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A Look Back At The Kamikaze Kids

NCAA Basketball: USA TODAY Sports-Archive Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Kamikaze Kids era in Oregon men’s basketball refers to the period in the mid-70’s when Dick Harter was the men’s head coach. Harter was hired in 1971 after having coached at the University of Pennsylvania.

Although the Ducks name and the Oregon Duck are much-beloved today, it was not universally so in the past. Dick Harter especially disliked the moniker and insisted during his tenure that the team be called the “Kamikaze Kids” instead of the Ducks. The Kamikaze Kids were not named as such initially. The name came from the aftermath of their second game of their second season, on December 2, 1972, against Wichita State. Oregon was beginning to buy into Harter’s emphasis on defense and played the ball aggressively to boot. After the Shockers were trounced 92-72, Shockers coach Harry Miller declared “They play more aggressive than Kamikaze pilots did during World War II. I have never seen a basketball team go after you like that . . . that physical. That type of play puts basketball back where it used to be, 25 or 30 years ago. If we keep messing with it, it will be a game we’re not very proud of.”

The potential impact of Miller’s diatribe was clear. Wichita State was a very good program at the time, and connecting the Ducks with kamikaze pilots would give a derogatory, and potentially crippling image of the team. But after a night of drinking beer and some heated discussion about how to address Miller’s statement, Harter decided to go with a suggestion that came up in the night’s discussion. That was to turn a negative into a positive and put a spin on the term, and the “Kamikaze Kids” were born.

Harter took over the program after coach Steve Beiko stepped down to become Oregon’s assistant athletic director. Beiko coached for 15 seasons, ending on a high note; in his last two seasons the Ducks were 17-9.

NCAA Basketball: USA TODAY Sports-Archive Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Kamikaze Kids era coincides with one of the great dynasties of college basketball - the John Wooden era of college basketball dominance. Wooden’s team we on the tail end of a streak of championships that stopped after Wooden stepped down in 1975 (although the Bruins were still successful, dominant, and always a national contender after he stepped down). UCLA won the national title in 1972, 1973, and 1975 during the Dick Harter years. The Bruins had the likes of Bill Walton, Marques Johnson, and Jamaal Wilkes on the floor. UCLA in this time period (1971-72 to 1977-78) did not lose games - in the seven seasons during which Harter coached the Ducks, UCLA only lost nine games in total.

One of those losses came on Saturday, February 16th, 1974. when the Kamikaze Kids handed UCLA one of their two losses on the season, 56-51. The sold-out crowd brought Mac Court literally to life, because if the crowd was stomping or banging chairs then everything would sway - baskets, scoreboard, you name it. From these Harter years on, The Pit would become the place where a victory from any top team was not assured - it was that difficult to play there.

Oregon’s other defeat of #1 UCLA happened on February 21, 1976, when the Kids beat UCLA in LA by a whopping 20 points, 65-45, and ended the Bruins 98-game home win streak at Pauley Pavilion. Coincidentally, UCLA also lost only two games that season, with one of them being at the hands of the Kamikaze Kids.

The wins over UCLA coincided with the most successful seasons of the Dick Harter era, where Oregon reached the NIT tournament three times consecutively in 1975-77. Oregon would go deepest in the NIT in the 1975 tournament, where they lost to Princeton in the semifinals. That team also had the best record of the Harter era, finishing 21-9 (6-8, Pac-8).

If you would like a sense of how college basketball was played back then, and see some of the Kids in action, here is first half footage of Oregon’s 1977 NIT appearance, with Oral Roberts being the opponent (Oregon won this game before losing in the next round).

Some of the more notable Kamikaze Kids players are:

Stu Jackson

New Jersey Nets v New York Knicks Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Jackson played three seasons at Oregon before finishing his college career at Seattle University. At Oregon he averaged 10.3 PPS on 46.7% shooting, and shot 70% from the FT line. Jackson did not play in the pros, and instead embarked on a coaching career. Jackson was the head coach at Wisconsin for two seasons in the early 90s, and coached in the NBA from 1989-97.

Greg Ballard

Greg Ballard Portrait Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Greg Ballard played four seasons at Oregon, from 73-74 to 76-77. At Oregon, he averaged 15.9 PPG on 51% shooting, with nearly 78% at the FT line. After Oregon, Balled played for 11 seasons in the NBA, and in 807 career games, Ballard had career averages of 12.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game.

Ballard is still Oregon’s career rebounds leader with 1,114. He’s the single game all-time points leader with 43 (he’s also tied in the #3 and #5 positions). Ballard is #5 in career points with 1,829. He was a second team all-American in 1977.

Ernie Kent

Oregon v Wake Forest Jed Jacobsohn /Getty Images

Kent also played 73-74 to 76-77. His career player stats are 7.1 PPG on 46.5 shooting and 71% from the line. Of course, Ernie Kent would go on to a college coaching and broadcaster career after his time with the Kamikaze Kids.

Ron Lee

Phoenix Suns v Washington Bullets

Lee played between 72-73 and 75-76. He averaged 18.7 PPG on 41.8% shooting, and shot 73.8% from the FT line. He is still has the most Oregon career points with 2,085, and has the #3 position in points scored in a single game with 41. Ron Lee also holds top spots in career assists: #3 all-time assists with 572, #2 in a single season with 184, and #1 in a single game with 17.

Lee was a second-team all-American in 1975 and 1976. He was all-Pac-8 in each of his seasons at Oregon, as well as Pac-8 Player of the Year in 1976. Ron Lee’s #30 jersey is one of the handful of retired jerseys in Oregon basketball.

Lee went on to play six seasons in the NBA and then played three seasons professionally in Italy.

Here is some great vintage footage of Ron Lee in his pro days: