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John Blanchette: George Raveling lifted Washington State basketball into the spotlight – now the program will return the favor

PULLMAN – It’s been three weeks now since the students lined up down the street waiting for the doors to open.

Three weeks since the alum with those three NBA rings planted a kiss on the hardwood of Friel Court and saw a banner bearing his number unfurled in the rafters. Since the Washington State Cougars rode all that emotion to another building-block victory, and since many of the 10,380 on hand left feeling that just maybe they’d had the best basketball experience of their lives.

Now it’s time to salute the man who invented that concept at Wazzu.

George Raveling’s name goes up in those same rafters on Sunday at halftime of the Cougars’ game with rival Washington, and as appropriate as Klay Thompson’s day of tribute was last month, this one’s an even better idea.

No, it’s not likely to create the same kind of vibe. Raveling is now 37 years gone from pacing the sidelines in Beasley Coliseum, meaning a fan would have to be 50 or so now to have much of a memory of the fun he perpetrated.

But make no mistake: those were the best of basketball days at WSU.

“I got there at a good time,” Raveling said this week, “and with the help of a lot of wonderful people – starting with Dr. (Glenn) Terrell and Ray Nagel who hired me – we made some more good times.”

It was Raveling’s second team that opened Beasley in 1973 with a stirring 80-78 victory over LSU. Some 9,000 folks showed up to see it, and that was just priming the pump. Of the 41 times the Cougars have drawn a gate of 10,000 or better, 21 came in the Raveling era, the first decade of the building – including the 13 biggest crowds.

The lowest average attendance during his stay – 6,159 in 1981 – is better than all but five seasons since.

They came to watch program giants like Steve Puidokas, Terry Kelly and Don Collins. And WSU students, especially, also came to see Raveling catapult his 6-foot-5 self off the bench.

“There was one game when I guess I didn’t have much energy and wasn’t really into it – and we were struggling and the place was dead,” Raveling recalled. “Terry Kelly – I’m almost sure it was Terry – came over at a break and said, ‘Coach, you need to get up – the students think you gave up on them.’

“I never coached anywhere where there was a greater and more valid connection between the student body and the coach.”

That connection was cemented in games that produced pandemonium. Like the wild upset of No. 6 UCLA in 1983 when the late Aaron Haskins – in his warmups – started the night with the most triggering saxophone rendition of the anthem in history, and teammate Bryan Pollard ended it with a soaring tip-in and promptly fainted. And, of course, the 1980 romp over the Bruins – Wazzu’s first win in the series in 14 years. That night, most of the 11,742 fans refused to leave, chanting Raveling’s name until he returned to the court.

“I started crying,” he said. “It was such a moment of validation.”

But behind Raveling’s showmanship and his on-court success – he took the Cougars to their first two NCAA Tournaments since the 1941 runner-up finish – were other aspects which reveal how he changed life on campus. A sampling:

  • The first women’s athletic scholarship at WSU? It was funded out of Raveling’s budget for the men, and it went to Jeanne Eggart, who only this year ceded her school scoring record. “I don’t even remember the details,” he said, “but things were changing, and (WSU) needed to be a part of that change.”
  • He got Moses Malone to make a recruiting trip to Pullman. No, he didn’t sign him – but then, nobody did. Malone went from high school to a 21-year Hall of Fame career in the NBA. “We had 11 guys in one football weekend and seven were 6-10 or taller,” Raveling said. “We introduced them at halftime and every time we announced another 6-11 guy, the crowd went nuts. I think we only signed one, but it gave people a sense we could be big time.”
  • He started Cougar Cage Camp, at one time the biggest in the country with 3,500 kids flocking to campus over the course of six weeks. “I run into somebody at least once a year who tells me they were part of it,” he said. When it died, so did a huge part of Wazzu’s outreach.

“I had people who took a gigantic risk on me,” Raveling said. “It would never happen today. You’re hiring a guy with no head coaching experience, an African-American – in those days we were just black – from back east, to come to a place that may have been the toughest to achieve success in the Pac-8 at that time.

“They trusted me more than I trusted myself. I’ll never forget that.”

And by hoisting his name to the rafters, WSU is making sure he won’t be forgotten, either.