IOWA CITY, Iowa — Autograph seekers circled the concourse at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, and the man they wanted to see was third in line.
Ronnie Lester, the greatest basketball player in Iowa history, sat between Jess Settles and Mark Gannon and exchanged pleasantries with thousands of Hawkeye fans. They were there to raise money for Lester’s former teammate, Kenny Arnold, who has battled multiple health issues for the last 30 years.
Some fans wanted selfie photos. Lester obliged. Some sought handshakes or hugs. Lester didn’t turn anyone away. One fan, Ron Goodrich of Pleasant Hill, brought a game program from Jan. 25, 1979 with Lester on the cover. Goodrich didn’t even attend school at Iowa; he went to Northern Iowa.
One by one, the fans greeted him. When the line was halted 45 minutes before tip-off, Lester left his chair, took photos and signed autographs for fans still in line. Lester did the same thing after he was announced at halftime. He spent much of the second half conversing and signing. It lasted well past the game’s outcome against Illinois.
“He owns this place,” Gannon said.
It’s not hard to see why. Lester, 58, still has an engaging smile and a welcoming aura. He’s soft-spoken and friendly. His personality hasn’t changed since his final game in 1980 when he guided the Hawkeyes to their most recent Final Four, even on a bum knee.
Lester left Iowa in 1980 as the school’s all-time leading scorer. He was an All-American in 1979 when he led Iowa to a share of the Big Ten title, its most recent league championship. Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson called Lester the best point guard he ever coached, which is saying something because Olson was known to put a few Arizona point guards in the league in his later years.
Lester was the silkiest, slipperiest, best damn backcourt scorer in Iowa history. He scored at will in the era that predated the 3-point basket. His junior-year squad that shared the Big Ten title with Michigan State and Purdue dropped both games against the Spartans. But Lester left an impression on his opponent that day, future L.A. Lakers teammate Magic Johnson.
“I remember one game in Jenison Fieldhouse,” Johnson told the Cedar Rapids Gazette in 1985. “I think Ronnie scored 26 points in the last 20 minutes. It was one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen played.
“He was definitely tough. I told him that then. He could stop on a dime and shoot a jumper. He was a total, complete basketball player.”
Lester was special on the floor, as his statistics attest. But he was more than just points. He was an inspiration. A right knee injury sidelined him for six weeks of the 1979-80 season. With the Hawkeyes hovering on the 48-team NCAA tournament bubble, Lester suited up in the Hawkeyes’ regular-season finale against Illinois.
“I was ready to play,” Lester said Saturday. “They gave me the OK to play. It was our last game of the year. So I wanted to come back and play.”
It surprised everyone at the old Iowa Fieldhouse that day when Olson put him in the starting lineup. With his mother and sisters in attendance, Lester’s No. 12 jersey was retired in a pregame ceremony.
“I didn’t know that was going to happen until a half an hour before the game when they told me,” he said. “I’d probably have said no if I knew about it.”
His presence that day wasn’t ceremonial; it was necessary. The Hawkeyes rallied from a pair of 10-point deficits to beat the Illini 75-71. Lester played 29 minutes and scored a game-high 15 points in his return. The win vaulted Iowa into one of the final at-large NCAA tournament slots.
“He’s a special guy,” Iowa teammate Mike “Tree” Henry said. “He’s talented, especially before the knee injury. A great leader.
“I think you saw us in the run to the final Four just having his presence on the court. He was nowhere close to 100 percent. He just put everybody at ease.”
From there Lester and the Hawkeyes did some damage. They beat Virginia Commonwealth and North Carolina State to reach the Sweet Sixteen. Lester scored 17 points in each of those victories. Then in Philadelphia, Iowa stopped No. 3 Syracuse 88-77. Lester scored only 9 points but had 7 assists. That set up a showdown with Georgetown for the Final Four.
In what goes down as the most important win in the last 60 years of the program, Iowa beat Georgetown 81-80 to reach the national semifinals. As the main facilitator, Lester guided the Hawkeyes back from a 10-point halftime deficit with 8 points and 9 assists.
Iowa was at its best in the first half against Louisville in the national semifinal. With a heavily bandaged right knee, Lester hit his first four shots and scored 10 points in 12 minutes. Then midway through the first half, Lester drove to the basket and landed on his knee. He stayed on the court, then limped off. He never played again for the Hawkeyes, who lost 80-72 to the eventual national champions. The memory still stings for Olson.
“We would have won had he been healthy,” Olson said in his most recent trip to Iowa City in December. “That was a special group.”
“I think we would have won, no doubt,” Henry said.
“It was frustrating getting hurt from the beginning and missing half my senior year,” Lester said. “It’s a team game. Our guys rallied to win some big games that year to stay in contention. For me personally, it was frustrating. But we had great team success and that’s what it’s about, winning and losing as a team.”
Lester played six seasons in the NBA, four with the Chicago Bulls and two with the L.A. Lakers, with whom he won an NBA title in 1985. He worked alongside Johnson in that era before retiring in 1986. He then became a scout and worked up to assistant general manager before leaving the Lakers in 2011. He now calls himself “semi-retired” while living in Florida.
Six other players have passed Lester in Iowa annals, but all played at least 17 games more than Lester. His 16.9 scoring average is the best of any player in Iowa’s top 12. Has anyone at Iowa played better than Lester?
“No,” Henry said.
That seems the universal answer from most Iowa fans. It’s also the right answer.