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The Life

January 20, 2003
Two for One
ESPN The Magazine

Wholesome hoops eye-candy. On the surface, these curly-cued dream-boys-next-door would appear to be just that. A happy diversion from another depressingly damp Oregon winter. Something for the local folk to grab onto after they've done their daily dozen miles in their native Nikes. Easy inspiration for a marketer's imagination. (Witness all those "Luke 2 Luke" and "Luke Both Ways" billboards, posters and faux traffic signs dotting the state, not to mention cities east and south.)

But Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson are much more than a multitalented, matinee-idol Hair Pair. Their team's recent lost weekend in the Bay Area, where Cal and Stanford took turns roasting the Ducks -- and Rid and LJ were merely mortal at best -- proved once again how much Oregon depends on its leading Lukes. Let's not forget, the web-footed ones stumbled early last season, too, before Luke Squared soared all the way to the Elite Eight.

Luke Ridnour
If Luke draws the double team ...
Ridnour and Jackson, the junior point guard and his junior wingman, are the embodiment of toughness, togetherness and team -- the foundation of a program on the rise. If it seems that Ernie Kent, the Lou Rawls lookalike who used to play for Oregon and now runs the show, sat down and mapped out a plan to get the Ducks back to the big time by going Norman Rockwell that's because he did.

Kent's first significant in-state recruit was Gresham native Freddie Jones, the explosive swingman who's now a rookie with the Pacers. Jones gave the Ducks instant cred. But to keep the ball rolling, Kent took the Luke route. To the south, just down the road in Creswell, was Jackson: 6'7", bony, hair flying everywhere, piling up points by the bushel, a kid who liked fishing and hunting (the bow-and-arrow variety). To the north, way north, was Ridnour: 6'2", bony, hair flying everywhere, piling up points by the bushel, a kid who liked boating and crabbing off the rocky shore of Blaine, Wash., which might as well be Canada. A kid who loved the game so much that he always carried his own basketball around, even to church.

Ah yes, both players are quiet, laid-back, polite, God-fearing Christians (not that they wouldn't rip your eye sockets out scratching for a loose ball). Which is just what Kent, a signature member of Dick Harter's "Kamikaze Kids" back in the '70s, happens to be as well.

So you can just imagine. Cast Josh Hartnett and Heath Ledger, call the movie Goody Four Shoes and


"I've always felt there was a Final Four championship team sitting up here in the Pacific Northwest," says Kent, a native of Rockford, Ill. "Doug Wrenn [Washington] is from Seattle Salim Stoudamire [Arizona] and Aaron Miles [Kansas] are Oregon kids. Blake Stepp [Gonzaga] is from right down the block in Eugene. If one program could ever corral all the players from these parts, it would rise to the top -- and we want very much to be that program. When you're battling Arizona and UCLA and Stanford, it's mostly uphill. But what the Lukes have given us is legitimacy and continuity. Now, the key is if we can get them to stay "

Stay? Why, it seems like only yesterday that Kent the recruiter was donning his "grubbies," wandering down a dirt road and easing into Jackson's boat for some trout fishing to prove how countrified he was; or worrying when Ridnour missed a connection to Eugene and didn't climb off the plane until long after the Oregon staff had given up hope he would show. (He was cradling his ball when he did.) Poor kid didn't know which end was up. "Kentucky was too far away," Rid recalls. "Utah was I don't know. Then, I almost went to Gonzaga. But Coach Kent is such a strong Christian, he made me very comfortable on that visit. I prayed a lot about it, and the Lord sent me here. That's what it really came down to -- the Lord placing me where He wanted me to be."

The recruiting process was especially wrenching for a player who didn't want to "hurt" coaches by turning them down. Ridnour's low point came when he had to tell Gonzaga's Mark Few that he wouldn't be coming to Spokane. It turned out to be a double blow when the other Luke phoned Few, whose father is a pastor in Creswell, to say he wouldn't be coming either. Ridnour was actually sitting in the coach's van at the very moment that Jackson called.

"Eerie, all our connections," says Jackson, who first met Ridnour at -- you guessed it -- a Gonzaga summer camp. "It seems Luke and I have always been sort of bonded. We roomed together at the Global Games in Dallas before our freshman year. We've lived together every year in Eugene. We've always had a great feel for what the other is thinking -- on and off the court. We have similar personalities, low-key, don't go out and party, share the same religion [Presbyterian]."

Ridnour turned down Playboy's All-America team "because of my faith and respect for my family." Jackson says he would have done the same thing had he been chosen: "I'd have a pretty hard time explaining to my mom why I was in there. If you seek that kind of attention, you're playing for the wrong reasons. The strongest thing Luke and I share is a love for the game, an understanding and respect for basketball -- pure basketball."

"I can't remember a cross word between us," Ridnour says. "No fights. No quarrels. Hardly any disagreements." (Well, except for when they play dueling CDs. Rid's a Tom Petty fan; LJ prefers Tim McGraw.) Adds Jackson: "I've always felt if I ever had a problem, I could share it with Luke."

In fact, there were problems during their bumpy first season in Eugene, when selfishness split the team apart and resulted in a 1414 record. But the Lukes kept the faith. Ridnour won the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year award; Jackson pulled off Oregon's first triple-double in 28 years on his way to all-rookie honors.

It was immediately after the season that the two took control of their own destiny. They decided to spend the summer in Eugene, gather the team together, lift weights, drill individually and scrimmage forever -- even sneaking into creaky McArthur Court by jimmying the locks late at night. "They took ownership of this team right then," Kent says. "They formed a blueprint of what it takes to be successful at this level. For a coach, wow, that was the ultimate."

