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Doug McDermott’s Magic Carpet Ride to College Basketball Immortality: The Stuff of Legends and Legacies


NOTE: Now that Doug McDermott’s NBA life has offcially begun as the 11th round pick of the Denver Nuggets, who immediately dealt him to the player’s first choice, the Chicago Bulls, I thought it made sense to repost this feature article I wrote about the CU hoops legend.

As a longtine Creighton basketball fan part of me delighted in the magical season that Doug McDermott and his teammates enjoyed this past season but another part of me despaired because I had no outlet to write about what was happening, at least not for pay.  Then, a couple weeks after the season concluded I was presented the opportunity to write about McDermott and the incredible ride that was his senior season and the singular legacy he established over his four-year career as a Bluejay playing for his father.  The publishers of Hail Varsity magazine, which nornally covers Husker sports, arranged with CU officials to create a commemortative yearbook on the special 2013-2014 season and I was offered the assignment of writing the 120-page book’s profile of McDermott.  I jumped at the chance and that story follows below.  Read much more about McDermott and his teammates in the “Leaving a Legacy” yearbook featuring exhaustive story and photo coverage of this once in a generation player and this historic season to remember.  Order yours today at http://creighton.myshopify.com.  Also available at all Omaha area Barnes & Noble locations.

Commemorative Yearbook “Leaving a Legacy” for 2013-2014 Creighton Basketball Season from the publishers of Hail Varsity, ©cover photo by Eric Francis

 

Doug McDermott’s Magic Carpet Ride to College Basketball Immortality: The Stuff of Legends and Legacies

©By Leo Adam Biga

Read much more about McDermott and his teammates in the Creighton Men’s Basketball Commemorative Yearbook, “Leaving a Legacy,” from the publishers of Hail Varsity magazine. Order yours today at http://creighton.myshopify.com.  Also available at all Omaha area Barnes & Noble locations.

 

Reigning consensus national player of the year Doug McDermott wears his living legend status comfortably. That’s a good thing, too, as his iconic status in college hoops history will likely only grow from here.

Playing for Creighton’s mid-major program in the Missouri Valley Conference kept him off the national radar his first three years, though insiders knew he was special. With CU’s move to the Big East in 2013-2014, where the Bluejays exceeded expectations and McDermott’s dominant play made headlines, he became a marquee name. With all of college basketball’s eyes trained on him, his monster senior year and steady climb up the NCAA’s career statistical charts was documented across every media platform. Virtually every week he passed a legend on the all-time scoring list. His 26.7 scoring average led the nation. He led CU to a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance and Top 25 ranking. Interview, autograph and picture requests flooded him at home and on the road. In Omaha he was the headliner for the greatest show in town that set attendance records.

Showing a grace and poise beyond his 22 years, he took it all in stride and became a Golden Boy symbol for the best in student-athletes.

“The most impressive thing is how he’s handled everything,” says Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen. “He’s been humble, he’s been very mature, he’s been enthusiastic. He didn’t expect to be treated any differently than any of the non-scholarship players.”

Despite attaining the kind of stardom reserved for only a select few of the game’s greats, Rasmussen says “it didn’t change” McDermott. “It never affected him. You never had to worry about how he represented himself, this program, the university, the community. He would be the poster child for any university, not just any athletics department but any university for how you want your students represented. He’s the winner of the national Senior Class Award, which doesn’t just look at your athletic accomplishments but your community service and academics.”

Teammate Grant Gibbs says, “He’s a throwback in many aspects – in his game, in his personality, being a four-year player, committing to a program, seeing through the goals he set out to accomplish when he got here. That’s a great model for college basketball. It’s refreshing.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

McDermott shrugs if off, saying he’s simply tried to do the right thing. It hasn’t always been easy.

“I’ve just tried to embrace every single moment. I’ve tried not to let it get to me but I’ve had some bad days where I didn’t want to sign autographs or take pictures. But at the same time I remembered being that kid who went up to certain guys for signatures and pictures and if they weren’t cool about it it stuck with me. You get frustrated with the attention, especially if you take a loss. There’s been times when I’ve had to take a step back and calm down and realize how special this really is and this is why I came back – for stuff like this.”

Rasmussen says McDermott will be remembered as much for his high character as for his high scoring numbers.

Greg McDermott, who coached his son all four years at CU, agrees, saying, “I’m far more proud of how he handled his success off the floor than of the success he’s had on the floor because those characteristics of understanding how to treat people and the need to be humble and to credit those around you for your success are traits that will take him a long ways in life. Doug’s blessed with the ability to do that and he’s done it with a smile on his face. He understands this university and community has given a lot to him. A lot of people have done many things so he could have this opportunity and I think he recognizes the need to give back to that and I’m very proud of the way he’s done that.

“I will use him as an example for the rest of my coaching career on how to handle success.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once “discovered” last season. the press found McDermott a bright antidote to the one-and-done trend prevalent today. He’s the rare star player who put off the NBA to complete college, a decision that proved fortuitous the way his storybook final campaign unfolded.

After the 2012-2013 season he says he was 75 percent certain he’d declare for the NBA until a talk with former Jays great Kyle Korver, changed his mind. “He said you can’t put a price tag on that senior year. That stuck with me and from there on I felt it was best to come back. I’m so glad I did because this last year was probably the best this city has ever seen Creighton basketball. The fans had a chance to be part of something really special. We’ve got the new logo, the new brand. I feel like so many more people know about us now. The Big East definitely helped.”

He’s satisfied, too, he struck a blow for players finishing college.

‘Obviously some of these kids are good enough to leave after one year or two years. Maybe they need it financially. But I just feel it’s really good for college basketball to see a good player for four years. It really doesn’t get much better than that. I feel like that’s when college basketball has been at its best.”

In his case, staying meant intersecting with basketball history. The attention that came his way dwarfed anything in the annals of CU athletics and achieved the Gold Standard when Sports Illustrated put him on the cover of its March 12 issue in a homage to the classic 1977 cover featuring McDermott’s boyhood idol Larry Bird.

Calling McDermott “college basketball’s best kept secret”, SI laid out how no one, not even his dad, expected him to be an elite college player, much less the most decorated in recent memory. As one of only a handful of three-time consensus 1st Team All Americans he put up numbers few have ever posted. His 3,150 career points are the fifth-most in NCAA history. Over four years he averaged 21.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, making just under 46 percent of his 3-point tries and 83 percent of his free throws.

 

 

 

 

 

Being a multiple All-American may not happen again with so many top players leaving college early for the pros. He may be the last four-year college great. What most resonated with him about coming back was having one more go-round with his buddies, the guys who set the table for him, especially his fellow seniors, and with his father.

“Relationships are everything, especially on this team,” Doug says. “We all get along so well. Grant Gibbs I’ve known since I was a kid. He was an iowa guy two years older than me. I always looked up to him. I thought he was the coolest thing ever.”

Gibbs’ unexpected return for a medical hardship 6th year saw McDermott give up his scholarship for his teamate.

Another teammate, Jahenns Manigat, hailed from north of the border.

“I remember on signing day talking on the phone with Jahenns, a Canadian kid no one had ever heard of, and him saying, ‘I look forward to winning multiple championships with you.'”

The pair roomed together on campus for three years.

McDermott’s other senior running mate, Ethan Wragge was already at CU when Doug got there. The two competed for the same spot.

“He obviously didn’t want to see a coach’s kid come in at the same position but he never showed one ounce of frustration because of that. He’s probably the best teammate I’ve ever had.”

Wragge recalls the first time the two matched up.

“I’m a year older and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to let this little freshman score on me,’ and he starts throwing up this stuff and he hits the rim, hits the rim and the ball keeps going in. ‘Maybe he’s just getting lucky,’ I thought.’ But he kept doing it and doing it until it didn’t seem like luck.”

Manigat marvels how four distinct paths crossed to make their magical run possible.

