It’s jerseys to the rafters for basketball stars Kurt Rambis ’80 and Melissa King ’93.
Kurt Rambis ’80
Kurt Rambis comes home for a ceremony retiring his jersey.
By Sam Scott ’96
Twenty-nine years after graduating, Kurt Rambis still ranks in the school’s top 10 in more than a dozen categories, including fourth in block shots, second in career rebounds, and first in total scoring. “He was of the greatest competitors we ever had,” says Carroll Williams, the team’s head coach who recruited the quiet kid from nearby Cupertino High School.
In December last year, Santa Clara paid tribute to Rambis, retiring his jersey during half-time of the opening round of the Cable Car Classic. The honor had been delayed for years because of Rambis’ hectic schedule as assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. But Rambis called the postponement a blessing that allowed his three children—two sons recently out of college and a daughter in high school—to appreciate the event.
They joined his wife Linda, his parents, and other family members to watch the unveiling of his No. 34 alongside the jerseys of six other greats, including Steve Nash ’96 and Dennis Awtrey ’70. “It’s very humbling,” Rambis said before the ceremony. And in typical fashion, he pointed out that Awtrey would likely be top scorer if freshmen had played in his era.
A much-sought recruit, Rambis opted to stay close to home largely because of Williams, “one of the best minds in the college game.” But Rambis, a psychology major, also praised Santa Clara for its education, its values, and its accessible gym, which he often snuck into.
The admission came as no surprise to his coach. His star player clearly had natural gifts; Williams remembers Rambis playing racquetball using both hands with equal ease. But Rambis’s greatest asset was squeezing every ounce out of his abilities through unrelenting practice, Williams says.
“We always said he had basketball sickness,” Williams says. “He was an absolute gym rat.”
Hustle and Show
It was that hustle that propelled Rambis to the next level—and to stardom with one of basketball’s greatest dynasties : the “Showtime” Lakers.
Just a couple years out of college, Rambis’ glory seemed past. Drafted by the New York Knicks, he was cut before playing a game, ending up with a team in Greece and mulling medical school. He eked onto the Lakers the next year, largely thanks to a rule expanding rosters from 11 to 12 men, but his future remained so unsure he slept on the couch of Santa Clara grad Rich Brown ’77, rather than get his own place. Then star Mitch Kupchak went down with a knee injury, and Coach Pat Riley started burning through the bench looking for a replacement.
When Rambis got the call, it was less out of hope than desperation. Riley barely seemed to know his name, yelling to him, “Hey you, get in!” while Indiana Pacer’s star Herb Williams man-handled the team, Rambis remembers.
But Rambis found a way to make life hard for the Pacers’ Williams. And the benchwarmer was on his way to the first of seven NBA championships, four as a player, three as an executive and coach.
|Coach and Kurt: Carroll Williams and Rambis.
Photo: Charles Barry
Not that anyone would have expected it. With his horn-rimmed glasses, mullet hair cut, and fondness for T-shirts and sandals, Rambis always looked like a regular Joe let in by mistake. And these were the Showtime Lakers, famed for the grace, pace, and creativity of Magic Johnson no-look passes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skyhooks, and James Worthy spin moves. The glitz needed grit, though, and Rambis supplied it, throwing his body in to do the dirty work and winning praise from Riley as the team’s emotional engine.
YouTube keeps alive one of Rambis’ most famous moments: a savage foul by Boston Celtic Kevin McHale, who clotheslines the streaking Rambis into the floor as the Laker goes for a fast-break layup. The brutal hit in the 1984 NBA Finals epitomized not only the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, but the toughness of Rambis, who bounces up ready to fight.
“His effort level was off the charts,” says Stu Lantz, the Lakers’ longtime television announcer. “He was always doing the hustle plays, chasing loose balls, diving in the stands, setting picks, taking charges, running down the floor. You don’t see those in the box score, but they’re very important to winning and losing.”
The everyman hustle delighted fans. Suddenly legions of Rambis Youth were showing up at games wearing knock-offs of his hallmark glasses. Announcer Chick Hearn picked up on the likeness to Clark Kent, dubbing Rambis “Superman.”
For the quiet-natured Rambis, it required an adjustment. For him growing up, the glasses were a source of torment that he accepted as the only way he could play sports; his family couldn’t afford to pay for fashion if it didn’t last.
He once asked Lakers public relations staffer to gather the Rambis Youth so he could ask them to stop the mockery—before realizing these were his biggest fans.
