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Friday, February 14, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham

Puidokas' Impact Great Even Without WSU Scoring Record

The strange saga of sports heroes at Washington State. Distance runner Gerry Lindgren disappears only to be found in Hawaii with a new name.

Basketball star Steve Puidokas dies in Italy in 1994, and his old school and teammates are unaware of the passing until former coach George Raveling mentions it as part of a recent basketball telecast.

Tomorrow night, at Edmundson Pavilion against Washington, Isaac Fontaine will inch closer to Puidokas' school scoring record. He is 51 short of the 1,894 points Puidokas scored for WSU from 1974-1977.

But Fontaine won't surpass the other records Puidokas set in being the most important player in establishing Raveling as a coach:

WSU career scoring (18.6) and rebounding (9.7) averages.

"He was a great player with textbook fundamentals on his jump shot," Raveling said this week, "but he shunned the spotlight. He had no ego."

He died as he lived, quietly, outside the loop, in Europe, where he had worked and resided for 17 years. Husband, father of five, professional basketball player.

Puidokas died Aug. 13, 1994. He was found in the shower, felled by a heart attack even though he had no previous heart trouble. He was 39.

The story had a strange beginning, and an even stranger ending.

It began when WSU stepped out of the conservatism of the rural Northwest in the early 1970s to become the first school in the Pac-10 to hire a black basketball coach.

And it continued, as that coach's first great player was a 6-foot-11 white guy from Chicago.

"I remember running into an assistant coach from Illinois State at O'Hare," Raveling said. "He asked me what I was doing there and I told him I was recruiting Puidokas. He said, `He'll never play for a black coach. He's from Cicero and they don't like black people there.'

"I didn't know about that," continued Raveling, "but I honestly didn't think I'd get Steve. I was sure he'd go to Notre Dame. It's the dream of every Catholic kid in Chicago."

It was really no stranger that Puidokas would turn his back on Notre Dame and Duke for WSU than it was that the Cougars would hire a young, black assistant from Maryland.

"There weren't more than three or four blacks even playing college basketball in the Northwest at the time," Raveling said. "I guess we all took a chance. I know I look back now and those 11 years were the best of my coaching career. It was the end of the age of innocence in college athletics."

In the next four years, the Cougars would go from 6-20 in Raveling's first year to back-to-back 19-win seasons the final two years Puidokas played. He was a tall, smooth player who could score from just about anywhere.

"He scored 1,800 points for us," Raveling said. "If we had had the three-point arc, he would have been closer to 2,100. He was one of the first big men who could really shoot facing the basket."

Puidokas left the flamboyant stuff to his coach. He didn't dunk, even though he could. There was no strut in his stuff, no need to be recognized. He played a willing caddie to an emerging coach.

And yet the two had a strong friendship, so strong that Raveling wonders now if he pushed his star center hard enough. Over the years he said he never failed to call Jenny Puidokas, Steve's mother, three or four times a year.

"I liked George from the beginning because he was so honest," she said. "He wasn't trying to impress anybody; he was just trying to be himself. I think Steve really appreciated that, too."

After his record-setting career, Puidokas was a third-round draft choice by the Washington Bullets. According to Raveling, he didn't get the kind of guaranteed money he wanted and chose, instead, to play in Europe.

Puidokas played in Sardinia, Italy, where he met his wife, Francesca, then in France and Holland, where their first daughter was born, and finally again in Sardinia, where he would continue to play until his death.

He spoke excellent Italian, worked in his wife's family banking business and had no interest in returning to Chicago, said his mother.

"He liked the way people were over there," she said. "It suited him."

Jenny Puidokas spent six months in Italy the year before her son's death. He was scheduled to visit Chicago the week after he died.

She notified Raveling of the death, assuming he would notify teammates and classmates. And journalists. But a little more than a month later, Raveling was in a serious car accident in Los Angeles that ended his coaching career at USC. And muted the death of his first great player, Steve Puidokas.

You can contact Blaine Newnham by voice mail at 464-2364.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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