Champions 2017: George Raveling
|George Raveling spent 22 years as a trailblazing college basketball coach before helping grow both the game and Nike as an executive.
Aside from the inventor of the game and a handful of others, few people have meant more to basketball than George Raveling. Coach, mentor, influencer, ambassador — and perhaps most important of all, a role model like few others along the way.
As an African-American head coach when there were few, “George was a pathfinder in so many ways,” said former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who’s known Raveling for 60 years. “He’s had a particular impact, particularly as a role model for young African-American players and coaches.”
In 22 years as a college head coach, Raveling’s winning percentage was pedestrian, just .535, and he never won a conference title. His NCAA tournament record, at 2-6, isn’t glossy and is bereft of a Final Four appearance.
Yet Raveling has been in the College Basketball Hall of Fame since 2013 and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame since 2015. He was an assistant coach for two U.S. Olympic teams and has served on the board of nearly every basketball organization of consequence, including USA Basketball and FIBA, the sport’s global governing body.
In his life after coaching, during 20-plus years as an executive with Nike, Raveling has helped that company establish and maintain its position as the preeminent basketball brand. Michael Jordan’s spot at the apex of Nike’s basketball pyramid can’t be disputed. Where does Raveling fit?
“Right near the top,” said Phil Knight, Nike founder and chairman emeritus. “George is in the Hall of Fame because he was such a great ambassador for basketball.”
So while Raveling won an Olympic gold medal in 1984 as a coach of the last U.S. Olympic team to use college players, was the first African-American coach in the ACC, the first black head basketball coach in what was then the Pac-8 and was twice recognized as national coach of the year, his renown stems more from his dedication and stewardship in building the game, both domestically and abroad.
“You just can’t measure George’s contributions in wins and losses,” said John Chaney, former Temple University coach and another Naismith Hall of Famer without a Final Four appearance. “But they can be judged in terms of contributions to the game and to young men’s lives — and those are countless.”
As Thompson put it: “The worst thing in the world you could do is just look at George Raveling’s coaching record. … There’s a lot more in making a contribution to a game than the number of games you have won.”
As basketball’s influence has spread globally to the point where NBA rosters this season opened with a record 113 foreign-born players from 41 different countries, it has done so with the star power of players like Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Yao Ming and LeBron James. It’s also gotten a big assist from Raveling, who’s been conducting clinics for Nike in China for the past 20 years.
“George’s influence across the world of basketball is as far reaching as anyone’s,” said former USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo. “If ever someone could be looked upon as a world ambassador for basketball, that’s George.”
First Look podcast, with writer Terry Lefton discussing George Raveling’s story:
Through his time as a coach and a Nike exec, Raveling has been a link to the game’s past and present.
“George is so connected, and he connects generations because he has played or coached with or against so many legends,” said NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO Mark Tatum, who’s worked with Raveling for more than 15 years on matters involving USA Basketball, Nike’s NBA sponsorship and as a fellow member of the Naismith Hall of Fame board of governors. “He’s had a front-row seat to how things used to be and how they got to where they are, and he shares all that knowledge constantly.”
Perhaps the great orator Charles Barkley put it best.
“Coach Rav is like my grandfather,” said Barkley, another Hall of Famer who’s now a Turner basketball analyst. “He’s the ‘Godfather’ for all the brothers playing basketball.”
Raveling grew up in Washington, D.C., and didn’t play basketball until his ninth grade year at St. Michael’s, a Catholic boarding school, founded as an orphanage near Scranton, Pa., into which his grandmother’s employer helped him enroll. Raveling’s father died when he was 9 and his mother was institutionalized when he was 13, so academics became among the most influential forces in his life — an attraction that has not waned.
“George is probably the most well-read person I know,” said USA Basketball Executive Director Jim Tooley, who has known Raveling since 1993. “He has interests well beyond basketball — but he still always wears his passion for the game on his sleeve.”
|Raveling, with Villanova coach Al Severance in 1959, played for the Wildcats from 1957-60.
By his senior year at St. Michael’s, Raveling was the second-leading high school scorer in Pennsylvania. Former St. Joe’s coach Jack Ramsay was the first to offer him a scholarship. When discussing it later with his high school coach, Raveling admitted, “I wasn’t even sure then what a scholarship was.”
The nuns and fathers at St. Michael’s steered him to another Catholic school, Villanova. When he arrived there as a freshman in 1956, there were 10 other black students at the school’s Main Line, Philadelphia, campus — nine of whom were on athletic scholarship.
Things still worked out OK.
At 6-foot-6, Raveling was Villanova’s leading rebounder and remains ranked 11th all time at the basketball power. Still, Raveling recounts that his two most memorable college games were made so “because of race.”
