Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends" Series: Dartmouth's Rudy LaRusso

    
January 15th, 2012
In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel caught up with Corey LaRusso, the son of Dartmouth great Rudy LaRusso. LaRusso is widely regarded as the greatest player in Dartmouth history, where one of his teammates was the late Dave Gavitt and his head coach Alvin "Doggie" Julian. After helping lead the Big Green to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances (they haven't been back since) LaRusso played ten seasons in the NBA for the Lakers and Warriors before retiring. LaRusso passed away in 2004.

Jon Teitel: Your dad won All-City honors at James Madison HS under legendary coach Jammy Moskowitz after growing seven inches from his freshman to his sophomore year. How good was he back then, and what impact did his growth spurt have on his basketball ability?

Corey LaRusso: He was actually a pitcher as a freshman. His first love was baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Coach Moskowitz had seen him play some pickup basketball games and just convinced him to come out for the basketball team the following year. I think he started his final two years of high school after learning the game during his sophomore year. James Madison was a basketball power and my dad dedicated a lot of his success to his coach. Some of the seniors wondered why my dad was starting over them, which just gave him motivation to work his ass off! He would play pick up games all day and all night. Jammy said he had the most ability of anyone he ever coached.

JT: As a senior in 1955, he scored 14 points in the PSAL final (a five-point loss to Jamaica). How close did he come to winning that game, and did that loss stick with him for a long time afterwards?

CL: It was a huge disappointment that stuck with him forever. They played again two weeks later and James Madison killed Jamaica!

JT: He scored 25 points and made a last-second layup in a one-game playoff against Princeton in 1959 to lead Dartmouth to its most recent conference title. Where did that shot rank among the most clutch of his career, and how was he able to play his best when it mattered the most?

CL: Back then you had to win the Ivy title to get into the NCAA Tournament so there was a lot at stake. Each team had beaten the other on the road and the playoff game was at Yale. They were down by one with five seconds left, so Coach Doggie Julian called timeout and said, "Get the ball to Rudy!" Future Hall of Famer Dave Gavitt threw a pass to my dad (who saved it from going out of bounds), and then he made the shot at the buzzer. I have heard that even today you cannot get into a Dartmouth fraternity unless you know my dad's birthday/stats/etc.! We went back there in 1999 for his 40-year reunion. He knocked on the door to the Sphinx Club, and once the pledge who opened the door recognized him he said my dad could come in...but I had to wait outside!

My dad came out 20 minutes later crying his eyes out. He said that his jersey was in there with tons of photos and all his career stats. He just melted because he was so touched, and I finally started to realize how big of a deal he was on campus. A few years later after he passed away the school brought my entire family back for a night in his honor. Dartmouth was down double-digits at halftime, but hit a shot at the buzzer to win it and the crowd started chanting "Rudy, Rudy!!" His spirit was absolutely there. He was the strongest person (mentally AND physically) who you ever met. He retired early because he had the stubborn Brooklyn determination to succeed in the world outside basketball.

JT: His 17.9 career rebounds per game is still an Ivy record, and he holds the school records for rebounds in a game (32), season (503), and career (1,239). What made him such a great rebounder, and do you think anyone will ever break his records?

CL: I do not think they will ever break his records in the Ivy League because they do not have the athletes now. His NBA reputation was that he was the best two-handed rebounder in the game.

JT: In the 1958 NCAA Tournament he had a double-double in wins over Connecticut and Manhattan and a loss to Temple. How was he able to play so well against the best teams in the country, and how did that three-game stretch shape his legacy at Dartmouth?

CL: He had a great supporting cast that year but ended up fouling out on some questionable calls. That one game stood out in his career as the most suspicious in terms of the officiating. Something hokey must have been going on.

JT: In the 1959 NCAA Tournament he scored 12 points before fouling out in a loss to eventual national runner-up West Virginia (who was led by Jerry West's 25 points). Could he tell at the time that West was going to become a star?

CL: The next year my dad and West were paired together on the Lakers and became best friends. They just could not stop Jerry that night.

JT: In the summer of 1959 he was drafted 12th overall by Minneapolis (six spots behind Dick Barnett). Did he see that as a validation of his college career, or the realization of a lifelong dream of reaching the NBA, or other?

CL: Julian was coach of the Celtics in the late 1940s but went to Dartmouth in 1950 after a falling out with Red Auerbach. I asked my dad if he thought that the Celtics did not draft him because of the situation with Julian and he said he did. Minneapolis GM Lou Mohs came to the 1959 Dartmouth-Princeton playoff game...but could not get into the gym because it was sold out. Mohs ended up paying a souvenir salesman $50 for his entire rack of souvenirs in order to get in and watch my dad!

JT: He played at least 71 games a season in nine of his ten years in the NBA. How was he able to remain so durable for such a long stretch of time?

