Mr. Clipper? Gwynn nearly played basketball

June 9th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- On June 9, 1981, a young Tony Gwynn received the phone call that every ballplayer dreams of. He'd been drafted to play baseball professionally, No. 58 overall, by the San Diego Padres -- the team just down the road from where he had played collegiately at San Diego State.

That fact was only just beginning to sink in when Gwynn got another phone call about an hour later, this one wholly unexpected. He had been drafted again -- to play professional basketball, by the San Diego Clippers in the 10th round.

Forty years after Gwynn was drafted in two sports almost simultaneously, he is widely regarded as one of the best hitters who ever lived. He notched 3,141 career hits and posted an absurd .338 batting average -- the best mark since Ted Williams. He played 20 years in the Major Leagues and was inducted to the Hall of Fame on his first try in 2007.

Gwynn was a defining figure for an era of baseball, known for his ability to hit any pitch and any pitcher. To hear Greg Maddux tell it, there were no holes in Gwynn's swing.

And yet, 40 years ago Wednesday, long before Gwynn became “Mr. Padre,” he had a decision to make.

Said Ted Leitner, longtime Padres and Aztecs radio broadcaster who covered Gwynn -- a speedy point guard with excellent floor vision -- as a basketball player:

"He made a pretty good decision."

Sure, with 40 years of hindsight it’s easy enough to declare Gwynn's choice an obvious one. But for a 22-year-old who'd grown up loving basketball before he developed that same love for baseball, the NBA was at least a path worth considering.

And Gwynn was no slouch on the basketball court. He still holds the all-time SDSU assist record (590), as well as the records for most assists in a season (221 as a junior) and most assists in a game (18 vs. UNLV on Feb. 5, 1980).

"It's amazing when you think about it, how it worked out for him, where he could play both sports and get drafted in both sports, and then clearly make the right decision,” Leitner said. “People don't think about this: If he had been 6-5, 6-6 and had the size that Magic [Johnson] and other point guards brought to the NBA during that era, if he was that tall, he would've chosen basketball.”

Gwynn, who tragically passed away seven years ago after a battle with salivary gland cancer, was not 6-foot-5. He checked in at 5-foot-11.

To hear his wife Alicia tell it, that's what made the difference for Gwynn as he contemplated his decision. He looked at the NBA and saw a league trending toward size. He realized he didn't have it.

"Basketball was his first love, and he really contemplated," said Alicia Gwynn. "And he said, 'You know what Alicia, I think I better go with baseball, because at best, I'd play two years [in the NBA] and then I wouldn't be there anymore.'"

Even if two years is all Gwynn would've had -- well, how many children who grow up loving basketball get two years in the NBA?

"I'd like to make one thing clear: We did not draft Tony Gwynn as a public relations move," Clippers GM Ted Podleski told the Associated Press at the time. "We drafted him because we think he’s good enough to make our team."

And who's to say he wouldn't have? Gwynn’s court vision is the stuff of legend at SDSU. He finished his career averaging 8.6 points per game, but the put up 11.1 per game during his junior season -- in an era with no shot clock and no 3-point line.

"He was a competitor, for sure," says Joel Kramer, Gwynn's basketball teammate at SDSU, who spent five years as a forward with the NBA's Phoenix Suns. “He was a good passer, very capable of drawing people to him and dishing it to other players. If you didn't guard him, he was able to get to the hole, as well."

The way Kramer tells it, at the time he left for the NBA in 1979, Gwynn's "basketball career was just as bright as his baseball career, maybe brighter."

That's because Gwynn, believe it or not, didn't play freshman baseball at SDSU. He was on campus on a basketball scholarship, and head coach Tim Vezie wanted to make sure that's where his focus was. It was agreed upon that Gwynn would sit out the freshman baseball season before returning as a sophomore.

Gwynn batted only .301 during his sophomore season at SDSU, his first on the baseball diamond. But he hit .423 and .416 in his junior and senior seasons, respectively. By then, it was clear his future was in baseball.

Ultimately, Gwynn signed with the Padres for a $25,000 bonus one week after the Draft, and he began his professional career at Class A Walla Walla in the Northwest League. It wasn't long before Gwynn was knocking on the door of the big leagues, and on July 19, 1982 -- a year and a month after he'd been drafted -- he made his debut, going 2-for-4 against the Phillies.

The rest is history.

But Gwynn never relinquished his love of basketball. He owned an offseason home near Indianapolis and regularly attended Pacers games. He continued following his Los Angeles Lakers. Gwynn passed that love on to his son, Tony Jr., who spent eight years in the big leagues.

"Basketball meant a lot to him," said Tony Jr., who currently serves as an analyst on the Padres' radio broadcasts. "Baseball, for him, was a job. He was very serious about it. He put a lot of time and effort into it. Basketball was like a joy. It was different. With him, watching a basketball game, it was one of the few times you got to see him just be like a normal sports fan."

And that's where Gwynn's being drafted by the Clippers makes his son's head spin a bit. Gwynn Jr. is a diehard Lakers fan who, uh, doesn't have much of a soft spot for the Clippers (who moved from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984).

"I can't imagine what that would've been like, him playing for the Clippers," Gwynn Jr. says with a laugh. "Because nobody in my family roots for the Clippers."

Let's imagine it anyway. What would a professional basketball career have looked like for the great Tony Gwynn?

"If anyone saw him play at San Diego State, he was a good point guard," Alicia Gwynn recalls. "So he really had the confidence that he could play in the NBA. But he didn't think he would play long."

Sure, there would've been question marks about his size and strength and, thus, his ability to play defense against much bigger players. But Leitner recalls some similar question marks about Gwynn's defense in the Major Leagues, which was poor at the start of his career.

"He was already a Major League hitter in college, but he was not a great defender and he didn't have a good arm," Leitner said. "And he just worked and worked and worked. … Every little detail mattered. It was that way from Game One. He worked his way into becoming a Gold Glove winner.

"If you want to extrapolate that to the NBA and how he would've worked to make up for his height, I would never bet against him having an NBA career."

The most famous Aztec-turned-Clipper, of course, is five-time All-Star and two-time NBA champ Kawhi Leonard. Leitner called Leonard's games at SDSU. There probably aren't many similarities between Leonard’s power-and-defense style and Gwynn's pass-first approach, but Leitner says the work ethic was, more or less, the same.

"There are certain guys that you know whatever they choose -- life insurance, automotives, opening their own business -- they would always succeed, because of their character, their work ethic," Leitner recalled. "Tony always had that. You take guys like that and fill in the blank at whatever they wanted to do, they would succeed.

"I always think about that -- not being 6-6, being whatever he was -- would he succeed? I think he would've. I think they forget how he would work at it and live in the gym like Kawhi did. That's all Kawhi did when I was with him and traveled with him at San Diego State. That, and the instruction at the NBA, made him what he is now. I believe Tony would've been way above what we thought he might be based on his height, because he had everything else.”

Of course, 40 years later Gwynn is revered in San Diego, synonymous with the city and its baseball team. Considering everything he accomplished, you aren’t going to find many Tony Gwynn doubters. That includes Kramer, whose tenure in the NBA after playing with Gwynn in college gives him a unique perspective.

"To play as long as he did in baseball would indicate that he was an exceptional athlete," Kramer said. "Had he focused on basketball, I'm certain he would've had a pretty successful career. I'm pretty confident he wouldn't have played 20 years and been a Hall of Famer. ... But he obviously had the work ethic and was a very talented athlete.

"I would say this: I think he picked the right sport."