Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends" Series: Pacific Great Ron Cornelius

    
January 26th, 2011
In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Pacific's all-time leading scorer, Ron Cornelius. Cornelius, a two-time All-American at Pacific, helped lead the Tigers to the 1979 NCAA Tournament. After spending a decade overseas playing basketball, Cornelius now works for Konica Minolta while also helping coach a high school basketball team.

Jon Teitel: In 1977 you were named Third Team All-Southern CA AAAA at Santa Ana Valley (future Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was a member of the second team at Long Beach Poly). Did you ever play against Gwynn or see him play, and how good a basketball player was he?

Ron Cornelius: I never saw him play in high school but I played against him in college when he was a PG at San Diego State. He was left-handed and very competitive. Baseball was obviously his forte, but he was a great athlete.

JT: Why did you decide to go to Pacific?

RC: I was honored to be recruited by a ton of D-1 schools, as I was just a skinny 6'9" kid. I went on four road trips: Drake, Pacific, Arizona, and Louisville. Denny Crum had never recruited a guy out of LA before, despite coaching under John Wooden at UCLA, so I was very excited for that trip! I chose Pacific because Coach Stan Morrison was a father-figure to me (I was raised by a single mom), and I would get to play right away while not being too far from home.

JT: You were named conference Player of the Year as a sophomore and were a two-time All-American. How were you able to come in and dominate so quickly, and what did it mean to you to win such outstanding individual honors?

RC: That was fun, but I am not sure how it happened. We somehow really gelled as a team during my sophomore year after going 0-6 on an early road trip. We were very smart and had our opponents playing at our tempo. We just ran the system very well, and I was blessed to have so much success. We beat our nemesis Long Beach State three times that year! Even when I got those kinds of awards, I thanked my teammates. I was in awe of being named All-American and humbled just to get an accolade like that.

JT: What are your memories of the 1979 NCAA Tournament (Cornelius scored 12 points in a loss to Marquette)?

RC: Quite frankly, we got waxed on national TV! It was a long time since Pacific had been in the tourney but Marquette was definitely at a different level.

JT: In 1981 you had a career-high 38 points in a win over Utah State. Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot you put up seemed to go in because you were "in the zone"?

RC: Absolutely. Utah State liked to get up and down the floor a lot and had Brian Jackson, who was another big scorer like me. We did not have a three-point line back then, but the rim looked like a hula hoop that night. The 3,000-seat Stockton Civic Auditorium was a big home-court advantage for us. It was an old opera house from the early 1900s, and one of the baskets hung off of the stage. The floor was warped, so if you set a ball down in the corner it would roll right off the court! The fans sat right on the floor, and if you sat in the front row you had to make sure to not stretch your feet out onto the court. We played the last-ever game there before they built a new gym in 1982.

JT: Your 2,065 points are still the most in school history. Did you realize at the time how prolific a player you were, and do you think that anyone will ever break your record?

RC: I had no idea; I still pinch myself. I just went out and played, but I was very competitive and very consistent. I started every single game of my college career, which is what I am proudest of, as there are not a lot of other guys who can say they did that.

JT: In the summer of 1981 you were drafted in the third round by the Lakers, but did not make the team as they went on to win the title in 1982. Were you thrilled to realize your dream of getting drafted or disappointed that you did not make the team?

RC: I was getting phone calls from THE Jerry West during my senior year, and would see him watching me from the rafters. As a 21-year old kid, I was kind of freaking out! I was like a kid in a candy store when the Lakers picked me, as they were my hometown team. However, I kind of wish that the Clippers had picked me, as I might have been able to stick around for a decade! I came into camp and was awed to be playing for a coach like Pat Riley. When you play in those summer leagues, there are hundreds of European coaches/scouts telling you that you could come overseas to play for them, so that is what I did.

JT: You ended up playing for a decade all over Europe. What did you learn from the experience, and how did it compare to college basketball?

RC: I went over to England for a year after not making the Lakers, and then played in the CBA for a year in Casper, WY. That is when I realized the competitiveness of professional basketball. There were at least 100 players coming from around the country to practice for just one night in an attempt to make the CBA. They would show up, practice for a few hours, and those who did not make it were sent home later that night. I went back to Europe and ended up playing in several countries (Holland/France/Spain/Italy/etc.). Italy was my favorite place of all-time due to the food. I even played against Joe Bryant in Italy when his son Kobe was only a kid. I played for a decade and had a blast. Basketball is now the second-most popular sport in Europe behind soccer.

JT: You currently work in the IT field and coach a high school team. How do you like coaching, and what do you hope to do in the future?

RC: I am a sales guy for Konica Minolta and have been selling IT consulting services for about 15 years. My son is now in college, but I coached him early on from AAU ball through high school. His high school coach left a couple of years ago and I took over to help out. I love giving back to the kids and sharing my experiences with them.

JT: When people look back on your career how do you want to be remembered the most?

RC: As I have said I was not spectacular, but I came out every day and was first and foremost a good teammate. At reunions my teammates will rib me by saying that I only scored so many points because I took so many shots, but I was a career 57% shooter! They had a pamphlet about me that I still remember: "Unheralded, unspectacular, but unstoppable"! I was a fairly smart player and just kind of figured it out.

Cornelius is also on Jon's list of best fantasy players in Big West history.

Cal Poly: Mike Wozniak (2000) 1903 PTS (#2), 308 3PM (#1), 86 FT% (#2)

Cal-State Fullerton: Leon Wood (1984) 1876 PTS (#2), 744 AST (#1), 81.1 FT% (#2), All-American

Cal-State Northridge: Brian Heinle (2001) 1641 PTS (#1), 785 REB (#2), 290 AST (#5), 76 BLK (#2), 149 3PM (#2), All-American

UC Riverside: Howard Lee (1972) 1386 PTS (#2), 1004 REB (#1)

UC Davis: Mark Olson (1976) 1440 PTS (#4), 869 REB (#2)

Long Beach State: Ed Ratleff (1973) 1820 PTS (#3), 683 REB (#4), 410 AST (#5), 2-time All-American

Pacific: Ron Cornelius (1981) 2065 PTS (#1), 973 REB (#4), 57 FG% (#3), 2-time All-American, conference POY

UC Irvine: Jerry Green (2002) 1993 PTS (#1), 162 STL (#1), 2-time conference POY

UCSB: Carrick DeHart (1990) 1687 PTS (#2), 133 STL (#2), 196 3PM (#2), All-American