Santa Clara great finds niche south of border

Dec. 26, 2001

By Jeff Faraudo Oakland Tribune

In the small Mexican river village of Mismaloya, near Puerto Vallarta, Santa Claus is not the familiar stout figure with the white beard and reindeer. And he doesn't just show up on Christmas eve, bearing packages with ribbons and bows.

In Mismaloya, he is 6-foot-9, drives an RV rather than a sleigh and during his four-month visit each year distributes refurbished bicycles, shoes, microwave ovens and virtually anything else the local folks could use.

Ken Sears, 68, left Santa Clara University 46 years ago as the Broncos' all-time leading basketball scorer, then spent eight years in the fledgling NBA, two of them as an All-Star.

He played against Bill Russell and alongside Wilt Chamberlain. He was the first basketball player pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated (Dec. 20, 1954) and recently was included among the 50 greatest student-athletes in the 50-year history of the West Coast Conference.

None of those achievements provides Sears the satisfaction he gets from looking into the eyes of a youngster receiving his first bike.

"He doesn't like to focus on himself, but he's one of the most giving people I know," said his daughter, Debi Barry, of Soquel. "In that village, he's the American grandfather that cares."

Sears and his wife of 42 years, Eunice, began trekking south of the border each winter 30 years ago while he was working for an RV sales company in his native Watsonville. For years, they'd find the same comfortable spot and park their camper near the beach.

"Winter is just wonderful here," Sears said during a telephone interview from the condo he has owned for a decade. "The people are very friendly. Down here, it's just a different atmosphere."

And the fishing's not bad, either. Gradually, Sears became almost a resident, friendly with the local fishermen and their families -- folks that often don't have all the things they need.

So Sears would hit the flea markets in the South Bay while at home, picking up old bikes that needed repair and shoes that could use new laces and polish. "Sometimes, when people found out what I was doing with them, they'd just give'em to me," Sears said.

Then each November, he would haul everything across the border and find grateful homes. Sears estimates he has delivered more than 300 bikes and perhaps 200 pairs of shoes to new owners over the years.

He also offers the free Sears maintenance program to all the village kids. "The roads are so bad," said ex-teammate and former Santa Clara coach Dick Garibaldi, "that they get a flat tire by the second day and they don't know how to fix them."

Sears' selflessness is no surprise to Garibaldi, a sophomore in 1952 when Sears was a freshman starter on the Santa Clara team that reached the NCAA Final Four.

"He'll never say how good he was," Garibaldi warned. "If you talk to him, he'll use an excuse why people thought he was good. He's just a neat, low-key guy. He wouldn't make it now, with all the B.S. flying around."

Carroll Williams, who played as a contemporary at rival San Jose State and later followed Garibaldi as the Broncos' coach, believes Sears has been overlooked among the great players to come through the Bay Area.

"He's a very quiet, unassuming guy," Williams said. "They stressed a team game in those days, and he got his points through the offense. But he was the first big guy that I can remember that could play inside or out. He could hook with either hand, was a good defender and a great passer.

"He was really a skilled guy, way ahead of his time."

Sears, not surprisingly, is somewhat more reserved in his evaluation of his career. Asked how good he was, Sears paused and offered, "That's very difficult to say."

So we'll do it: He was a three-time All-WCC selection and was named conference Player of the Year as a sophomore in 1953, when he averaged 14.2 points on a 20-7 team that shared the league title.

As a senior in 1955, Sears closed out his college career in spectacular fashion, scoring 41 points and collecting 30 rebounds in a victory over Pacific. The point total stood as a Santa Clara record for nine years, and the rebound figure remains the best in school history.

After averaging 22.3 points that season, Sears was honored as an All-America selection by Look magazine. Then he won an award for which he still has no explanation.

At a year-end WCC awards banquet, Sears was stunned to hear his name called as the league's Player of the Year. He was no more shocked than the man everyone expected to win -- University of San Francisco junior center Bill Russell.

Russell merely averaged 21.3 points and 20.5 rebounds and led the Dons to the national championship. Sears and the Broncos were 13-11.

"When they called my name, I didn't know what to say. I felt like I had to apologize," Sears recalled. "I just assumed the MVP would be him. He obviously deserved it. I just said, 'It's great to be a senior.'"

Sears first met Russell four years earlier when the future Hall of Famer was a junior at McClymonds High in Oakland. Russell approached Sears after a tournament game in Berkeley and asked, "How come you're so agile?"

Russell -- also among the players named to the WCC's half-century team -- still was very raw in those days. By the time Sears saw him again as a collegiate player, Russell had developed agility -- and a ferocious defensive presence.

"I was always a forward until my (senior) year when I played center," Sears said. "Being matched against Russell, you could hardly shoot over him. When he got to the NBA, he eliminated a lot of players from the league ... old-time players who'd just muscle in there, who couldn't jump."

Sears arrived in the NBA one year ahead of Russell, drafted by the New York Knicks. He averaged at least 12.8 points per game over his first six seasons in New York, including 21.0 to rank seventh in the NBA in 1959. A year later, he racked up 18.5 points and a career-best 13.7 rebounds per outing.

The NBA was changing about then, with bigger, faster, more physical players beginning to take charge. Sears, always rail thin, gravitated toward the perimeter, where he didn't have to exchange elbows with the big guys.

Still, he had his jaw broken in two places by a wicked shot from an opponent during the'61 season, and the next year jumped to the new American Basketball League, where he played for the San Francisco Saints.

The upstart league survived one season, and Sears was back with the Knicks. But not for long. They traded him in the midst of the 1963 season to the San Francisco Warriors, where he got the chance to play with Chamberlain.

The two combined to average 50.7 points that season, although Chamberlain accounted for 44.8 of those.

"I liked him," Sears said of the late superstar center. "To me, he's still the greatest player I've ever seen. As great as Russell was, as far as pure strength and athleticism, Chamberlain was the man."

But Wilt rarely won his many duels with Russell, whose Celtics teams were loaded with Hall of Fame talent. Sears recalled his final NBA season of 1964 when the Warriors traveled to Boston during a playoff series.

"All the papers back there said, 'Here comes Goliath,'" Sears said. "You could just see his reaction when he read the papers. He gave probably the most incredible performance I've ever seen -- 55 points and 30-something rebounds. And we lost the game."

Sears retired after that season, having averaged 13.9 points and 7.8 rebounds over his pro career. Not bad for a guy convinced the game was passing him by.

These days, basketball is hardly a part of Sears' world. He doesn't miss it.

Asked about his day recently, Sears said, "Spent the afternoon on the beach. Had a couple beers. My health is pretty good. I'm enjoying my old age.

"If only the fishing would improve."