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Steele's return will reunite him with fast-break hoops
As Larry Steele prepares his University of Portland basketball team to play his alma mater, the University of Kentucky, in the UKIT next Friday night (Dec. 22) in Rupp Arena, the former All-SEC Wildcat forward
Cats' Pause Columnist
remembers a single sentence that brought him into the Wildcat fold 20 years ago.
"When it got down to my final decision, it was a tossup between Purdue and Kentucky," Steele said of the recruiting battle when he was completing an outstanding high school career (All-State, 1.550 points) at Bainbridge (Ind.) High School. 'Til never forget what my dad said to me."
He explained that he had never talked to his father seriously about the upcoming decision until one Sunday morning, when the father simply told him:
"Well, if you're talking about great basketball tradition, you can't use Kentucky and Purdue in the same sentence."
"My dad was good at making statements," Steele said by telephone from Portland last week, "but now I know
those were not his words. About one and one-half years ago, I realized that Joe Hall had probably told that to my dad. I mean to ask Joe when I get to Lexington."
The year was 1968 and Hall was then in his third year as an assistant coach and chief recruiter for the legendary Adolph Rupp. He was destined to succeed Rupp four years later and compile an outstanding record (297-100, NCAA championship, etc.) during 13 years as UK coach.
Contacted at courtside of the recent UK-Tennessee Tech game in Rupp Arena, Hall just grinned when told of Steele's suspicions. The he recalled how he and a Purdue recruiter were in the Steele home at the same time.
"Neither of us would leave," he said, "and we stayed there until 2 o'clock in the morning. Then I had to drive back to Lexington."
He also recalled another occasion when he helped Mrs. Steele fix steaks for dinner.
"I cared for Joe Hall a lot," Steele said. "Now I am finding out how important the relationship is between coach and player. I just plain liked Joe Hall."
"I first became interested in the UK program when 1 visited Lexington," he continued, "and then I met all those people. You could feel something that was very, very special in the atmosphere that wasn't there in other schools I visited.
"Then there was coach Rupp and his legendary reputation for winning games...and fast-break basketball. Meeting him was very special. My first impression was very strong. It had to be, because they had (Mike) Casey. (Mike) Pratt and (Dan) Issel and a total of II returning players on scholarship."
Steele's memory is good. In addition to Casey. Pratt and Issel. upcoming scholarship sophomores included Bill Busey. Jim Dinwiddie, Waylong Long, Terry Mills. Art Laib. Randy Pool. Bennie Spears and Clint Wheeler. Phil Argento was the only junior.
The frosh signees included, Steele, Bob McCowan, Greg Starrick and 6-foot-10 Steve Schmitt. who would not remain at UK. Busey. Long and Spears also left the program.
During Steele's three varsity years, the Wildcats were 71-13 ( 23-5. 26-2 and 22-6). They were ranked No. 1 nationally in both the Associated Press and United Press International polls in 1969-70. That team went over the
(Left) Larry Steele yesterday in a Kentucky uniform; Larry Steele 20 years late as head coach of Portand University. The former Wildcat will bring his Pilots into Lexington next week to take on the Wildcats in first-round action of the UKIT.
LARRY STEELE'S KENTUCKY STATISTICS
Year CP FG-FGA PCT FT FTA PCT REB ASSIST PF PTS AVG
1969 28 100-223 45.3 42-60 70.0 192 75 95 242 86
1970 23 89-187 48.1 45-49 91.8 146 48 69 225 9.8
1971 24 123-241 51.0 68-90 75.6 161 93 85 314 13.1
Total 75 313-651 48.0 155-199 78.0 499 216 249 781 10A
100-point mark 13 times and was five times in the 90's. averaging 97.5 ppg in outscoring opponents. 2709-2253. The only regular season loss came against Vandy. 89-81, at Nashville, where Issel was slowed by a foot injury.
That team, which Rupp classified among his best, lost to Jacksonville. 110-100. in the Mideast Regional at Columbus. Ohio. Rupp felt UK would have won that game if Issel hadn't fouled out.
Those 1969-70 Wildcats set school records for most points in regular season (2,500) and overall season (2709). field goals made (1,099) and highest field goal percentage (49.8).
Issel set 10 major seasonal scoring marks, losing only in the free-throw percentage category, which Steele won by hitting 45 of 49 for 91.8 percent, still a school record.
Steele and Casey, who missed the 1969-70 season because of injuries received in an auto accident, were co-captains of the 1970-71 team that lost to Western in the Mideast Regional at Athens. Ga.
Those Wildcats also were a high-scoring group, going over the 100-point mark 15 times and setting a new regular-season scoring mark with 2,513 points. They also set a home floor scoring record in defeating Ole Miss. 121-86.
Steele played on three SEC championship teams and participated in three NCAA tournaments. He played on Wildcat teams that scored in the 100's a total of 38 times.
"It was basketball at its ultimate." he said. "Those years at UK were representative of what college basketball is all about. 1 don't know that it has been duplicated.
"I don't know if many of us are realistic, but if you're No. 1. not many people can argue. In four years, our lowest finish was No. 8. It was something that quite frankly we took for granted. Only in recent years. I look back and say. "That's amazing'. You just played basketball.
That was life."
"Basketball is not like it used to be," he surmised. "What happened to the fast break? What happened to the points? Now as a coach 1 am beginning to learn those things. You've got to have instinctive players who understand the fast-break style of basketball.
"The execution was so great (at UK) that coach Rupp would call out plays that the whole other team knew, 'This is what they're going to do,' and he seemed to say, 'Let's see you stop us.'"
Steele described himself as a "role" player who was able to play "halfway defense and get out on the break. I just liked to play basketball. I liked to compete. Things fell in place for me. The key to my success was that other things didn't bother me."
After winning the MVP and 110 Percenter awards at UK his senior year. Steele spent a long and successful career with the Portland Trail Blazers, finishing as the team's all-time leader in games played and in the top 10 in such career categories as points scored, rebounds, free throws attempted and made, field goals attempted and made, assists and personal fouls (first.). He led the team in shooting percentage (49.5) in 1975-76 and averaged in double figures on Portland's 1977 NBA World Championship team.
Frank Coffey and Tom Biracree, in their book, Tlie Pride of Portland, described Steele as "the most veteran of players, (he) was a consummate team player who had the size (6-foot-5. 191 pounds) to play small forward and the quickness to fill in against bigger guards."
Now in his third year as coach at Portland University, where his teams were 8^8 the past two years, Steele realizes what his Pilots will be stepping into when they meet his former team.
He also most assuredly will find out that the fast break and high-scoring games that he remembers so dearly have made a return visit to the Wildcat basketball scene.
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