At the height of his athletic prowess — as a three-sport star at Foothill High School, as a college basketball player at Oregon State, and as a 10-year veteran in the National Basketball Association, which brought him a world championship and a starting spot in the NBA All-Star game — Lonnie Shelton could have very well been the best to ever come out of Bakersfield.
Sadly, one of Kern County’s all-time greats died Sunday night in Los Angeles. He was 62.
“A gentle guy,” said Ned Permenter, who coached Shelton in football at Foothill in the early 1970s. “I coached college ball and then 40 years of high school ball. He was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best all-around high school athlete I had ever seen.”
Shelton was hospitalized in Bakersfield on May 5 after suffering a minor heart attack, according to his son L.J. That started a chain reaction in his body and Lonnie fell into a coma, L.J. said.
Lonnie was transferred to Kindred Family Hospital in Los Angeles last month, L.J. said, but didn’t regain consciousness.
“He was incapacitated the past two months trying to heal up his body,” L.J. said. “He couldn’t get it done.”
Those who knew Lonnie Shelton described him as a quality person with a good heart and a humble disposition. He was also a man-among-boys on the field of play.
Born in Bakersfield on Oct. 19, 1955, Shelton attended South High School before moving to Foothill as a sophomore in 1970 after Highland opened and new school boundaries were drawn. Shelton would go on to become an All-American in football (defensive end and running back, before moving to tight end) and track and field (discus). In basketball — which would become Shelton's best sport — he was an all-state selection.
He graduated from Foothill in 1973.
Standing well over 6-feet tall with room to grow, Shelton received Division I scholarship offers in all three sports. He elected to attend Oregon State for men’s basketball, where he went on to excel with the Beavers.
“He could run, jump, move. He was just unbelievable. And I think that points to the fact they were recruiting him for football, were recruiting him for track also,” said Jimmy Anderson, the assistant basketball coach who brought Shelton to Oregon State. “I’ll also tell you, he was a very, very nice person.”
Shelton was an All-Pac 8 player and led Oregon State in scoring and rebounding two straight seasons.
In 1976, he was selected by the New York Knicks in the second round of the NBA Draft.
“He could have done any one of the three sports and been on a major-professional level,” Permenter said. “He picked basketball.”
After two years in New York, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Shelton went to the Seattle Supersonics where he helped lead the team to an NBA championship in 1979.
That offseason, Permenter met Shelton for dinner in Seattle. The restaurant table was roped off that night from autograph-seeking fans.
“He was like Frank Sinatra around the town,” Permenter recalled.
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.
In 10 seasons of professional basketball, the forward/center averaged 12 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, more than 1 steal and nearly 1 block per game.
“When he was done, he came back to Bakersfield. Like he always wanted to,” L.J. said.
Shelton was often seen at events benefitting Foothill and the school’s hall of fame.
“He would sign autographs, talk to young people. Really good about that,” Permenter said. “Such a friendly person to everyone. Well liked, well received.”
Shelton had five sons, all of whom had varying degrees of success athletically. Some of that success came at the highest levels.
L.J. played professional football for 10 seasons as an offensive lineman for the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers.
Marlon Shelton took to the college basketball court for the University of Washington in 1998-2003.
Two other boys, Tim and Titus, played college basketball for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Tim later played at San Diego State as well, and is now an assistant men’s basketball coach at Fresno State.
And Dion played football at Golden Valley High School, although he didn’t pursue athletics afterward.
Paula Shelton, Lonnie’s first wife (the two met in second grade and began dating at Foothill), said simple genetics and a strong emphasis on education were primary factors in the sons' acceleration.
“More than just the professional accolades, this was a serious loss in this family,” Paula said Monday evening. “We’re very proud of his accomplishments. Very proud. But he’s terribly missed.”