Spurred on by the gospel according to Lukes, Oregon won 26 games last season and its first outright Pac-10 championship since the "Tall Firs" captured the inaugural NCAA crown in 1939. Jackson, who loves to run when he's not heaving threes, averaged 16.7 points and 5.4 rebounds. Ridnour, a passing wizard whose calm temperament belies his hunger for center stage, averaged 15.5 points and five assists. Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, whose team fell to Oregon in the second round of the Dance, compared Rid's direction of the Ducks to "Leonard Bernstein conducting a symphony."

All that did was raise the stakes for this season, even without Jones and his 18.6 ppg. The Ducks entered their Dec. 17 matchup with Cincinnati as the No. 5 team in the land, having avenged their Tourney loss to Kansas earlier in the month. But they were mauled by the Bearcats -- with Ridnour and Jackson shooting a combined 7-of-23 from the field -- and then lost three of their next seven, including those blowouts at Cal and Stanford. Though scoring 86.3 points a game (fourth in the nation), they've shown a bothersome tendency to bow down on defense and a shocking lack of quack on the boards. In halting Oregon's 23-game home winning streak, Arizona out-rebounded its host 50-28. (And that was without the league's other Luke -- you know, the Walton kid.)

Are the Ducks losing their religion? Or do they have too much of it? Kent, a Christian whose faith took hold when he coached at St. Mary's (Calif.) from 1991 to 1997, firmly trusts that "the inner spirit, the inner force, a faith based on Christian beliefs" dictates how his players react in a game. He says Oregon's "softheartedness" enables them to open up and care about each other. The team's No. 1 ranking in seven Pac-10 offensive categories last season is a special source of pride: "Our assists total comes from an ability to humble ourselves."

The coach takes his squad on a preseason retreat every year up in the mountains along the McKenzie River. "We put every issue imaginable on the table," Kent says, "including the misperception that you have to be a weak person to be a strong Christian." The Ducks also gather regularly for Bible study, hold a voluntary pregame chapel (nearly every player attends) and huddle up before and after each game to recite the Lord's Prayer. "This is the core foundation of our program," Kent stresses. "We think that in times of adversity, this will give our people the ability to fall back on heart and character, to have a place to regain strength."

"We talk about Christianity all the time in chapel before games," says junior post player Jay Anderson, who shares a five-bedroom house with the Lukes within close range of McArthur. "I'm Catholic, but where I'm from [Faribault, Minn.], not as many people are open about religion. It's very different here. It's changed me."

Adds Ridnour: "I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior when I was about 5. Everything I do, I give it all back to Him. He's at the head of my list."

Luke Jackson
... chances are Luke will be open.
Rid himself is near the top of most point guard lists, even as pro scouts wonder about the ramifications for someone so firmly enlisted in God's Squad. "Look, both Lukes compete like crazy and get on your butt," says Tom Newell, a former NBA assistant with the Sonics, Nets and Mavericks. "Ridnour will set a screen on a seven-footer and Jackson doesn't back away from anything. But you always wonder. Vin Baker is the son of a minister, and he's indicative of softness in the league. Jeff Van Gundy was always bothered by those prayer meetings a lot of the Knicks held before games; he thought it affected their toughness. If these guys lace 'em up and come out firing, fine. But the first time the Lukes pick up some opponent off the floor who's not bleeding or hasn't broken an arm, they're getting yanked. And then they're getting questioned."

Most scouts are more concerned about the Lukes' skinny bodies. "These are tough guys, but both look like they're out of the 1970s," says a front-office exec with an East Coast team. "They should stay in school and bulk up. Jackson's a terrific spot-up shooter but he's not that mobile, nothing off the dribble. Ridnour had a big-time summer, looked like he could be a top-10 pick, but now there's a question about his strength. He's not as big as Kirk Hinrich [Kansas] nor as good a shooter. But he's a better all-around player. He's a natural point -- he can run a team. Everybody loves his second gear."

The trouble that Bulls rookie Jay Williams has had trying to run a bad team should serve as a warning to all underclass pointmen. But the story of Mavs vet Steve Nash, whose flair for the spectacular (not to mention hair for the ages) most resembles Ridnour's, is more instructive: It took him two years as an understudy behind Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd in Phoenix and another two years running the show in Dallas before he really made an impact.

Then there's Rid's personal hero, Pete Maravich. Rob Ridnour, who used to coach at Blaine High, would bring home Pistol Pete books and tapes for his young baller. "I did a report on Pete in the second grade, with pictures, a video, the works," Luke says. "I tried to play and pass like him. Twirled my ball like him. Took my ball to school and to bed like him. Had the floppy socks like him. Grew my hair like him. Then my dad made me cut it. It wasn't until I came to Eugene that I could grow my hair back like Pete's."

Which only makes him look more like the other Luke. "It's getting old-hat, boring, the Luke-to-Luke stuff," Jackson says. "Not that we don't appreciate the attention. But c'mon, we're not the same guy. We have different personalities. He's the one the fans on the road yell at: 'Frodo! Frodo!' I don't think anyone knows I'm the one with the braces."

After Arizona State lost to Oregon on Jan. 4, Sun Devils coach Rob Evans told reporters that "Jackson took over the game." Asked if he was confusing his Lukes -- after all, the pair had combined for 42 points -- Evans said: "They all look alike, but I know them."

So does the rest of the Pac-10. But that hasn't helped anybody stop them for long. If the luck of the Lukes holds, these Ducks won't be heading south any time soon.

This article appears in the February 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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