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Vol. 58, No. 2 • February 2021 • .pdf version
Raveling's 'retirement' led to greater influence
By FRANK BURLISON
George Raveling coached what proved to be his final college game in the spring of 1994 for USC.
Late that November, not quite two months after suffering nine broken ribs, a fractured pelvis and clavicle and collapsed lung in a car accident near the USC campus, he announced his retirement.
That decision – at age 57 – might have brought a far-too-early end to a 22-year stint as a head coach.
But in nearly 27 years of "retirement," his impact on basketball – and those who play it, coach it, administer or write and talk about it – has been as significant as that as anyone even loosely connected with the sport.
It's during that stretch – mostly while an executive in a variety of roles with Nike, including as director of both the athletic apparel powerhouse's grassroots and global programs – that Raveling has ascended to a level of influence rivaled by few connected with the sport.
That's why he was selected as the sixth winner of the USBWA's Dean Smith Award, given to an individual who embodies the spirit and and values represented by Smith.
Raveling, who had head-coaching stints at Washington State and Iowa before coming to USC in 1986, said from his Los Angeles home that, "Coach Smith understood so well that his responsibilities as a coach far exceeded that of just coaching on the court.
"It's an incredible honor to be associated with one of the greatest coaches and men our sport has had."
One of his USC point guards immediately grasped why Raveling was being honored.
"He embodies everything you want in an educator and coach," said Duane Cooper, the head coach at Lakewood High. "I grew up with a single mother, and Coach was the first father figure in my life, as I know he was for a whole lot of other kids.
"I played for him almost 30 years ago, but I still talk to him as much as a couple of times a week. And mostly, it's about things other than basketball. And our conversations always end the same way, with him asking, 'Is there anything you need me to do for you?'"
Raveling, a burly 6-foot-6, is still the No. 12 all-time leading rebounder at Villanova, where he graduated in 1960. He was inducted into the College and Naismith Hall of Fames in 2013 and '15. He has evolved into a "basketball Yoda."
His phone number is on speed dial for nearly anyone and everyone connected to the sport – and vice versa.
Be it high school, college or the NBA, his sage advice is sought by all concerned. Jay Wright (Villanova), Buzz Williams (Texas A&M), Shaka Smart (Texas) and John Calipari (Kentucky) are among the high-profile college coaches he speaks to often – sometimes daily.
Also on daily basis, he forwards links to newspaper, magazine and website articles to many on his vast network of phone numbers. As often as not, they're about topics and issues well beyond just hoops. He is a veracious reader who is often immersed in as many as 10 books at a time and scans all the major U.S. newspapers daily from cover to cover.
Along with his head-coaching stops, his stints as assistant coach on the U.S. Olympic teams in 1984 (under Bob Knight) and '88 (under Thompson), established his countless relationships with soon-to-be NBA stars – which expanded exponentially while with Nike.
Some might suggest that Raveling's name is more connected to the Nike brand than anyone other than founder Phil Knight, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
Over the past three decades, Nike became a global brand while basketball was becoming a global sport.
Raveling was hired by Knight shortly after that fateful auto accident in 1994.
"My wife (Delores) wanted to bet me that I'd be back in coaching within a year," Raveling said. "But then Phil Knight called me ..."
While at Nike, he helped its grassroots program become a showcase and training ground for some of the sport's most gifted young players.
As leader of its global program, Raveling traveled the world, where he brought camps and coaching clinics to thousands of future coaches and players who mostly could only admire "American game" from afar.
"I think that's the biggest change since I quit coaching," Raveling said. "It truly is a global game now that knows no boundaries or borders."
When the current NBA season started, 108 players from 38 countries other than the United States were on active rosters.
"Who could ever imagine it, not so long ago?' Raveling asked.
The COVID-19 pandemic has kept Raveling homebound and forced him to watch the game he loves so much only via television.
"It's been really tough," he said. "I'm such a social animal – I miss the opportunity to talk to people, face to face ... real conversations. I miss saying, 'Hey, let's get together for lunch or dinner sometime this week and catch up on things.'"
Of course, he's become quite adept at navigating Zoom meetings.
"Yep," he said, laughing. "I just was on one."
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