Laker role player Kurt Rambis travels bizarre route to NBA

All four conference finalists in this year's National Basketball Association playoffs have the usual number of centers, forwards, and guards on their rosters. But only the NBA defending champion Los Angeles Lakers have a fullback!

His name is Kurt Rambis and the first time you watch him come downcourt, thighs bulging, hair flying, black horn-rimmed glasses bouncing, you look back to see who is tripping over his helmet. The San Antonio Spurs, who have deadlocked their best-of-seven series with the Lakers at one win apiece, are convinced that the very physical Mr. Rambis must be a member of the Teamsters union.

But if you think Kurt is merely a policeman on a glamour team that features superstars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson and calls its flashy offense ''Showtime,'' forget it. He is almost always on the court at the end of the fourth period, when the game is on the line, and he grabbed only 61 fewer rebounds this year than Abdul-Jabbar.

The 6 ft. 6 in., 220-lb. Rambis is what NBA coaches call a role player. He fits his team's system so well that he makes it better; plays hard all the time; excels at physical jobs like rebounding and defense; and wouldn't know what an ego problem was if he had one.

Movie-oriented Laker fans, who know a Clark Kent lookalike when they see one, pay $6 plus tax at Forum souvenir stands for plastic replicas of the black horn-rimmed glasses that Rambis wears. While the face of this LA folk hero may never appear on the cover of Country Gentleman, he is a walking thrift shop. He reportedly buys his less than elegant street clothes from the Salvation Navy.

During last year's playoffs, one Philadelphia newspaper said Kurt looked like Clark Kent, rebounded like Superman, and shot like Lois Lane.

Rambis is not at all what he seems to be. He has a degree in psychology from the University of Santa Clara and plans to pursue a career in child counseling when the his playing days are over. This is no Jack-and-the-Beanstalk giant, but someone who can talk intelligently about pro basketball or current events. And while he may not have the first dime he ever made, he's kept most of his dollars.

Only Alice in Wonderland took a more curious route to fame than Rambis, who went through New York and Greece to reach the Lakers.

Even though Kurt was the West Coast Athletic Conference Player of the Year at Santa Clara in 1980 (setting school records in scoring and field goals), to NBA scouts this was like winning a beauty contest in Cairo, Neb. Scouts are often reluctant to put much value on a player's statistics unless they have been compiled against opponents like North Carolina or Louisville.

So while several NBA clubs liked Rambis's size and educated hands, the New York Knicks waited until 57 players had already been taken before picking him on the third round of the 1980 college draft.

Rambis survived rookie camp. But once the Knicks began regular workouts, Kurt was gone before the team played its first exhibition game.

The fact that Rambis is of Greek extraction made him attractive to a pro team in Athens, which gave him more money than he could have made in the States and then discovered that he was their best player. When Kurt returned to California during the off-season, he played in a summer pro league in San Francisco. Mike Thibault, an LA scout who has since become an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls, recommended him to the Lakers.

When they asked him to try out as a free agent, Kurt thought LA only wanted another strong, experienced body to get the veterans in shape. It wasn't until the Lakers assured him he had a good chance of making the club that he joined them.

''At that time Paul Westhead was our coach and probably the first man in our organization to notice all the positive things Rambis could do,'' Lakers' General Manager Jerry West told me. ''All teams need role players to be successful and Kurt showed us immediately that he'd do anything to win a game. We wanted someone who could play tough defense, get us the ball consistently, and give us all the intangibles that don't show up in the box score. But I doubt if Rambis would have become a starter if power forward Mitch Kupchak hadn't had his career ended by injury.''

Asked why he thought the Lakers had gone to him as Kupchak's replacement, Rambis replied: ''I think it was because I knew my job and because they also knew that I'd work hard to fit in. Talent is important, but you win in pro basketball only when the five guys out on the floor accept the roles the coach has picked out for them and put personal goals aside. I don't need to score a lot of points to be happy, but I do need to win.''

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