Feb. 22, 2008
Ronnie Lester knows the importance of scouting. He knows who to look for, what to look for, and how to approach talented high school and college basketball products. But long before he became a professional scout and assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, Lester understood the recruiting process. That is why he chose to play basketball at Iowa, the one school that courted him most effectively.
Having grown up in the inner city of Chicago, Lester was a 17-year-old kid with his sights set on going to college and getting an education. Raised by a single mother with three sisters, Lester knew his ticket out of his tough neighborhood was going to be through the game of basketball. Yet as a senior in high school, not one college had stepped up and shown interest in him.
Not long thereafter, Iowa and then-head coach Lute Olson did.
"Iowa was the first school to show a big interest in recruiting me," said Lester, who also considered Arizona, Creighton, Louisville, Nebraska and Texas-El Paso. "They stuck by me and made me feel I was their number one option."
Throughout his high school and college career, Lester wasn't always the number one leader or scoring option. One who was described as letting his actions speak for him, Lester knew his role as a point guard was to find any way possible to win games. As he put it, his approach was always to win.
"As a junior in high school, we had two 20-point scorers. I may have averaged 10 points that season because I needed to get them the ball," he said. "The next season those guys had left and I was scoring close to 25 points a game."
Once at Iowa, Lester found himself in a similar position. During his freshman season in 1977, Lester took on a learning role as the primary assist man to 6-foot-9 senior center and leading scorer Bruce King. But Lester was also learning a new system and how to live away from home.
"The first year was a big learning experience for me, having never been away from home," he said. "I had to adjust to that and a new team and style of play. I just wanted to get better each year and my second year I knew what to expect and what was expected of me."
Did he ever.
As a sophomore, Lester led the team in scoring with 19.9 points per game, as well as in assists and field goal percentage. He earned his first of three team MVP honors at the conclusion of the season.
The momentum carried into his junior year when the Hawkeyes tied both Michigan State and Purdue for the Big Ten Championship - an impressive feat seeing that the Spartans went on to win the NCAA Championship under the leadership of Magic Johnson.
What made the season most special for Lester was how the team played together.
"I think the Big Ten back then had a lot of talent top to bottom," he said. "We beat a lot of teams because we played together as a team. It was great to see how far we had come since I got to Iowa."
Following the season Lester earned his first of two first-team All-America honors and his second-straight first-team All-Big Ten selection. He again led the Hawkeyes in scoring with 18.7 points per game, as well as in assists and field goal percentage.
All was well for Lester and the Hawkeyes until a Christmas tournament in Dayton, Ohio, during his senior year. Iowa was off to a 10-0 start on the campaign and Lester was looking unstoppable as the Hawkeyes' leader. But Lester injured his knee in Dayton and was forced to miss close to the rest of the season. He missed the entire conference schedule with exception of the last game, which was played at home against Illinois.
Knowing how special of a person Lester was to Iowa, the Hawkeyes took an unusual route by retiring his No. 12 jersey in a ceremony prior to the final home game, after then-Illini head coach Lou Henson gave the school his blessing. It was a moment that Lester will cherish forever.
"To have that recognition while I was still active is one of those things I will never forget," he said.
More memories would be made in that jersey, however, as a rehabbed Lester returned to lead the Hawkeyes to their third Final Four appearance in 1980. He finished his career in Iowa City ranked fourth all-time in assists (480), fifth in scoring (1,675) and second in field goal attempts (1,459). In single-season stats, Lester ranks seventh (163 in 1978) and 10th (147 in 1979) in assists.
Following an impressive college career, Lester was picked 10th overall by Portland in the NBA Draft, but immediately traded to Chicago. The guy who at one point appeared to never have a chance to leave Chicago was now going back home with a college education and a pocket full of cash.
The latter posed an issue for Lester, who admitted that going back to his hometown was bittersweet because he would undoubtedly cross paths with people he grew up with, who were now just focused on his success and money. Even more troubling was the fact that the lackluster Bulls did not have a lot of continuity in the program at that time.
"It was good to go back home, but there are other responsibilities when you play at home," he said. "There were people that I grew up with that tried to pull you in different directions. The team was also not a very good team at that time. I played four years with Chicago and had four head coaches."
Lester played in only eight games as a rookie with the Bulls in 1980-81, but followed up with his best season, averaging a career-high 11.6 points, 4.8 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game.
After a brief stint with the Bulls, Lester signed with the Lakers in 1984. He played only two years in Los Angeles due to the nagging knee injury that forced him to miss much of his senior season at Iowa. He admits that he was never the same player and that his knee was never fully healed after the surgery.
But during the two years he spent with the Lakers, he was a part of the 1985 NBA Championship squad and played alongside his old Big Ten pal Magic Johnson, as well as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott, and a guy named Mitch Kupchak. While Magic once described the 6-2 Lester as "the best guard I have ever seen," it would be Kupchak that really took a liking to the Hawkeye great.
During the same season Lester decided to hang it up for good, Kupchak also retired after he was plagued with a knee injury. Kupchak soon became involved in the Lakers' management as an assistant to then general manager Jerry West. When the team needed a scout for the Midwest region, Kupchak recommended Lester for the position knowing full well how he was regarded in the Heartland.
It has been 21 years now since Lester began his career as a scout for the Lakers. A great deal has changed in the game of basketball during that span. When Lester first started, he attended college games to scout seniors, but soon the job called for him to begin scoping out underclassmen and even attending high school games.
Prior to the 2001-02 campaign, Lester was elevated to Kupchak's position of assistant general manager when his former teammate was promoted to the team's general manager position. Lester has remained in his current role for seven years now and assists the team on a variety of projects.
"I have my hand in a little bit of everything," he said. "I still like to scout, although now I am doing that in Europe and Asia. I do contracts and put together our summer team and our developmental team in the NBDL."
Lester is married (Rowena) with a 21-year-old son (Jake) and a 16-year-old daughter (Alexis). Life is good for the Laker, but despite making his actual living in Los Angeles now, Lester will always consider Iowa City his second home.
"I said it when they retired my jersey in 1980, my four years at Iowa were the best time in my life," he said. "I grew so much and I learned so much. It wasn't just about being a student-athlete. It was the whole experience of going to school."
Iowa City was not a far trip from Chicago's inner city, but it was far enough for a 17-year-old kid eager to attend college and play some ball.
And Iowa was the one school that scouted him to do just that.
Nearly 30 years later, he remains one of the most honored Hawkeyes of all-time.