From Player to Coach: 2 All-Americans Return to 49ers

Times Staff Writer

Hair, lots of it, was big then. The stylish basketball player was noted for his 'fro as much as his dunk shot. It was the early 1970s, an era in which two well-coiffured All-Americans, Ed Ratleff and Glenn McDonald, led the Cal State Long Beach 49ers to their only brush with glory.

They're back on campus now, assistant coaches to Ron Palmer. Their hair is short and the cheers they once heard as players are now vague echoes in their minds.

They are still young--Ratleff is 34, McDonald 32--but somehow seem older when it sinks in that the players they are teaching had barely started grade school in the early '70s, or when a dogeared old National Basketball Assn. guide reveals their photos along with other sideburned entries named Havlicek, Thurmond, Monroe, Goodrich and Frazier.

This year's 49ers had to be told by Palmer who Ratleff and McDonald are and what they once did.

"Never heard of them," said guard Jon Hansen, who was 5 years old when Ratleff was throwing in 20 points a game.

Ratleff was the more prominent. A 6-6 guard, he averaged 21.4 points a game in three seasons as they went 74-12 under Jerry Tarkanian and reached the NCAA Western Regional finals twice, losing both times to UCLA.

Olympic Team Member

He was called Eddie then and he was the star. In 1972, he made the Olympic team.

"Eddie was Tark's favorite," McDonald recalled before a Long Beach practice this week. "If Eddie was on a fast break in practice, Tark would holler, 'Let him go.' He didn't want him hurt."

Such favoritism made Ratleff uncomfortable.

"Ed tried to prove he wasn't Tark's boy," McDonald said. "One day he came to practice with his hair 12 inches off his head. Tark looked at him but didn't say anything. Everybody said, 'See, you're Tark's boy,' but Ed didn't feel that way."

Ratleff was a first-round draft choice of the NBA's Houston Rockets in 1973. He averaged 8.3 points as a starter for the Rockets, and his teammates included Rudy Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy. He played five seasons until a back injury forced his retirement.

The end of his playing career in 1978 did not put Ratleff at loose ends.

"I had classes to finish," he said. "Some guys after they're done playing sit at home with no job. That's when it's tough." Ratleff, whose main duty is recruiting, has a reputation as a good-will ambassador for Cal State Long Beach, promoting 49er basketball in the community.

"I try not to do anything wrong, to keep my nose clean," Ratleff said.

John Kasser, the CSULB athletic director, said, "He makes it so easy to be an athletic director. All I have to do is say I work with Ed Ratleff."

Career Aspirations

Ratleff wants to become a head coach. He was a 49er assistant under Tex Winter and an assistant with the Long Beach women's team before leaving last year to coach at El Dorado High School in Placentia. He had been considered a candidate for the job that went to Palmer.

"I'm hoping my time will come soon," he said.

Until it does, he is sustained by the satisfactions of recruiting.

"You get close to the players," he said. "It's a good feeling when you call a kid and you can tell he's excited talking to you. You get close to them, then you watch their progress."

McDonald also has rapport with the players.

"They come to me if they have problems," he said. "A lot of coaches are hard-nosed, but if I get to be a head coach, I'll make sure I'm close to my players."

McDonald was a three-year letterman with the 49ers and averaged 13.4 points his senior season. That surprised Ratleff.

"He's blind," Ratleff said. "We were playing a game at the Campus Gym and he asked how much time was left. It's a small gym and the scoreboard isn't far away. I thought he was kidding, then he asked me what the score was. I can't believe he shot as well as he did."

Both laughed at the memory.

"I couldn't wear contact lenses," McDonald said. "All I could see was a fuzzy orange rim. But ever since high school I could judge how far from the basket I was. It was like radar with me."

Celtic Draft Choice

McDonald, a slim 6-6 forward, was drafted in the first round by Boston in 1974. He joined the Celtics and walked into Boston Garden, a revered, musty old place some people behold as a cathedral.

To McDonald, it seemed more like a rat hole.

"I was very shocked," he said. "It was just an old place. I was looking for something plush."

But the Celtic mystique left its mark on him.

"I was a Boston Celtic and no one can take that away from me," McDonald said.

He played two seasons in Boston, where he averaged 10 minutes a game and was hardly noticed. Then came the night of June 4, 1976, when he was unexpectedly thrust into Celtic lore forever. That was the night of the Boston-Phoenix triple-overtime game in the championship playoff series, sometimes considered the greatest game ever.

In the third overtime, Paul Silas fouled out. McDonald nudged teammate Steve Kuberski and told him to get ready to go in.

But Celtic Coach Tommy Heinsohn said, "Mac, let's go."

McDonald scored eight points, twice his career average, to lead the Celtics to a 128-126 victory.

The Celtics released McDonald after the season. He tried unsuccessfully to make the Phoenix Suns, then went to Sweden to play a year. From there he went to the Philippines, where he became an object of adulation as well as that country's first foreign player and coach.

He averaged 34 points and 16 rebounds in a Philippine pro league he said was about at the American junior college level.

"You'd walk down the street and people almost had a car wreck trying to see you," McDonald said. "It was in the same mold as being a movie star here."

McDonald coached his team to two Philippine championships, which he said was a greater thrill than being a world-champion Celtic.

"I was more excited about that because I was the main person," he said.

After six years in the Philippines, McDonald returned to Long Beach. "I wanted to coach in the states, but I had to get my degree," he said.

He is a part-time assistant--he also works for the Long Beach Recreation Department--who would like full-time status. His wife, Rene, helps with finances by working part time. "She's been behind me, sacrificing so I can pursue my career," McDonald said.

Palmer, who is in his first year as coach, chose Ratleff and McDonald in the hope that they could help attract top area players to Cal State Long Beach, which has struggled in recent years. The 49ers are 2-16 this season. Palmer says Ratleff and McDonald have considerable input in his program.

"I like the idea they've played against some of the best players in the country," Palmer said. "They have the feeling for winning high-powered basketball because they've been there."

At a recent 49er practice in Santa Barbara, Ratleff and McDonald remained to shoot baskets after the players had left. Only to shoot. No one-on-one to stoke the competitive fires within them. Their grip on the realization that yesterday's gone is firm.

"I still like to play," said McDonald, who sees the rim clearly now with glasses. "I haven't got out of playing pickup games. But I needed to sacrifice that to get where I am now."

He is content to play with his 6-year-old son, Michael, who hangs around practice with his dad, or roll around on the floor with his 2-year-old daughter, Alexis.

Ratleff's back told him to quit playing long ago, and even if it hadn't, he wouldn't be out searching for games.

"I have no interest in getting out and playing three on three," he said. "I guess I've played enough basketball." So he and McDonald strive toward their coaching futures and kid about their playing pasts.

Ratleff: "I taught Glenn everything he knows."

McDonald: "What he taught me was how to pass the ball to Eddie."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World