Darrall Imhoff, Center on Cal's NCAA Title Team, Dies


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By David Bush, Staff Writer
Posted Jul 3, 2017
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2017 BearInsider.com

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Cal Hall of Fame center Darrall Imhoff
Darrall Imhoff, the All-American center who was the driving force behind Cal's 1959 NCAA basketball championship, died Friday near his home in Bend, Oregon. He was 78.
Imhoff, who played 12 seasons in the NBA after his All-American career in Berkeley, suffered a heart attack while playing miniature golf with some of his grandchildren.

"It was a terrible shock," said former Cal teammate Bill McClintock in a phone interview. "We just saw each other in January and he looked so damn good."

Imhoff, a member of the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame, was the starting center in the 1958-59 and 1959-60 Cal teams, both of whom reached the NCAA title game. The first won the championship, beating West Virginia (and Jerry West) in the finals. The second lost to Ohio State in the finale.

The success of those teams, coached by Naismith Hall of Famer Pete Newell, was traceable to teammwork and selflessness. No one player is more important than any other, with one notable exception.

"We couldn't have won that NCCA championship without Darrall," McClintock said. "You could take away any one of the rest of us, and they still could have won. But not Darrall. Rarely did he have an off night."
Immediately following college he was a member of the 1960 Olympic team, also coached by Newell. As a member of the original "Dream Team", Imhoff won a Gold Medal alongside West, Oscar Roberston and Jerry Lucas.

Imhoff was the first-round draft choice (third overall pick) of the New York Knicks in 1960 and played for six teams until he was forced to retire in 1972 because of a knee injury. His best season was probably 1969-70 when he was with the 76ers and averaged 13.6 points and 9.5 rebounds a game. He made the All-Star team once, in 1966-67 when he was with Los Angeles Lakers. He averaged 10.7 points, 13.3 rebounds that season.

But it was at Cal where he made his mark, and the tale of his rise to stardom is unusual. He was a member of his high school team at Alhambra High in Los Angeles, but, bothered by injuries, had an undistinguished prep career. His coach there was Bob Boyd, who had been an All-American at USC and later become the Trojans head coach. He thought so little of Imhoff's potential that he did not recommend him to USC.

Imhoff decided to pursue his college education at Cal as a Forestry major. An oft told story is that Newell received a phone call from Imhoff's grandmother asking for help finding a bed for her tall grandson. Newell reportedly told the woman she had the wrong number. He was the basketball coach, not the housing director. The caller persisted saying basketball coaches should know where to find beds long enough for her grandson.

"Just how tall is your grandson?" Newell asked, about to hang up.
"Six-foot-ten," she replied. Newell was suddenly interested, but still was unconvinced.

"I remember that," Rene Herrerias, Newell's assistant at the time confirmed in a phone interview. "We were just saying, 'That's kind of funny.' Until he walked into the office.

"That's how we found out about him. He sure turned out to be such a good one."

Imhoff was hardly an instant success, he had not yet grown into his size. "He couldn't stuff, he couldn't jump, he couldn't shoot," Earl Shultz, another former teammate told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I could not understand why they gave him a uniform."

But Imhoff worked diligently on his game, and the results started to show. "He went from a guy who, as a freshman couldn't go up the steps of the boarding house without stumbling, to an All-American And a legitimate All-American," said Bob Steiner, Cal's former Sports Information Director and a long-time executive with the Lakers.

"His junior year, the rate of his improvement from October to March was absolutely incredible. He got better and better and every game," McClintock said. "At the beginning of the year I don't remember him even shooting a right-handed hook. By the end of the year he was hitting them with either hand."

But defense was Imhoff's forte, and another former teammate Ned Averbuck remembers seeing that on display for the first time. "It was Darrall's junior year, the year we won the title," Avervuck said. "We were playing USC and they had this big, tough guy, Jim Hanna. He took a hook shot, Darrall went up and the next thing the ball is at half court and (Cal guard) Denny Fitpatrick is going the other way for a layup, Earl Shultz and I were on the bench and we looked at each other. 'Bingo, the light's on.' "

And shot blocking was just one of Imhoff's defensive skills. "He could force the other team's wings farther away from the basket," McClintock said, noting opponents had to shoot from a greater distance than they preferred. "That's one reason we were able to beat St. Mary's so bad (66-46) in the ('59) regional final."

Bill Russell, who led USF to two NCAA titles in the mid-1950s and the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles set the standard for defensive centers. Imhoff's teammates feel he was right there with Russell. "He was very comparable to Russell as a college center," McClintock said.

"Some shot blockers just swat the ball into the stands," Averbuck said. "With Russell his blocks always seemed to go to a teammate. The same with Darrall."

In his biography, Newell was quoted, Imhoff "could run all day like a deer and he became our Bill Russell. Not quite that good, nobody was, but he could dominate a game with his rebound, shot blocking and passing."
In the NCAA semifinal against Cincinnati and Robertson, Imhoff scored 22 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. The next night he tipped in his own miss for the winning points against West Virginia.

The following season the Bears had a 28-2 record, but after again beating Cincinnati in the NCAA semis, before coming up short against the Buckeyes. Cal has not been back to what is now known as the "Final Four" since.

Imhoff stayed close to his Cal teammates throughout his pro career and into retirement and they never lost track of him. One of the more notable, for the wrong reasons, moments of his pro career was the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game against Imhoff's Knicks. He was the starting center for New York that night in Hershey, Pa., but played just 20 minutes because of foul trouble. Nevertheless he will forever be known as "The Man Who Gave Up 100."

"A bunch of us had a telegram waiting for him when he got back to New York," Averbuck recalled. "It said, 'Congratulations, we are all so proud of you -- Especially your defense.' "

The next night the two teams met again in Madison Square Garden. "The Knicks won and Darrall told us he got a standing ovation when he fouled out with two minutes to go in the game," Averbuck said. "He said he deserved it. He held him to 54."

But he did last a dozen years in a sport where the average career is about half of that. "He could rebound and he could set screens," Averbuck said. "He was a good NBA center."

Newell's teams from that era hold regular reunions, and Imhoff would consistently attend. The last time most teammates saw him was in January, when Stan Morrison, Imhoff's successor as the Cal center, received the Pete Newell Achievement Award. Many former Bears, including Imhoff, came to Berkeley for the festivities.

"We bumped into each other in the parking lot before the luncheon," McClintock said. "We had a chance to spend some time together, catch up. Who new that would be the last time?"

Imhoff was inducted in the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998 and his No. 40 jersey was retired by the school in 2009. Because of his NBA career, Imhoff left Cal six units short of his degree. He returned 33 years later and earned his BA. His motivation, other than personal satisfaction, was he wanted Newell to be able to say all the players from the title team graduated.

"It wasn't any of that on-line BS," Averbuck said. "He actually came back to campus and went to the classes. And then we all went to his graduation ceremony."

Following his NBA career Imhoff did some radio work for the Trail Blazers, his final NBA team. He also was the Vice President of Sales & Marketing at the United States Basketball Academy (USBA).

He is survived by his wife Susan, five children and numerous grandchildren. Plans for a Memorial are pending.
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