“Four years ago this group wasn’t necessarily meant to be together. All the stars kind of aligned for us to go on this incredible journey. I was committed to another school before de-committing and coming here. Doug was supposed to go to Northern Iowa, Grant was still at Gonzaga and Ethan was a freshman here under Coach (Dana) Altman. Coach Altman leaves – domino effect. Just to see how it all came together and how one little thing could have destroyed this entire journey we’ve been on is special and something I’ll remember fondly for sure.”

McDermott enjoyed the journey so much he wanted to extend it and do it in the big-time glare of the Big East

“I wanted to do it all for Creighton. I think a goal of any player and coach is to want to make the place better than when we first got there and I think that’s what we did.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No one saw it coming. In 2010 all the meta analysis missed on McDermott. At Ames (iowa) High School he played in the long shadow of top recruit Harrison Barnes, who went on to play two years at North Carolina before heading to the NBA. Those Ames teams won back-to-back state titles with McDermott as the 6th man his junior season and as the high scoring sidekick his senior season.

“Having very little expectations, I didn’t see this coming,” McDermott says. “I didn’t come into college with a lot of hype or expectations. I just kind of came in with a chip on my shoulder. No one really knew who I was and just assumed I was on the team because I was the coach’s kid. I used that as motivation to get better”

It wasn’t as if no one recognized he had talent. He possessed good range on his jumper, an uncanny craftiness around the basket and a motor that kept him in constant motion But a rail thin frame, a lack of athleticism and the absence of any intermediate game did not project into being a major conference prospect. No one could have guessed he’d be a lock for future enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or a likely NBA lottery pick.

Grant Gibbs recalls McDermott not making much of an impression.

“Doug and I played together at a showcase event. I was a junior, he was a freshman. He was just a quiet kid, really skinny, had some skill but probably wasn’t even projected as a D-I player at that point. When I was at Gonzaga he came to our prospects camp. We spent a weekend and he had gotten a lot better. He still wasn’t at the point where Gonzaga or anybody like that was going to offer him a scholarship.”

McDermott’s emergence as a legit D-! player and then some is all tied to his development, which everyone credits to a fierce work ethic. Gibbs witnessed it but didn’t fully appreciate it in the moment.

“When you’re engulfed in it and you’re a part of it every day you take for granted everything he was able to accomplish. Day in and day out he came with that workmanship mentality and all those days added up and that’s how people become great at wherever they do.”

Greg McDermott says of his son. “He’s invested a lot in this game and the results speak for themselves.”

“It’s so satisfying,” says Doug. “I remember all those long walks from my dorm to the gym. If I couldn’t sleep I’d throw on my backpack and walk to the gym at 11 or 12. It was always a pain in the butt to get in and find balls to shoot with and having the lights shut off on you. It just puts it all in perspective – all those moments of going through the grind. I wish I could go back right now because I didn’t realize how cool it was trying to get better every single night.”

His work ethic first kicked into high gear when he played with Harrison Barnes, whom he describes as “the best worker I’ve ever been around,” adding, “Ever since playing with him it was so easy to go to the gym and get better because I saw how much it was paying off for him, so I really followed his lead once I got to Creighton.”

Rasmussen says McDermott’s a model for doing what it takes.

“There’s been a lot written about what he’s accomplished. I don’t know if there’s been enough written about why Doug has accomplished things virtually no college basketball player has. Doug was always willing to do what others were unwilling to do and he did it with enthusiasm. He’s a great example for all of us. Doug approached practice every day not with the attitude, I’ll get through practice, but I’ll use practice to find out what I need to work on to improve and then go on my own and work on it. Practice was a minimum job description.

“It wasn’t just he gave a great effort the day before big games or gave a great effort every day, he gave a great effort every drill and he was locked in and focused to get better where he was weak. You would think in athletics you would see more of that and the reality is Doug is unique in his accomplishments because he’s unique in his approach.”

Doug says, “I knew I had the drive, I really did. I’m always trying to work on my all-around game but each summer I definitely added something new I wasn’t able to do the year before. It took about a whole summer to perfect those, to have the coaches feel comfortable with me doing that stuff. A lot of credit goes to our coaching staff because they worked with me so hard every day.”

He’s perhaps fondest of his “Dirk Fadeaway,” a step back jumper, ala Dirk Nowitzki’s, refined over time.

“That’s become a pretty much signature move of mine. I did it a little bit my sophomore and junior years but this year it was almost one of my go-tos. Some of these Big East guys were a little bigger so you couldn’t really body ‘em down in the post. I had to find other ways to get my shot off against them.”

His progress grew as his confidence grew.

“I realized how good a scorer I could become on the Bahamas trip we took as a team before my sophomore year. Gregory (former CU post Echenique) wasn’t with us, he was playing with his Venezuelan team, and I scored 25 a game. That’s when I started to realize I could do this with this team. That they might need me to be a little more aggressive. And that sophomore year I averaged 22 (up from 15 as a frosh) and from there I averaged about 23 and this year 26.

His experiences with Team USA over two summers also helped him polish skills and build confidence. Last summer in Vegas he was among a select group of college kids invited to play with NBAers.

“It helped my confidence out like none other just because I played against some of the best players in the world. It felt right. I wasn’t trying to do too much or too little, I was just playing my game and I happened to fit in a lot more than I thought I would. I think I kind of turned some eyes there. That was huge coming into my senior year.”

“I just think that took him to a whole other level,” says his dad. “I think in the back of his mind he always wondered, How well will I stack up when I actually play against NBA players.”

Those opportunities also exposed Doug to more great coaching. “Being around those great minds really helps you going forward,” says McDermott, who acknowledges he draws insights from many sources.

Doug’s not one to define is legacy, so let Rasmussen articulate it.

“It’s his passion for what he does, There are people who are stronger, who are bigger, who jump higher, who run faster, but his intelligence in the game and his basketball instincts are off the charts. His skill level is very good and that isn’t something that comes naturally, that comes from repetition.”

As Doug prepares for the next chapter of his life, his father’s sure his son will once again do what he must in order to succeed.

“I think there will be a process with Doug in the NBA game of where do I fit and what do I have to add to my game so I can maximize this opportunity. Is it being better around the rim? Is it my in-between game? Do I need to become an even better 3-point shooter? He’ll figure that out early in his career and build upon what he already has.”

Doug has no doubt he’ll adapt as necessary.

“I’ve added something new to my game every year. I think it’s time to add something new again. Defensively I can maybe be a little more aggressive. I don’t have to worry about getting fouls because at Creighton I had to be on the floor as much as possible for my team. My ball-handling could use some work. A lot of it will be just fitting into a different role.”

Whatever happens with him in the NBA, his deep affection for Creighton will remain.

“Deep down I never want to leave this place. I’ve developed so much love for this place.”

But move on he must, so sit back and watch the legend grow.

 

 

 

Hoops Legend Abdul-Jabbar Talks History


 

A few years ago I got the opportunity to interview college and pro basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in advance of his giving a talk in Omaha.  He was every bit the thoughtful man he projects to be.  Before doing this short piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I vaguely knew he had turned author and amateur historian with an eye towards highlighting African American achievements but I learned that he’s done much more in this area than I ever imagined and I got the sense he’s at least as proud of his work in this arena as he is of what he did on the hardwood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hoops Legend Abdul-Jabbar Talks History

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the man who made the sky hook and goggles signature parts of hoopsiconography, headlines the May 12 B’nai B’rith Charity Sports Banquet at the Qwest Center Omaha. Now an author, he is the rare ex-sports superstar who’s applied a social conscience after balling.

The Naismith and NBA Hall of Famer was a legend before playing his first collegiate basketball game in 1967. His schoolboy dominance at Powers Memorial in New York City made him the most prized recruit since Wilt Chamberlain. He was so unstoppable at UCLA, when still known as Lew Alcindor, that dunking was outlawed after his sophomore season. He led the Bruins to three national championships.

