It was a “Golden Era” of Seattle sports that ended as it was just getting started.

We’re going in the way-back time machine of SuperSonics history here – back to a time when Lenny Wilkens was a player and a coach. The talk of the town in the late 1960s was the best Sonic you may have never heard of.

Bobby “Golden” Rule was a left-handed scoring machine for Seattle’s first major professional sports team, but whose promising NBA career was cut short by a devastating Achilles’ tendon injury in just the fourth game of his fourth NBA season. Had he stayed healthy, Rule could have been among the greatest Sonics of all-time.

An undersized 6-foot-9 center who possessed explosive quickness, a deft touch around the basket and a killer hook shot, Rule was among the league’s leading scorers, and played his best ball against the most-feared centers in NBA history.

“Bob could score, no question about that,” said Wilkens, the Sonics’ player-coach for three seasons. “He had tremendous hands. He would grip the ball like a grapefruit.”

Rule would never be the same after the injury in 1970. His scoring average dropped from 29.8 points per game to single digits with the Sonics the following season. He was traded to Philadelphia and was out of the NBA four years later.

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Just as his playing days ended all too soon, so did his life. Rule died in his sleep Sept. 5 at age 75 in his childhood home in Riverside, Calif., where his basketball stardom began at Riverside Poly High School and Riverside City College.

For all his basketball accolades, Rule is remembered by family and friends as an unpretentious, humble man who never got caught up in his fame. After his playing days were over, he returned to southern California. He worked for the Youth Basketball Academy in the San Diego area, helping develop young kids to play basketball. He lived the rest of his life in Menifee, Calif., just south of Riverside, away from the limelight, largely in solitude.

Sam Knight Sr., his teammate on the Riverside CC team that won consecutive state titles, remembers him as a dominant post-up player who could do it all. He and Rule occasionally got together over the years to play dominoes. Knight spoke on the telephone to Rule the night before he died.

“He was a private person,” Knight said, “but a personable person once you got to know him.”

Bob ruled his private realm. Silence was Golden.

“Bob died the way that he lived his life,” said his brother, Gary Randle, “and that was quiet.”

Randle, nine years younger than his brother, paused, gathered himself, and in a shaky voice said: “He was my hero.”

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Early superstar

An original Sonic, Rule arguably was the Emerald City’s first professional sports superstar. It was a simpler time in Seattle sports in the 1960s.

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Before the Sonics arrived, it was said the three biggest sports in town were Husky football, hydroplane racing and Husky spring football. Perry Como’s “The Bluest Skies You’ve Ever Seen are in Seattle” was a top 40 hit when the Sonics were just becoming relevant in the NBA, playing in the Seattle Center Coliseum built for the 1962 World’s Fair.

Certainly, the skies were the limit for Rule, a second-round draft pick out of Colorado State who had arrived locked and loaded to score. The shots would fall like Seattle rain.

Rule finished the Sonics’ first season, 1967-68, with a 18.1-point scoring average, a franchise rookie record that stood for 40 years until it was broken by Kevin Durant in 2008. Rule exploded for 47 points against the Los Angeles Lakers in Seattle on Nov. 21, 1967, a 137-132 Sonics win, in just his 20th NBA game. The scoring outburst remains a Sonics rookie record. Rule made the NBA’s all-rookie team, narrowly missing out on the Rookie of the Year honor that went to Earl Monroe of the Baltimore Bullets.

But Rule was just getting started. Guard Walt Hazzard, the Sonics’ leading scorer in their expansion year, was traded to Atlanta for Wilkens just before the 1968-69 season. It was now Rule’s team. Rule averaged 24 points and 11.5 rebounds his second season and 24.6 points and 10.3 rebounds in Year 3, earning a spot on the All-Star team.

“Seattle was probably one of the luckiest things that happened to me,” Rule said in an interview with Jim Alexander of the Riverside Press-Enterprise in 2011. “It was an expansion team, and there weren’t any stars.

“The city of Seattle was a great place to live, and the people really appreciated us as a team.”

Rule is one of only five players who finished in the top eight in scoring in the 1968-69 and 1969-70 seasons. The four others — Elvin Hayes, Jerry West, Billy Cunningham and Oscar Robertson  — are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Slaying giants

Sixteen games into his rookie season, Rule faced for the first time the world-champion Boston Celtics and their star center, 6-10 Bill Russell, perhaps the best defender in NBA history.

“I walked by him and said, ‘Hi, Bill,’ ” Rule told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. “He just looked at me like I was crazy. OK, that’s how we play this game, is it? If he can’t say hello to me, at least when he walks off the floor he’ll know he played against somebody.”

Russell would become all too familiar with the Sonics’ budding star. Rule averaged around 25 points per game in the two seasons they faced each other, including a memorable night on Nov. 8, 1968 at the Boston Garden. Rule torched Russell for 37 points on 14-for-28 shooting as the Sonics took down the Celtics 114-112.

