|John Rudometkin- 1940-2015 (Pictured here in 1962 game vs Jerry Lucas and Ohio State)|
By Harry Cummins
After all, it is one thing to play the game of basketball and another thing, entirely, to live a fully measured life.
I had yet to grapple with such inherent complexity in 1970, that same year I first met John Rudometkin.
I was a young sports-focused journalist on assignment from an East Coast magazine and had arrived in the early morning hours at Rudometkin's Fresno, California home to profile the nearly forgotten former All-American.
My interview request had been precipitated by a succession of unaccountable events that had baffled medical science. After an arduous struggle, Rudometkin had just beaten a rare and inoperable cancer. The doctors who recognized a terminal cancer case when they saw one, had once advised family members that the end was near. These same doctors were now running tests on his blood to determine if he might have had certain anti-bodies in his system that could be used to cure others.
I sensed I was about to meet-up with a miracle.
Later that 1970 morning, I remember the 6'6" Rudometkin, totally cancer free, emerge from the tool shed in back of his house, a timeworn basketball firmly in his grasp. The adulation of the crowd was long gone then. So, too, were the acrobatic moves that once prompted famed Los Angeles Lakers radio announcer Chick Hearn to dub him "Rudo the Reckless Russian." Those same moves that prompted the New York Knicks to select John as the 9th overall pick in the 1962 NBA draft.
A salvo of shots soon began to arch their way through the net and bounce crazily off the the dirt surface.
"I guess you never lose that touch," he laughed.
Until the sad day many decades later, (2015) when he passed away of chronic lung disease at the age of 75, John Rudometkin never lost his touch.
He never lost a human touch bestowed on the wife and 3 sons he left behind. Never lost that touch embraced by his basketball family who still celebrate Rudometkin as one of the greatest players in University of Southern California history. Never lost that touch that memorialized the courts of Santa Maria High School and Allan Hancock College in central California.
His number 44 still hangs in the USC rafters..his name enshrined in the cardinal and gold Hall of Fame. His luminescent statistics seem irrelevant to this story. His collegiate coach, Forrest Twogood, flatly called Rudometkin "the greatest player I ever coached." In 1962, he joined an illustrious AP College All-American team which featured future NBA greats John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Dave DeBusschere.
Rudometkin also never lost that touch for others, traveling across the country as a ministering associate evangelist for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It was a different kind of glory than he once experienced from those celebrated years at USC, and those abbreviated stints in the NBA. The crowds were quieter, save a hearty amen now and then.
His time in the NBA beset by chronic fatigue and his yet undiagnosed physical condition, John Rudometkin failed to enjoy predicted success as a professional basketball player. He was eventually released by the San Francisco Warriors, whose front line at the time included the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond. After just two and a half frustrating seasons in the NBA, unbeknownst to John, a tumor surrounding his heart and lungs was expanding rapidly.
Why, he wondered, had it suddenly required unnatural effort to run up and down the court? Where was the burning desire to push himself beyond his capacity, the trade mark of his earlier style of play? Soon after his release from the Warriors, Rudometkin found himself paralyzed in a hospital bed, close to death. It was a siege that lasted seven months, sending him into convulsions.
What he ultimately gleaned while dangling on death's abyss, John explained in this later conversation: "It was at that time that an inexplainable certainty came over me. It was a much bigger game, a different set of rules, but I couldn't ever give up. My trust in God had, above all, become very real to me." Rudometkin's ultimate triumph over cancer seemed a direct result of his faith in God and a bevy of experimental drugs that nearly killed him.
Sometimes life presents a window which we can see through... to the underlying coherency in this world. The player that USC teammate Chris Appel once described as having"the same court creativity as Kobe Bryant," had been given an extended, albeit painful, time to stare thru such a window.
Many years after our interview, I received another letter from John describing how a fire had broke out in his home on Halloween eve. His wife and boys narrowly escaped injury. The house, however, was totally destroyed. All of Rudometkin's trophies, awards, and keepsakes were lost.
"You know", he wrote, "I realized then that those things no longer meant that much to me. God had replaced that part of my life with something far greater."
Fighting thru a lifetime of health anxieties and the aftermath of cancer treatments, much of John Rudometkin's final years were accompanied by an oxygen tank to help him breathe. I never knew the degree of his daily suffering.
Recently, I happened to chance upon the old Walt Disney movie classic, 'The Absent Minded Professor' which tells the zany tale of a professor/scientist who rigs a basketball game by ironing a miraculous substance onto the soles of the home team's shoes. Once those players take to the court, they bound high over their taller opponents, high above the rim.
In what remains a stroke of perfect casting, John Rudometkin was selected as one of those real life basketball players used in the making of that film. Today, the memory of John's honorable life allows my own life to ascend a bit further in search of higher ground.
John called me one afternoon a few years before his death. He would always begin our conversations with "How's my brave buddy"?
In reality, he was the brave one. His example, his touch for life, was a towering influence in helping me understand the exalted lessons and miracles that reside above the rim...above our natural impulses.
Yes, it's another thing, entirely, to live a life. I understand now.
This story is also dedicated to every player, coach, and administrator at every level of basketball. Those who pursue their chosen sport with passion and who also aspire to make a significant difference in the lives of others.
As they say at John's alma mater... FIGHT ON!!!