Sept. 17, 2009
By Michael Walsh
Pullman is a long way from Lubbock, Texas, 1,213 miles to be exact. Pullman was also the perfect destination for a floppy-haired, scrawny, basketball-playing farm boy from the West Texas town.
Craig Ehlo found his way to Washington State University in 1981 by way of Odessa Junior College. Before his honorable mention All-America selection as a sophomore at Odessa, WSU head coach George Raveling knew about Ehlo.
"George Raveling had recruited junior college players before, and the conference I was in, he had a good friend that was a coach at one of the schools," said Ehlo. "The guy told George I could play and just on his word alone he started recruiting me."
Despite leading the Wranglers to a 26-9 record as a freshman, many NCAA Division I schools were skeptical of the wiry 6-foot-6, 180-pound guard. Ehlo was never a player to fill up the stat sheet, but Raveling liked the way he played, and Ehlo liked what Raveling and WSU had to offer.
"I was only getting recruited by Southwest Conference schools and some other smaller schools in Texas, so the Pac-10 just enamored me," Ehlo said.
The competition level on the court at WSU was not the only selling point Pullman had to offer for a country boy from the South Plains. Ehlo, who continues to make Spokane his home, said there are countless parallels between his hometown and the Inland Northwest.
"They're pretty similar in the fact that they're rural areas," said Ehlo. "Lubbock is a farming community also that produces cotton, so farming was around. The surroundings and everything like that, I was pretty comfortable with, and the people in Pullman I was even more comfortable with having been in that situation at home."
That is not to say Midland, Texas and the Palouse are identical. It did not take long for Ehlo to realize that either.
"As far as geographies and scenery, it was pretty much the same, other than Lubbock is flat as a pancake," Ehlo said. "When I flew in for my recruiting trip, I flew into Lewiston and came up the big grade and I thought I was in the Grand Canyon."
When he finally made it to Pullman, the surprises did not stop coming.
"I came for the UCLA game," Ehlo said, "it was early March and I'd never seen that much snow."
The inclement weather did not keep him from the Cougars matchup with the No. 13 Bruins. The fiery atmosphere inside Beasley Coliseum was enough to make Ehlo forget about the wintry conditions.
"There were 12,000 rabid fans in Beasley, and I'd never seen that many people," Ehlo said. "I was totally taken when I went to the game and was able to watch Pac-10 basketball."
By the next season, Ehlo was playing in front of the Beasley crowd. He played in all 30 games in his first year at WSU, becoming a starter by season's end. The Cougars did not have a stellar season, but a 10-8 conference record and fifth-place finish was a stark improvement on a 3-15 mark the year before. An early-season win against No. 16 UCLA offered a glimpse at the success Ehlo and his teammates would encounter the following year.
The big time basketball stage did little to change the man inside of Ehlo. He spent the summer between his junior and senior season driving a wheat truck on a local farm.
When it was time to get back on the basketball court, Ehlo was all business. He started 28 of 30 games in his senior season, and became more of an offensive contributor, though maybe not by choice. When leading scorer Guy Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury midway through the season, Ehlo filled the void.
Ehlo averaged 12 points per game that season, but more than scoring he made plays. He also finished the season averaging 4.5 assists per game. His ability to win games was never more apparent than March 7, 1983 when the Cougars downed No. 6 UCLA. Ehlo finished the game with just six points, but dished out seven assists while being the on-floor leader for the Cougars.
"Growing up I watched UCLA win all those championships," Ehlo said. "The one thing I wanted to do when I came to Washington State was to beat UCLA. I played them four times, and we beat them twice."
Ehlo accomplished more than that. The 1982-83 team finished the regular season 22-6 with a 14-4 Pac-10 record, just one game behind the conference-champion Bruins. The team gave Cougar fans plenty to cheer about with a perfect 14-0 record at Friel Court.
After the regular season, the Cougar faithful were rooting Ehlo and company onto the NCAA Tournament, Raveling's second appearance as WSU's head coach. The Cougars drew Weber State in the first round. Ehlo poured in 18 points to give WSU its first postseason win since 1941.
In the second round, Ehlo and WSU met Virginia and 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson. The Cougars never backed down to the fourth-ranked Cavaliers, but Ehlo's 12 points were not enough to overcome Sampson's 15 point, 12 rebound performance. Little did Ehlo know, it was far from the last time he and Sampson would share the floor.
Ehlo, one of four WSU players taken in the 1983 draft, was selected in the third round by the Houston Rockets. Earlier, the Rockets made Sampson the first overall pick.
Teaming with the next season's No. 1 overall pick, Hakeem Olajuwon, Sampson and Ehlo made it to the playoffs in 1985, and met the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Finals. After the 1986 season, Ehlo signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he made his mark on the NBA.
The Cavaliers made the playoffs in five of Ehlo's seven seasons in Cleveland, including three seasons with more than 50 wins and one trip to the conference finals.
Ehlo rounded out his 14-year NBA career with a three-year stop in Atlanta and a homecoming of sorts playing his final season in Seattle. Ehlo finished with career averages of 8.6 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists. He posted career-highs in all categories in the 1989-90 season as a Cavalier when he averaged 13.6 points per game in 81 games.
No matter the level of success he achieved after college, Ehlo has not lost sight of the people and places that got him where he is.
"It's hard to put in words," Ehlo said about his induction into the WSU Athletics Hall of Fame. "Not having been a real statistical player at Washington State, I just happened to be on a great team with a good coach and great teammates. Most of the time stats are the greatest criteria for a hall of fame, so that's what makes this an overwhelming feeling."
Ehlo said reaching the top echelon of basketball in going to the NBA Finals has long been the greatest accomplishment in his athletic career. Now, he said, that story may change.
"To be inducted into a Hall of Fame, to be remembered for what I did at Washington State," Ehlo said, "that is going to be right at the top."