A half-century hasn't dulled Jim Harney's first impression of Tom Workman.
“The first time I saw him,” said Harney, then coaching Seattle Prep against rival Blanchet, “he was dribbling the ball in during warmups, and he picked it up like a grape with one hand and dunked it.
“I thought, ‘Uh-oh.’ ”
Workman, an irrepressible force who scored 1,497 points and grabbed 657 rebounds in three varsity seasons, would have a similar effect on opposing coaches during his time at Seattle University, which will retire his No. 32 jersey at halftime tonight during the Redhawks’ game with the University of Portland.
Perhaps Harney’s portrait of the young Workman as an emerging giant has inflated with time. Back then, Workman was a spindly sophomore who had started the season on the Blanchet junior varsity.
‘I was the last player on the team as a freshman at Blanchet,” said Workman, now 66 and living in Portland, where he owns the Happy Landing Tavern.
By the time he arrived at the Jesuit university on First Hill, the Chieftains had established their big-time basketball bona fides. It was 1963, five years after Harney played guard alongside Elgin Baylor on a Seattle U team that reached the NCAA championship game.
And when the St. Louis Hawks took Workman at No. 8 overall in the 1967 NBA draft, he became the Chieftains’ third first-round pick in a decade.
Along the way, he did his best to honor his name. He worked and worked until he had fashioned himself into a 6-foot-7 scoring machine worthy of a place in the Seattle U pantheon alongside Baylor, Johnny O’Brien, Eddie Miles and John Tresvant.
Workman forged his game in the crucible of the little campus gym at Seattle U, where Chieftains past, present and future tore into each other on weekend mornings.
“Ernie Dunston and Miles and those guys all got me into the game,” Workman said. “They knew I’d pass the ball. They taught me how to rebound. My sophomore year I’d show up 9 or 9:30 every Saturday morning to get into a game. That’s where Baylor busted my nose one time. He banged me a few times.”
For Workman, it was a beating worth taking.
“I always wanted to play with people who were better than me,” Workman said. “I never ran into anybody I thought I couldn’t beat one on one.”
He grew up in Seattle’s north end, went to St. John’s grade school and attended mass each morning. His father, Ed, worked six days a week as a chef at Crawford’s Sea Grill. His mother, Ruth, infused him with a simple, Depression-era work ethic: Whatever you do, do your absolute best.
He took that ethos to Blanchet, where he teamed with future Chieftains Mike Acres and Jim Miller to go 27-0 and win a state title in 1963.
“Tom was a great player, a tremendous competitor and a great teammate,” Acres said. “I can’t remember him having a bad game. ... He was just a great scorer, so good that it didn’t look like anyone was checking him.”
At Seattle, the Blanchet trio kept winning, joining Malkin Strong, Elsie Johnson and Plummer Lott on an unbeaten freshman team.
Workman led the way.
“He was probably one of the most difficult men to defend that I had ever defended,” said Strong, who came to Seattle from Los Angeles with a reputation as a defensive specialist. “Tom was a handful, and I was glad he was on the same side.”
And the big man had soft hands.
“Once I threw him a behind-the-back pass from the top of the key and it’s about a foot and a half behind him,” said Steve Looney, who was a year behind Workman and Co. at Seattle. “He reaches back with one hand and catches it and dunks it. In the huddle (coach) Lionel Purcell says, ‘You almost threw that one one time too many.’ I said, ‘No. I knew who I was throwing it to.’ ”
The pinnacle of his Seattle experience came March 5, 1966.
Workman, who averaged 19.7 points and 8.4 rebounds over three seasons, scored 23 points and hit the winning basket in a 74-72 victory over previously unbeaten and eventual national champion Texas Western at a rollicking Seattle Coliseum.
Workman left an impression on the Miners, who would carve out a niche in history as the first team with five black starters to win the NCAA crown and then get immortalized in the 2006 film “Glory Road.” David “Big Daddy D” Lattin, the 6-6, 225-pound manchild who played center for Texas Western and was drafted two spots after Workman in the 1967 draft, recalled his battles with the Seattle U star.
“He was very strong and hard to play against,” Lattin said. “ ... He was very tough. I would loved to have had him on my team.”
Halfway through his first NBA season, Workman tore up a knee in a collision with fellow rookie Pat Riley. He struggled along on a bum leg for three more years.
“The career,” Workman said, “left a lot to be desired.”
He can’t say the same of his time at Seattle U, where he’ll join five others (Baylor, Eddie O’Brien, Johnny O’Brien, Miles and Clint Richardson) in having his number retired.
“It doesn’t happen to a lot of people,” Workman said. “I feel extremely grateful for the honor. The only thing missing is my mother. She passed away four years ago. Mom was always a big part of my basketball career. She would’ve be en pleased.”