In only his second NBA season his expansion Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 title. Omaha native Bob Boozer was the team’s 6th man. Abdul-Jabbar competed several times against the Kansas City-Omaha Kings at the Civic Auditorium.

The inscrutable big man added five more titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. Six times he earned the league’s MVP award. Upon retirement he was the NBA’s all-time points scorer and arguably the greatest player ever. He continues as a Lakers special assistant today.

Like the late tennis star Arthur Ashe, he’s transcended athletics to write and talk about black history. The two were student-athletes together for a year at UCLA. In a phone interview Abdul-Jabbar said Ashe asked for his help researching the book, A Hard Road to Glory. Each came out of the civil rights struggle and endured criticism for being aloof. Abdul-Jabbar’s conversion to Islam alienated some. He said his passion for chronicling the stories of African-American achievers can be traced to a high school program he took that cultivated an interest in writing and history and introduced him to unknown facets of his childhood neighborhood, Harlem.

“Very loud echoes of the Harlem Renaissance were still there to be heard. I was just instilled with a lot of pride when I read about what Harlem had meant to Black America. It was just totally inspiring,” he said. “It made me want to share that as a very natural extension for how I felt about what was going on in America and what I wanted to do about it.”

His 2007 book On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance describes Harlem’s legacy as “the capital of Black America and a place where a lot of things happened that made black Americans proud,” he said.

A story from those halcyon days is the subject of a documentary he’s producing, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Basketball Team You Never Heard Of. Featuring on-camera comments by such hoop and pop culture stars as Charles Barkley and Spike Lee, it profiles the New York Renaissance or Harlem Rens, America’s first all-black pro basketball team. Owner Bob Douglas, often called the Father of Black Basketball, created the team in the early 1920s when segregation still ruled sports and society-at-large. The Rens delivered a powerful message by routinely trouncing all comers, including white squads before white audiences, over the next three decades.

 

 

 

 

Abdul-Jabbar is delighted to have several connections to the Rens. A well-known New York high school hoops official who called some of his games, Dolly King, played for the Rens. Abdul-Jabbar’s legendary UCLA coach John Wooden played a 1930s exhibition against the Rens as a Purdue All-American.

For the 7’2 basketball great, the Rens represent the struggle “for equality that consumed black Americans in all phases of life.” He hopes the film, scheduled for a 2011 release, educates young people that today’s opportunities have been hard-earned and nothing good comes easily.

Meanwhile, he’s coping with a rare form of leukemia that an oral medication treats. He’s not had to curtail his activities.

In Omaha he’ll speak about the World War II all-black 761st tank battalion, the subject of his 2004 book, Brothers in Arms. Some dispute battalion veterans’ claims they helped liberate Dachau concentration camp. There’s no disputing their heroic, unheralded role in the Battle of the Bulge and in the Allies’ final push across France and Germany.

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene

June 25, 2012 1 comment

The pursuit of my Holy Grail of interviews began with this story, an installment in a lengthy series I write in the mid-2000s for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. We called the series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, and in it I tried to lay out just what it was that made possible the Golden Age of athletic excellence that saw so many outstanding athletes come out of Omaha’s small African-American community.  You’ll find virtually every installment from the series on this blog.  Eventually I’ll have it all up here.  Well, back to my frustrated pursuit of an interview for this story.  His name is Mike McGee and the legend around him began when he played for Omaha North High in the mid-1970s.  He put up really big numbers as a junior.  But no one could have predicted the crazy numbers he achieved his senior season as a do-everything wing man, when he averaged about 38 points and 15 rebounds a game in the state’s largest class competition. He was simply unstoppable.  Heavily recruited, he went to Michigan and not only that stories basketball program’s all-time leading scorer but the elite Big Ten’s career scoring leader as well.  He played with the Magic and Kareem’s Lakers, won a title, and had a decent NBA career.  By the time I wanted to talk with him for this story he had cut most ties with friends and family in Omaha and was coaching overseas.  I managed to get his number and even exchanged messages with him but we never did hook up for an interview.  He’s been in China of late.  Oh, well, maybe someday.  He’s just one of many top players from Omaha’s inner city I profile here.  The talent ran rather dry in recent years but there’s a hoops revival underway led by top recruit Akoy Agau (I profile him on the blog).  You’ll also find on this site full-blown profiles I did of two old-school hoops legends from Omaha – the late Bob Boozer and Ron Boone.  Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was a helluva basketball player in his day as well and I have a few profiles of Gibby on the site.

 

 

Mike McGee

 

 

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness,, A Brief History of Omaha’s Black, Urban, Inner-City Hoops Scene

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In what is a rite of passage in the inner city, driveways, playgrounds and gyms serve as avenues and repositories for hoop dreams that get realized just often enough to energize each new generation’s hard court aspirations.

The hold basketball’s taken over urban America in recent decades is a function both of the sport’s simplicity and expressiveness. Only a ball and a bucket are needed, after all, for players to create signature moves on the floor and in the air that separate them, their game and their persona from the pack.

Not surprisingly, the hip-hop scene grew out of streetball culture, where trash talking equals rap, where a sweet crossover dribble or slam resembles dance and where stylin’ gets you props from the crowd or your crew. Every level of organized basketball today is influenced by the urban roots of its most gifted and creative participants — African-Americans. Blacks have given the game its flavor and flash.

Omaha is no different. Whether getting schooled on cement, asphalt, gravel, dirt or wood, black players emerging from the urban core have defined Omaha’s hoops legacy. Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer set the standard. John Nared, Bill King, Fred Hare, Joe Williams and Ron Boone followed in their footsteps. From the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, a new crop of players made noise, including Dennis Forrest, John C. Johnson, Mike McGee, Lee Johnson, Daryl Stovall, Ron Kellogg, Kerry Trotter, Cedric Hunter, Michael Johnson, Maurtice Ivy and Jessica Haynes. Then, in the early to mid-90s, Andre Woolridge, Erick Strickland, Terrance Badgett, Curtis Marshall, Alvin Mitchell, Will Perkins and company made their mark. Now, it’s Creighton recruit Josh Dotzler’s turn. The floor leader for Bellevue West’s back-to-back Nebraska Class A state championship teams, Dotzler will, barring injury, do something most of his predecesors did — play Division I ball. Coming up, he heard comparisons to them. It’s always been that way. Older players carry reps. Young bloods pattern their game after them and a lucky few are labeled heir apparents.

A handful of local inner city players have made it all the way to the NBA. The most successful was Boozer, one of two natives, along with McGee, to win a ring. Only one hometowner– nine-year veteran Erick Strickland — is still active in the league (as a reserve with the Bucks). Although he didn’t grow up in the inner city, the former Bellevue West and University of Nebraska standout ventured there for pick-up games. Other Omaha inner city products have played overseas. Andre Woolridge, the ex-Benson great who left NU to star at Iowa, still does, in Israel. It’s one of many stops he’s made in a far-flung, star-crossed career.

Kellogg and Trotter did the overseas thing before him. Lee Johnson followed a big time career abroad by assuming the general manager’s job for a team in France.

 

 

 

 

Being a superstar in The Hood doesn’t always translate to organized ball. Stories abound of playground phenoms who, for one reason another, didn’t make it at the high school or college level. Some still got pro tryouts, like Taugi Glass, but their potential and dreams never quite meshed with reality.

In this sampling of the Omaha inner city hoops landscape over the last 50 years, you’ll meet some of the players who’ve helped elevate the game here and discover the roots of what made each a legend in his own time.

Until Dotzler, Andre Woolridge was among the last Omaha prepsters coveted by elite roundball programs. Closely tied to Omaha’s inner city athletic heritage and pedigree, Woolridge hooped it up at favorite North O haunts. Two of his youth coaches, Lonnie McIntosh and Ernie Boone, were good players in their day.

