- Jan. 11, 2012
On January 14, 1976 the Portland Timbers selected one of the most famous athletes in Oregon as its fourth round draft choice. Having taken John Smillie, Kit Zell and Chip Smallwood, the Timbers opted for Ron Lee. A 6’4” senior, Lee was an All-American basketball player at the University of Oregon.
Lee was recruited to Oregon in 1972 from Lexington, Massachusetts, where he played soccer and was an all-league goalkeeper in high school. After four years of basketball in Eugene, Lee was poised to join the NBA but the Timbers got the chance to draft him first. “We expect him to be at our tryout camp in the spring if all goes well,” said Timbers General Manager Don Paul on draft day. After the draft, Paul lifted a pre-made Lee no. 30 shirt to show off the highest profile local player to ever be associated with the Timbers.
Though it was Paul who made the announcement, defender Mick Hoban and public relations man Dennis O’Meara selected the players in the Timbers’ first collegiate draft. Having formed the club a week after the 1975 draft, Portland did not include any player fresh from the collegiate ranks. Having taken three legitimate soccer players – Smillie was second team All-America at San Jose State, Zell a prolific striker at Seattle Pacific and Smallwood an honorable mention All-American at Delaware – Hoban and O’Meara decided to make a selection that would draw media attention toward the second year team.
“Yes, kind of [surprised],” Lee admitted after his selection to the Timbers. “I played soccer in high school, so I thought there might be a chance I would be drafted. I would really consider it as long as it didn’t interfere with basketball,” he added, perhaps to the surprise of Timbers management.
Before the Timbers’ season started, Lee was chosen in another professional sport’s draft, this time as a twelfth round choice of the San Diego Chargers in the NFL draft. Of course, by then the Timbers’ preseason training camp was long past and did not include Lee. Before the Portland could bring him in, his basketball commitments kept him too busy to ever actually join the Timbers. Ducks basketball fans were certainly happy as Lee broke the school record with 41 points in a game in ’76 and was Pac-8 player of the year. He finished his four years in Eugene as the Ducks’ all-time leading scorer, a title he still holds.
Despite their collegiate accolades, none of the Timbers’ drafted players had a significant impact on the 1976 season. Smallwood played in nine games while Zell saw just thirty-minutes over two games. Smillie played just once and was even left out of a friendly against his hometown club Rangers. The Timbers goalkeeper in ’76 was Jim Cumbes, a veteran of ten seasons in goal at Tranmere Rovers, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa.
In July, the NBA finally came calling as the Phoenix Suns drafted Lee no. 10 overall. Though he never did appear with the Timbers, the drafting of Ron Lee is one of the all-time surprises, PR stunts and highlights of Portland’s collegiate drafts. Over the years, several draftees have become important players but none will likely match the attention garnered by the drafting of Ron Lee.