By Jaelin Wilson
Cuesta’s men’s basketball coach and San Luis Obispo native, Rusty Blair, has won five Western State Conference Coach of the Year awards; yet the most awe-inspiring part of Blair’s basketball journey was when he was still on the court.
Known as a sharpshooter in his day, Blair has enjoyed success on every level; setting still-standing San Luis Obispo high school records, shooting the lights out at the University of Oregon, and capturing scoring titles in the International Basketball Federation, known as FIBA.
In 1966, Blair remembers his first day at San Luis Obispo high school; the then basketball coach, Pat Crawford, walked up to the 6-foot-7 freshman and said, “Who are you?”
“Within three years of never touching a basketball, I was California State Player of the Year,” Blair said.
Blair averaged 25.6 points and 14.9 rebounds per game his senior year—records that still stand at SLO High School.
Gifted with a smooth jump shot and positional versatility, Blair was built for the next level, and a few division one colleges thought so, too. To be exact, 79 of them did, including UCLA, Santa Clara (a national powerhouse at the time), USC, and UC Berkeley, just to name a few.
Not fond of the East Coast or big cities, Blair chose the the University of Oregon. Settled in Eugene, Or., the University of Oregon had a program in an environment Blair felt more comfortable at.
“It was more of a college town. Eugene was about 50,000 people when I went there. It was about the size of San Luis Obispo,” Blair said.
While at the University of Oregon, Blair played alongside Stan Love, the father of Kevin Love, the star forward on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blair backed up Love until forced to start as a gunner, far away from the hoop—a position that was unfamiliar with Blair.
Blair’s coaches didn’t want him to back up Stan Love, an All-American. He was too talented to sit behind anyone.
Converting to shooting-forward, Blair continued his assault on the basket.
“Blair turned into a human Gatling gun,” said Jerry Uhrhammer, the sports editor of the Eugene Register-Guard, in 1971, illustrating the lethality of Blair’s silky jump shot.
After college, Blair played for over a decade in the European FIBA League. Over 11 seasons (one in the World Basketball League, 1o with FIBA), he averaged 27.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, drilled 56-percent of his shots, and hit 90.2-percent of his free throws.
His combination of size (6-foot-8) and shooting ability—which he forged at the University of Oregon when forced into a foreign position—was unheard of.
“I had keys to the gym, worked out daily […] I had my own weight training room, in my house, designed by the teams,” Blair said. “I was serious about playing basketball.”
As a testament, in 1978, Blair averaged a league-leading 38.5 points per game. By comparison, in the NBA, only one player has ever averaged more points in a season: Wilt Chamberlain.
During Blair’s one year tenure with the WBL, the Spanish league went belly-up, leaving Blair ineligible for a year.
“I didn’t just throw that year away,” said Blair. “I knew that my career [would be] over at some time, and I had to stay busy and do something with it.”
In 1985, Blair took a break from the game and returned back to San Luis Obispo. He earned his teaching credential and Master’s Degree in physical education at Cal Poly SLO, turning his year away from basketball into a second career opportunity.
Blair would later return to Europe to coach in Weert, Holland, where he would qualify for the playoffs each of his three years coaching, eventually winning Dutch National Coach of the Year, in 1989.
For Blair’s next gameplan, basketball would have to be sidelined; he was more focused on the team he had created at home.
“I gave up my coaching career in Europe to raise my children here,” Blair said. “I was going to raise my children where I was born and raised, in San Luis Obispo.”