Perhaps the greatest shaper of Woolridge the athlete was his father, Frank Sanders, a former athlete himself who designed a busy regimen for his son. “He always had me into something,” Woolridge said. “In the summer, there was no sleeping till noon. It was get up and go take tennis lessons or go play ball.”

Woolridge dabbled in many sports, but basketball soon became his game. “I started young. In the second or third grade I wasn’t that good, and then all of a sudden it just started coming. I picked things up fast. Playing at the boys club you always had to play against older guys, bigger guys, stronger guys, and I just took off from there.” It was in the 7th or 8th grade, he said, the talk around the neighborhood began — ‘This kid is going to be good.’” He listened and dreamed.

Faced with more mature competition, he had to push himself if he wanted to hang. Some of those pushing him became his models.

“I looked up to a lot of streetball players. Guys like Taugi Glass, Melvin Chinn, Willie Brand and James ‘Snook’ Hadden. I took different things from street guys’ games and put them into mine. I wanted to jump like Taugi Glass. I wanted to handle the ball like Melvin Chinn. I wanted to have the offensive ability of Willie Brand…Streetball, you know, that’s where I come from.”

Kerry Trottter

 

 

Then there were top-notch players from a generation before him whose games he tried emulating. Dennis Forrest, a former Central High and UNO great drafted by the Denver Nuggets, worked at the boys club and would go one-on-one with Woolridge. “He would torture me every day, for years, until I got bigger and more athletic. He could shoot the ball,” Woolridge said. After John C. Johnson led Central to consecutive state titles in ‘74 and ‘75, he stamped himself an all-time Creighton great. After failing to make the NBA he became a legend in area recreational leagues, where Woolridge watched and learned.

“There were great games at the boys club on Sundays. I wasn’t old enough or good enough to play yet, but I would watch Kerry Trotter, John C. Johnson, Lee Johnson, Mike McGee…all in the same gym…and knowing these guys were making money off the game was an inspiration for me to get out of the ghetto and out of the hood and do something.”

As he got older, he played against some of his idols. He even beat one, John C. Johnson, while only a 7th grader. Johnson knew “he had the gift.” He was special.

Of all the players to come out of the inner city, McGee, is the most magical for a certain era of fans. As a North High senior, he shattered the single season Class A scoring record with an average of 38.1 points a game in 1976. No one’s come close since. He went on to break scoring records at Michigan, where he totalled 2,439 points in 114 games, and played five years as a reserve on the prodigious Laker teams of the ‘80s starring Magic and Kareem, winning one championship. Before MJ, everybody in Omaha “wanted to be like Mike,” Woolridge said. “He was such a superstar. I wanted a piece of his game  — that sweet jump shot.” Ron Kellogg, who enjoyed fame at Northwest High and Kansas, said. “Growing up, he’s who I used to go watch play all the time. He was a set shooter and I couldn’t believe how he could get his shot off, but he had such a quick release and he moved so well without the ball. He was just a thrill to watch. Incredible.” Kerry Trotter, who made a name for himself at Creighton Prep and Marquette, said, “Mike McGee was the guy. So, I know, for me he was kind of the standard. That’s who I wanted to be like in regards to being the next guy.” These days, McGee coaches internationally, most recently in South Korea.

Like McGee before him, Woolridge worked and worked on his skills. “I would go to the basketball court and be there all day long. I mean, literally, all day. Ten hours. Some of us would hop in a car and travel from court to court,” he said. “I was a student of the game.” By the time he got to Benson High, he was a player.

“I could just score. I could put it in the basket any way. I could shoot the 3. I was quick enough to get to the hole. I had great anticipation.” He started as a freshman, scoring 17 his first game, and the rest is history. He went on to break the career Class A scoring record in Nebraska (1911 points) and led his Bunnies to the state title, capping his brilliant prep run with a dominating 50-point performance in the 1992 finals. “It’s storybook. It’s sweet. We got the win. I got the record. The first championship for Benson in I don’t know how many years.”

Andre Woolridge

 

 

The wooing of Woolridge by colleges began his freshman year and intensified after his sophmore year. The McDonalds and Converse All-American considered Iowa but settled on Nebraska. Things didn’t go as planned in Lincoln. Some say he was under-used. Others that he was mis-used. On a team of scorers, nobody wanted to distribute the ball. Whether it was the coach or the system, he wasn’t happy. He began looking at other options during the season, waiting until the end to leave NU for Iowa. “I don’t blame anybody,” he said. “I think it was something I had to go through to become the person I am now.”

He got hate mail. He used the criticism as motivation. “I knew I had a whole redshirt year to work on whatever they said I couldn’t do or whatever type of player they said I wouldn’t be, and I took that with me every day.” Going to Iowa, he said, was for the best. “It was good to get away on my own and to find myself. It was like another storybook.” As a Hawkeye, the consumate court general dished 575 assists and scored 1,525 points in 97 games.

Despite fine numbers and decent showings at pro camps, he went undrafted by the NBA. “It was a shocking blow. Devastating. It’s still a mystery to me and to a lot of people,” he said. He did get tryouts, initially with Golden State, and with 10 to 15 clubs since, but it’s always “you’re too short” or “we have too many players at your position.” So, he took the foreign route and has enjoyed a vagabound career playing for teams in France, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel. There was a stint in the National Basketball Development League. When he’s actually paid, the money’s good, but he’s been burned enough to now demand a big chunk of his salary upfront. He still harbors NBA hopes, but at 31 he’s resigned to his fate.

“I’ve had the best of the game and I’ve had the worst of the game,” he said.

Ron Kellogg got his start playing ball in an area of North O called “Vietnam” for all the gang violence and desolation there. He competed at the boys club and in the tough Kellom league. But he didn’t really begin honing his game until his family moved from the ghetto to northwest Omaha, where the white next door neighbors erected a hoop in the dirt backyard. Only the basket was set 12-feet high. Taking aim at that higher-than-regulation cup is how the left-handed Kellogg developed his trademark rainbow shot launched to deadly accurate effect from the corner and top of the key. If he wasn’t going one-on-one with friend Mike Cimino, Kellogg was hooping it alone. “That’s where I spent most of my time,” he said. “I mean, every day I was outside for hours back there shooting.”

He credits three mentors with his early development: his father Ron Kellogg, Sr.; longtime youth coach Tom Ivy — the father of Maurtice Ivy; and his late grandfather Leonard Hawkins. Early on, he was identified with a talented group of players emerging in the state that included Kerry Trotter, Dave Hoppen, James Moore and Vic Lazzaretti. “We were competing from the 6th grade on, so it started early for us,” Kellogg said. They were joined by outstaters Bill Jackman and Mike Martz to make up what arguably became the best senior class (1982) in Nebraska prep history. They anchored the first Valentinos select team to crash Las Vegas. All played Division I ball.

But if one stood out from the rest, Trotter said, it was Kellogg. “He was definitely the best athlete of the bunch.” Kellogg was a fine sprinter and had what his coach at Northwest, Dick Koch, described as “great leg strength and balance.”

Even though forbidden, high schools hotly recruited the players. “That’s when I knew I probably had a chance to do something,” Kellogg said.

 

 

Kellogg got the reins his first year with the varsity at Northwest, where he said coach Dick Koch told him, “‘The ball is yours. This is your team.’ I was surprised. I was like, Wow! Really?’ His prep debut — a 28-point effort versus Ryan — was a sign of things to come. The thing he’s best remembered for — his marksmanship — set him apart. “He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen. He could pull up on a dime and take that 16 to 20-foot shot. That’s where he did a lot of his damage,” said Koch. He got his initial national exposure at national invitational camps and with the Valentinos team. After the recruiting pitches began, the Parade All-American visited cadillac programs, strutting his stuff in pick up games versus top returning players.

“This is where they see what type of player you are,” he said. “When I performed well, that gave me the confidence I could play with anybody.”

