2016-'17 Season Coverage
updated: 9/9/2017 6:15 PM

Grant mourns the loss of basketball legend Oler

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  • Grant High School basketball legend Lee Oler, shown here while coaching Wauconda's girls team in 2004, has passed away. A celebration of his life will be from 5-8 p.m. Thursday at McHenry Country Club.

      Grant High School basketball legend Lee Oler, shown here while coaching Wauconda's girls team in 2004, has passed away. A celebration of his life will be from 5-8 p.m. Thursday at McHenry Country Club.
    John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 

The booth in the Fox Lake Dunkin' Donuts is empty. Lee Oler no longer sits in his same ol' spot, anyway. Neither does Fritz Kazlausky.

"I texted Lee (recently)," Kazlausky said. "I said, 'It's not the same anymore.' "

For the last few years, if you wanted to catch up with a couple of local sports legends, all you had to do was show up at the Dunkin' on the corner of Rte. 12 and Grand Ave. every day at 9 a.m.

"Nine o'clock sharp," Kazlausky said. "We had our own seats saved. We would just talk about sports ... and (laughing) look at the girls coming in."

But then last spring, Oler, a big man and the biggest name in the history of Grant Community High School basketball, had the cancer that he kicked a couple of years ago revisit him. As summer rolled around, his immune system became increasingly fragile, keeping him inside and away from his favorite coffee spot and conversation with his old friend (and former coach) Kazlausky as well as anyone else who would pop in for a coffee, doughnut or bagel.

Kazlausky went to Dunkin' Donuts on Friday, got his coffee, and drove home.

More than just a doughnut shop feels empty. Just 68 years young, Lee Oler lost his fight with cancer last weekend.

"He's an icon of Grant roundball," Tom Maple said.

Who would know better than "Mapes?"

Maple arrived at Grant in the fall of 1968, the same year Oler graduated from the Fox Lake high schoolt as the all-time leading basketball scorer in Lake County history with 1,798 points. A three-time all-conference player, Oler was named all-county in 1967 and 1968, and all-state in 1968. He led Grant to district and regional titles and a sectional berth his senior year.

"The first thing I heard coming through the door was about the basketball season before and Lee Oler, and about him not having his best game and going straight home and shooting baskets on a snowy night in his driveway," said Maple, who served as Grant's head boys basketball coach from 1975-2000.

"These things," Maple added, "people know."

Kazlausky is among those who know the story about Oler, who was 6 feet 5 and skinny with a deft shooting touch in high school.

"If he had a bad game, under 20 (points), he'd be out in his yard at night after the game shooting," Kazlausky said. "Below zero (temperature), freezing."

Kazlausky, who started teaching at Grant in the fall of 1962 and later served as head coach of the baseball team for 27 years, boasts he's the answer to a trivia question: Who is the only person who coached Oler all four of his years in high school? Kazlausky was the freshman boys basketball coach Oler's freshman year. Both got moved up to varsity the following winter. Kazlausky saw Oler thrive under head coach John Schad, who Maple credits with bringing the shuffle offense to Lake Count.

Maple ran the same offense his entire coaching career.

"Here he averages almost 30 points in a continuity offense from the center position," Maple said of Oler. "I'm still in awe."

Oler once scored 54 points in a game and grabbed 34 rebounds in another. And if the 3-point shot existed then, Oler's point totals would have been even more impressive.

"When Schad ran that shuffle, so many of Lee's shots were right at the top of the key," Kazlausky said. "He hit that continually."

When Oler continued his basketball career at the University of Wisconsin, Kazlausky would road-trip to Madison with Oler's parents to watch games. Maple would do the same.

"All during that time he would always find his way to the Grant gym," Maple said. "During my 25-year run he was in my gym all summer, helping the kids, running the court with them. Wow, talk about a guy that came in and helped me."

At UW, Oler was named all-academic in the Big Ten Conference in 1972, and at the end of his collegiate career, the big guard/small forward ranked in the top 25 scorers in Badgers history. He played professionally in Mexico and eventually became a teacher at Wauconda High School, where he coached basketball and more recently served as the head golf coach.

He was also a volunteer assistant coach for Grant's boys basketball team. All the while, Oler maintained a physical presence and competitive edge.

"You didn't want to be playing H-O-R-S-E or 21 or anything else with him," Maple said.

Maple loved seeing Oler, the Grant grad, come full circle, back in the gym at Grant as an assistant coach.

"He totally loved it," Maple said.

Who didn't love Lee Oler?

"He was a really well-respected guy," Kazlausky said. "I never heard anything negative about him at all."

"I'm bubbling when I talk about him," Maple said. "He was the ultimate gentle giant."

Oler, a member of the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association hall of fame, is survived by his wife, Lisa, and sons Lee and Curtis. A celebration of his life will be from 5-8 p.m. Thursday at McHenry Country Club.

"Fifty years after he graduated from high school," Maple said, "if you're at coffee or something and somebody says 'Grant Basketball,' nine out of 10 will blurt, 'Lee Oler.' "

That's a slam dunk-in'.

jaguilar@dailyherald.com

• Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeAguilar64

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