It must be nice to be wanted the way Lonnie Shelton was wanted. Everybody needed something from the big-hearted, big-talented kid from Foothill High School, it seemed. And he obliged them as best he could, even if it meant double duty.

After all, Shelton, who died Monday at the age of 62, could do just about anything he put his mind to.

As an adult, he was an imposing 6-foot-8-inches and 240 pounds, the kind of size one would expect of a 10-year National Basketball Association veteran known for his physicality, but even as a teen he was a specimen.

"He was an outstanding athlete, in any kind of sport," said former Foothill athletic director and basketball coach Buzz Caffee. "He could swim like a fish. He was unbelievable in badminton and tennis. Could you imagine playing tennis against him, with him at the net, and you're trying to lob one over his head?

"He could do anything, and all the coaches would put him up to different challenges for a milkshake."

So he drank a lot of milkshakes.

Bob Moses, a longtime running buddy of former track coach Ted Oliver, remembers some of those Shelton-sharing stories from the Foothill days. 

"When he was playing first base on the baseball team, he would run over (to the school track meet) and win the discus and the long jump before he had to run back and play first base again," Moses said. "They would kinda time it for him."

That sort of double duty continued in college. For a while, anyway.

Shelton played basketball his freshman year at Oregon State under legendary curmudgeon Ralph Miller. One day the Oregon State track and field coach asked Miller for a favor. He had only one shot putter; so did Cal, which was coming to Corvallis for a dual meet with the Beavers. Could he borrow Shelton, just barely 18, from basketball practice? Lonnie basically just needed to show up and OSU would be awarded a point in the team scoring. Miller agreed.

Shelton's heave didn't merely place first in the meet, it was the top dual-meet throw in the entire Pac-8 Conference that year. 

The following week the track coach wanted to borrow Shelton again, this time for the discus, which happened to be Shelton's specialty back at Foothill, where he'd achieved All-American track-and-field status.

No dice, Miler said, but in a more curmudgeonly way. Next you'll have him running the sprints, he said. And so ended Shelton's once-promising track career.

Miller was lucky to have him and he undoubtedly knew it. Oregon State's chief rival in those days was, of course, UCLA, coached by the legendary John Wooden. Sports historians have few reasons to second guess Wooden, who won an astounding 10 national championships in one 12-year stretch, but his failure to recruit Shelton is a good one. Wooden had already committed to a full recruiting class of blue-chip freshmen when Shelton suddenly appeared on the UCLA coach's radar. Wooden didn't have any more scholarships to spare that year, so he came up with a plan: the UCLA football program, transitioning at head coach from Pepper Rogers to Dick Vermeil, would offer Shelton a football scholarship for a year — he was a lights-out defensive end, and a great tight end too — and a basketball scholarship would be waiting for him the following year if he wanted it.

"Lonnie thought about it," Caffee said, "but it didn't seem right to him."

So instead he chose Oregon State, which had already graduated future NBA point guard Freddy Boyd of East High and still had small forward Don Smith, also of East.

"Oregon State took care of those Bakersfield kids," Caffee said. "So they kept coming — a trail of seven kids from East and Foothill from 1968 to 1978."

By the time Shelton arrived in the Pacific Northwest, Boyd had already left Corvallis to join the Philadelphia 76ers.

"Lonnie saw that and it meant a lot," Caffee said. "Here's a neighborhood kid who goes to Oregon State and is a first round draft pick. That was something for Lonnie to shoot for."

Shelton, who played with Smith his first two years at OSU, earned All-Pac 8 honors and led Oregon State in scoring and rebounding two straight seasons.

In 1975, he signed a contract, ill-advisedly it turned out, with the Spirits of St. Louis of the American Basketball Association. When the ABA folded a few months later, Shelton, who never actually donned the team's uniform, returned to Oregon State and, thanks to a judge's tentative ruling, was permitted to resume his college career. But when that ruling was reversed Shelton lost his eligibility and Oregon State was forced to forfeit the 15 games in which he'd played.

But all was not lost: The New York Knicks selected him in the second round of the 1976 NBA Draft.

Shelton came back to Bakersfield often, including the summer before he went to camp with the Knicks. He sometimes showed up at the Bakersfield College gym for pickup games, where he dazzled local players with his speed, finesse and power.

Some remember the time a nimble, smallish guard snuck up on Shelton from behind as Shelton held the ball over his head near the top of the key. The player snatched the ball and bolted away for what looked like an easy layup. But Shelton turned and with four long, lightning-bolt strides, leapt and swatted the ball away, in the process knocking the thief across the floor and into the padded wall.

Shelton played two years for the Knicks but was dispatched west as part of a compensatory package after Seattle SuperSonics center Marvin Webster signed with New York. Shelton immediately proved his worth, bolstering a Sonics defense that allowed the fewest points in the NBA over the next season. During the team's run to the NBA championship, Shelton averaged 12.9 points and 8.4 rebounds in the team's 17 postseason games.

Former Sonics teammates joked — or were they joking? — that NBA players who knew Shelton would be assigned to guard them in their next game would suddenly fall ill so they wouldn't have to play. Or they would pick up two quick fouls so their coach would be compelled to pull them out of the game. Such was Shelton's well-deserved reputation as a tough guy.

"Once Lonnie had that rebound, it was his," Caffee said. "He'd come down with those elbows out and you'd better get out of the way."

Shelton started the 1982 NBA All-Star game and was a second-team All-NBA Defensive player that season. He wrapped up his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1983-86.

His later years were difficult. Back in Bakersfield, he suffered from diabetes and came to weigh more than 400 pounds. He suffered a heart attack in May and fell into a coma from which he never emerged. He was transferred last month to Kindred Family Hospital in Los Angeles, where he died.

Paula Renee, Shelton's first wife, said funeral arrangements were still pending.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. The views expressed here are his own.

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