Kansas proved a good fit. He ended up playing for a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown. He helped lead KU back to glory. He hooped two seasons with Danny Manning. More importantly, he met his wife, Latrice, a Kansas native, and the mother of their three kids. Under Brown, Kellogg learned “not only the game, but the game of life.” After two years on the bench, his turning point as a Jayhawk came in the 1984 Big Eight tournament finals against Oklahoma. The little-used soph was inserted in the lineup with about a minute left and KU trailing. “I came in and I took a shot right away and missed. Coach Brown called a time out and I got the hardest slap on my leg. It stung. I can still feel it. That woke me up. He told me what was at stake: ‘You can take this chance or you can blow it, but you can win this game.’ And in that time out I got my focus on and I ended up hitting the winning shot. That jump-started my career and put us back on the map.”

In Lawrence, Kellogg was joined by South High product Cedric Hunter, who ran the KU offense to perfection. Danny Manning is remembered as the big wheel for KU, but Kellogg was a key spoke. He twice made first team All-Big 8 and the league all-defensive team. He drained a remarkable 56 percent of his field goal tries his junior and senior years and an impressve 82.8 percent of his free throws for his career. He finished with 1,508 points, 416 rebounds and 272 assists in 130 games, averaging 17.6 and 15.9 points per game as a junior and senior, respectively.

The highlight of his collegiate days came in the 1986 Final Four at Dallas’ Reunion Arena. He scored 22 points in KU’s semifinal loss to Duke. “Playing in the Final Four was a special moment that I’ll cherish the rest of my life. It’s a big event. It’s seen around the world. You better be prepared, too, because it can be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Besides Cedric and myself, I don’t know of any other Nebraskans who’ve played in the Final Four.”

Kellogg was taken by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2nd round of the NBA draft, only to be traded to the L.A. Lakers in a package deal for his childhood idol, Mike McGee. An injury in pre-season camp prevented him from performing near his best. He was the last man cut from the roster. “From there,” he said, “I went on a rollercoaster. I played in the CBA (with the Topeka Sizzlers and Omaha Racers) and then I went overseas and played in Belgium,” where he hooked up and kicked it with his old mate, Kerry Trotter. “After a stint in Finland, I decided to settle down.”

Kerry Trotter managed what few Americans do — he played 11 years with the same European club — Briane — located just outside Brussels, Belgium. “Absolutely, it’s very unique. I had opportunities to play other places, but I liked Brussels very much. I learned to speak French and to appreciate French wines. I have dual citizenship,” he said. Cultivating a cosmopolitan life on the continent is quite a feat given Trotter and his siblings were raised in the projects by their single mother. Her insistence that they get good grades as a prerequisite for playing ball paid off when Kerry and his twin brother Kirk got scholarships to Creighton Prep. The school’s Jesuit connections led to Trotter attending Marquette.

Like Kellogg, Trotter came up on the northside’s proving grounds. “Back in the day, the Bryant Center had a league. It was legendary. Ron and I played on a summer league team there and we went like 20-0 for two summers. Man, we were just crushing people. It was great,” he said. He said he and Kellogg were well aware of the greats who came before them and were honored to be mentioned in the same breath. “We were fortunate to keep the bar raised high.”

Coming out parties for rising stars usually begin in high school, but Trotter said a grade school select team enabled he and Kellogg to showcase their talents against other hot shots in Phoenix. “We saw we could compete with them,” Trotter said. By the time they played on the Valentinos team, they were turning coaches’ and players’ heads. “They were looking at us like, ‘Nebraska? Who are these kids?’

In high school, the pair were friends and rivals. “We took it personal,” Kellogg said. “Those two really went at it,” Koch recalled. “Boy, they competed against each other. Neither one liked to lose.” Their contests were events. “Our games had to be played at the Civic so damn many people wanted to see us hoop,” Trotter said.

A combination of power and finesse, Trotter worked for what he got. “I was either in the gym all the time or at the park. I just really wanted to be that good. I had a great basketball work ethic and IQ. Growing up in the projects playing streetball and then going to a program like Creighton Prep, where it was a system, I was able to blend that together and, man, I was just knocking ‘em out. I was a player who could fill up the stat sheet — rebound, score, assist, steal.” A rare four-year starter, he was above all else a gamer. “I wanted to win a state title at Creighton Prep, because that’s what they do. I wanted to be part of that history.” He got his wish in ‘81 when his clutch free throws sealed the deal versus Benson in the finals.

The McDonalds and Parade All-American followed his heart, to Marquette, where he was a solid all-around player, posting 1,221 points, 569 boards, 369 assists and 158 steals in 116 career games. Undrafted by the NBA, Trotter found a comfortable fit for his game and his life in Belgium. He brought family members overseas to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Having his mom there, he said, was “my pay back.”

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Neal Mosser, A Straight-Shooting Son-of-a-Gun

June 16, 2012 2 comments

As a small population state Nebraska turns out precious few athletes who reach the highest level of their sport but there was a golden era when one man, the late Neal Mosser at Technical High School in Omaha, coached a succession of talents who went on to achieve great things as professional athletes.  In a span of less than a decade he coached Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, and Ron Boone in hoops.  Mosser commanded great respect from his student-athletes because he didn’t play favorites and he didn’t bow to bigotry.  His best players were African-Americans and where some coaches may have been reluctant or dead set against to play an all-black starting five, he wasn’t. In the 1950s and ’60s in an arch conservative and predominantly white state like Nebraska that wasn’t a popular thing to do but he did it anyway.  It may have cost his team some wins come state tournament time, too, when officials seemed intent on doing what they could to prevent Tech from winning championships against white squads.  One of Mosser’s legendary players, Bob Boozer, died this past spring (2012).  This story from about eight years ago appeared as part of a series I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on Omaha’s Black Sports Legends called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatnesss.  You’ll find other installments from the series on this blog.

Neal Mosser with Fred Hare

 

 

From My Series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness –Neal Mosser, A Straight-Shooting Son-of-a-Gun

@by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared om The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In the days of segregation, the racial divide extended to school sports competition.  At Omaha melting pots Technical, North and Central High schools, diversity was a given, even if some students and teachers were slow to accept it. While blacks played alongside whites, an unwritten practice saw to it few athletes of color suited up, regardless of ability. An informal quota system operated then at all levels of sports. From 1948 to 1967 Omaha Tech’s uncompromising head basketball coach Neal Mosser consistently defied the status quo. Under him, Tech had dozens of black hoop stars whose names survive today: Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Bill King, Joe Williams, Fred Hare, Ron Boone. A crusty ex-Marine with little use for hypocrisy, Mosser, who played at Purdue and Nebraska, took heat for playing his best players, even if they were all black. Consequently, he saw games openly stolen from his teams, including a couple infamous larcenies at the state tourney in Lincoln.

Gibson, a Creighton University great and Harlem Globetrotters veteran before a Hall of Fame pitching career with the St. Louis Cardinals, said Mosser followed a color-blind standard. “Race just never seemed to be a part of his thinking. He did a lot as far as me going from a young boy to a young man. It was more the way he carried himself than anything else and the respect he had for us as players.”

“Neal Mosser fought a tremendous battle for a lot of us minority kids,” said former player Lonnie McIntosh. “He and Cornie Collin. At that time, you never had five black kids on the basketball court at the same time.” But they did. “Their jobs were on the line, too.” McIntosh said of the two coaches.

Mosser said his ability to relate to minorities stems from growing up in a racially mixed town, Cambridge, Ohio, that straddled the Mason-Dixon line. “Blacks and whites got along pretty good then in Cambridge,” he said. “The glass works factory my dad worked in was integrated. In our church basketball league we played against blacks from the AME church. So, in playing together and in working together, we learned to get along.” As a coach, he applied unprejudiced principles. “If they showed me any promise, I worked with ‘em,” he said. “I enjoyed coaching guys that wanted to be coached. All you had to do was believe in ‘em.”

