Former Kansas University basketball player Ron Loneski, who was a roommate of Wilt Chamberlain and starter on the Jayhawks’ 1957 NCAA runner-up team, was more than willing to talk hoops with fans after making Lawrence his permanent home in 2005.
“Being a basketball hero was not important to him,” stressed Paul Gray, pastor of New Life in Christ Church, who will preside over a “Celebration of Life” service for Loneski at 11 a.m. Friday, at Arterra Event Gallery, 2161 Quail Creek Drive.
Loneski died Aug. 1 at the age of 77.
“The NCAA came out last year or so with a series of trading cards of former NCAA stars still living. They sell them at a premium if autographed. Ron took a lot of hours to sign those. He said to me, ‘Can you believe people would want one of my cards?’ It was flattering but by no means his identity — neither was being a decorated war hero or coach and teacher,” Gray added of the man who received a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars and Commendations for Meritorious Service and also was named San Diego high school coach of the year in 1991.
“He was a humble guy who loved his family — a great friend, very giving.”
Gray gave an example.
“Ron had a really nice truck. He would loan it to anybody. If somebody was moving across town, he’d give them the keys. He’d say, ‘Tell me when you are done with it.’ He didn’t like it if the person returned it full of gas. He and his wife (Jackie) helped single moms with kids who were struggling, bought clothes, food, provided transportation.”
Loneski — he will be buried at a later date at a military cemetery in California — actually played two years of basketball during his 20-year Army career which culminated in his retiring as a colonel.
“He told me he got sent to Germany and was going to be a career officer moving through the ranks. The first week there he was called into the commanding general’s office, a 3-star general at the time, who was a sports fan. He (general) said, ‘Are you the guy who played for Kansas?’ He said, ‘I want you to report to the gym and the coach. You’ll be on the (Army) team.’
“Ron said, ‘With due respect, I didn’t come here to play ball.’ He (general) said, ‘You don’t understand. You are here to play on my team.’ Generals were proud. They had their own football, baseball and basketball teams and played other Army commands for bragging rights. Ron was no dummy. He figured, ‘OK,’” Gray related.
So the Hammond, Indiana, native played Army basketball and played well.
“Somebody who was a fan of his in Europe sent him a recording off a radio broadcast of one of the games. He scored 47 points in the title game of the all-Army basketball competition. That was before the three-point line. I listened to the recording. A few weeks after, we got together (for weekly breakfast) and he said, ‘Forty-seven points. Can you believe that?’” Gray said with a laugh.
“He got to play on the Belgium national team. He was the star of the European League. The Belgium team paid him. He saved the money and bought his family a house with it,” Gray explained.
As far as his KU career ... Loneski was able to come to terms with KU’s 54-53 triple-overtime loss to North Carolina in the ‘57 title game in Kansas City, Missouri.
“He was very proud of that year and their accomplishments to get to the final game and go triple overtime,” Gray said. “He was devastated they didn’t win. But that didn’t define his life. Ron saw it as they gave it a great shot, had a great team, had a great group of guys, made it to the third overtime in the national championship game and came up a point short. It doesn’t define your life (in a negative way).”
Gray enjoyed watching Loneski interact with KU fans who would approach them during their weekly breakfasts in town.
“Every Thursday at First Watch, people would come up and say, ‘We saw you play with Wilt.’ A lot of times people would buy our breakfast because he’s a military hero. If they said, ‘What are you doing now?’ Ron would say, ‘I’m here with the pastor and we’re talking with Jesus because he really loves us and loves you too.’”
Noted his former teammate, ex-KU athletic director Monte Johnson: “I have great sympathy for Ron’s family. Obviously I want them to know we appreciate what Ron did for the University of Kansas when he was here. We admire both the career he had in the military and his teaching career (in San Diego where he taught special education for 21 years).”
Contributions can be made to The Wounded Warrior Project and Kids International Ministries directly or through Rumsey-Yost Funeral Home, P.O. Box 1260, Lawrence, 66044.