Leonard Gray Remembered by Teammates
by Frank Burlison, Long Beach Press-Telegram
June 15, 2006
It had been more than 32 years since Leonard Gray played his final game for the Long Beach State basketball program.
But, a day after his death at age 54, the memories of his strength, skill and dominance during his three years as a 49er were still crisp in the minds of those who played with him and coached him.
And, one more thing: They all thought he was a heck of a good guy as well.
All in all, not a bad legacy to leave.
"He was very much a sweetheart," Lute Olson said Wednesday, by telephone from his University of Arizona office, recalling the 1973-74 season in which he coached Gray and the rest of the 49ers to a 24-2 record that started him on the road to the University of Iowa, then Tucson, a 1997 national title and the Hall of Fame.
"Leonard was a big and burly guy. But he was a 'gentle giant." He was very easy to coach and great to deal with off the court."
Gray was one of five players (four starters and substitute Bobby Gross) who were to end up NBA draft choices on that 1973-74 team.
Was he the most physically gifted player on the squad? That's debatable, although he moved right into the starting lineup with the Seattle Supersonics as a rookie.
But the consensus of those who recalled him Wednesday was that he was a significant reason why the team didn't disintegrate into a bunch of NBA-bound guys "going for theirs" once the NCAA dropped the probation hammer on the program in February of that season. It banned the 49ers from postseason tournament play for three years for alleged indiscretions during the five previous years that Jerry Tarkanian built Long Beach into a national power.
"That was my biggest concern: How were the guys going to react after they hit us with probation?" Olson continued.
"But the players reacted great. We rolled though (Pacific Coast Athletic Association) play and just kept getting better and better with every game. And Leonard's leadership was a big reason."
Roscoe Pondexter recalls the day he and his teammates found out they weren't going to have a chance to contend for the national title they felt they were capable of winning in March.
"It was a tragic day (when the news came down)," Pondexter said Wednesday from Fresno, where both he and his younger brother, Clifton, key members of that team, live today with their families.
"And Leonard was crying right along with the rest of us. That still lingers in our guts."
Rest assured, that was the only time his teammates saw Gray cry.
If anything, the no-nonsense/take-no-prisoners approach of the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Gray was enough to strike fear in the hearts of opponents and teammates alike.
"I remember one of the first games he played after becoming eligible (as a sophomore, after transferring from the University of Kansas)," two-time Long Beach State All-America Ed Ratleff said Wednesday, recalling a game with San Diego State in the Gold Mine (then just known as the "Campus Gym") the first week of February in 1972.
"One of their best players was going in, all alone for a layup."
Ratleff paused to chuckle deeply.
"Well," he said, "Leonard took the ball and the man and just pinned them both to the backboard. The game was over then, and we really knew we had ourselves a player."
Off the court, though, there wasn't a more laid back the adjective of choice back in the early '70s, for those of you who didn't experience them in all their glory, was "mellow" and easier-to-get-along-with 49er.
"He was such a good person," Long Beach State Director of Intramurals Glenn McDonald said Wednesday morning with, like all who recalled their former teammate and until-the-day-he-died buddy, more than just a trace of sadness in his voice.
"Leonard was a fun-loving guy who enjoyed life and treated people the way he wanted them to treat him with respect. He was so much fun to be around. He was one of those friends who stays your friend for life and would do anything for you."
Was he as "mean" as the tag "He is the meanest SOB I've ever coached" Tarkanian once hung on him?
Well … you could say it depended on your definition of "mean."
One thing for certain, opponents or teammates didn't test that definition. Well, at least they didn't try it more than once.
"I remember one of my first practices when I got to Long Beach," Roscoe Pondexter recalled, the story interrupted in delightful laughter.
"I was young and trying to get after it and I was battling him (Gray) for a rebound."
Apparently, Gray thought the highly touted newcomer needed an oh-so-gentle reminder of why Benjamin Franklin once said, "Never spit into the wind, least it … "
"Well," Pondexter continued, still laughing, "he got me one (a well-placed elbow), right in the chest.
"I didn't say a word (when play stopped). I was still standing up but I was hyperventilating and it felt like my chest had caved in. So I just walked off the court, went into the bathroom and started crying."
the way … they were roommates at the time. When the 1973-74 season rolled around, Gray and McDonald were seniors, as was a terrific point guard, Rick Aberegg.
They were joined in the starting lineup by Roscoe (a junior at the time) and Clifton (an overpowering freshman, who was to become a first-round pick of the Chicago Bulls after his only season in college) Pondexter, with the 6-6 Bobby Gross later a starter on the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers as a very gifted sixth man "who could play anywhere on the floor," Olson recalled.
That team's only losses were on the road, by two points apiece, to Colorado (led by future NBA forward Scott Wedman and future NFL wide receiver Dave Logan) and to Marquette, which lost in the NCAA title game to North Carolina State that March.
Because of the tourney ban, the vast majority of those who followed the sport never got a feel for how really good Gray and his teammates were that season.
"I think it was the most talented team I ever worked with," he said convincingly. "That was a really, really talented group. And Leonard was the prototypical power forward. He could shoot, handle and pass the ball very well, and he was just a man under the backboards. And he had amazing speed. He won all of our sprints (in practice)."
So coach, how good was that team?
"That team," he said, matter-of-factly, "could have won it all."
Pondexter and McDonald, when told of Olson's suggestion, fell right into step with their former coach.
It is a topic of discussion they'd had countless times over 32 years and the conclusion was always the same, in large part because of the man they were eulogizing Wednesday.
"You always know that people are going to get sick someday and eventually die," Pondexter said quietly.
"But, when he is a teammate and friend like Leonard, well … it reminds us that we are all mortal."
But even mortality can't cut down the size of a man, or the admiration held for him by those he left behind.
And that's why the memories of Gray were as crisp Wednesday as the life he shared with his teammates who would prefer to be called friends for a lifetime and beyond.