In 1960, Raveling says he was one of — if not the — first black players to play against West Virginia in Morgantown. Jerry West, then as now, the Mountaineers’ leading scorer, was the heart of the team. Trying to block a breakaway layup, Raveling collided with West, knocking him into the front row. The arena went silent. “I extended my hand, pulled him up and that was the end of it,” Raveling said. “Or I might never have played basketball again.”
The other incident was uglier.
Later that season, before a game at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., an elevator operator at the Robert E. Lee Hotel tossed Raveling’s and another African-American Villanova player’s bags out of the elevator and declared, “No nigger’s ever stayed at this hotel.”
Raveling’s teammates voted not to play the game, but Raveling and the other player convinced them to stay. The two of them spent the night at the nearby home of the legendary Clarence “Big House” Gaines, who coached Winston-Salem State for 47 years.
At his home in Ladera Heights, Calif., Raveling keeps a collection of racist mementos. There are hundreds of pieces, largely ceramic bric-a-brac and postcards once sold to please the Southern tourist trade, items full of mindless stereotypes involving watermelons and exaggerated lips.
“I keep them to remember what it was like,” Raveling said, handing over one of the offensive curios.
Barkley offers a unique perspective.
“Any time I meet an older black guy who was alive during those turbulent times, I know no matter how bad he tells me it was, it was worse,” he said. “Being a black man from Alabama, I just look at the stuff he’s been through and I just admire and respect what he’s done.”
Armed with an economics degree in the early ’60s, Raveling went into a management training program at Sun Oil Co. One highlight was working on marketing support for the opening of a gas station owned by Roger Penske, who would go on to other pursuits in the automotive business.
“(Villanova coach) Jack Kraft was bugging me to help him recruit and I decided that 30 years from now I didn’t want to be working for an oil company,” Raveling said. He worked as a part-time assistant, then went full time in 1964, helping to land some recruits who are still remembered by Wildcats fans: Howard Porter, Wali Jones, Chris Ford and Billy Melchionni.
|Hired by Washington State in 1972, Raveling became the Pac-8’s first African-American head coach.
Raveling insists he “didn’t look for head coaching jobs until they came looking for me.” He interviewed for the top job at Georgetown in 1972, finishing among the top three but losing out to Thompson. He finished second in the race for the Cincinnati job to Gale Catlett.
Based on his reputation as a recruiter, Washington State pursued Raveling, and in 1972 he signed on as the Pac-8’s first African-American head coach.
“I never ran into any overt racism at any of the places I coached,” Raveling said today.
He stayed in Pullman, Wash., which he now calls his favorite head coaching stop, for 11 years, eventually bringing the Cougars their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1941. By 1983, Raveling was off to the Big Ten, coaching Iowa to consecutive 20-win seasons and solidifying his reputation as an innovator and educator.
B.J. Armstrong, who played for Raveling at Iowa and went on to star in the NBA, said he felt an immediate connection to Raveling when the coach recruited him to play for Iowa out of Detroit.
“As an African-American in the era he grew up in, he felt an enormous responsibility to set an example,” said Armstrong, who won three championships with Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the 1990s and is now executive vice president and managing executive of basketball for Wasserman. “I don’t think he ever viewed himself as a coach first; he always viewed himself as a teacher. He was always stressing to us the importance of earning a degree.”
During his time at Iowa, Raveling served as assistant coach for the ’84 U.S. Olympic team. The highlight, of course, was winning the gold medal in Los Angeles. The lowlight came during the Olympic trials. Barkley was the leader in scoring, rebounding and assists, but he was cut by head coach Bob Knight, who felt he was too undisciplined. As Knight’s assistant, Raveling had to deliver the news to Barkley. The fact they’re still on good terms says a lot about Raveling’s diplomatic skills.
Coaching the ’84 and ’88 Olympic teams — in 1988 under head coach and longtime friend Thompson — gave Raveling one more benefit: Additional relationships and credibility within the international basketball community as well as among elite players, including Jordan.
In 1986, Raveling returned to the Pac-10 to coach Southern Cal. Some of the Trojans’ star players rebelled, insisting that he retain two assistants from the prior regime. Having already promised those jobs to his Iowa assistants, Raveling held steadfast.
Three top players, including Hank Gathers, who would later lead the nation in scoring and rebounding, transferred. Raveling remembers telling the USC president at the time, “I don’t think a university should ever be in a position where 18-year-olds hold it hostage.”
The education from that situation came later.
“There are times when you know your decision will be unpopular,” Raveling said, “but it’s right, so you live with those.”
|Raveling coaching Southern Cal in 1994.
