The Lowdown: Rudy LaRusso

Years Active: 1960 – 1969
Regular Season Stats: 736 games, 33.3 MPG
15.6 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, 43.1% FG, 76.7% FT
Postseason Stats: 93 games, 34.3 MPG
14.5 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, 40.5% FG, 75.1% FT
Accolades: All-Defensive 2nd Team (1969), 4x All-Star (1963, ’66, ’68-’69)

NBA Photo Library/Getty Images
NBA Photo Library/Getty Images

At first glance, Rudy LaRusso hardly seems the athlete best equipped to intellectualize on any sport, including his own, basketball. There is something about his prognathous jaw and the occasional scowl on his big, shaggy face that tells you not to annoy him. Players claim that meeting him head to head on a basketball court is a little like playing a game of tag on the freeway during rush hour.

- Via Brave Words From A Hawk And A Warrior

Rudy LaRusso was certainly an intellectual having graduated from Ivy League Dartmouth College in 1959. But he was also certainly worthy of that freeway description. LaRusso was one of the roughest, toughest players of the 1960s NBA. It was a  turbulent decade that practically framed his career. His first professional game was October 18, 1959 as a member of the Minneapolis Lakers and his last game was April 5, 1969 against the Los Angeles Lakers.

In between these two games, LaRusso staked his claim as an instrumental piece in the story of the NBA during that decade. However, his instrumental role was always a supporting one. Needless to say, support staff aren’t always recognized for the pivotal roles they play. LaRusso is no exception to that. Appreciated by the few, overlooked and unknown to the masses, this is the wild ride of the rowdy career Rudy LaRusso.

rudy-larusso

Attending Dartmouth College between 1956 and 1959, LaRusso firmly established himself as one of the nation’s best players. The New Yorker led Dartmouth to two Ivy League titles and two appearances in the NCAA tournament. His 1959 Dartmouth squad won the Ivy League title thanks to LaRusso’s last-second layupto defeat Princeton. Averaging a gritty 14.5 points and 15.5 rebounds a game, LaRusso was just what the Minneapolis Lakers were looking for in 1959 offseason as the NBA Draft loomed.

The Lakers were coming off a surprise Finals appearance that spring thanks to the talent of their frontcourt: small forward Elgin Baylor, power forward Vern Mikkelsen, and center Larry Foust. The Lakers were swept handily by Boston. Following the unceremonious demolition by the Celtics, Mikkelsen retired and the Lakers needed a big forward to provide tenacious defense and fierce rebounding alongside Baylor. LaRusso fit the bill and was taken 10th overall in the 1959 NBA Draft.

LaRusso’s tenure with the Lakers got off to an abysmal start. The club limped to a pathetic 25-50 record in the 1959-60 season and they finished 2nd-to-last in the Western Division. However, in the 8-team NBA of 1960, this also meant the Lakers finished in 3rd place in the Western Division guaranteeing them a playoff spot. In their opening round series against Detroit, Elgin Baylor surely did the heavy-lifting (40 points in Game 1; 25 points in Game 2), but LaRusso was right by his side with  18 points and 19 points in the two games. The Lakers took both contests and therefore won the series 2-0.

In a 7-game brawl with the St. Louis Hawks in the Division Finals, the Lakers ultimately fell short of the championship round. Despite the near-Finals appearance, the Minneapolis Lakers were no longer a hit in Minnesota. They were whisked from Minneapolis to Los Angeles following that season. After the move, the Lakers drafted Jerry West and the core trio of their 1960s squads was formed.

From the 1960-61 season until the 1965-66 season, the Lakers of Baylor, West, and LaRusso would appear in 4 NBA Finals losing to the Boston Celtics each time. The losses were often painfully close. The 1962 series ended with a 3-point Celtics win in an overtime Game 7. The 1963 series ended with a 3-point Celtics win in Game 6. The Lakers big 3 combined for 79 of Los Angeles’ 109 points in that game. In 1966, the Lakers lost another Game 7, this time by 2 points.

Add to these Finals losses the 1961 defeat in Game 7 of the Western Division Finals, 105 to 103, at the hands of the St. Louis Hawks and you have a ridiculous amount of frustrated glory for LaRusso and the Lakers.

But to boil down LaRusso’s career as a bystander in these catastrophic defeats is unwarranted. He carved out his niche role on these successful, if not championship, Laker teams. Facing off against the likes of Bob Pettit, Bailey Howell, Tommy Heinsohn and others, LaRusso was usually tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best forward. His physical and aggressive defense often led to quarrels and outright fights on the court.

LaRusso being restrained by Celtics players (Reading Eagle)
LaRusso being restrained by Celtics players (Reading Eagle)

In February 1962, LaRusso and the Celtics exchanged some not-so-friendly moments…

The trouble broke out early in the first period, when LaRusso and Boston’s Bob Cousy started making hostile gestures at each other with arms and elbows after a struggle over the ball. This little drama was just petering out when Heinsohn ran up behind LaRusso and socked him the back of the head. Both benches emptied but a riot was averted and no one was kicked out of the game.