Rule also had considerable success against 7-1 Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers. He had 37 against Wilt and the Lakers on Dec. 15, 1968  in front of Rule’s family at the Forum in Los Angeles.

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“He comes over to the house after the game,” Randle recalled. “And he doesn’t even want to talk about it. He just scored 37 points on the Big Dipper, and he treats it like it’s just another game.

“But that’s the way Bob was. He never ever praised himself.”

Rule had more difficulty with 6-11 Nate Thurmond, the shot-blocking artist of the San Francisco (now Golden State) Warriors. Facing Thurmond for the first time, the Warriors center blocked six of Rule’s shots in the first half.

“I got to the locker room and the coach (Al Bianchi) says, ‘Keep putting ’em up. He can’t block ‘em all,’ ” Rule told the Riverside Press-Enterprise. “And I said, ‘Yeah, well if I hadn’t made that layup it would have been all of ’em.’ ”

Said Randle: “Thurmond was very agile and played Bobby on his left hand, better than most defenders. But if you weren’t agile, Bobby would eat your lunch. He’d go around you and dunk it with his left hand.”

One reason Rule was so effective against bigger centers was he took them away from the basket, unusual in that era.

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“He could move, run the floor,” Wilkens said. “He wouldn’t stay on one spot.”

The Achilles “was shredded”

Rule started the 1970-71 season on a tear, averaging 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds through the first three games. He seemed to be on the precipice of NBA greatness. Then came the fateful fourth game on Oct. 23 in the Coliseum against the Portland Trail Blazers that would forever alter his career path.

It was late in the second quarter, and Rule already had 19 points. He was fouled as he drove for a layup and crumpled to the floor in pain, holding his left ankle. At first it didn’t appear to be serious. He hobbled to the line and sank both free throws.

But as he hopped down the floor on his right leg it became obvious the injury was severe. He was taken by ambulance to Providence Hospital and underwent surgery the next morning.

Wilkens told Seattle Times reporter Gil Lyons after game: “I couldn’t concentrate in the second half. My mind wasn’t on the game – it was on Bobby Rule.”

The injury was bad. The surgeon told Lyons “it was a complete tear of the heel cord, the Achilles’ tendon. Yes, it was as bad as they ever get – it was shredded.”

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The trade

Rule returned for the start of the 1971-72 season but was a shadow of his former self. In 16 games he averaged 7.1 points, and 15 minutes. He was largely relegated to the bench to watch a shiny new star become the darling of Sonic fans.

Power forward Spencer Haywood, formerly of the American Basketball Association and who the Sonics had acquired midway through the previous season, was putting up big numbers. Meanwhile, Rule’s center position was being manned by veteran Don Smith and second-year 7-footer Pete Cross.

Rule was traded Nov. 25 to the Philadelphia 76ers for two second-round draft picks and cash.

“I remember the things he used to do so effortlessly,” Randle recalled of the injury. “He just didn’t have that first explosive step, that jumping ability anymore.”

When the trade was announced, Sonics general manager Bob Houbregs told Lyons that Rule “just wasn’t producing.”

While looking forward to more playing time with Philadelphia, Rule lamented he hadn’t been given a fair shot.

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“I’ve got to feel let down, that’s how I feel,” he told Lyons after the trade. “The only thing is that they really didn’t give me the opportunity to see what I could do.”

No looking back

Eight days before his injury in 1970, after a messy contract dispute, the Sonics and Rule had agreed to a one-year deal for $70,000. He never really cashed in on his All-Star-caliber play. One can only imagine how his scoring average would have translated financially to today’s NBA market.

Also, if playing today, Rule surely would have benefited from advanced technology treating Achilles  tendon injuries. Then-Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman suffered a similar injury in November 2017 and came back the next year. Durant also suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury playing for the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals in June and is expected to make a full recovery by next season.

Randle said his brother never felt sorry for himself.

“Bobby was the type of person that, what happened, happened,” he said. “He didn’t live in a fantasy world.”

The reality is his name is still legendary in Riverside, where he was inducted into that city’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.

Another longtime friend, Leon Culpepper of Riverside, said back in the day “you just didn’t go down the middle (of the lane) on Bob Rule. And when he got the ball on offense, he would kill you if you were weak.”

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Off the court, Culpepper referred to Rule as “the quiet giant. He was a great dude, man.”

Rule was the dominant force of Riverside CC’s great run of teams under coach Jerry Tarkanian, who would later lead the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels to four Final Four appearances, including a national championship.

And for all the great players and teams Tark would coach over his career — including Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Armon Gilliam at UNLV — he had this to say about Rule in his book before his death in 2015:

“He might be the best player I ever coached.”

Rick Lund: rlund@seattletimes.com