“Bob passed away a week ago yesterday.”
The words from Sherry Randle hung there for a few fleeting moments that mid-September afternoon of last year. I tried to process what I had just heard, as if it wasn’t real.
For a year and a half, I had been on a mission to track down and interview Bob Rule, the Seattle SuperSonics’ first superstar who, after a blazing start to a skyrocketing NBA career, suffered a devastating injury in 1970, retired a few years later and was essentially never heard from again.
The quest began in spring 2018. I had planned to work another two years, then retire. But before that time came, I wanted to do something no other local sportswriter had done in recent years: find Bob Rule.
Not that others hadn’t tried.
Bill Reader, former Times assistant sports editor and now editor of the paper’s Pacific Northwest magazine, did a story in 2006 on the original Sonics. He tracked down every member of that 1967-68 team — except Rule.
Dan Raley, longtime sports reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and author of the book “How Seattle Became A Big-League Sports Town” posted this on his Facebook page upon hearing of Rule’s death:
“I wrote more than 300 ‘Where Are They Now’ stories for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and this former Seattle Sonics center was the one guy I couldn’t nail down — and I tried. Wrote him a letter. Left him messages all over Riverside, California.”
Fairly early in my hunt, Times researcher Miyoko Wolf tracked down Rule’s last-known address in Riverside. Sherry Randle, Bob’s sister, answered the phone and told me Bob didn’t live there (he actually lived in nearby Menifee), but said he came by occasionally to pick up mail. I would learn later that the home at 4303 Kansas Ave. was the house in which Bob and his siblings grew up.
Sherry gave me Bob’s cellphone number and sounded optimistic he would talk.
So I tried. And tried again. I guess you could say I was fairly obsessed. I called every two or three months, and my message to him usually went something like this: “Growing up in the Seattle area, you were my first professional sports hero. I remember how great a player you were, and would love to spend some talking with you about your time in Seattle and what life has been like since your basketball-playing days.”
The phone would ring and ring, before the automated voice mail greeting, “You have the reached the mailbox of … ” and then Rule’s deep, almost-pained voice “ … Bob Ruuuuuuuule.”
Little did I know, that while the clock was ticking on my career, time was running out on the former NBA All-Star whose 47-point game in 1967 as a Sonic remains a rookie team record.
Rule had been in declining health. His younger brother, Gary Randle, told me after Rule’s death that a noncancerous tumor had been removed near his brain. The tumor eventually grew back, and he died Sept. 5 in his sleep at Sherry’s home at age 75.
My call to Sherry on Sept. 13 had been a last-ditch effort to find Rule. It had become obvious he was as elusive in his post-NBA days as he was on the basketball court. Realizing he wasn’t going to call me back, I had decided to do a story through the eyes of his former teammates.
I talked to Basketball Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, Rule’s teammate and coach from 1968-71. Wilkens gushed at how skilled the 6-foot-9 center was before his torn Achilles tendon injury.
But after Sherry informed me Rule had died, I called Wilkens back to break the sad news.
To say his death was met with little fanfare is an understatement. The night we ran the story, I called the Riverside Press-Enterprise sports desk to get confirmation. Not only had this staffer not known of Rule’s death, he had never heard of him. And this in a city that inducted Rule into the Riverside Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.
As far as Gary Randle can tell, The Seattle Times and the Riverside paper were the only newspapers to independently report Rule’s death, and we were the first. His passing was virtually ignored by major media outlets, the NBA and the team the Sonics became in 2008, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Of course, that’s probably how Rule would have wanted it. He shunned the limelight. He was known by his teammates at Riverside City College, which Rule led to consecutive state titles, as the “Quiet Giant.”
“Bob died the way that he lived his life,” Gary Randle said, “and that was quiet.”
Rule was adored by his partner for more than 40 years, Alayne Harris, and his siblings Sherry, Gary, Charlene and Eloise. Two brothers, Jewel and Jack, preceded him in death.
Rule had two sons: Russell, who lives in Austin, Texas, and Randall, who at 6-9 inherited his father’s height and is a doctor in Boston.
Gary, who called his older brother “his hero,” remembers going to church on Sundays and begging his mother to leave early so he could go home and watch Rule and the Sonics play on the “NBA Game of the Week” on TV.
But unless you were born before 1965, you’ve probably never heard of the man they called “Golden Rule.” Though I watched him play only a handful of times in person at the old Seattle Center Coliseum, most of my recollections are from televised games — which were rare in those days — on the black-and-white set at home.
I can’t say he was a great leaper, or that he was an exceptional shooter for a big man, like Kevin Durant. All I know was that he was fearless and could flat-out score. The night of his injury he was averaging more than 29 points per game.
I remember his patented hook shot; him luring bigger centers from the basket and either shooting over them with a deadly midrange jumper; or driving around them with a quick first step and a thunderous dunk.
And then there was Thanksgiving Day 1967.
The Sonics weren’t even a month into their expansion season and were in Philadelphia as a part of an NBA doubleheader. Seattle’s opponent was the mighty Boston Celtics, who in those days ruled the league. Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones and Bailey Howell led the star-studded cast.
I excused myself from the Thanksgiving dinner table to check the score on the radio, fully expecting a Boston blowout. Instead, play-by-play announcer Bob Blackburn was absolutely giddy with excitement. And I could hardly believe my ears. Seattle was leading 75-31 at halftime.
Boston, which won the NBA title that season, would bite into that unfathomable 44-point deficit, but the Sonics still won 133-106, in my opinion one of the biggest upsets in Seattle sports history.
And guess who led the way? The rookie center and unheralded second-round pick out of Colorado State. Rule finished with a game-high 26 points. It would be the first of many dominating performances against Russell, considered one of the best defenders in NBA history.
Russell’s name came up during a conversation I had with Trent Johnson shortly after Rule’s death. Johnson is a former University of Washington assistant who also was a head coach at Nevada, Stanford, LSU, and TCU. As a standout player at Franklin High School in the early ’70s, Johnson, Clint Richardson, Frank Oleynick, Keith Harrell and others would play against Rule, Spencer Haywood, John Brisker, Bud Stallworth and other Sonics players in summer pickup games.
Rule took a liking to Johnson and Richardson, who went on to star at Boise State and Seattle University, respectively. And Johnson was in awe of Rule’s talent. He invoked an axiom from Russell, who was the Sonics’ coach from 1973-77, to describe his play.
“Bill used to say that having experienced players on a team is good, but good players made it look easy,” said Johnson, now an assistant at California. “Bob Rule made it look easy.”
If only tracking down Rule were that easy.
So I retire in one week. I never got to talk to Rule. But I was able to get to become acquainted with his family and lifelong friends who knew and loved him.
Rest easy, Golden One. Seattle hasn’t forgotten you.