One of the first Lakers in Los Angeles, he twice walked away from the NBA while still capable of All-Star performance. It can certainly be said that Dartmouth graduate Rudy LaRusso didn't take the usual path.
Dartmouth had already secured a share of its second straight Ivy League title, but needed a victory over Princeton in an Ivy playoff game at Payne Whitney Gym in New Haven, Conn., to take a spot in the NCAA Championship Tournament.
Heavily favored in the preseason, Dartmouth was 4-4 before winning 15 straight games. But Princeton, which was on a tear of its own, beat the Green in Princeton in late February and it was enough to force the playoff.
Facing the Tigers for the third time in two weeks, Dartmouth took a big lead, 24-7, in the first half, but Rudy LaRusso ran into foul trouble and the Orange-and-Black stormed back. Picking up his fourth foul early in the second half, the senior sat on the bench as the game became nip-and-tuck. Finally, with less than six minutes left, Coach Doggie Julian sent him back to the court, but LaRusso played "like man afraid to contaminate those he touched," according to Gordon White of the New York Times.
Yet with Dartmouth trailing by a point and his career possibly coming to conclusion in a few seconds, LaRusso took an inbounds pass from Chuck Kaufman and took three big strides before he "leaped high to dunk the lay-up" and give his team a 69-68 win at the buzzer and the Hanoverians their most recent Ivy title.
That victory sent the Brooklyn native and his mates -- including Hall of Famer and teammate Dave Gavitt -- to an NCAA contest against West Virginia and its star Jerry West at Madison Square Garden. The Mountaineers downed Dartmouth and West took the headlines, something that the two-time All-Ivy pick would come to expect for the following decade.
The Lakers, then in Minnesota, made LaRusso the 12th pick of the NBA Draft following his senior season at Dartmouth, where he still holds the school's all-time rebounding marks for both a season (503) and a career (1,239).
The Minnesota franchise was struggling financially by 1959 and LaRusso quickly learned how low-budget the team was when the new head coach approached him and said, "You played for a great college coach (Doggie Julian), you got any good plays from college?" The rookie gave the coach some plays, but they failed to help as the team lost two-thirds of its games.
That lack of success -- on the court and at the turnstile -- gave the Laker ownership some options ... or maybe no option. In 1960, the team moved to Los Angeles, becoming the NBA's first west coast franchise.
When the move was announced LaRusso and Hot Rod Hundley packed up their cars -- a Pontiac Bonneville for LaRusso and an Olds convertible for Hundley -- and headed West. "That's Hot Rod for you," LaRusso once told Scott Ostler of the L.A. Times. "He really needed a convertible in Minneapolis."
After a quick stop in Vegas, they made the final trek to L.A. Hundley proudly says, "We were the first two Lakers in Los Angeles."
Both the Lakers and LaRusso would thrive in the sunshine of Southern California, advancing to the NBA Finals four times. LaRusso -- one of the NBA's original power forwards -- nearly averaged a double-double in his 10 seasons in the Association. His tenacity and attitude -- which Pat Riley would later liken to that of Kurt Rambis -- allowed Elgin Baylor and Jerry West to star. LaRusso himself became a four-time All-Star, once scoring 50 points in a game. Another time he recalled scoring 40, but wasn't mentioned in the game story in the Times because West scored 43.
As much as he was known as an enforcer on the court, he was known as a prankster away from the hardwood. Teammate Tom Hawkins recalled that every time the Lakers were in the Detroit airport, LaRusso would get into a violent brawl with a stuffed tiger at a gift shop. Memories of Princeton, perhaps? LaRusso, according to Hawkins, "loved to keep the guys loose and make them laugh, until he got into the locker room, and put his game face on. Then he was all business."
Some partisans thought he was too much about business. Once, while LaRusso was walking with Gavitt in Boston, an old man approached Gavitt and asked why he was with "Roughhouse Rudy," calling him a dirty player. That man turned out to be Celtics announcer Johnny Most, wrote Marvin Pave of the Boston Globe.
LaRusso wound up in interesting situations as his profile grew. In 1966 he visited Vietnam to make an appearance for the Department of Defense. The next year he appeared in an episode of Gilligan's Island (about a crate of plastic washing up on the island that turned out to be plastic explosives). He had also become a successful investment banker in the midst of his basketball career.
But then came a blow to his idyllic life when the Lakers, without mentioning it to him, traded him to the Pistons in 1967. Because athletes didn't have many rights at that time, LaRusso made the decision to retire rather than leave Los Angles with his pregnant wife.
He didn't really want to retire, but returning to the Lakers wasn't much of an option. Then NBA President Walter Kennedy suspended him, calling him the property of the Pistons. A player good enough to average 13 points and eight rebounds for one of the League's elite teams was on the outside looking in. LaRusso filed a lawsuit, claiming that he was "in effect, blacklisted by all of the other teams ... a victim of a group boycott."
Two years later, baseball player Curt Flood would take a similar stand, one which would both end his career and the "reserve clause," allowing for free agency. But LaRusso's career was not over. Before the next season began, he dropped the lawsuit, saying, "I'd rather pursue a career than a lawsuit."
He joined the San Francisco Warriors, but maintained his home in the Los Angeles area, not far from the airport. He'd leave home at 9 am, fly to San Francisco at 9:15, get to the gym in San Bruno before the 11 am practice and be home by three.
That schedule worked for him, because he averaged better than 20 points a game in both 1968 and 1969, leading the Warriors to the playoffs the first year and playing in the All-Star game in his second. But at the height of his career, LaRusso, citing a bad back and business opportunities, retired for the second time. This time it was final.
LaRusso's transition from basketball wasn't much of a transition at all as he returned to his banking career and became a sports agent. In the late 1970s, he became the general manager for the L.A. Aztecs of the North American Soccer League. By 1979, those Aztecs were averaging more than 14,000 spectators per game.
In 1981, the Ivy League picked its Silver Anniversary team and LaRusso was a first-teamer. He was fifth in the balloting for the Player of the Era, behind Princeton's Bill Bradley, Columbia's Jim McMillian and Chet Forte and Penn's Corky Calhoun.
The fun-loving kid from Brooklyn -- who was recruited to Dartmouth by fellow New Yorker Al McGuire -- never moved away from Los Angeles nor forgot about his alma mater. Four days before Christmas 1999, the Big Green used a second-half comeback to win at Loyola Marymount and LaRusso joined the locker room celebration. The Dartmouth players chanted "Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!" like they had probably done 40 years before.
He passed away in 2004 after a lengthy bout with Parkinson's disease. Old friend Elgin Baylor was asked of his memories after LaRusso's passing and he said, "Rudy and I go all the way back to our days together in Minneapolis. He was one of my favorite teammates ever, and we had some great times. He was a wonderful person and a good friend, respected by everyone."
— Brett Hoover