The life and times of Steve Puidokas

THE STABLE WAS FULL up and down the coast in the basketball muscle-up of the 1970s. James Edwards loomed at Washington. USC had Gus Williams. Lonnie Shelton was at Oregon State. Oregon, with Greg Ballard and Ron Lee, scrapped over every possession no matter who was on the floor. And there was Bill Walton and John Wooden at UCLA.

Wooden was the coach who made winning national titles a routine, Walton the nimble big man who years later defined his own game. "I never," he said, "wanted to get too far out of elbow range."

Laying down a foundation against the intimidating backdrop of college basketball's skyscrapers demanded patience. Eventually, George Raveling got it done. Raveling in the course of a decade coached the Cougars from the low range of mediocrity to the Pac-10's top tier.

It wouldn't have happened without Steve Puidokas, who was inducted Friday into WSU's Hall of Fame, along with ex-teammate James Donaldson and seven other Cougar greats.

The File On
Chicago (Cicero)

Over Notre Dame and Duke.

A four-year Cougar starter (1974-77), averaged a school record 18.6 points per game, plus 9.7 rebounds per game. As a sophomore, led the Pac-8 in scoring and rebounding.

Still holds WSU career marks for scoring average, field goals and rebounds. Second in total points (behind Ike Fontaine), third in free throws and fourth in rebounding average.

Only basketball player in WSU history to have his number (55) retired. Second-team all-conference four straight seasons (behind Bill Walton, Rich Kelley and James Edwards).

Drafted by the Washington Bullets in 1977 (third round), but couldn't secure guaranteed money so headed to Italy where he played professionally until his death in 1994.

The Cougars went 19-7 and 19-8 in his junior and senior seasons.

Washington State's point guard in the Puidokas era was his friend and roommate Marty Giovacchini, who remembers the massive Puidokas as the player most responsible for Washington State's basketball about-face.

"In the ‘70s he was the guy," Giovacchini said last week from his home in suburban Salt Lake.

Puidokas came out of Chicago with 265 pounds loosely arranged on a 6-11 ½ frame. He lumbered. He hulked. And when he posted up and whirled to shoot, he was all shoulders and elbows. Nobody stopped him, not with any consistency.

At his best against the best, Puidokas knocked down 25 and 23 points in matchups with Walton. Puidokas was a freshman and Walton a senior in their two encounters.

Visually stunning, sociable only in intimate circles, Puidokas laughed a lot, "mostly away from people," Giovacchini recalled. "He kind of shunned the limelight."

Other than twice-a-week basketball ventures into the public eye, Puidokas stayed as private as a giant can make himself. Blessed with a star's size and strength, cursed with a family history of heart problems, Puidokas was inducted into the Cougar shrine posthumously.

He died 12 years ago, at age 39, in his adopted home of Italy. He left a wife, five children, a future in his wife's family banking business, a past that included five WSU records and a legacy.

He's the only player in WSU basketball history to have his jersey number retired.

News of his untimely passing leaked out slowly, inconceivable in today's see-it-now multimedia pronouncements. Only some years after the fact did Giovacchini, once a close friend, hear about it.

"I didn't know until someone called," Giovacchini said. A writer, putting together a story, broke the news. "It's a shock anytime anyone you know unexpectedly passes away. But he had the genetics for it. From that standpoint . . ."

It makes sense, now, in a heart-healthier society.

Puidokas' father died young, of a heart problem, Giovacchini recalled. Steve worried that heredity might be working against him.

That his appetite was a product of the times didn't help. Puidokas liked his bratwurst. Anything pickled went down better with a cold beer. In that pursuit he was no different than a lot of college kids. Student partying wasn't held up to the same scrutiny it is today.

Marty Giovacchini, Cougar point guard and Puidokas' friend and roommate in the 70s, still holds the No. 5 spot on WSU's career list for assists.

