In the final minutes of Oregon's 56-51 upset of top-ranked UCLA and Bill Walton in a 1974 Pac-8 game, Ducks coach Dick Harter turned to Gerald Willett, his junior center, and warned, "Be ready for anything they throw at you." Harter didn't have to tell him twice. "You had to be at your best against them," Willett remembers. "Anything less, you didn't stand a chance. And Walton, if you blinked, was a step ahead of you. I'm not necessarily talking foot speed—he might make a pass or beat you to a spot. He was a special player." Willett finished the game with eight points and six rebounds, one of which landed him on SI's cover, while Walton scored 11 points and had eight rebounds. Though Willett never played in the NCAA tournament or the NBA, his coach's advice served him well during a short-lived, but eventful, pro career in Europe.
The Portland Trail Blazers chose the 6'8", 207-pound Willett late in the 1975 draft but cut him in training camp. He signed with Barcelona-based Cotonificio de Badalona and quickly became a fan favorite because of his aggressive play. On Nov. 21, 1975, that aggressiveness nearly got him killed. Tension was already high in Barcelona because Spain's dictator, Francisco Franco, had died the day before, and the population of the Basque regions had moved quickly in calling for a break from the national government in Madrid and the establishment of home rule. Badalona's opponent that night was Real of Madrid, and, Willett says, "all hell broke loose when I got called for a [questionable] foul."
Upset by the call, someone on Willett's team threw a chair onto the court, further inciting the crowd. National guardsmen, who routinely patrolled the arena, rushed onto the court. "I looked up, and one of the Guardia was standing a few feet away, pointing his rifle at my head," Willett says. "I ducked and ran into the locker room." Calm was restored, Willett returned, and Real Madrid won the game.
Later that season a policeman pulled a gun on Willett in a dispute over the player's driving; another time lightning struck the team plane, sending the aircraft into a nose-dive that the pilot was barely able to pull out of. "I thought I was coming home in a box," Willett says. Shaken but undeterred, Willett played another season with Badalona and wound up as the league's leading rebounder (14.9) and fourth-leading scorer (27.5).
After he returned to the U.S. in '77, Willett was struck in the left eye while playing badminton and lost 33% of the vision in that eye. The injury ended his NBA dreams. Willett still lives in Eugene, Ore., where he manages property, buys and sells real estate and runs a basketball academy that he started 12 years ago. He is divorced and has two daughters. "People still ask me to sign that SI issue," says Willett, who over time regained all but 5% of his vision. "You can barely see my face, but I've learned that you don't need to see everything."