Petur Gudmundsson was a Trail Blazer, both literally and figuratively. Taken by Portland in the third round of the 1981 draft, Gudmundsson was arguably the first true international player in the NBA. While little more than a footnote in the NBA record books, Gudmundsson’s role as an NBA pioneer cannot be overlooked when considering the 113 international players on NBA rosters this year, and the hundreds more who have carved out careers over the last two decades.

Unlike foreign-born players who predated him, like Swen Nater, Ken Charles and Tom “The Mad Russian” Meschery who learned the game after moving to the states as small children, the towering 7’2” Gudmundsson picked up the sport in his native Iceland, and did not come to the U.S. until he was in high school.

Now a hearing aid specialist living in Washington, Gudmundsson says if it weren’t for basketball, he probably would have become “the tallest construction worker in Iceland.”

PopGates recently caught up with Gudmundsson, who after leaving the University of Washington early, was a surprise pick in the 1981 draft. Gudmundsson spent four seasons in the league: one with the Blazers, another with ‘Showtime’ and two with the Spurs.

Noah Perkins: You came into the league with the Trail Blazers at a very interesting point for the franchise: a few years removed from a championship; a few years removed from the Bill Walton drama. What was your experience in Portland like?

Petur Gudmundsson: To get an opportunity, it was not something that I expected. At the time, very few people would leave college and go to the pros early. When I left college early, I thought the dream or even the option to go to the NBA was over. I had pretty much given up. I didn’t have a good junior year in college, I let the school work slide and got myself into trouble that way. So I decided to leave. When I left I went overseas, actually played in Argentina for a season.

Like I said I didn’t expect to get an opportunity anywhere. Well I did get an opportunity and the reason I did get an opportunity with Portland was that I contacted them.

Jack Ramsay thought he saw some potential and he gave me an opportunity. The city was great. They were a couple years removed from a championship; they were still selling out every game. I didn’t get a feel for any issues between the fans and the players. Obviously they would have loved to have the redhead there still and Maurice [Lucas]. But that didn’t happen. We had an okay team – it was Mychal Thompson and Jimmy Paxson. We had Billy Ray Bates. We had a fairly entertaining team. To me the greatest experience was the support we got. It was the only game in town.

Unfortunately, I did have some injuries right off the bat and never really played 100 percent, which was kind of disappointing. But that’s just the way the game goes. It was a very positive experience for me.

What sticks out about playing for Jack Ramsay?

He was a great guy. He gave me every opportunity to play. I got an opportunity to start near the end of the season. He was very smart, very intense – very intense. That was probably the biggest challenge for me. I looked at him as almost too intense. I’m very laid back, so personality-wise it was hard for me to figure him out. I may have figured it out years later – all the things he tried to do for me that I didn’t appreciate at the time.

Jack was a great coach. Some of the things he did were way ahead of his time as far as physical fitness and the things he had players do to prepare for games.

How would you compare playing for Jack Ramsay to playing for Pat Riley?

The systems were so different. Obviously the talent level was a little better – not to knock the Blazers at all, but the Lakers at the time were ‘Showtime.’

When I came in, in the spring of ‘86, their system suited me perfectly. I’m not going to say that I was Kareem’s equal, but I stepped in and backed up Kareem easily. Their style of play suited me perfectly – up-tempo, get the board and kick it out. I didn’t have to run the floor. We had four guys who ran the floor. On offense, when things broke down, you just had to know how to play basketball. I knew how to play the game. That was huge, because that happened a lot with that team.

I fit in better with the Lakers’ system.

The Blazers’ system was more guard-oriented, I never really felt like I got an opportunity to do what I could do. With the Lakers, I got an opportunity to play my game. I was more confident when I came to the Lakers than I was with the Blazers.

As far as playing for those two coaches, I loved playing for them. I learned a lot, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

You played with both Billy Ray Bates and Kermit Washington on the Blazers. In NBA lore, both guys are almost mythically tragic figures. What would you say about them on the court and off the court?

I didn’t really have an off the court relationship with either one of them. I had a lot of fun playing with Billy. To me at the time, he was an unbelievable physical talent. He struggled with any kind of structure – that just wasn’t Billy.