CL: I believe that my dad could tolerate pain to an incredible level. Even when I would play pickup games with him he would never show it even if he was in pain. He would take painkiller shots which his doctor said was actually "horse serum"! My dad died of Parkinson's at age 66 and I think it might have had to do with the drugs he took, as they had not been properly tested at the time. Many of the retired players from that era have had heart problems. Big dogs do not live a long time and I fear that big people are the same way. I think that Shaquille O'Neal might not live to age 80. My dad was never a drinker or smoker, so for him to die early goes against everything we know about health.

JT: In 1962 he scored a career-high 50 points in a ten-point win in the regular season finale against St. Louis. Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot he put up seemed to go in because he was in "the zone"?

CL: Elgin and Jerry were hurt that night so he was the go-to guy, and he told me that he could not miss.

JT: The Lakers lost to Boston three times in the NBA Finals in devastating fashion in a five-year span (1962: three-point overtime loss in Game 7; 1963: three-point loss in Game 6; 1966: two-point loss in Game 7). Was it frustrating for him to be so close to winning so many titles and having to keep going through the Celtics' dynasty to get there?

CL: Frank Selvy missed a jumper at the end of regulation in Game 7 in 1962 and the Lakers lost in OT. After the loss we did not hear from him for ten days. It turned out that he had gone back to Dartmouth and was just drinking with some friends because he did not know how to get a grip on the loss. When I was about five years old we were driving around one day and I asked him if he ever won an NBA title and he said no. When I asked why, he said, "It was because we could not stop f---ing Bill Russell!" I responded, "you mean the Dodgers shortstop?" and he just cracked up. It became a running joke in my family!

The Lakers just did not have a center. If you took out Bill Russell and Lakers center Ray Felix, I think the Lakers would beat the Celtics five times out of five. My dad he had no problem playing against Tom Heinsohn. Some nights my dad would have a big game and some nights Heinsohn would. They were friends off the court and would go grab a beer after the game, but nobody else on either team would do that.

JT: In 1966 he got in a famous fight with Willis Reed during the Knicks' home opener. Did he ever talk about the fight, and did he have a temper off the court?

CL: Marv Albert still calls it the biggest fight ever in the Garden. Even bigger than Ali-Frazier! They were just elbowing each other during a free throw attempt and then it broke out into a brawl. My dad threw about 50 punches that went whizzing by Reed's head but never connected. Reed was in a frenzy and just clocked John Block and ended up shattering his face. My dad later said that Reed swung at him 14 times but never hit him. That same year my dad got into another fight that happened to occur right in front of Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, and that is when the trade happened.

JT: In January 1967 he was part of a three-team trade that sent him to Detroit, but he refused to go to due to his pregnant wife and decided to retire. What role did family play in his life, and was he worried that his career might be over?

CL: He did not think for a second that his career was over. He was upset that the Lakers were doing that to him while my mom was pregnant with me. He said he would just retire but the NBA told him that he would have to go to Detroit. Everyone knew it was a bad trade for the Lakers and a lot of the fans were angry about it. Cooke called him over to his house one day and they talked for 5-6 hours. They ended up re-routing the trade so that my dad would sit out for a few months and then go to the Warriors.

JT: After signing with the Warriors (who let him live in LA and commute to San Francisco for games and practices) he ended up having the two highest scoring seasons of his career before retiring for good. How did that commute affect your family, and how was he able to play his best towards the end of his career?

CL: He would just fly back and forth to SF and after two years of that he just decided that he was done with it. He was always the third fiddle to Baylor and West on the Lakers, although he made a few All-Star teams during that time. Cooke made the trade because of the fights my dad got in. Warriors coach Bill Sharman got him into the best shape of his life and after that he could not wait to play against the Lakers and had some big games against them. My dad was not opposed to flying. He met my mother when he was a rookie and she was a flight attendant!

JT: He was a five-time All-Star and averaged 10+ points per game in each of his ten seasons. How was he able to remain so consistent throughout his career, and do you think he belongs in the Hall of Fame?

CL: He absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame, as his ten years worth of stats are incredibly similar to the first ten years of the best Ivy player in NBA history (Bill Bradley).

JT: He later was an investment banker and sports agent (with you as one of his partners). What was it like working with him, and how did he like being an agent?

CL: He was one of the first agents to initiate the flow of basketball talent to Italy (Brian Shaw, Danny Ferry, etc.). As an Italian-American who had played the game he just took it to another level. I became a part of my dad's business after his health started to decline. I learned the game from my father. One of my high school teammates at Palisades High was Steve Kerr. We handled 5-7 players and I just helped continue his work. I now work with agent Eric Fleischer out of NY as an NBA recruiter for the WAC and Pac-12.

Rudy is also on Jon's list of best pro players in Ivy League history.

Brown: Woody Grimshaw (1947)
Columbia: Jim McMillian (1971)
Cornell: Ed Peterson (1950)
Dartmouth: Rudy LaRusso (1960)
Harvard: Saul Mariaschin (1948)
Pennsylvania: Matt Maloney (1997)
Princeton: Geoff Petrie (1971)
Yale: Chris Dudley (1988)