 Omaha Technical High School

 

 

When the pressure mounted on Mosser to play it safe at Tech, he didn’t back down. “I didn’t take any of their shit,” he said, referring to prep officials, coaches and fans who got on him and his players. He bluntly told bigots where they could go, but asked his players to keep their cool. “I told ‘em, ‘You can’t be thinking about these people that are always on your butt and razzing you and calling you the N-word and everything like that.’ I told them they had to look past that. Right now, they would fight, but they didn’t in those days.” A sign of the unwelcome climate was the time Mosser drove his team back from a game in Hastings and, looking for a place to stay overnight in Lincoln, he had to vouch for his players before a hotel would accommodate them. “So you see how touchy it was,” he said.

Gibson recalls Mosser standing firm. “As a matter of fact, we went to the state tournament in Lincoln my senior year and he started five black players. I give him a lot of credit for that. That night, you could hear a pin drop. And he didn’t give a shit. He just wanted to win.” While the crowd’s “stone silence” didn’t faze Mosser, what happened next did. With the fast-breaking Tech team already frustrated by Fremont High’s slow-down tactics, the referees seemingly conspired to give the edge in the nip-and-tuck stalemate to the Tigers. Observers and participants confirm it was neither the first time nor the last time that teams from Tech and Central got beat with an underhanded assist from referees.

As if he still can’t accept it, Gibson explains how his vastly superior Tech squad got robbed that night. “By the end of the first-half four out of our five starters fouled-out, and within a couple minutes of the second half I fouled out, and I never fouled out. They were cheating us,” he said. “It was that blatant. And Mosser did the same thing Josh (his older brother and first coach) did — he was out in the middle of the floor screaming, and I thought he was going to have a heart attack.” There was nothing Mosser or anyone could do. Tech lost 40-39. The pain of it all made Gibson cry. He said it was the last time he ever shed a tear over a loss.

Bob Gibson

 

 

The same story was repeated in 1955, when Mosser had future collegiate All-American, Olympic Gold Medalist and NBA world champion Bob Boozer in the middle and a talented supporting cast around him.

“We had the state championship taken away from us,” Boozer said. “We played Scottsbluff. We figured we were the better team. I was playing center and I literally had guys hanging on me. The referees wouldn’t call a foul. I’d say, ‘Ref, why don’t you call a foul?,’ and all I heard was, ‘Shut up and play ball.’”

Mosser said Boozer was clearly a target that night. “They beat the hell out of him,” he said. “They about cut his arms off.”

The bad calls didn’t end there. “On one play, my teammate Lonnie McIntosh stole the ball and was dribbling down the sideline when one of their guys stuck his foot out and tripped him,” Boozer said. “There was Lonnie sprawled out on the floor and the referee called traveling and gave the ball to Scottsbluff.  We were outraged, but what could we do? If we had really got on the refs we’d have got a technical foul. So, we had to suck it up and just play the best we could and hope we could beat ‘em by knocking in the most shots.” Boozer said Mosser helped him deal with “the sting of racism…Neal was a real disciplinarian. And he used to always tell us that life was not going to be easy. That you’ve got to forge ahead.” That credo was tested when Boozer, a hot recruit his senior year, was rejected by his top choice — the University of Iowa. “Neal showed me a letter Iowa’s head coach wrote telling him he had his quota of black players. Neal said, ‘Bob, these are things you’re going to have to face and you’ve just got to persevere in spite of it.’ It hardens you. It makes you tougher.” The same thing happened before, with Gibson, when Mosser tried getting Indiana to look at his prize player only to have the Hoosiers coach say, “I’ve got enough of ‘em.”

 

 

Bob Boozer

 

 

Perhaps the lousiest dirt dealt Tech came in its 1962 finals loss to Lincoln Northeast when the Trojans were leading by five with the ball and a couple minutes left in the game. Tech was called for an offensive foul, but instead of Northeast merely getting possession, they were incorrectly awarded a one-in-one free throw chance, which sent Mosser into a tirade. “The rule had just come in where if you had the ball and committed a foul, then the other team takes it out of bounds. They don’t get to shoot,” said Mosser. “So, when I saw them shooting a one-in-one, I just raised hell and they called a technical on me. Northeast made both free throws, plus the technical. They took the ball out of bounds, threw it back in and scored, and the game was tied without the Goddamned clock even running.”

Worse yet, after regaining the lead with just over a minute to go Tech’s go-to-guy, Joe Williams, was ejected after retaliating to some rough tactics inside. Mosser said, “he had guys hanging all over him and he swung an elbow, and they kicked my star black player out for fighting. Well, it takes two to fight. You don’t just kick one guy out of the game. Oh, yeah, they really screwed us.” Mosser lodged the usual complaints over the controversial calls, which made headlines for weeks. Referees even came out in the paper saying “they called the plays completely wrong,” Mosser said. “They all knew I was right, but they couldn’t do anything about it.” Ironically, Mosser was later put in charge of all officials in Omaha.

Mosser and Tech got a measure of revenge when his 1963 Trojan team, widely viewed as the best in Nebraska prep history, swept to the state title by such big margins that any hanky-panky by officials’ made no difference.

The star of that ‘63 club was Fred Hare, yet little-used reserve Ron Boone earned more lasting fame. Boone cracked the starting lineup as a senior, but he was given no hope of playing major college ball due to his size — 5-8 and 140-pounds. He played a year of juco ball at Clarinda (Iowa) Community College, where his stellar play and dramatic growth spurt saw him blossom into a strapping 6’2” physical specimen with major college prospect etched all over him. Mosser turned Idaho State University head coach Claude Retherford, a teammate and roommate of his at NU, onto Boone. Retherford signed him unseen. The rest is history. Boone developed into a college star and iron man of the ABA and NBA.

 

 

Fred Hare
Ron Boone

 

 

It wasn’t the first or last time Mosser looked out for his players. “I did a little bit for every one of ‘em,” he said, “but I did more for Ron Boone than for any other kid I ever had.” Boone appreciates Mosser’s influence. “He was very, very fair. Even after I became a professional, I would go up to Tech and he would let me in the gym to work out.” Over the years, Mosser’s kept in touch with his stars and lesser-knowns and regards former players like Bill King and Bob Gibson as good friends.

Mosser’s influence extended to the playing ops he gave neighborhood kids on the full-size court he built in the back yard of his family’s north Omaha house and the annual basketball school/camp he conducted for promising young talent.

The Mosser hoops legacy continues. Neal’s four sons all played ball. Jerry played for Pops at Tech. All four have coached. Grandson Mitch, a former Nebraska Wesleyan NAIA All-American, is a current assistant men’s hoops coach at UNO.

The Last Hurrah for Hoops Wizard Darcy Stracke

April 17, 2012 1 comment

 

 

Darcy Stracke was one of those small town wonders in the world of sports.  By the end of her freshman year in high school she was already a legend in her hometown of Stuart, Neb. for her prodigous talent in volleyball, basketball, and track and she only added to the legend her last three years in high school in Chambers. Neb.  By the time she graduated she held a batch of state scoring records in basketball.  A playmaking and scoring guard in one, she spurned offers from big schools to play hoops at Division II University of Nebraska-Kearney, where she dominated once again.  Then, in a move that upset her fan base, she transfered to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and promptly made her mark in her only year there.  In a strange twist she set the UNK single game scoring record of 43 points against her future teammates at UNO and then when playing for UNO she broke that school’s single game scroring mark with a matching 43 points against, you guessed it, her former teammates at UNK.  She was a multiple all-state performer in high school and a three-time All-American in college.  She’s in the athletic hall of fame of every school she competed for.  I wrote this piece during her final college season in 2000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Hurrah for Hoops Wizard Darcy Stracke                       

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Weekly

 

Scene One: Penetration is her game. 

