That smile was always infectious.
In fact, among University of Oregon men’s basketball fans in the 1970s, Ronnie Lee was about as well-known for it as for his abilities on the court.
Time has a way of diminishing physical skills, and although the 6-foot-4 Lee looks as fit as ever — and as though he could, at age 57, still suit up and play for the Ducks now — it’s questionable whether he’d be able to keep up with athletes almost 40 years his junior.
But there’s no questioning one thing — that smile hasn’t faded one bit. Lee still flashes it easily and often, and it’s every bit as genuine as it was during his days as a star point guard for the Ducks, playing alongside current coach Ernie Kent on the Dick Harter-coached squad known as the Kamakaze Kids.
Lee was back at McArthur Court in Eugene on Feb. 18, the honorary captain for a UO team that lacks anyone with the star power — or the smile — that Lee brought to The Pit during his playing days.
He soaked up every bit of adulation the fans showered upon him on a night when Ducks fans had little else to cheer — Oregon lost its fourth straight game, 72-65 to Stanford.
The standing ovation Lee received before tipoff went on and on, and he waved and smiled the entire time. He walked around Mac Court before tipoff and during halftime, stopping to talk to everyone who acknowledged him.
In an era when stars both current and former tend to be standoffish, this was a former college basketball and NBA player who genuinely seemed every bit as happy to see the Oregon fans as they were to see him.
He positively owned Mac Court on this night, the way he used to as a player from 1972 to 1976, when he set a UO career scoring record (2,085) that still stands.
He signed autograph after autograph, before, during and after the game, sticking around long after the Cardinal had polished off the Ducks, holding court near the scorer’s table with an impromptu line of about 50 fans waiting to get his autograph, or picture, or just exchange a few words and a hand shake.
Oregon radio play-by-play announcer Jerry Allen noted during his postgame show the throng of fans, young and old, that had gathered around Lee.
“That is really something,” Allen said. “We never forget our heroes, do we folks?”
Lee accommodated them all, still signing away after the UO band had packed up and left, after the chairs and towels and team equipment had been hauled away, after Allen’s radio show had concluded.
And through it all, that smile never disappeared.