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John Blanchette: Washington State beats UW on day former coach George Raveling honored

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 9, 2020

Former Washington State basketball coach George Raveling, center, speaks to the current team after a victory against Washington in Pullman, Wash., Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020. (Young Kwak / AP)
Former Washington State basketball coach George Raveling, center, speaks to the current team after a victory against Washington in Pullman, Wash., Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020. (Young Kwak / AP)

PULLMAN – The game clock had dipped under 4 1/2 minutes, and what was once a double-digit lead had dwindled to what announcers love to pronounce as a “two-possession game,” satisfying a need to brew up the portentous.

Even if the situation wasn’t dire, one man sensed something missing inside Beasley Coliseum – and having coached 117 games in the joint himself, he knew what to do about it.

So George Raveling got to his feet.

At age 82, he didn’t slingshot himself out of his seat on the bench the way he used to 40 years ago. So it took a couple of beats before he was noticed standing on the baseline, pumping his arms skyward – first to exhort Washington State’s student section to his right, then rotating to include all 4,866 witnesses in his appeal. And, no, the response wasn’t quite as loud as it was 40 years ago, either.

But it was sincere, and it was enough.

In some ways it was the best moment of George Raveling’s return to Pullman – and, man, was there a ton of competition for that distinction.

From the warm reconnection with some of his former players on hand to the halftime raising of the banner with his name stitched on it to standing for snapshots with the current Cougars afterward, the good times rolled on Sunday.

That the Cougs did, too – 79-67 over Washington – allowed the shine to remain on it all.

“It made the day complete,” said Guy Williams. “Wouldn’t have felt so prosperous without the W.”

If the day was something to tie the present day to the days when Raveling’s teams filled the building with fans, then there was no stronger thread than the one represented by the Williams family.

Guy Williams played on Raveling’s final two teams, including the Cougars of 1983 who won the school’s first NCAA Tournament game in 42 years. They also survived one of the most bizarre cross-state games in the series’ history that final Raveling season – beating the Huskies in double overtime despite never having a lead in regulation.

Now his son Noah, just a freshman, has played his way into Wazzu’s starting lineup, and on Sunday was arguably the Cougs’ most rise-to-the-occasion wingman for the teammate who took over the game – CJ Elleby, whose 34 points were the most ever scored against a Mike Hopkins Washington team.

Interesting, too, that it was the younger Williams who insisted the vibe for the day “was way bigger than basketball” – and not just because his dad was here to see him play for the first time.

Raveling’s stature in Pullman doesn’t just rest on the 167 games he won in 11 years, or those two NCAA appearances, or even reversing the misstep the administration made in letting Marv Harshman move on. He was the first African-American head coach in what was then the Pac-8, hired just two years after Will Robinson became the first in Division I basketball at Illinois State. In 1972, John Thompson beat out Raveling for the Georgetown job – leaving him available for the Cougars.

It’s a rather dispiriting state of affairs that the Pac-12 has no African-American head coaches in the sport today.

So you keep the legacy alive however you can. It was interesting to see WSU head coach Kyle Smith outfitted in Nike’s Black History Month edition Air Force 1s, and even more so to see how Smith’s players reached for Raveling’s message when he spoke to the team on Saturday – when, among other things, he urged them to “Spend your lives working to be uncommon.”

And the Cougs knew Sunday was an uncommon moment.

“You don’t get a lot of chances to meet somebody who stood next to Martin Luther King at his ‘I Had a Dream’ speech,” said Noah Williams. “To have him here in the building just feels amazing.”

It’s the second time in three weeks the Cougs have felt that brand of amazing, having cruised to victory over Oregon State when Klay Thompson returned to have his jersey retired. Which leaves athletic director Pat Chun in a spot.

“We’re undefeated putting banners up,” he said. “We’d better start going through the history book.”

But Raveling didn’t spend all of Sunday going down memory lane. Still well connected in the coaching community, he noted “not one person I respect in the game when Kyle’s name came up didn’t tell me, ‘This guy is going to get it done.’ He has a whole truckload of true believers.”

When he was hired, George Raveling had to make his own believers – just like any team does. And when his banner was hoisted Sunday, he had company.

“Like Rav said, it’s all of us going up there in the rafters,” said Guy Williams. “This was a no-brainer. He brought so much to the community during that time when basketball hadn’t been as vibrant – and wasn’t after he left until the Bennett years revived it. I see it happening now – I see it being revived again, and I’m happy my son is a part of that.”

On Sunday, they even brought the old coach to his feet.

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