fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

'Mad Hoops': The story of Oregon's Kamikaze Kids

Bruce Roberts didn’t immediately know what he had.

The young sports editor of the Ashland Tidings took a break from his normal small-town newspapering duties and went to Eugene to photograph a men’s basketball game: Top-ranked UCLA, coached by John Wooden and spearheaded by Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes, was up against Dick Harter’s Kamikaze Kids, the notorious crew that turned the Pac-8 Conference on its head for a half-dozen years or so.

Roberts, then 25, settled in on the north baseline at McArthur Court with his relatively bare-bones camera equipment — “I didn’t have a motor drive or anything,” he says now — and went about capturing the action.

As described in a recently published book, “Mad Hoops,” a chronicle of that bombastic Ducks era by longtime Eugene Register-Guard sports writer Bud Withers, the game was particularly contentious.

UCLA had won 66 straight games and was on the way to another undefeated season and the Bruins’ seventh straight national championship.

Harter’s hell-bent, always entertaining, often maniacal approach to the game had gained steam and was on full display, “... the first real broadside fired by the Harter regime against UCLA,” writes Withers.

It was February 1973, Harter’s second year of seven with Oregon.

Debris flew from the stands at “The Pit.” Walton was reportedly roughed up when action spilled into the stands. Wooden would later chastise the Ducks for their combative style that seemed rooted in wrestling rather than basketball.

On the baseline, Roberts clicked away. UCLA triumphed, 72-61.

Afterward, he drove to Ashland and developed film for the next day’s afternoon Tidings. Among the images was a photo of a bunch of Ducks sprawled on the floor, keeping with their frenetic foundation. Walton was on the floor, too, and Wilkes, who later changed his first name to Jamaal, stood over the carnage.

“I just got a lucky shot,” says Roberts, who worked at the Tidings until 1977, and later for a couple years at the Mail Tribune while in the midst of a 40-year real estate career in Ashland. “That’s what it was, total luck.

“In those days, you had to go home and develop your own film. You didn’t know what you had until you did that.”

On this occasion, it was like finding a pearl in an oyster.

Roberts showed the photo to his wife, Pokii, and she made another find.

“I said, ‘Look, there’s four guys on the floor,’” recalls Roberts, “and she said, ‘Well, who’s that guy over there?’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Doug Little.’ There’s all five of them on the floor. I didn’t even pick up on it at first, but she noticed them.”

There were Ronnie Lee, Mark Barwig, Gerald Willet and Billy Ingram. And, mostly obscured, “Cowboy” Doug Little, with his head poking from the fray.

After the photo ran in the Tidings, Roberts contacted Blaine Newnham, sports editor of the Register-Guard, and offered it for use. Roberts had worked as a copy boy at the Oakland Tribune a few years earlier when Newnham was the beat writer for the NFL Raiders.

The photo “epitomized what kamikaze basketball was all about,” says Roberts.

Newnham had lunch with Harter that week. He told the coach of the photo, and Harter insisted on having it.

“It was just kind of a fluky thing the way it came about,” says Roberts, who retired from real estate a couple years ago and lives in Ashland.

As happenstance would have it, Roberts and Harter crossed paths in 2007 at a Pac-12 Conference Hall of Honor ceremony. Harter and former Cal basketball player Russ Critchfield were among those inducted. Roberts attended because he and Critchfield are close friends.

Roberts introduced himself to Harter and mentioned the iconic photo, which graced offices, posters and a media guide back in the day, and now is a mural in the Ducks’ new home, Matthew Knight Arena.

“He just went off,” says Roberts. “He goes, ‘Oh, my God, I love that picture. That was the greatest picture ever,’ really laying it on pretty thick. He got a kick out of it though that we actually met 30 years after the fact, or even longer. So that was kind of fun.”

The photo is also the cover of Withers’ book, which includes this summary of “Mad Hoops”: “The dizzying, floor-burning ride of the Kamikaze Kids of 1970s Oregon.”

A chapter is devoted to Roberts, titled, “The Accidental Shooter.”

‘Mad Hoops’ comes together

Withers enjoyed a hall-of-fame writing career, spanning 45 years at three Northwest newspapers. "Mad Hoops" is his fifth book, but even after 17 years in Eugene, followed by a lengthy stint at the Seattle Times, it didn’t occur to him to write about Dick Harter’s Ducks until recently.

