Thirty-eight years ago today, the Portland Timbers concluded their first collegiate draft with a very unusual selection. Having already chosen John Smillie, Kit Zell and Chip Smallwood, general manager Don Paul announced that the club had chosen basketball All-American Ron Lee with it's fourth round selection.
Due to the late formation of the club in January 1975, the Timbers missed out on the opportunity to select collegiate players for their inaugural roster. That's probably just as well, as manager Vic Crowe was not initially fond of American players, using them very sparingly in his first year in Portland. But with NASL requirements for American roster spots, the Timbers prepared to take part in the 1976 draft on January 14.
While Paul was the public face of the club, serving as general manager and often as impromptu spokesman, behind the scenes, defender Mick Hoban and public relations manager Dennis O'Meara were responsible for research, scouting and drafting of the collegiate players. The Timbers chose winger Smillie with their first round pick, a Glaswegian who starred at San Jose State University and was a second team All-American. Zell, a 6'2" striker, was the second round pick out of Seattle Pacific University, and Smallwood, a defender from the University of Delaware, was chosen in the third round.
At the time of the draft, the Timbers were unsure exactly which players from the extremely successful 1975 squad would be returning, but the assumption was that many would be back. That meant a strong squad with relative depth and one that probably did not need four or five young Americans who were unlikely to see much playing time. Instead of choosing another outfield player, O'Meara and Hoban opted for a player with name recognition far beyond the soccer field.
Ron Lee stood 6'4" and was the star of the University of Oregon basketball team. By January 1976, he was already a three-time All Pac-8 honoree and was second team All-America the season prior. A household name in Oregon, especially after leading the Ducks to a third place finish in the 1975 NIT, Lee commanded headlines as part of the famous Kamikaze Kids teams in Eugene.
Yet even Lee did not necessarily expect to see his name as part of a soccer headline in the winter of 1976. When asked afterward about his selection, Lee told The Oregonian:
"Yes, kind of [surprised]. 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."
Knowing there would be immediate questions about the draft moving from reality into publicity stunt, Paul was armed with answers. Ever the salesman, Paul explained to The Oregonian:
"I talked to Ronnie last week and he's extremely interested in soccer. We expect him to be at our tryout camp if all goes well."
Drafted as a goalkeeper, Lee would surely have been more than athletic enough to play the position at training camp, though clearly he was not a professional. And it never got that far anyway, as the Ducks' star cager was too busy winning Pac-8 Player of the Year and breaking the school's all-time scoring record to join up with the Timbers. No doubt his coaches in Eugene had a part to play in that, especially considering the possibility of being a high selection in the summer's NBA draft.
Interestingly enough, Lee was also drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the twelfth round of the 1976 NFL draft in April. As the 322nd pick there was never much of a chance that he would play and indeed Lee never tried out with the Chargers either. He was finally drafted no. 10 overall by the Phoenix Suns, then one of the NBA's best clubs, in July's NBA draft. He went on to win Rookie of the Year in 1977 and played six seasons of professional basketball in the United States.
As for the Timbers, they signed Jim Cumbes as goalkeeper for the 1976 season. In addition to being quite a well known cricketer, Cumbes was a ten year veteran of Tranmere Rovers, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion prior to spending the summer of '76 in the Rose City.