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Obituary: John Rambo Leaves Long Legacy

His accolades were longer than a Langston Hughes poem.

If there was a competitive sporting event in Long Beach in the 1960’s, chances are John Rambo was the star.

Rambo, who attended Long Beach Poly, Long Beach City College, and Long Beach State, had a passion for basketball and high jumping was a hobby. 

That hobby made him a two-time NCAA champion and the bronze medalist in the high jump at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Rambo passed away at the age of 78 last weekend.

“He was a Long Beach guy through and through,” said legendary track and field coach Ron Allice. “I would kid and say John practiced more on photo op day than when he was working out.”

According to a recent Long Beach Post feature, Rambo wrote three goals in his Franklin Middle School yearbook: 

Graduate from college, play professional basketball, and make an Olympic Team.

He would accomplish all three.

After a prep career with the Jackrabbits including leading the team to the 1962 state basketball championship where they fell to Compton, he attended Utah State on a track and field scholarship.

He transferred back to Long Beach City College after one year where he was on the school’s first state track and field championship and was inducted into their  Hall of Champions in 2002.

He was the first junior college athlete ever to clear 7-feet in the high jump.

According to Allice, the elite high jumpers during the 60’s were all “straddle jumpers” in that they jumped stomach first. Rambo had the No.2 mark in the world in 1964 and was second on the all-time U.S. list and fifth on the world list.

Allice said he knew how to intimidate his opponents.

“He knew when to warm up in Tokyo and some say he raised the bar at world record levels like he was practicing,” Allice said.

In a 2009 Daily News story, Rambo said the fans helped him clear 7-1, which gave him the bronze medal.

“Never forget the tremendous feeling I felt being in that Olympic Stadium and hearing 80,000 people cheer for me when I made it over the bar,” Rambo said in an interview with Doug Krikorian. “What a feeling!”

Rambo wasn’t the only track Jackrabbit at the Tokyo Games as Martha Watson made the team after finishing second in the long jump… just months after graduating from Poly.

At Long Beach State, Rambo led the basketball team in scoring in 1965 (20.3 points per game) and ended his career top 10 in scoring and rebounding.

“His life was basketball,” Allice said. “It’s a great game for footwork and it lends itself to jumping. There is a direct correlation.”

He was inducted into the Long Beach State Hall of Fame in 1986.

Rambo was selected in the sixth round by the St. Louis Hawks in the 1965 NBA Draft, becoming the first NBA-drafted player in Long Beach history.

While his career only lasted one year, Rambo returned to Long Beach where he remained active in the community with well-loved  basketball and track and field camps for kids, and as an influential youth coach.

Chuckie Miller, who played football at Poly and UCLA before being drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, called Rambo a “real life HERO” for the youth in the city of Long Beach in a Facebook post.

“I can’t tell you how MUCH this man Coach John Rambo meant to the youth in the city of Long Beach growing up in the 70’s & 80’s. He was our real life HERO that we could touch, he gave us his all. He was so dedicated to our success and happiness I really can’t say enough but Rest In Peace coach you done well.”

Former Press-Telegram sports editor John Dixon called Rambo “the best basketball/track athlete to come out of the city” according to a 2019 Long Beach Post story.

 Rambo’s children have created a GoFundMe to help pay for his memorial–click here to donate.


Julian A. Lopez
Julian A. Lopez has been covering sports for five years. A Long Beach native, he graduated from Arizona State in 2016 with a BA in Journalism and spent the last three years as the sports reporter for the Modesto Bee.