On the court Puidokas was an intelligent player. "He understood how to get position on the floor," said Giovacchini, who ranks No. 5 on WSU's career list for assists. "He'd know where I'd be, knew what was going to happen, and I'd get it to him. Non-verbal communication came pretty easy for him."

Puidokas' best of four standout seasons came in 1975 when he led the conference in scoring and rebounding. Nearly three decades after his final game he's still second all-time on the WSU career scoring list, remarkable in that he pre-dated the three-point shot. Puidokas had a nice touch from foul line range and beyond.

Raveling told the Seattle Times many years ago that Puidokas' career points total of 1,894 would have been closer to 2,100, "If we had had the three-point arc … he was one of the first big men who could really shoot facing the basket."

Says Giovacchini, "He could raise his level of game. He manhandled (Providence's) Marvin Barnes in Hawaii. James Edwards got into foul trouble trying to guard him. He faced a lot of help defenses. Teams packed it in on him. He was so big and broad that he could, in turning around, clear enough space to get his shot off. When he had the ball up over his head, no one blocked his shot."

Puidokas was no stranger to a flying elbow.

"He played hurt a lot," Gioviacchini said. "He broke a facial bone and played with a mask for half of a Pac-8 season. His last year he had Achilles and ankle problems that required medical attention before we played. He wasn't always able to finish out practice."

THERE WAS AN ENIGMATIC quality about the big guy. On the tough side he played hurt and never backed down. On the nonchalant side he did little in the off-season. His idea of warming up for an NBA screening was to find a beach to lie on.

Giovacchini takes some pains to avoid criticizing the approach. "His whole physical structure didn't lend itself to speed or quickness," he said. "It was very difficult for him to lose weight anyway. His pure body structure was large and thick. He wasn't going to end up with a swimmer's body."

When the ball went up, Puidokas' game went up with it.

"I remember beating Oregon with a 2-3 zone," Giovacchini said. "We had Puidokas, Donaldson at 7-2 and 6-11 Stuart House. they pretty much covered the floor, sideline to sideline."

So Puidokas could run a little bit for a big man?

"No," Giovacchini said with a laugh. "We waited for him a little bit. He'd lumber into his trailer spot and knock down a 15-foot jumper."

With the quiet confidence of the very strong, Puidokas rarely put power on display. But one night . . . "If you wanted to test him he would move you around," Giovacchini said. "One time, in a joking kind of mood, he grabbed me by the shoulders, picked me up off the floor and just sort of moved me."

Steve Puidokas is the only basketball player in Washington State history to have his number (55) retired.

If basketball hadn't worked out, Puidokas might have worked his way through school as a bouncer, although finishing work on his degree was never high on the Puidokas to-do list.

Described as a decent student, he knew he could make a living playing basketball, which he did. In Italy. When he couldn't agree to terms with the Washington Bullets, now the Wizards, he moved on to Europe, where he reportedly lived well as the big man in residence. He spent part of his career playing for a team on the island of Sardinia.

Other than a three-minute phone chat a couple of years after their college careers ended, Goivacchini never again touched base with his former teammate, unusual in that Giovacchini himself played a year in Italy. People change, move on, adapt.

Today, at 51, Giovacchini stays involved in the game, helping out at the local high school where he starred. Coaching is the extent of his involvement. His son was a standout at Stanford. But pappy no longer plays.

"The knees and hips wear out," he said. "Golf is more fun. I don't have to run the Coliseum stairs." When he did, when he was young, it was important to be part of something on the way up. Six seasons after Giovacchini and Puidokas played their final game together, the Cougars had won their way into a second-round NCAA tournament game. The point had been made.

Raveling had done what he was hired to do: Lift the Cougs from the doldrums. The coach had earned his ticket up the line. He left a job well-done.

As always, credit goes to the succession of talent that started the day Steve Puidokas showed up in Pullman, eager to break some records.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Weaver has been following and/or covering the Cougars for the better part of 30 years. For the second straight season, the former Spokesman-Review sports editor and columnist will be bringing his unique insights to readers every week.

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