I’m going in for a layup, and I’m fully expecting that there’s going to be a hard foul. I’m not thinking I’m just going to waltz in there and lay this ball up … I don’t think Kevin McHale ever meant to hit me that high or flip me like that. It was just an unfortunate circumstance.”
There’s no question Rambis was relentless, something that fueled his 14-year NBA career, one that took him from Los Angeles (1981–88), to Charlotte (1988–89), to Phoenix (1989–91), to Sacramento (1991–93), and back to the Lakers (1993–95). He was inducted into Santa Clara’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1994, and the Broncos retired his No. 34 jersey in 2009.
All the while, he was the Everyman, someone who carved out a career more because of his hard work than his raw talent. He was about fundamentals over flash.
SAM FARMER writes for the Los Angeles Times and has been named California Sportswriter of the Year.
The fan club bore his name, but Kurt Rambis initially wasn’t sure what to make of “Rambis Youth.” He thought the cluster of teenagers wearing those geeky, horn-rimmed glasses, chanting and clutching homemade signs, were out to make fun of him as the fish-out-of-water misfit on the Los Angeles Lakers. So Rambis, then in his first season with the team, arranged a lunch at the Forum Club with the kids to tell them to cool it.
“I think they’re mocking me,” Rambis recalls. “I just wanted to kind of politely ask, ‘Hey, you guys are Laker fans, could you please just knock it off?’ But when I walked in the room they were so excited. It was, ‘You’re the best! I don’t care about Kareem or Magic! You’re the driving force of the Lakers!’”
Once Rambis figured out those four-eyed fans were wearing those specs as an homage to him, rather than to spoof him, he essentially embraced them. He arranged for that group of friends from La Puente’s Bishop Amat High School to come to every Lakers home game they could—including the NBA Finals.
That’s not to say they had seats. Sometimes Rambis would instruct a security guard to let the guys into the game, with the idea that the five to ten club members would squeeze into seats with the Lakers band. Other times, Linda Rambis would pass her ticket back out once she had already gotten in.
Those kids suddenly had access to the hottest ticket in town.
“It was incredible,” said Dan Casey, 52, a founding member of Rambis Youth and now an executive at Universal Pictures. “He invited us to his house, and we met his wife, and they were just the nicest people in the world to us.”
The club was formed in 1981, Rambis’ first year with the Lakers, after there was a dismissive line about him in Sports Illustrated. Brothers Dan and Scott Casey wanted to stand up for the underdog, so they bought eight nosebleed tickets to a game against Seattle. They gathered a group of friends—all of whom donned those glasses—and carried a bedsheet with Rambis Youth painted on it. Every time they raised the sign to the crowd, they got a roar of approval.
“We thought we were only going to do it one time,” said Scott Casey, 55, who now sells health insurance. “But we got such a good response, we had to keep coming back.”
Most of their chants and signs would have been rated PG-13, but some could pass muster for family broadcasts. They needled Boston’s Cedric Maxwell with a sign reading, Maxwell is just dirt when compared to Kurt. Or, after Bill Laimbeer and the Detroit Pistons lost to L.A. in the finals it was, The Lakers will be sipping champagne, and all Detroit has is Lame Beer.
When Celtics legendary play-by-play man Johnny Most made an unflattering comment about Rambis that got back to the club, Rambis Youth stood behind him during the pregame show and rode him mercilessly, chanting throughout his show.
“Kurt was a guy that was willing to do the dirty work,” Dan Casey said. “Always had nothing but effort when he was on the court. We gravitated to that. And just the fact that we thought he was being overlooked. We just wanted to make sure people understood the role he played on that team.”