Not to get too gushy, because this ain't was with bullets, but you had to love Lee Raker today. He has a leg he couldn't give away. He cut a three-stitch gash across his nose. His back went into spasms that made him sit down right in the middle of the basketball court. "Lee's body," said John Raker, his father, "is 50 years old right now."
But in the finest hour in the University of Virginia's basketball history, it was Lee Raker, bandaged and bleeding and aching like a grandpa, who did the work of a frisky all all-America.
Give the million-dollar contract to Ralph Sampson, the glorious giant who had 12 points in a 30-17 rally that moved Virginia from 35-34 behind to 64-52 ahead of Bringham Young today.
But give your heart to Raker, who isn't worth a dime to the pros. In the decisive run that put Virginia in the NCAA's final four for the first time ever, Raker scored eight points. Between them, then, Sampson and Raker had 20 of the 30 points, with no other Cavalier getting more than four.
And if Virgina is to win the national chanpionship now, it will need Raker as much as it needs Sampson and Jeff Lamp. For without Raker's outside shooting to relieve pressure against Sampson, without Raker to give Virgina another offensive weapon besides Lamp, these Cavaliers would be a two-man offensive team.
You talk about upsets. Lee Raker made the all-tournament team here. A week ago, he couldn't walk fast. His right thigh was banged up so many times this season that it finally rebelled. Instead of healing, the muscle calcified. To stay strong, Raker swam and rode a bicycle. What he did about the pain of muscle turning to stone is this: he paid it no mind. They made up a pad, he taped it on and went to work. The Marines need his kind.
Raker is a middling 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, with no apparent speed afoot, gifted with a wonderful shooting touch but never much of a fancy-dan dribbler. "You look at Lee out there," said his laughing coach, Terry Holland, "and you say, 'What is that guy doing in the game?' He's just a winner."
In only 39 minutes in the two games here, Raker scored 22 points on eight-of-14 shooting.
In Virginia's winning move today, Sampson did his best work inside, once stuffing in a rebound so spectacularly that Danny Ainge, the Bringham Young all-America, stammered and stuttered so long to a referee that he was slapped with a technical foul. His head rim high, Sampson put his left hand against the glass on the left side of the rim. Then he reached about three feet out to the right side and jerked the ball back into the hoop.
Now, that is impossible. So Ainge, trying to figure it out, shouted that Sampson held onto the rim with his left hand, thereby staying in the air long enough to do the obviously impossible. Television replays showed Sampson did not touch the rim.
Barely a minute later, when mortals still wondered how Sampson did his miracle, here came Lee Raker throwing in his common, everyday jumper from 18 feet out on the left side. Sampson soon stuffed another one, and Raker, again from 18 feet, gave Virginia a 48-41 lead. Without Raker from the outside, Sampson from the inside would have been less effective.
Then, the strangest thing.
With 6:19 to play, Raker moved through the BYU defense to catch a pass. The ball in hand, he slowly crumpled to the floor, signaling for a timeout as he went down. Helped off the floor, he limped to the bench. He sat in pain. He touched his back. He lifted his left leg against his chest, stretching the back muscles. As the game went on, Raker paced in front of the bench.
"I was running along, and I got spasms," Raker said. "It just locked up. I couldn't stand up anymore."
Well, less than two minutes later, Raker went back into the game. Tested by BYU, Raker was fouled twice in the first minute. They tested the wrong fellow. Raker made four straight free throws, giving Virginia a 12-point lead with 3:16 to play.
It was over, and with 1:50 to play, Holland crouched in front of Raker on the bench, touched the senior on both knees and said thanks. Four years ago, when Virginia was a mediocrity trying to be good, Holland persuaded (1) an honors student, (2) an all-Kentucky forward and (3) state-champion team captain to come to this anonymous basketball place next to the Blue Ridge Mountains. All that good stuff came in one fellow, Lee Raker.
"Everybody said Lee would be a nice utility man to have," Holland said today. "They said he'd make a third forward, somebody who wouldn't make a mistake that would hurt you. That's what I figured, too, but he was the good kind of person you want around."
Holland paused. "And Lee has been starting every year, and averaging in double figures."
After Raker chose Virginia, along came Lamp, his teammate in high school, the player everybody knew would be a star. A big-time coach the other day said, "I feel sorry for Lee. He was trying to get away from Jeff, and suddenly Jeff shows up at the same place."
Waste no sorrow, coach. With victory assured today, Lamp came out of the game with a minute to go. Raker, off the bench, hands held high in celebration, hobbled out to meet Lamp, who lifted his buddy off the floor in a moment he later described as "very personal."
It has been a long time, eight years together with Raker now, Lamp said. "This was very special, because we worked so hard together for so long. Lee just gives it everything he's got. You saw his nose today. The spasm, the thigh. And he still came up with the big plays. He always does."
Raker: "From time to time, Jeff's being here has bothered me. But it's the same with Jeff and Ralph. That's just the way things are. And the way things are, good things are happening for all of us. I talked to Jeff about coming to Virginia. I thought it would be good for him, good for me and good for Virginia. We had played well together for so long. And it's not over yet."
The Virginia team doctor, Joe May, pulled in the last stitch aross Raker's nose. "Let's get this blood off you," the doctor said. "Don't want your mother to see you like this."
"She's seen worse," Raker said. "I used to come home bloody all the time."