February 9, 2010 in Sports

It was all worth it

After a rough first day, Lightfoot lit it up for the Vandals
Josh Wright I Correspondent
 
Photo courtesy of Orlando Lightfoot photo

Now: Stacy and Orlando Lightfoot at home in Chattanooga, Tenn.Photo courtesy of Orlando Lightfoot
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

MOSCOW, Idaho – The morning after his first University of Idaho basketball practice, Orlando Lightfoot entered his coach’s office and said he’d had enough.

It was all too much – the pain, the emotional distress, everything.

“I hurt all over,” Lightfoot told Larry Eustachy. “My hair hurts.”

Considering the trials Lighfoot encountered just to reach Idaho, Eustachy wasn’t going to relent that easily. After a few consoling words from the man whom he would later call one of the nation’s most demanding coaches, Lightfoot opted to ride it out on the Palouse.

That was the fall of 1991, just before the 6-foot-7 Tennessean embarked on an electrifying three years with the Vandals. Lightfoot went on to become the all-time leading scorer in Idaho and Big Sky Conference history, eclipsing 13 school records and carrying UI to 60 victories.

Twice he was named the Big Sky’s Most Valuable Player. And after leaving UI, Lightfoot prospered – on the court and financially – during a 13-year, seven-country professional tour in Europe.

But for all of Lightfoot’s dazzling skills, something else sticks out to his longtime mentor.

“When he first got there, people didn’t give him much of a chance,” Eustachy, now the coach at Southern Mississippi, said in a phone interview. “He proved everybody wrong.”

Lightfoot’s grades were so poor that he failed to qualify as a high school senior in Chattanooga, Tenn., for Oklahoma, where he had signed a letter of intent. He landed at Hiwassee Junior College in Tennessee and watched as his academic profile disintegrated even more.

Lightfoot knew nothing about UI or the Inland Northwest when Eustachy first approached him. Because he was a freshman at a two-year school, he couldn’t even take an official visit.

But Lightfoot got strong recommendations from several teammates who had visited Moscow and from his coach at Hiwassee, Hugh Watson, who also had been lured to Moscow by Eustachy to be an assistant.

Their message: “You’ll love it.” And Lightfoot did.

Still, it took “an act of Congress,” as Eustachy put it, to get Lightfoot admitted to Idaho. He was forced to take summer classes and apply for financial aid before sitting out a year.

“I never in a million years dreamed I would be playing basketball in Moscow, Idaho,” Lightfoot said. “It worked out perfectly.”

The 39-year-old retired from European basketball in 2007 and is now an account manager for a major trucking company in Chattanooga, Tenn. He and his wife, Stacy, had their first child, Dallas, on Jan. 30.

Though it’s been nearly two decades since he left the South for UI, Lightfoot still vividly recalls his time as a Vandal. Those memories were stirred up three weeks ago when he was reunited with Eustachy and former teammate Ricky Wilson – an assistant on Eustachy’s staff – when Southern Miss played at Alabama-Birmingham.

One of the topics during the two days together, like it has been on many occasions, was Lightfoot’s 50-point detonation against Gonzaga in 1993. It’s still the highest single-game scoring output in Vandals history, and it came while his teammates contributed just 19 points in a 76-69 loss.

Afterward, Dan Fitzgerald, the late Zags coach, summed up Lightfoot’s performance this way: “It was one howitzer against five pop guns.”

Eustachy, disenchanted by Idaho’s athletic administration, had left for Utah State months before Lighfoot’s huge game. Yet in the two years he coached Lightfoot, Eustachy was awed by his sheer explosiveness.

“Early in his career we were down about 18 points with 8 minutes to go at (Sacramento) State,” Eustachy said. “He scored 27 points in the last 8 minutes.”

Lightfoot pumped in 23.1 points per game in his career, an average nearly 4 points higher than anyone else in school history. But despite his scoring prowess, he didn’t catch the attention of NBA scouts – at least not enough to be drafted.

Rather than sweat out summer tryouts, Lightfoot made a swift decision: take the money offered overseas and move on. He quickly began to thrive in his different stops – Spain, France, Belgium and especially Lebanon.

“I don’t have any regrets,” Lightfoot said. “I got a degree from the University of Idaho. I played basketball three years. I had a wonderful, wonderful college career and not many people can say they had a career quite like mine.”

Eustachy calls Lightfoot “probably and possibly my all-time favorite guy” in his 31-year coaching career. He still marvels that Lightfoot didn’t miss a class while at Idaho and graduated on time.

“I just saw basically a child in a man’s body turn into just a monster, just a complete monster on the court,” Eustachy said, “and into just a real man before it was all over.”

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