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COLLEGE BASKETBALL NCAA TOURNAMENT

Rudometkin Has Won the Biggest Game of All

USC: Leading Trojans to their last outright conference title was one thing, but beating cancer was best of all.

March 13, 1997|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWCASTLE, Calif. — This season's surge in USC basketball hasn't gone unnoticed by the last Trojan team to go beyond surge.

They're the guys Forrest Twogood blended, about the time John F. Kennedy was nominated for president, in the new building where the Trojans still play, the Sports Arena.

The centerpiece of that team was a junior named John Rudometkin.

Chick Hearn, when he announced USC games, called him "Rudo the Reckless Russian."

Then there were Chris Appel, John Block, Vern Ashby, Gordon Martin, Neil Edwards, Wells Sloniger. . . .

They made up the last USC men's basketball team to win a conference championship outright. It was the 1960-61 season, and "Rudo's guys" beat UCLA in overtime, 86-85, finished 9-3 in the Athletic Assn. of Western Universities (AAWU) and were 21-8 overall.

This year's Trojans made a run at the Pacific 10 title before finishing in a three-way tie for second. They will begin to try to improve on that 1960-61 team's performance in the NCAA tournament on Friday against Illinois. In '61, USC lost in the regional semifinals to Arizona State.

Rudometkin, his teammates say, was ahead of his time.

The son of Russian immigrants, he was 6 feet 6, but his finger rolls from an outstretched arm sometimes made him seem 7-6. He had a slithery, high-energy offensive style that would stand out even today.

It seemed he could change direction in midair.

Said Appel, a starter at guard that year: "There have been some great athletes in L.A. in all those years since Rudo played, but I haven't seen anyone with moves like he had."

And this, from teammate Neil Edwards: "If Rudo stepped on a court today, say at age 22, he'd fit right in--the up-fake, the fake-hook-and-tilt-under. He was 20 years ahead of his time."

No one knew it that season, but Rudometkin was nearly out of time.

Within a few years, Rudometkin had cancer.

But his would not be a "Brian's Song" story. At the end of "Rudo's Song," everyone wore smiles.

Drafted by the New York Knicks in the first round after his 1962 USC season, Rudometkin signed for a $2,500 bonus and a $12,000 salary.

He didn't play much his first season, and shortly afterward he experienced the first sign of the illness that nearly took his life.

Deer hunting one day outside his hometown, Santa Maria, he became very tired.

"I'd hunted all over those hills before without even needing a second wind, but suddenly I was exhausted," he said.

"I remember thinking for the first time that day something was wrong.

"My second year with the Knicks, I couldn't seem to get in shape. I'd go 10, 12 minutes . . . and I was exhausted."

Early in his third year, the Knicks cut him and he caught on with the San Francisco Warriors.

Exhaustion plagued him at San Francisco, and he was released again.

A strange skin rash would come and go. His facial features were changing. He would awaken in the night, gasping for air. On the night of Nov. 23, 1965, Rudometkin passed out in a shower at the Fresno YMCA after playing three-on-three basketball.

Finally, a complete physical exam revealed the awful truth.

An octopus-shaped malignant tumor had encircled his heart and was literally squeezing the life out of him. Reticulum cell sarcoma, doctors called it.

Exploratory surgery showed that removal of the tumor was impossible. As he came out of anesthesia, Rudometkin heard a nurse tell another patient: "He won't live more than a few days."

To condense a years-long account, he entered the stone age of drug and cobalt cancer treatment.

The side effects were nearly worse than the disease.

Paralysis of his legs and arms set in. Parts of his vocal chords became paralyzed. By the time the tumor began to shrink, the drugs had left him almost totally paralyzed. And his body became bloated.

Recalls Edwards: "I drove up to Fresno to see him. I was horrified. His entire body was swollen to twice its normal size. He was like the guy in 'The Nutty Professor.' "

Rudometkin and his wife moved from Fresno back to Santa Maria.

"He's coming home to die," old friends whispered.

He came home to live.

By Christmas 1966, much of the paralysis had left his limbs and vocal chords, and his hair grew back.

He was beginning to look like Rudo the Reckless Russian again.

"I give all the credit to God," he says.

"They were going to operate to take an infection out of my chest when it suddenly healed itself. There was a spontaneous regression. Doctors couldn't explain it.

"God not only healed my body but spiritually strengthened me as well."

John and Carolyn Rudometkin live today in Newcastle, Calif., in the heart of the Gold Country. They share four hilly acres with old oaks, songbirds and a splashy creek.

There are three sons, Ron, 32; John, 26, and Nate, 22.

Ron was born before his father's illness, the second two sons after the healing.

"We're incredibly blessed," Carolyn said.

"They told us that after all the medication in those years, we might never have children again. But even after all that, we had two more sons."

Rudometkin, 57, is a lay preacher and is often asked to speak about his spiritual values at churches, and to cancer patients. "Rudo's Song" is a tale told often in the athletes-with-cancer community.

And as for this season's USC team, Rudometkin said he's happy at the improvement, but unsatisfied.

"Tell those guys they got a good ballclub, they just need to play harder, to play together more," he said.

"Show everyone there's another sport at SC [besides football]. We did it, you can do it."

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