Looking Back at Kurt Rambis

Kurt —  July 29, 2005

One of the things I wanted to do during the slow off-season was reflect on some of the Lakers from the past, to take a stroll down memory lane with both statistics and a my rose-colored rear-view mirror. Of course, this off-season has been anything but slow so far, so I haven’t gotten around to it.

But Kurt Rambis has been on my mind lately. He was the coach of the Lakers Summer Pro League team. More prominently, when watching Ronny Turiaf play in that league I thought he could be the Kurt Rambis for a new generation (and hopefully still can be). Then there was a discussion in the comments this week that had me pulling up Rambis’ career numbers and taking a look — and that alone brought back good memories.

If Rambis came out of Santa Clara University today he would be undrafted — he was a third-round pick of the Knicks back in 1980. (Rambis is probably the second best player to come out of the school, behind Steve Nash, but I bet Nash never looked this good in college.)

Before the start of the 1980-81 season Rambis was cut by the Knicks (who decided to keep second round pick Dewayne Scales of LSU at the four). The next year the Lakers picked up Rambis and gave him a chance — that first year he averaged just 17.4 minutes per game but was already showing the hustle that made him a crowd favorite. His offense was nothing to speak of but he was grabbing an impressive 16.8% of the available rebounds when he was on the floor and his defense was very good —opponents were scoring seven points less per 100 possessions than the league average, a better defensive rating than any other Laker that season. And he had those glasses. And that 1981-82 Laker team went on the win the title.

By the 1983-84 season, Rambis was an entrenched part of the Laker dynasty years. From that season through the 88-89 season, Rambis would be in the top 10 in the league in rebound percentage grabbed (that last season with Charlotte). While his defense, rebounding and effort are what we all think of first (rightfully), what he did offensively can be underrated — he didn’t take many shots but he became an efficient scorer. During his time with the Lakers he never took more than 14.5% of the team’s shots when he was on the floor (for comparison, Magic, Kareem and Worthy would be in the 23-28% range), but he shot between 52% and 59.5%, and from 1983-88 he averaged a quality 1.20 points per shot attempt. It helps that the shots I remember him taking were either offensive rebound putbacks or lay-ups created by a no-look pass from Magic, but Rambis was able to find his offensive niche on a team that didn’t need him to score.

But let’s not waste time talking offense — the Rambis we most remember came in the playoffs, mixing it up with the Celtics. Forget Celtics — mixing it up with Kevin McHale. Specifically, McHale clotheslining Rambis during game two of the 1984 NBA finals. If a tackle could turn the tide in an NBA final, that would be the instance. Personally, I respect McHale and what he did on the court and in the front office, but I’ve never really forgiven him for that one. I still remember how angry I was at the time and how I wanted to jump through the television screen and take a run at him (of course, as a skinny high schooler, that would not have gone well for me). I don’t hold a grudge against McHale today the way I do, say, the ever-biased Tommy Heinsohn, but there’s still a part of that day’s anger floating around in me.

Sometimes we Laker fans forget Rambis’ lost years — in Charlotte and Phoenix— before coming back to the Lakers for his two last NBA seasons (including the season that had been the last time the Lakers didn’t make the playoffs). When he retired his career numbers were those of a quality NBA player — 53.4 field goal percentage, 16.8% of available rebounds grabbed (14.6 per 48 minutes), 1.15 points per shot attempt and a defensive rating that was better than the league average — but they fall far short of the impression he left on Laker fans. He became a cult figure and as popular as any of the team’s superstars.

He’s been with the organization ever since retiring, including an underrated stint as head coach. He’s a company man, in the best sense of the phrase. He’ll be back on the bench next season, sitting near Phil Jackson and spending his practices teaching Andrew Bynum the fine points of boxing out.

And every time I see him, I’ll think of the man in glasses and smile just a little.

Kurt

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