By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – If you were to pick just one Iowa Hawkeye as your favorite of all time, male or female, who would it be?
Or could you even pick just one, considering what seems like a never-ending list of worthy candidates, beginning, of course, with Nile Kinnick?
You could argue that Kinnick is in a class by himself as Iowa’s only Heisman Trophy winner who would go on to die in 1943 at the age of 24 while serving his country.
Kinnick’s influence and popularity transcends sports, and the same could be said about Fred Becker, Iowa’s first All-American in football, who was killed while serving his country in World War I.
Kinnick and Becker are both heroes more than former star athletes, so they share a special category.
But even without them, picking just one is an exercise in madness.
But I did it anyway in response to recently being asked to name my favorite Hawkeye of all time if you took Kinnick out of the equation.
I was intrigued by the question, and thought long and hard before picking Ronnie Lester.
The former star point guard from Chicago earned my pick for being one of the most talented, exciting, and impactful athletes to ever wear an Iowa uniform.
It also doesn’t hurt that Lester is a good guy. I’ve never heard anybody say a bad word about him.
One my favorite memories as Hawkeye fan growing up in Des Moines was watching a healthy Lester lead Iowa on a fast break.
It was a thing of beauty, the way in which he blew past defenders with his incredible quickness. He would either score himself on a high-rising jumper in the lane, or on an explosive drive to the basket, or he would assist one of his teammates in scoring.
It seemed that Lester could go from baseline to baseline quicker than a hiccup, a human blur.
Combine his immense talent with the fact that Iowa experienced incredible success with Lester leading the way and you have the total package.
There are people to this day who still insist that Iowa would’ve have won the 1980 NCAA title if Lester hadn’t suffered a knee injury.
The Hawkeyes still made it to the Final Four that season, and that came a year after Iowa had won a share of the 1978-79 Big Ten regular-season title.
Iowa hasn't won a regular-season title since then.
Lester was the driving force behind Lute Olson’s rebuilding project in the 1970s. The program was decent when Lester arrived in 1976, and by the time he left in 1980, it was a Big Ten power.
Lester never was the same player after his knee injury, and that kept him from reaching his full potential in the NBA.
But when healthy, The 6-foot-2 Lester was a joy to watch as he would make one jaw-dropping play after another.
Mike “Tree” henry played with Lester at Iowa, and while obviously biased, Henry understands why I would picked Lester as my fravorite.
“Absolutely, absolutely, that’s a great choice,” Henry said.
Henry grew up in the Chicago area and currently lives in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook.
He sometimes wonders what Lester would have accomplished in the NBA with two healthy knees, and he likes to remind people that before Isiah Thomas there was another great point guard from Chicago named Ronnie Lester.
“I tell people all the time, especially being here in Chicago, everybody talks about Isiah Thomas and there’s these polls on social media all the time that say name the five best players out of Chicago and Isiah Thomas is always on there,” Henry said. “Obviously, not to slight Isiah, but I think if Ronnie hadn’t gotten hurt, he would’ve had Isiah’s career.
“He was that good.”
Thomas played two years for Bob Knight at Indiana from 1979-81 and helped the Hoosiers win the national title in 1981.
He then went on to become an NBA Hall of Famer with the Detroit Pistons, winning back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990.
Lester, on the other hand, never achieved stardom in the NBA because he just wasn’t the same player after the knee injury. He stuck in the league from 1980-86 and was a backup point guard to Magic Johnson on the Los Angeles Lakers 1985 NBA championship team.
And speaking of Magic Johnson, he once said that Lester was the greatest point guard he had faced, and was referring to when Lester was healthy at Iowa.
“That’s one of the reasons he ended up with the Lakers,” Henry said of Lester. “That was a Magic call from what I’ve heard, that he wanted him there to see if they could help rejuvenate his career. But unfortunately, the knee was just injured too bad to have a great pro career.”
The game has changed since Lester last played for Iowa 40 years ago, with the players, bigger, faster and stronger. But Henry has no doubt that Lester’s game would’ve withstood the test of time.
“He would be great in any era,” Henry said. “His game would translate and he would be equally as good today as when we were playing.
“Everybody looks at athleticism, the guys are bigger, faster and stronger, but I don’t know how much faster you’re going to get than Ronnie was.”
My choice of Lester probably also has to do with my age in that I was just finishing grade school when he became a Hawkeye in 1976.
Maybe if I had had been born 60 years earlier Duke Slater would’ve been my choice, or maybe it would’ve been Tim Dwight if I had been born 20 years later.
We tend to favor our generation and Ronnie Lester, who is now 61 and lives in Florida, came from my generation.
I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Lester several times, and he is always the same; soft spoken, respectful, humble and polite.
Lester and Kenny Arnold formed what is my favorite Iowa backcourt of all time during the 1980 Final Four season. They were both from Chicago and highly respected amongst their teammates.
Arnold took over at point guard after Lester was injured and performed admirably.
Sadly, Arnold passed away late last April at the age of 59 after a lengthy struggle with physical ailments that started with him being diagnosed with brain cancer in 1985.
But Arnold was never alone in his fight because his former college teammates, and especially Henry, made sure of it.
The players on Iowa’s 1980 Final Four team share a special bond, and Arnold’s situation has made them even closer.
Lester’s role as the star player on that team also made them closer because his teammates had so much respect for his talent, and for who he was as a person.
Whether you agree with my pick of Lester doesn’t really matter because there is no right or wrong answer in this case.
Everyone has their own opinion based on their experiences.
And based on that, Ronnie Lester is my favorite Hawkeye of all time.