“Certainly I didn’t try to be an icon,” he says. “If you would have had as much ridicule and teasing for those black glasses as I had, there’s no way you would want to wear those things.”
These days the glasses are long gone, thanks to corrective surgery. So is the casual dress that prompted Riley to enforce a Lakers dress code. Standing at center court in the Leavey Center for his jersey retirement, a clean-shaven, dark-suited Rambis could have been a corporate executive.
But if the exterior has been refined, the will to win rages as strong as ever. As an assistant under Phil Jackson, Rambis took over as defensive specialist in the 2008-09 season, earning praise for toughening up the Lakers.
“The hard work he did a player he does as a coach,” Lantz says. “He was a hard-nosed player. Who better to teach defense?”
A teacher’s son, Rambis loves coaching, working with the players, and creating a team. There had been talk of him coming to Santa Clara, but Rambis has his eyes on a head-coaching position in the NBA. It’s just a matter of getting the chance.
Rambis may soon have other ties with Santa Clara, however. The retirement ceremony in December doubled as chance for his daughter, a high school senior in the fall, to see the Mission campus.
There was no immediate decision, but the tour impressed Rambis, who hadn’t been on campus in about six years. If Santa Clara looked in 1976 like it does now, he says, he would have spared Williams the drama of dragging out his decision to the last minute.
Melissa King ’93
Still No. 1
Melissa King ’93 holds the record in six categories for women’s basketball. Her latest honor: the first player to have her jersey retired.
By Sam Scott ’96
|Drive: King takes the ball past Portland in March ’93.
Photo: Charles Barry
As a collegiate head coach for 17 seasons, Caren Horstmeyer mentored scores of young players. She doesn’t hesitate to name the best: “Melissa King is the most driven, disciplined, hard-working, best player I have had the opportunity to coach,” says Horstemeyer, who spent 12 years coaching Santa Clara before taking the helm at UC Berkeley.
King’s accomplishments speak for themselves, leaving no wonder as to why this February she became the first woman—and only the eighth player— to have her jersey raised into the rafters of the Leavey Center. Sixteen years after graduating, King remains No. 1 in six categories, including steals, three-point percentage, and scoring with 1,798 points—63 more than the leading men’s scorer, future NBA star Kurt Rambis ’80. She is in the top 10 in another half dozen fields.
Impressive stuff, though the former star turned full-time mom doesn’t seem inclined to bask in the glory for too long. “Maybe I shot more than anybody,” she says with a laugh.
Her records are even more astounding than they appear at first, given she only played three seasons, red-shirting her first year after transferring from Fresno State. She used the downtime to improve her game and to play soccer, helping the Santa Clara women to their first appearance in the national semifinals and winning “most improved” in the process.
In basketball, she earned an honorable mention as a Kodak All- American, the first in the program’s history, and won West Coast Conference Player of the Year in 1991 and 1993.
Perhaps the most telling testimony to King’s greatness was how she rallied her team. The year before she put on a Broncos basketball uniform, Santa Clara went 9 and 17. The next season the 5-foot-six guard took them to a 28-3 record and the Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship.
“Melissa King is a winner in everything she does,” Horstmeyer says. “It was contagious to other people.”
|Shining bright: Melissa King flanked by SCU Director of Athletics Dan Coonan and former coach Caren Horstmeyer
Photo: John Medina
In 1993, the only options for women’s pro ball were overseas, too far for a self-confessed homebody from Marin County. So after graduating, King worked as an assistant coach at Cal and later back at Santa Clara. She loved helping young players but ultimately found life on the road too much.
Leaving the game was hard, she says. But one of the reasons she practiced with such fervor at Santa Clara was she never wanted to look back thinking she hadn’t done all she could have. “I sleep well,” she says.
She worked in web design for nearly five years before beginning to raise a family. And these days Melissa Fisher, her married name, lives in San Carlos with husband Joe ’92 and their own starting line-up: five kids, ages 2 to 9.
The children keep her too busy to dwell on past glory. All but the youngest of their kids attended the jersey retirement ceremony, a moment that seemed to impress her 7-year-old son the most.
“You shot a 3-pointer, Mom?” he asked—after the announcer read off King’s accomplishments, including her perch as Santa Clara’s most deadly long-range shooter. Her son was, however, already familiar with Steve Nash ’96 (who was actually slightly less accurate from behind the 3-point arc) and thrilled his mother’s jersey would be along side the NBA star’s.
“Maybe I’ll shine a little brighter in his eyes,” King says.
Sam Scott ’96 is an award-winning journalist based in San Francisco.