Blazers' Terry Stotts helped ignite the OU basketball renaissance
TUALATIN, Ore. – Terry Stotts was headed to dental school.
Smart guy. Bachelor of sciences degree from OU. Knew his basketball limitations, that despite a sweet shot and a 6-foot-8 frame, he wouldn’t survive in the athletic world of the NBA. Dental school seemed the right path for Stotts.
Then came the 1980 NBA Draft. The Houston Rockets, picking 38th overall -- three spots after Rick Mahorn, who would spend 18 years in the league, and three spots before Jawann Oldham, who would play 10 years in the NBA – took Stotts.
“The different things that change the course of your life,” Stotts said Monday at the Trail Blazers’ headquarters. “So I was drafted in the second round. If I had been drafted in the fourth or fifth round, I probably would have gone to dental school. But I wanted to give basketball a chance.”
The basketball paid off. Stotts never played in the NBA, but he’s now in his 11th season as an NBA head coach. Stotts pushed the right buttons Sunday as his Blazers beat the Thunder 104-99 in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series.
Only 40 coaches in history have more regular-season victories than Stotts’ 440. His Blazers are 325-249 in seven seasons, plus playoff advancements in 2014 and 2016.
“He’s smart, he’s organized and he’s a players coach,” said John McCullough, Stotts’ Sooner teammate and now a three-year Portland assistant coach. “Players like playing for him because he lets them be themselves and doesn’t really force a certain way to play, within some structure.”
Hard to believe it’s been 40 years since McCullough and Stotts led that renaissance OU season, the Sooners’ first conference title in three decades. McCullough was the Big Eight Player of the Year in 1979, averaging 16.2 points a game. Stotts averaged 14.5 points and shot 50 percent from the field.
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When Stotts visited OU as a high school senior in early 1976, McCullough was his host. Lloyd Noble Center had just opened. They attended the Chicago concert at the LNC. And made a connection that’s still going strong.
“I think our personalities are a lot alike,” McCullough said. “We’re hard workers. We pay attention to detail. Like to have a lot of fun. Don’t take ourselves too seriously. We can laugh at ourselves and enjoy success with other people. I think that was a big part of our (OU) team.”
McCullough played one year in the NBA, 1982 and eventually became the 12-year women’s coach at Oklahoma Baptist University. When the Thunder came to Oklahoma City, McCullough went to work as an officiating observer for the NBA, and when Stotts became the Blazers’ coach in 2012, he hired McCullough as an advance scout. In 2016, McCullough joined the Portland staff.
“Always had a lot of respect for John as far as a basketball person,” Stotts said. “Obviously as a friend. He sees the game, and now that we’re both in our 60s, he’s kind of the old head with the sage wisdom. Doesn’t get around as quickly as he used to, like myself as well. But we go back a long way. Obviously, I hired him because he’s a good basketball person, but it helps that he’s a good friend.”
McCullough was Dave Bliss’ first recruit in 1975, out of Lima, Ohio, and Stotts was a natural Bliss recruit, since Bliss had been an Indiana assistant coach and Stotts spent his last two high school years in Bloomington, Indiana.
“I think we had a really good group of guys that played well together,” Stotts said of a squad that also included Al Beal, Aaron Curry, Raymond Whitley and Cary Carrabine. Those Sooners reached the Sweet 16 before losing to Indiana State and Larry Bird. “We were good shooters. Coach Bliss did a really good job with us. The pieces really fit. It was a fun time.”
Stotts didn’t make the Rockets in 1979. He went to Italy and played, then returned to the U.S. and played for George Karl’s Montana Golden Nuggets of the Continental Basketball Association. Then Stotts went back to Europe for a few years and finally retired as a player.
Stotts was about to go into pharmaceutical sales when he got a job offer from Karl in the CBA. Karl eventually took Stotts to the NBA, with the Sonics and the Bucks.
Stotts joined Lon Kruger’s staff with the Atlanta Hawks and was named interim head coach when Kruger was fired. Stotts spent almost two seasons coaching the Hawks, then got another shot with the Bucks before being fired. The Blazers came calling in 2012, and Stotts has coached Portland into a consistent winner.
“Basketball’s such an important part of your life,” Stotts said. “My dad was a basketball coach. I don’t think I necessarily thought of coaching until I was out of college for two or three years … staying involved in basketball in some way.”
Stotts is more than involved. He’s committed, leading a Portland team that has the Thunder on the ropes, 43 years after arriving in Oklahoma and helping usher in the Sooners’ winning ways.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.
THUNDER AT PORTLAND
When: 9:30 p.m., Tuesday
Where: Moda Center; Portland, Ore.
TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37 / HD 722, Dish 412, DirecTV 675, U-verse 751 / 1751), TNT (Cox 31 / HD 730; Dish 138; DirecTV 245; U-verse 108 / 1108)
Radio: WWLS-AM 640/98.1 FM