With the Blazers, we played a motion offense. Billy would be getting a lot of baseline screens. I would have the ball at the top of the key or at the foul line – being able to just throw ally-oops to Billy Ray, that to me was a blast. It was just so easy. He was one of those guys you could just throw it in the direction of the basket and he would grab it and dunk it.

I can’t really speak to his personality. He was a nice guy. He was a sharecropper’s son, he came from Mississippi. He didn’t have the preparation to deal with the fame and fortune he got into. I think later on in life he probably suffered from that.

Kermit was a solid guy – obviously a great player. He had gotten into his incident when I was in college. That’s something we never talked about. Nobody ever talked about that back in the day. He was always very nice, very helpful. He was a great guy to have around. I know with Billy Ray for example he had a great relationship. Kermit really took him under his wing and tried to help him as much as he could.

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What was the experience of playing with Magic and Kareem like?

When I was with the Lakers everybody kept saying Riley’s job was so easy because all he had to do was roll the ball on the floor and those guys could pick it up and go play.

My hardest games – my most difficult games – were the practices with the Lakers. They played hard – if you want to say dirty, sure – it was physical as all get-up.

Magic was the best leader I’ve ever been around. His personality was always smiling. That’s what people remember probably more than anything.

I always remember when we were at camp doing two-a-days: Magic would show up an hour early before each practice with Coop [Michael Cooper] and Byron [Scott]. They’d be working on shots, playing one-on-one. He’d be the first one there, the last one to leave. If anybody let up at any time during practice he would get right in your face. He would never let you relax or back down in practice. He knew that’s what it took.

Kareem was the quintessential professional. Everything was just professional about him, much more serious obviously.

Kareem is very smart. He takes his role as a black man very serious – he always has. We got a long well, but that always affected how he treated other people. He was always serious about what people thought of him. He always wanted to be more than just a ballplayer. He was a great ballplayer, but he wanted to be recognized for his mind. He let everybody know that – not in a bad way. He was not into the frivolity of autographs – that’s what Magic looked like he lived for – but Magic lived for the game too.

What they had in common was they were competitive and professional – great teammates.

Just to get a chance to play with them was awesome.

Was Larry Bird overrated?

The people that played against Larry Bird knew he was the biggest trash talker in the league. To me, there is a difference: If you back it up, it’s not really trash talk. If you are good enough to do it, you can say what you want – that’s confidence, right? There’s a matter of attitude and there’s a matter of ability. Everybody hated Larry Bird because he was so good.

I played against him; I’ve seen him play enough. To me there haven’t been many basketball players better than Larry Bird. He wasn’t as athletic as Jordan. He wasn’t as athletic as a lot of guys. He had the tools and had the brains for it. He knew how to play the game. Any team he would have played on he would have made better. He had good eyes. He was a great passer, obviously a great shooter. He was special. The best thing I can say is he was one of the special ones.

Your season with the Lakers (1985-1986) ended in the Western Conference Finals with a loss to the Rockets. What was young Hakeem Olajuwon like to compete against?

Incredible athlete. Somebody that size doing what he did, he was fun to play against. He did things we hadn’t seen from a big man at that time. He loved going on two-man plays – pick-and-rolls and such. Instead of bumping and backing off, he would almost switch. He didn’t mind picking up a guard and taking him out on the floor.

Under the basket he had moves no one had seen before.

Who wins: ‘Showtime’ Lakers or the KD and Curry Warriors?

I would love to see them [the Warriors] try to stop Kareem – I don’t see how they are going to do that. With Magic running the club he would control the tempo. What Curry does better than anybody, is he controls the tempo with the Warriors, so they get to do what they want to do. There is no way to me that Magic would have allowed that at all. He would have dominated the game as far as the tempo. He and Kareem would have dominated the game. I’m not even mentioning the other guys – Byron, Coop, Worthy – I think the Lakers would have done fine.

These guys don’t have the size. They shoot the ball incredibly well. With the rules having changed, less contact, you have to consider all that. Just looking at the matchups, I’d have to go with the Lakers.

Illustration by Daniel Rowell @danieljrowell

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Noah Perkins
Noah has had articles published by a variety of publications including The Bangor Daily News; The NENPA Bulletin; and Monthly Basketball (Japan). His column ‘Heaven is a Playground’ has been featured on ESPN Radio. Noah was also called a "thirst troll" by Tom Arnold once.