Withers never had the Oregon basketball beat. He covered the Ducks in football but always had Oregon State as his hoops specialty. He wasn’t at the epicenter of the Kamikaze Kids, but he was a desk or two away from those who were.

“Inevitably,” says Withers, “you still kind of had a front-row seat. It was such a hot item. God, just by osmosis, you kind of knew what was going on.”

The sports editor, the beat writer or the columnist might return from a Harter encounter.

“You’d hear things all the time,” says Withers. “... It seeped into my consciousness.”

About four years ago, Withers had lunch with friends in Corvallis, among them Darrell Aune, the former voice of the Beavers. Rick Coutin was there, too.

Coutin was an Oregon State cheerleader Harter tripped during an infamous 1974 game in Corvallis. He carried the Chancellor’s Trophy, which went to the winner of the series each year, as he triumphantly circled the court in the final seconds. Harter stuck out his foot, Coutin went down, the trophy was dented.

Years later, Coutin was more than happy to relive the episode over lunch.

Soon after, Withers visited with a former Seattle Times colleague, “a big Duck fan,” he says, and stories of that 1970s era began anew.

The trappings of a book were evident.

“Mad Hoops” is 302 pages, with 23 pages of photos. One of them is the apology letter Harter sent Coutin after the tripping incident, a game Withers attended.

“I always thought it would be difficult to do a book if you really didn’t know anything about it,” says Withers. “It would be hard to know it as well as you can without having experienced some of it. In this case, I knew so much of it, just sort of reflexively, that it really helped to be able to fill in cracks when you knew what questions to ask and stuff like that.”

The result is an entertaining, detailed look at an eminently complex and tough-minded coach and his players, some of whom bought in and were perfect Harter charges — rugged, thick-skinned, resilient, willing to bring the ugly, and the pain, when instructed — and those who weren’t.

In this case, and with no small amount of irony, the Kamikaze Kids were survivors, unlike their namesakes, suicidal Japanese pilots of World War II.

The moniker was bestowed on the Ducks by Wichita State coach Harry Miller following Game 2 of Harter’s second year, 1972-73. Oregon routed the Shockers, 92-72.

“They play more aggressive than Kamikaze pilots did during World War II,” said Miller. “I have never seen a basketball team go after you like that that physical. That type of play puts basketball back where it used to be, 25 or 30 years ago. If we keep messing with it, it will be a game we’re not very proud of.”

Withers believes that christening fed into Harter’s self-perception and it must be fulfilled. The nickname “represented a way of doing things that was different, and Harter fully embraced the notion of being different,” he wrote.

Ken Stringer, who has a home and business in Medford, was Harter’s first Oregon recruit. He recently cited the coach’s predilection for aggressive, physical defense.

“We had a class of six guys that year, but only three of us made it,” says Stringer, who bought Siskiyou Buckle Company in Ashland nearly two decades ago and a short time later moved it to a Medford warehouse. “It was tough. I stuck it out because I loved Eugene.”

Early in “Mad Hoops,” Withers contends the Harter era was the most controversial in Pac-8 history. Because, he writes, the Kamikaze Kids were: “Endearing. Frustrating. Likable. Paradoxical. Hot. Cold. Ambitious. Dispiriting. Industrious. Overachieving. Underachieving. And always: Captivating.”

There are backstories galore, of road trips and practices, of contentious, high-administration squabbles and family matters — including Harter’s not-so-surreptitious nocturnal dalliances — of recruiting wins and losses and the backgrounds of those who were lured thousands of miles to the Willamette Valley.

Harter, too, was lured here, the Ducks pulling off a bit of a coup when they crisscrossed the country to find a replacement for Steve Belko in the spring of 1971. Harter had gone unbeaten in the Ivy League two straight years at Penn and was 53-3 overall those seasons, twice making the NCAA Tournament and once, 1970-71, the Elite Eight.

In the book, Withers offers three explanations as to why Harter came west: Penn’s time at the top could soon expire; the challenge of being in the same conference as UCLA; confidence in his ability to recruit.