Wherever she is with the ball, her first instinct is to take it to the house. Using a crossover dribble, she first measures her opponent. Then, feinting with the ball, her head or both, she jump-stops inside, double-pumps and either banks a shot in off the glass, draws a foul or else dishes off to an open teammate for an assist. What sticks with you is her fearlessness inside and her uncanny knack for weaving through a tangle of bodies to make something happen.

Before some recent struggles, it seemed UNO’s fabulous hoops star, Darcy Stracke, could do no wrong. Time after time, she took over games, racking up points at will and disrupting opposing teams’ offenses. A case in point came in the Mavs’ mid-season 68-50 home win over NCC rival South Dakota. She scored 29 points on 12-of-16 shooting from the field and flashed a variety of take-your-breath-away passes, now-you-see-it-now you-don’t dribbles, pickpocket steals and whirling-dervish drives to the bucket. And all this in only 26 minutes of play.

Afterwards, she stopped by the north bleachers to chat with her star struck fans. There is a definite star quality about Stracke, a 5-foot-7 senior guard whose game intensity belies a quiet off-court demeanor and whose grace-under-pressure endures despite sweaty palms. Among her regular admirers (some sporting her jersey No. 34) are a group from her hometown of Stuart, Neb., including her parents, Marilyn and Del, who have made it to every game but one since her freshman year in high school. She is their small-town-girl-makes-good hoops diva.

That night, Stracke, still dressed in her damp uniform, lingered a long while with the crowd. She seems to savor these moments. Not because she enjoys the attention or adulation (In truth, she’d rather not have all this fuss made about her.), but because she knows the wondrous run she’s been on is finally drawing to a close. For this north-central Nebraska native has enjoyed a legendary athletic career matched by few other Nebraska female athletes. But soon her glory days will be over. The scoring feats, the fancy moves, the late-game heroics relegated to hazy memories or grainy video highlights.

For Stracke, steeped in athletics from an early age (she learned to walk with a basketball) and hooked on competition the way others are on drugs, the thought of not playing (notwithstanding a possible pro stint overseas) is daunting. How could it not be for someone who sleeps with a ball to get “in tune with it”?

“When I step on that court it’s like I’m in another world,” she said. “I get a feeling I can’t get anywhere else. I love that feeling. I don’t feel any aches or pains. It’s just like I’m in a zone. Basketball is probably in my head most of every 24 hours. I watch game films all the time. If basketball’s on TV, I’m going to watch it. If I can get a pick-up game, I’m going to play it. Basketball has always been an outlet for me, so if I’m having a bad day, I always look to basketball to get me out of that funk, even if it means going up to the gym at 10 o’clock at night and shooting. Once I start shooting, everything else is erased.”

 

Darcy Stracke

 

 

 

More than anything, she’ll miss the competition when she walks away from the game. “I just love to compete.” Then there are the fans who have been there for her all this time. “I have my own little fan section. They expect me to come over and talk. I love the interaction with people after games. It’s those little things I’m going to remember.” Wherever she went the past eight years, her legion of fans followed. They were there at the start, when she led Stuart Public High to the Class D-2 state title as a 14-year-old freshman. Then, after transferring to nearby Chambers Public School, where she played for brother-in-law, John Miller, they saw her spark a 77-game winning streak en route to three more state titles and, in the process, she set the state’s all-time scoring record (boys or girls) with 2,752 points. Along the way she displayed a court savvy beyond her years, anticipating picks, screens and passing lanes for steals and assists and driving the lane for layups.

When she chose nearby Division II powerhouse University of Nebraska-Kearney over several Division I schools, fans kept right on trucking to see how she matched-up at the next level. Just fine, thank you. She broke the school’s single season scoring record (679 points), topped its career steals mark (292), twice led the Lopers’ into the post-season (three times if you count her injury-shortened junior year) and capped off 1998-99 by earning 1st Team All-America honors.

Then the soft-spoken Stracke, 21, surprised everyone last off-season by transferring from UNK (she politely declines discussing why) to UNO for her final year. While rehabbing an injured knee in Kearney over the summer Stracke was deluged with calls, letters and visits from boosters pressuring her to reconsider. The “trauma” all got to be too much. “A lot of people were disappointed I left. I kind of avoided people there for a while, but I stayed because that’s where my friends and family are,” she said. “It was just a better fit here (UNO) for me. I think people who care about me understand it’s something I did for my own happiness.”

Once this season began and the buzz around “the Darcy situation,” as it’s known in Kearney, died down, all was forgiven, and the Stracke bandwagon kept rolling down I-80 as before, only a little farther east, to cheer her on in Omaha, where all she’s done is lead the nation in scoring for much of the year (she is second now with an averages just under 23 points per game) and rejuvenate a program (UNO is 15-10) that had scuffled recently (11-16 last year and 10-17 the year before). Stracke paced the Mavs to a fast start (7-2) and the team held its own in the middle part of the year before slumping down the stretch. Last Saturday’s 74-58 road loss to Northern Colorado dropped the Mavs to 1-4 in their last five games and squashed any remaining hopes of an NCAA regional post-season berth. Stracke, who struggled some herself lately, enjoyed a strong outing with 23 points, 5 boards and 4 steals, although she did have 6 turnovers.

She and her Mavs will try to play spoiler in season-ending road games this weekend versus ranked league foes North Dakota and North Dakota State.

It is a shame her career will end without one last hurrah in the playoffs, especially after her banner junior year ended prematurely when she suffered a complete ACL tear in her right knee during the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tourney. And, yes, it seems unfair Omaha hoops fans have had her such a short time. Seeing her go will be tough. Just ask UNO Head Coach Paula Buscher, who took a chance signing her to play for a single year. It was strictly a one-shot deal. No encore season. No promise things might not fizzle for the scoring phenom (they haven’t). No assurance she would recover from her injury (she has). No guarantee her addition might not upset team chemistry (it hasn’t).

“That was the risk that was out there for herself as well as the people recruiting her when she was transferring with one year left,” Buscher said. “We obviously felt and still feel it was a great decision on our part. There was a risk involved, but we felt like with a player of her caliber and her stature, and with the work ethic she brings, that that was a risk we needed to take. Would I love to have her for another two or three years? Oh, heavens, yes. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. We knew that going in. A great player’s career always ends too short. I just feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her for one year. I mean, let’s face it, the kid can play. She brings it every night. I think she’s helped develop a different mind-set (winning) and raise expectations with our program, and that’s something we’re looking to carry on.”

 

 

 

 

Buscher, like UNK Head Coach Amy Stephens before her, knew what she was getting in Stracke all right. She closely followed Stracke’s brilliant prep career and then, while coaching against her in college, saw her her light-up UNO twice, including a 43-point explosion last year. Still, once Buscher got a chance to watch Stracke at work, up close, every day in practice, she realized UNO had gained even more in the bargain than what first met the eye.

“Everyone was aware of her athletic ability and what she could do in games, but the bonus with Darcy was seeing how she trains. From the first day of preseason, all the way throughout every single practice, she’s the first one out there for every sprint, every drill, pushing all the time. Bottom line, she’s a competitor who wants to win. That, more than anything, is what makes her a great player,” Buscher said.

Scene II: Whatever it takes.

A perpetual motion machine on the floor, she never stops competing — regardless of the score. On defense, she creates havoc by hounding ball handlers into errant passes or by swiping lazy dribbles. On offense, she sets the tone by hustling down court, chasing after loose balls and constantly working to get open.

Not a great perimeter shooter, Stracke gets most of her points in or near the paint. Because defenses focus on her, she must often create shots where there are none. Her she-got-game greatness was never more evident than in three early season tests. First, she shook off jitters in a much-anticipated Dec. 1 contest against UNK, when, in a bit of perfect symmetry, she led UNO to an 86-71 victory and, in the process, burned her old mates for a school-record 43 points, the exact total she posted against UNO last year (UNK is having the last laugh, however, as the Lopers are rolling along with a 21-4 mark and high national ranking.).

