Ronnie Lester

Point Guard, 1977-1980

March 20, 2017

Written by Mitch Smith

How good of a basketball player was Ronnie Lester?

So good Magic Johnson said he was one of the best college players he ever played against.

So good Lute Olson called him the best point guard he ever coached.

Lester was so prolific on the hardwood that Iowa retired his #12 jersey — while he was still playing at Iowa.

The former point guard from 1977-1980 is widely considered to be the best all-around player in program history. By the time his Hawkeye playing career was over, Lester had led Iowa to a regular season conference title and a Final Four appearance, and held the school record for career points and assists (he now ranks seventh in scoring and sixth in assists).

After a six-year NBA playing career and another 20-plus years working in the Los Angeles Lakers front office, the former Hawkeye is now taking it easy in The Sunshine State, but still has hopes of getting involved in professional basketball again.

Lester, 58, has been living in Florida for the past five years. His last stint in professional basketball was in 2015, serving as a scout for the Phoenix Suns. Previously, Lester had spent more than two decades in the Los Angeles Lakers organization, working his way up from scout to Assistant General Manager until his contract wasn’t renewed in 2011. Over the course of his NBA career, he has been a part of seven NBA championships — one as a player, three as a scout, and three as an assistant GM.

Although a few years have passed since his last NBA gig, Lester has a desire to return to the game. He noted there’s a tendency to be “forgotten about” when you’re no longer working in the NBA, but he still feels he can bring value to an NBA organization.

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“I’ve worked a long time in the NBA. I like working and I’d like to find a position that is right for me,” he said. “I have a lot of experience scouting and evaluating talent, and running a team on a day-to-day basis. That experience would add value to someone’s team.”

While he waits to see if an NBA team comes calling, the former Hawkeye spends his time staying in shape. He works out three or four days per week, exercising for two and a half to three hours. Lester said he travels from time to time, visiting family in Chicago or returning to Iowa City to watch the Hawkeyes.

Lester played his high school ball in Chicago, where he was an All-City Player for Dunbar High School. After taking visits to six different colleges, he elected to attend Iowa.

The point guard played right away as a freshman, appearing in 27 games and averaging 13.4 points per game. He continued to average double digit points as a sophomore and junior, earning first team All-Big Ten honors in both seasons and leading Iowa to a share of the Big Ten title in 1979.

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Lester guided the Hawkeyes to a Final Four appearance in the 1980 campaign despite missing 15 games because of a knee injury. Iowa faced Louisville in the Final Four contest, and the Iowa point guard scored 10 of the Hawkeyes first 12 points, but reinjured his knee 12 minutes into the game. Iowa would go on to lose the game by eight points.

While many believe Iowa could have won a national title if Lester stayed healthy, the former Hawkeye doesn’t wish to look back and think about what could have been — he prefers to think back about the team effort that led to Iowa’s success on the basketball court.

“I just wanted to be the best player I could be,” he said. “I wanted to work hard, get the most out of myself, and do my part to help the team win. The Big Ten was one of the best conferences at that time, and while we may not have always been the most talented team on the floor, we won games because it’s a team game. That’s what I’m most proud of — winning a Big Ten championship, going to the NCAA Tournament and going to the Final Four. That took a team effort.”

Lester went on to play six years in the NBA, averaging 7.3 points in 250 career games. But the knee problems followed him to the pros, and he never regained the spring in his step he had during his glory days at Iowa.

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The former Hawkeye knows he may not get another shot to work in an NBA front office, and he’s OK with that.

“I’m content with what I’ve done and where I’m at in my life,” he said.

Occasionally he’ll look back through old scrapbooks Iowa fans gave him after he was done playing for the Black and Gold.

One Saturday, Lester said he spent hours flipping through the scrapbooks — reliving past games, thinking about former teammates, and reflecting back to the time when he was dazzling Hawkeye fans and maddening Big Ten opponents with his incredible skills.

“Those are some of my most treasured possessions,” Lester said about the scrapbooks. “Looking back at the stories about you and your teammates means more to me than anything. Iowa is such a special place because of the fan support. It’s fans and people like that who get behind the student athletes that make it so worthwhile. I can’t tell you how good that makes you feel when fans are supporting you through thick and thin.”

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