PORTLAND — The Terry Stotts that Oklahoma once knew was a skinny recruit with shaggy hair.
He arrived in Norman, Okla., at a time when Sooner fans threw roses at the feet of King Barry Switzer and his football dynasty, and barely noticed that the basketball team was playing to empty seats at Lloyd Noble Center.
But Stotts, along with his 1976 recruiting classmates, helped change that culture.
By his junior season, Oklahoma basketball was relevant again as Big Eight conference champions for the first time in 30 years.
During his senior year, Stotts averaged 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds, earned All-Big Eight team individual honors and joined several teammates in Sooner lore as a member of the 1,000-point club. A handful of that group would go on to careers as basketball coaches.
Stotts wasn’t supposed to be one of them. He was pre-dental, not a coach in training.
Still, Stotts will find himself tonight back in Oklahoma for the first time as an NBA head coach when his Portland Trail Blazers (1-0) face the Oklahoma City Thunder inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“Honestly,” said Dave Bliss, the former OU head coach, “I really thought and still think, that he’s too smart to be a head coach.”
Bliss was a 32-year-old assistant under Bobby Knight before he took over the Oklahoma job. In the first year, Bliss only won nine games but during the offseason he would lean on his Midwestern roots to fill his roster. One stop high on his list was a return to the Bloomington (Ind.) North High gymnasium for a player he had spent years watching.
Stotts admittedly wasn’t good enough to join the national champion Indiana Hoosiers. But just like most Indiana boys, Stotts could shoot the nylon off the net and Bliss noticed that his basketball IQ outstretched his 6-foot-8 body. He would blend perfectly into OU’s unselfish style of play.
“Although he was 6-8, he really understood the game much differently than any big that I’ve experienced,” Bliss said. “I noticed right away, he wasn’t a normal recruit.”
You know the kid who your mother prays to be your freshman year college roommate? Stotts was that guy.
“I was really pretty boring,” Stotts said.
He didn’t party or date pretty cheerleaders and if he ever held anything stronger than a can of soda pop to his lips, teammates surely didn’t know about it. Stotts took difficult classes and still made the Big Eight All-Academic team three times. He was the reason the team’s collective grade point average was so high.
“I don’t want to use the term ‘nerd,’ but he was really, really smart,” former teammate Al Beal recalled. “He was the kind of kid where he would be ticked off if he had an A minus or a B, and we’re over here struggling, trying to pass classes.”
“He was going to be a dentist, that was (his) big thing.”
But Stotts was the son of a coach, and old habits die hard. He idolized John Wooden and revered Bill Sharman.
While on the court, when he noticed that the defense was taking something away from OU’s motion offense, Stotts would offer suggestions on how to fix it. Stotts didn’t use that big body of his for rebounds — to the chagrin of his coach — but he had a general sense of what’s going on all around him and often ran the point to pass over a zone defense.
In 1979, the Sooners were Big Eight champs and advanced to the NCAA Midwest Regional but learned the legend of Larry Bird that night and fell out of the tournament. By next season, his senior year, Stotts was named team captain.
These days inside the Tualatin practice facility, Blazers have learned that their straight-laced leader has a mean streak.
“Screaming,” LaMarcus Aldridge said, describing Stotts in his chastising moments. “Like Peyton Manning, but mad.”
And back in Oklahoma, the kid with the nerdy haircut could also get in somebody’s grill.
“There was one time when we had one player (who) wasn’t really giving the effort he should’ve given,” Beal said. “I just recall (Stotts) getting in the guy’s face, and it was close to a deal when they were going to come to blows.”
The confrontation, however, ended peacefully because Stotts had the teammate’s respect. Although Stotts did not make up his mind to pursue coaching until he landed with George Karl, the seeds to his steps to Portland were sown early in places like Norman, Okla.
“Basketball’s been a part of my life since I was 5, 6 years old,” Stotts said. “Even though I was pre-dental and was going to go to dental school and things like that, basketball was such a big part of my life that deep down, I didn’t want to give it up.”
Before the trip back to Oklahoma, Stotts said he didn’t expect to hand out many Blazer-Thunder game passes to old friends. But he shouldn’t be surprised to look up and see a few dots of red and black in the stands.
“I know there are a lot of Portland Trail Blazer fans in Oklahoma just because of him,” Beal said. “He’s got a lot of friends down here (who) really cheer for him and hope he does well.”
Beal, who coaches hoops at a local Norman, Okla., high school, will even trade allegiances this one time for his old captain.
“I’m kinda torn a little bit,” Beal said. “I’m Thunder, but I may secretly be a Portland fan that night.”