Shortly after this outburst, Tommy Heinsohn was knocked flat on his behind by someone and had to leave the game with blurred vision and a concussion. No one knew who exactly delivered the blow, but suspicion fell upon LaRusso:

…for several minutes after the incident, [Red] Auerbach was yelling at LaRusso: “Remember, Rudy, you’ve got to come to Boston.”

But LaRusso’s most famous tangle came with the New York Knicks’ young center Willis Reed in 1966:

Reed, 6’8″, 235, then in his third year, had been exchanging elbows all night with Rudy LaRusso. After a third-quarter free throw. Reed tripped LaRusso, who tagged Reed with a right while Darrall Imhoff held Willis from behind. That sent Reed into a frenzy. He slugged Imhoff and chased LaRusso to the bench. Then he hit John Block with an enormous left hook, spreading his nose all over his face, turned and again belted Imhoff, who fell and knocked five Lakers off the bench like dominoes. Reed planted two more shots on LaRusso and one more on Imhoff, who, bleeding from above the left eye, dived under the bench, to find Block already hiding there with a broken nose.

WillisReedFight_display_imageAs it happens, LaRusso’s beat down at the hands of Willis Reed would turn out to be one of his final moments as a Laker. Later that same season (1966-67), the Lakers traded their forward to the Detroit Pistons. LaRusso was not too pleased with the development and refused to report to Detroit. In January 1967, LaRusso declared he’d rather retire in southern California than play basketball in Michigan. Rudy was suspended and fined by the NBA, but he refused to budge.

As the calendar turned from winter to spring to summer, LaRusso still maintained his recalcitrance. Detroit finally caved in by selling LaRusso’s rights to the San Francisco Warriors. The Warriors agreed to let LaRusso commute from Los Angeles and Rudy was thus back in the NBA.

The Warriors were reeling from the loss of their standout small forward Rick Barry (35 PPG in 1967) to the ABA’s Oakland Oaks in that summer of 1967. LaRusso was a nice addition to shore up their talent in general, but  he also fit nicely alongside Jeff Mullins and Nate Thurmond in particular. In Thurmond, LaRusso finally had a like-minded defender who loved to rebound at his side. In Los Angeles, LaRusso had played with many decent, and sometimes good, centers but never any great ones like Thurmond. For his part, Jeff Mullins had emerged the previous year as a good scorer, but in the 1967-68 season, he emerged as an excellent swingman in the absence of Rick Barry.

Without the specter of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, LaRusso himself saw an offensive upswing in his game with San Francisco. His previous career-high in points per game was 17 back in 1962, a season in which Baylor had only played half the games. Now with the Warriors, LaRusso reached 22 PPG to go along with his usual rebounding and defense.

The Warriors, however, were swept in the 1968 playoffs by LaRusso’s erstwhile mates in Los Angeles. The sweep was a competitive one despite Nate Thurmond being absent with injury. San Francisco lost three of the four games by a combined 18 points. LaRusso was the Warriors’ best player in the postseason as he averaged 20 points and 10 rebound.

In 1969, the Warriors and Lakers again met in the postseason. Nate Thurmond was around for this series, however. Countering his return, the Lakers could now boast Wilt Chamberlain who had been added via trade in the preceding offseason. Despite their 41-41 regular season record, the Warriors walloped the Lakers hard and quick in their semi-final series. In Game 1, LaRusso and Mullins combined for 68 points as San Francisco won 99-94 in Los Angeles. In Game 2, the two stars hit for 49 points and the Warriors won 107 to 101.

The potential Cinderella Warriors were derailed by Jeff Mullins bruising his knee in Game 3. He played in every subsequent game, but was clearly hampered, and the Lakers throttled the Warriors, winning the next four games and the series. The Game 6 loss was LaRusso’s last game of his NBA career.

Fittingly, LaRusso’s career bookmarked the 1960s. His first season was 1959-60, the last 1968-69. During that span, LaRusso’s sneakily placed himself as one of the game’s best players. The following are LaRusso’s ranks for NBA players during the 1960s:

  • 10th in Games Played (736)
  • 9th in Minutes Played (24,487)
  • 10th in Rebounds (6936)
  • 12th in Points (11,507)

And most charmingly, he was fourth in that span in the number of personal fouls committed with 2553.

During this span, he was also named a to the All-Star Game four times: twice as a Laker in 1963 and 1966; twice as a Warrior in 1968 and 1969. At the age of 31 in 1969, LaRusso was also named to the inaugural All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team. No doubt if this honor had been around for his whole career, LaRusso would have been a perennial member.

Upon retiring, LaRusso became an investment banker and sports agent. He could have put together a few more productive seasons in the NBA, though, if his final year was any indication. Not only did he make that inaugural All-Defensive Team, but he also had averaged 20.7 PPG.

Of players who’ve enjoyed a full NBA career, only Michael Jordan, Paul Arizin, George Yardley and Bob Pettit retired averaging over 20 PPG in their final season. Oh and our dear Rudy LaRusso.

That’s an unexpected twist from LaRusso. Usually, he was taking punches to the chin instead of providing scoring punches.

Cliff Hagan of the Hawks punching LaRusso
Cliff Hagan of the Hawks punching LaRusso

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