If it is true that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, then where is ugly? In the eyes of the beheld? This is a question that worries Kurt Rambis, whose 20/400 vision makes him far more likely to be beheld than the other way around. In his thick glasses with heavy black frames, Rambis looks as if he were wearing welder's goggles, and he plays basketball with the subtlety of a blowtorch. But few players know better than Rambis how to turn ugly into a virtue, which is precisely what he has done during the past two months as the starting power forward for the Phoenix Suns.
If looks could kill, Rambis would never have survived his first season, nearly a decade ago, with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was playing in front of people who had been lifted, tucked, stapled and liposuctioned until they all looked strangely alike. Rambis was different. "I remember getting laughed at because of the glasses," he says. "The attitude seemed to be 'What are you doing here?' "
Now the question is, What is Rambis doing in Phoenix? Since his first game with the Suns, on Dec. 15, the 6'8", 213-pound Rambis has helped turn Phoenix into a championship contender even though his game remains as confounding as ever. At the end of last week, he was averaging 7.3 rebounds and 7.2 points a game, which ranked him dead last in scoring among all Western Conference starting forwards. And yet his first game as a starter for Phoenix on Jan. 9 also marked the beginning of a single-season, franchise-record 10-game winning streak. In February, the Suns had another string of victories, nine, and more recently lost two of the five games Rambis missed because of a sprained ankle.
"Kurt is a guy who doesn't care if he gets a shot all night, and he'll still dive for every loose ball," says Atlanta Hawk coach Mike Fratello. "He's not a guy you can go to offensively, but he's a great complementary player when you've got guys who can score. Then he can just go about doing the things that win games."
Phoenix has no trouble throwing up big numbers, with forward Tom Chambers fourth in the NBA in scoring (26.9 points per game) and point guard Kevin Johnson averaging 21.7 points and 11.1 assists through Sunday. "We beat everybody by out-scoring them last year," says Sun coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "Now we want to beat them with rebounding and defense."
With Rambis, Phoenix has been doing just that. In the 27 games Rambis had started for the Suns through Sunday, Phoenix's young guns had an average victory margin of 10.7 points, 5.5 higher than before he broke into the lineup. The Suns held opponents to fewer than 100 points in 13 of those games. Best of all, after struggling to a 7-10 record without him, the Suns were 24-3 with him.
One of those victories was a 135-114 crushing of the Golden State Warriors in Phoenix on Feb. 16. That night the Suns gave away 5,000 pairs of lens-less horn-rimmed glasses, an item that has become one of the franchise's biggest-selling souvenirs at $3 a pair. KJ, who appreciates that Rambis does so much "dirty work" under the boards, calls the glasses "Dirty Kurts." When the Warriors came out to warm up before the game, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin and even 7'7" Dinka dunker Manute Bol were wearing the glasses. On any given night, it's not uncommon to see hundreds of fans at the Coliseum wearing Rambis glasses.
"I think if you really want to show someone you accept them, you put yourself in their shoes for a while," Rambis says. "I do feel wanted, and it's a good feeling. Especially after being teased about [my appearance] for so long."
Rambis, who was drafted out of Santa Clara by the New York Knicks in the third round of the 1980 draft, is in his ninth season in the NBA, which is an astonishing fact. "There are people with a lot more talent than I have who have been weeded out of the league, because they couldn't put their egos aside to fill a role," Rambis says.
It is a lesson in perseverance that when Rambis finally made the NBA on his third try it was with a Laker team that seemed, at least on the surface, to be everything he wasn't. If ever a team were created in the image of the city it played for, those 1981-82 Lakers were it. When the citizens of L.A. looked in the mirror, what they saw reflected was tinsel and glitter. What they did not see was a shaggy figure in thick glasses who looked like every drifter who ever had his picture drawn by a police sketch artist.