On The Bench
George Raveling's record as a college head basketball coach
* Made the first round of the NCAA Tournament
Raveling, who distributes axioms with the ease of a coach blowing a whistle at practice, applies a favorite line to this period, perhaps the most difficult of his coaching career.
“You don’t win all the time, you don’t lose all the time.”
A horrendous car accident on Sept. 25, 1994, left Raveling with a fractured pelvis and nine broken ribs, necessitating a seven-week hospital stay. At the time, the L.A. Times described the collision, in which Raveling’s Jeep Cherokee was demolished in a collision with a BMW, as “near fatal.” Despite earlier that summer flirting with Seton Hall about its head coaching job, Raveling announced his retirement on Nov. 14.
At age 57, he was through as a basketball coach, but not with basketball.
A few weeks into his home recuperation, Nike czar Phil Knight called, wondering if Raveling would start and run the company’s youth grassroots basketball program. Raveling initially thought it was a prank call. It wasn’t.
Instead, it turned into a job where he could combine his network of relationships across amateur and global basketball as few ever had. He started as Nike’s director of grassroots basketball shortly thereafter. In that job, Raveling helped establish the company’s basketball leadership by establishing camps, clinics and elite competitions, like the annual Nike Hoops Summit, which pits the best American hoopsters against international stars.
“We were a young, up-and-coming basketball brand, and George just elevated us into respectability,” Knight said. “He knows everybody around the world, so he gave us those introductions and access.”
Tooley, the executive director of USA Basketball, said, “George helped authenticate Nike as a basketball brand. He added credibility to everything they did. He got them to look at opportunities outside of the U.S. and connected Nike and FIBA years ago.”
|Raveling’s years as a coach, and his stints with USA Basketball, with Michael Jordan in 1992 (above), allow him to relate to players of all ages.
Just as there was no predetermined path for an African-American to become a head basketball coach, there was little precedent for one to become a Nike executive. However, “listen to the voice of the athlete” has long been one of Nike’s guiding principles.
“It was an unusual hire,” acknowledged Barkley, “but it also lets you know that Nike was ahead of the curve.”
Raveling, 79, now says that working at Nike was like getting a Harvard MBA. Still, there were lessons from coaching that served him well at Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters: teamwork, game planning, analytical skills and communication. With the help of those skills, he rose to be Nike’s director of global basketball in 2000, and then its director of international basketball, charged with encouraging and growing youth participation overseas.
“Your community now has to be a bigger universe than the USA,” Raveling explained. “Technology has blurred all of the lines, so you have to be a global citizen.”
As those years passed, Nike’s overseas revenue grew to exceed domestic sales. It’s hard not to draw some correlation there.
“George saw the future of international basketball before a lot of us,” said John Slusher, Nike executive vice president of global sports marketing, whose father Howard was a Knight confidant. “The foundation George laid is a big reason we are as strong as we are there now.”
Connecting people has always been one of Raveling’s greatest skills, and one for which he is universally lauded. He’s perfected a sort of social Velcro, and his network is stickier than most. Using those links across athletes, administrators and coaches, Raveling helped Nike become the basketball brand of choice.
“Whether he’s in the board room or on an asphalt court, George can relate,” said Thompson, who’s been on Nike’s board of directors since 1991. “Lots of times in corporate America, you don’t have someone who can go upstairs and downstairs with their relationships. George does that naturally.”
Longtime agent David Falk, who helped broker the deal that brought Jordan to Nike in the 1980s, calls Raveling “the ultimate connector. That’s an enormous skill to have and he’s a maestro at it. Most people in today’s business world would pay enormous amounts of money to do what George was doing there a long time ago.”
Raveling’s current passion is getting basketball an additional Olympic outlet through the adoption of 3-on-3 competition as an Olympic sport. His motivation is largely centered on opportunities within China, Nike’s second-biggest market, where there are more registered rec players than there are U.S. citizens.
“Around 95 percent of all basketball in China is played outdoors, and most of that is 3-on-3 and 4-on-4,” mused Raveling. “So now our question is: How do we engage with that segment and help grow the game even more?”
Which, when it comes down to it, is at the heart of George Raveling.
|Shown at the Berlin Nike Town Store in 2009, Raveling helped Nike branch out globally.
Forever asking questions, forever trying to learn more and reach people through that knowledge. Anyone who knows him will tell you that his roots as an educator are always evident, primarily because he’s so inquisitive.
“When you put yourself in a position as a teacher, what you are really trying to do is learn,” said Armstrong, Raveling’s former Hawkeyes player. “Coach is forever trying to learn, and forever he’ll want to share those new ideas with you.”
That stems from something Raveling heard in a Villanova economics class six decades ago.
“A professor told us that nothing in life is of any value unless you can share it with someone,” he said. “I guess that stuck.”