News out of Orono this week that the University of Maine will retire former Black Bear hoop sensation Rufus Harris’ number 20 Wednesday night at the Alfond Arena was good news for this old coach.
I had the privilege of coaching the talented Harris for one year during the 1980-1981 season with the Maine Lumberjacks, Bangor’s entry in the CBA, a pro basketball league one step from the NBA.
Rufus joined teammates Andrew Parker of Iowa State, Victor King of Louisiana Tech, John Campbell of Clemson, Larry Boston of Maryland, and Jackie Dorsey of Georgia, to form a formidable lineup in my second season at the helm of the team.
In fact, Rufus had been a near-miss with the NBA’s Boston Celtics that previous summer, losing the final roster spot in coach Bill Fitch’s lineup to former Lumberjack shooting sensation, Wayne Kreklow.
Undaunted, Harris brought his considerable talents to the CBA, a place where dreams die hard for hundreds of near-miss NBAers, who often struggled in such wayward haunts as Maine, Montana, or Alaska, places not known for basketball greatness, especially at the pro level.
Rufus was a solid performer. Before entering the CBA wars, the cries of “Roof, Roof, ROOF!” had echoed through the Memorial Gymnasium night after night in Orono.
Rufus not only brought his skilled game to Bangor, but he also brought the crowds. Our average attendance the year before he came to Bangor was in the hundreds. Rufus upped that ante, and with the number of skilled teammates we surrounded him with, we thought we had a legitimate shot at a league championship.
We were wrong.
Not only did we lose talented forward Jackie Dorsey to the Seattle Sonics, but we also lost entertaining center John Campbell to the Harlem Globetrotters. But that’s another column, another day.
Both these guys were stalwarts in a lineup that went from first place to fourth place after their respective departures.
As UMaine’s all-time leading scorer, Harris was one of those unique players who could shoot off the dribble. This kid had pro range off that talented bounce. Gifted with a quick release, a flick of the wrist could launch the ball from the 25-30 foot range with ease.
This guy had NBA written all over him.
Drafted by the Celtics, Rufus competed for a roster spot with the likes of Dave Cowens, Pete Maravich, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, who was flirting with a career in Italy during the summer camp at Hellenic College outside of Boston, the aforementioned Kreklow, and a host of other pro wannabes, who graced the gym in the wee hours of the morning, trying to impress head coach Fitch and his lead assistant K.C. Jones, another former Celtics star.
I attended several of those early morning sessions. As head coach of the Jacks, it was my responsibility to keep a watchful eye on Celtics rookies as well as the goings-on in Phoenix where the Suns were going through the same cutting process.
In fact, Rufus would join another NBA near-miss in John Campbell, who had been cut at the end of the Phoenix summer camp session.
I’m glad I had the chance to spend a season with Rufus. He was a near-miss again, this time for Rookie of the Year honors in our league.
Rufus, I’m guessing, learned some valuable lessons about pro ball that year. My, there are a good number of college kids who just can’t quite make the grade at the NBA level.
When Rufus’ No. 20 goes to the rafters at the Alfond Arena Wednesday night, he’ll join Keith Mahaney and Thomas “Skip” Chappelle as the three most talented men to don the blue and white in UMaine hoops. That, in and of itself, is pretty serious recognition.
When the Alfond crowd chants its signature “Roof, roof, roof!” I’m guessing we’ll see a big smile on that handsome face. Congratulations, son. You deserve it.
BDN columnist Ron Brown, a retired high school basketball coach, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org