Once in Eugene, Harter became larger than life in a small college town. For all the attention, however, all the talent, Oregon’s success was in fits and starts.

Throw out his first team, in 1971-72, when the Ducks were winless in the Pac-8 and 6-20 overall, and Oregon averaged 18 wins, 10 losses the other six seasons. It never made the NCAAs, never won the Pac-8 and had only one 20-win campaign, going 21-9 in 1974-75 and placing third in the National Invitation Tournament.

Often, a robust nonconference record gave way to middling results in the Pac-8. Much of that was related to disparate levels of competition; some of it, perhaps, was because the more the Ducks lost as the year ground on, the longer and harder they worked in practice.

And it’s likely no other teams’ practices were as arduous.

By the end of Harter’s regime, he had players climbing ropes to the Mac Court rafters and holding bricks with arms outstretched while doing defensive slides for up to 45 minutes.

There were other workout mainstays, such as Harter on the baseline rolling a ball between two players, who dove in unison for possession. In the book, Stringer says, when he developed painful floor burns on one side, he switched to landing on the other — until he realized it prevented him from sleeping on either side.

Thereafter, no matter how bad a side got, he stayed on it to preserve the other.

Also, players took charges from a line of teammates. They did “17s,” covering the width of the floor that many times in a minute or doing them again. They did “bounces,” running in place and suddenly dropping to the hardwood, over and over.

Paul Halupa, a Belko holdover on Harter’s first team, heard practices would be taxing.

The first one, he says in the book, “... felt sort of like a week’s worth in a day.”

On that inaugural day, assistant coach Dick Stewart handed each player a match. If they had energy at practice’s end to strike it, they should burn all their press clippings.

“Nothing you’ve done in the past matters,” he told them.

As Withers writes, welcome to Dick Harter’s Ducks.

One could argue Harter’s best team was the 1975-76 squad that featured eventual first-round NBA selections Ronnie Lee (a senior) and Greg Ballard (a junior). They were complemented by senior guard Mark Barwig and junior forwards Ernie Kent and Stu Jackson.

However, it was the team the year before, with essentially the same cast, that climbed to unprecedented heights, only to come crashing down.

The chapter on that squad? “The Season From Hell.”

The Ducks of 1974-75 began in late June with an exhibition trip to Australia, playing 19 games over nearly a month’s time, an eternity by today’s standards of foreign trips. Withers wrote that months later, “There would be an unseen cost of the long, team-building tour.”

When the actual season began, Oregon won its first 10 contests, including three to capture the Far West Classic in Portland, a rare achievement. It was ranked a program-best seventh in the UPI coaches poll and would get to 15-2 before things unraveled.

Four straight games against UCLA and USC were losses. Then two more defeats to the Bay Area schools.

Oregon righted the ship to win its final three Pac-8 games, then went 4-1 in the NIT to place third.

But there nearly was a mutiny.

After a 107-103 home loss to UCLA, fans turned on the Ducks, and Harter lashed out at the supporters. A few days later, he was arrested for driving under the influence, but the charge was reduced in exchange for a reckless-driving plea. A few days after that, UCLA soundly whipped the Ducks, 95-66, in Los Angeles.

That defeat was a tipping point.

Harter verbally abused his players afterward, singling out some in horrific fashion. Then he abandoned them, didn’t want to see them until the USC game the next night — no meetings, no shootaround, nothing.

Stringer went to Harter’s room and implored him to make amends. Players were on the verge of quitting. The coach was losing the team.

It was among the worst of Harter’s crises, and it took individual sit-downs the following week to patch relations with the players.

Ah, the players.

Withers does a thorough job of profiling them, from the hometowns from whence they were plucked to individual quirks to playing careers and, finally, to where they are now.

Ronnie Lee’s chapter is titled “The Savior.” Taking him away from the Kamikaze Kids would be, wrote Withers, like taking coffee out of mornings.

His on-court, run-through-a-wall persona starkly contrasted with his everyday bearing. The son of a Boston motorcycle cop, his Northeastern brogue was thick, his character unfailing. He was whimsical, had an engaging sense of humor, was unassuming. He’d go to elementary schools and play hoops with kids, and he’d read Richie Rich comic books.

Lee is the longest-standing scoring leader at a Pac-12 school, having finished with 2,085 points in 1976. He also ranks third in Oregon history with 572 assists.

Ballard was a relatively lightly recruited forward out of Southern California who would rise to No. 4 in the NBA draft. He was the team’s best traditional player — shooting, rebounding, passing — but void of flamboyance. His car was a 1960 Pontiac Catalina teammates called the “Green Latrine.”

Kent was a showman who, on the Australia trip, entertained crowds with his dribbling.

Stringer jokes in the book that Kent was a man of a million moves, but 999,998 of them were traveling.

Jackson claimed to be “America’s Guest.” At a time when there were no limits on the number of recruiting visits one could take, the Reading, Pennsylvania, teenager accepted nearly everyone’s invitations. Kent did similarly.

Barwig was, well, detested more than any player in the Pac-8, and it wasn’t even close, writes Withers. His chapter is titled, “Eddie Haskell,” after the character of “Leave It To Beaver” fame.

The 6-foot-4 guard was the one most often called on to “show ‘im the lights,” writes Withers, referring to a staple of Harter’s “toolbox.” It meant, send a forearm across an opposing player’s nose, or something similar, because said player was having his way with the Ducks.

In Barwig’s final trip to Corvallis, OSU students put a bounty on him, but Beaver forward Tim Hennessey admitted he never got his chance to cold-cock the target and collect.

Harter’s final season was 1977-78, and the Ducks were a ho-hum 16-11 overall and 6-8 in the Pac-8. Afterward, he moved back to his roots, coaching five years at Penn State before embarking on a quarter-century NBA career that featured nine stops.

He admitted more than once in subsequent years that he regretted things he’d done at Oregon, both professionally and personally. His do-overs came with different people and in different places.

Harter died in 2012 from cancer at age 81.

Stringer: In the Harter mold

Stringer, Harter’s first recruit but second player — Belko had signed Willet before departing — confirms Harter wished he’d done some things differently in Eugene.

“The one good thing he did early on,” says Stringer, “was that if we didn’t like players when we were recruiting them, we wouldn’t bring them on. We basically had guys that fit together and actually liked being around one another.”

Harter’s downfall, he suspects, was due in part to going after higher-profile players who weren’t as team oriented.

Stringer was very much a team player, to the point, he says, Harter recruited him “to recruit everybody else.” Assistant coach Stewart was the primary recruiter. Once in Eugene, Stringer showed the players around.

A Davenport, Iowa, product, Stringer grew up watching Ralph Miller’s teams at Iowa.

“Then I come out here and play at Oregon,” laughs Stringer, “and I have to see his crusty old face forever. It seems like it was forever, but he was a very good coach.”

Stringer hasn’t yet read “Mad Hoops.” He expects it will be under his Christmas tree.

He’s heard from former teammates Rob Closs and Little, however, and is aware that stories he shared with Withers are strung throughout the book.

A favorite was about Oregon State, not for this particular game’s outcome, certainly. The Beavers’ Rickey Lee banked in a 30-footer to defeat the Ducks in Corvallis, 72-71, in “The Season From Hell,” 1974-75.

“It was just a complete fluke,” says Stringer, noting that Barwig had a hand in Lee’s face. “And they (UO coaches) got completely pissed off.”

Stringer was a 6-foot-6 reserve senior forward, and his parents were on hand for the game, the only one they’d seen in Oregon. The players knew the next day’s practice would be brutal, but with Stringer’s parents visiting, there was hope.

“It was very nice and quiet and respectful while my parents were in the stands,” says Stringer. “Then two assistant coaches assisted them out and into the office, and the coaches just beat on us for an hour. It was awful.”

The Kamikaze Kids had a reunion of sorts during the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans. Jim Haney, Harter’s successor, organized it.

“It was pretty funny,” says Stringer. “The stories were getting pretty crazy.”

Which, of course, was fitting for a time unlike any other in Oregon sports history.

“Mad Hoops” is available at major bookstores and can be ordered through local stores or on Amazon.com.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

Ashland photographer Bruce Roberts captured this iconic photo of all five Oregon players on the floor in a battle against UCLA, with Bill Walton (foreground) and Keith Wilkes (standing).
Author Bud Withers