“Actually, that’s probably the one game I didn’t want to play this year just because I still have a lot of friends on the team there,” Stracke said. “I did want to have a good game, though, because it was against the school I’d been at for three years. And I was a bit more nervous for that game than for others.”

Then, on consecutive nights in mid January, she did something she’s made a habit of during her playing career: hitting buzzer-beaters to defeat Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State amid a five-game stretch in which she averaged more than 30 points. Ask her what it’s like to have the ball in her hands when the game’s on the line, and how she’s able to deliver the goods, and she answers:

“When it comes down to making free throws at the end or making that game-winning shot, I think, ‘Darcy, you’ve done this tons of times before in the backyard. You can do it again.’ It’s not like I haven’t taken those last-minute shots before. So, I just shoot it with a lot of confidence and play with a lot of confidence. Plus, when I get in those situations I want to do well because I care about my teammates and I know I’d let them down if didn’t make that shot. The feeling after you make it is indescribable. It’s so exciting.”

She fees her success as a clutch performer and multi-faceted player (she leads UNO in scoring and steals and is second in assists) is largely due to all the hard work she’s put in honing her skills, including keeping the neighbors up while shooting past midnight in her backyard. “I may not have as much athletic talent as some players, but what’s been to my advantage is I do put a lot of hours in at the gym, and I think that’s what makes me a better basketball player and what gives me more confidence. I expect the best out of myself.”

In The World According to Darcy Stracke, effort breeds confidence which, in turn, breeds success. “Everything I’ve competed in (she was also a top volleyball, track and softball competitor) I always believed I could win. And, if I didn’t win, I’d go back and make adjustments or try to work on something that was my weakness, and the next time I was going into that competition I wasn’t going to lose.”

She further developed her game by routinely playing against the opposite sex and by challenging older, more experienced, players to one-on-one contests.

“I think it really helps playing against men and boys. It makes you adjust your game because if you don’t you’re going to get your shot blocked or get your pass stolen. Now, when I go against girls in college, I remember to use that extra fake.”

Since entering college she has experienced more losing than she ever did before, and even though it irks her, she long ago came to terms with that and the fact she can’t dominate every game like she did in high school.

“I just hate to lose. Even if its a card game or playing whiffle ball in the backyard. Then, after my teams went 77-0 my last three years in high school, I lost my very first college game. It was really hard because I wasn’t used to losing. But if I’ve learned anything it’s that you’re going to struggle sometimes at the college level. There are lots of ups and downs. The competition is so much better.”

Like many top athletes, she is somewhat obsessive-compulsive preparing for competition. She has game-day rituals she dares not break for fear of throwing her whole rhythm off.

“I have a routine for everything and, if I get out of synch, it just bothers the heck out of me. It ranges all the way from what I eat to when I step on the court to how long I drill in pregame warmups. I mean, it’s to the point where my routine is the same every single second, every single time.”

It’s that kind of attention to detail that’s made her settle for nothing less than being an all-around player. “If I don’t show up in every statistical area, from steals to assists to rebounding to even shooting percentage, I don’t feel like I had a good game. A lot of people look for me as a scorer, but I want to be a complete player because the only way our team is going to get better is if I can be consistent in every category.”

Despite the fact her new team has fallen far short of what her UNK clubs achieved (Kearney went 80-11 her three years there), she has no regrets about leaving such success behind for the mediocrity she found at Omaha. “I knew what I was coming into. I knew they’d (UNO) struggled. But I wanted to come to a program where I could make a difference. I think it’s worked out really well. My teammates have accepted me with open arms. I’m glad I’m here.”

All too aware the clock is fast running out on her playing career, Stracke acknowledges she has been pressing a bit, going a combined 22-of-79 from the field in a five-game stretch before regaining her touch last week (7-of-14 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line) against UNC. Heading into her final collegiate competition, she is poised to earn All-America honors again and owns combined career totals of 2,211 points, 422 rebounds, nearly 400 steals and 373 assists in 114 games.

Sadly, her last hurrah will come far from home. Local hoops fans who missed her in action are the real losers since the next time she (a K-12 physical education major) takes the court again in front of a crowd, will likely be as a coach.

“I love new challenges, If I don’t go over overseas to play ball I’m going to try and be a grad assistant somewhere to get my foot in the door in college coaching. I’m actually pretty excited to see basketball from a coaching standpoint.”

Still, coaching can never replace the thrill playing has given her.

“Basketball’s always been my first love. I’ve always played with a lot of passion. I’ve been struggling a little bit with the fact that I have less than a handful of games left, and then I’m done. I’ve been counting down the games. I’m just going to go out and play like every game is my last because pretty soon it will be.”

Scene III: In synch. 

If there is any lasting image of her, it is her streaking down court in transition — her raised arms extended high overhead, her expectant hands just aching to touch the ball once more. You want to yell, ‘Give her the damn ball.’ Give it to her, indeed. The two were made for each other.

Having Survived War in Sudan, Refugee Akoy Agau Discovered Hoops in America and the Major College Recruit is Now Poised to Lead Omaha Central to a Third Straight State Title

March 1, 2012 6 comments

UPDATE: I have no idea if Akoy Agau is even considering Nebraska or Creighton or UNO, but any local hoops fan has to hope that one of the three in-state Division I programs manages to land him. If you saw Agau lead Omaha Central High to the Class A state title against Omaha South the other night then you saw what a difference maker he can be.  If you didn’t see him, then all you need to know is that he had 16 points, 13 rebounds and 14 blocks.  That’s right, 14.  It’s not the first time he’s put up numbers like these in the state tournament and with his senior year to go and Central returning far more than just him it’s a sure thing, barring injury, that he will dominate the tournament again next year. The University of Nebraska needs him the most.  The program is mired in medicority and it needs a boost to go along with whoever the new head coach is going to be because it’s going to be players not coaches who turn things around and Agau is the type of player you can build a program around, especially if you surround him with eight or nine other legit prospects.  Creighton is of course a rock solid program by comparison but a mid-major like CU is always in a precarious position and it needs him to infuse local talent into a program whose best players come from Iowa and everywhere else but Nebraska.  When Antoine Young departs after this season there will not be a single scholarship player from the state left in the program.   The fact that Agau is an Omaha Public Schools student and a rare quality big man would help solidify the program over the next five-six years.  UNO is the least likely to get him but imagine what Agau’s presence could do in raising the profile of this fledgling D-I program.  He could help turn it from a pretender to a contender in a very short time.  Chances are, Agau will not stay home but instead take his considerable upside somewhere else.  I hope I’m wrong.

Most of my writing these days covers the arts-culture-creative scene but I still jones to do a sports story every now and then, and here’s a new one for The Reader that I am fond of.  It profiles Akoy Agau, a 17-year-old junior at Omaha Central High School, where he is both a top student and a major college basketball recruit whose team is heavily favored to win its third consecutive Class A (largest class in Nebraska) state title.  Agau is not only very tall at 6’9 he is highly skilled and athletic, which makes him the rare quality big man in these parts.  His story takes on another dimension when you add to it the fact that he and his family are Sudanese refugees who were displaced by war in their homeland and he was only introduced to basketball after he came to the States, where he’s adapted remarkably well and progressed his game at an exceedingly fast pace. He has another year of high school ball ahead of him, and then it will be off to play collegiately somewhere.  Whether or not he becomes an impact player at that next level is beside the point given how much he’sovercome and how far he’s traveled.

 

 

 

 

Having Survived War in Sudan, Refugee Akoy Agau Discovered Hoops in America and the Major College Recruit is Now Poised to Lead Omaha Central to a Third Straight State Title

©by Leo Adam Biga

A truncated version of this story was published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In this sparsely populated state where basketball’s never fully taken root, the annual hoops crop is slim pickings, especially when it comes to big men. Only rarely does a promising post player emerge on the high school scene here and it’s even rarer for one to do much at the next level.

All of which explains some of the intrigue attending Omaha Central junior Akoy Agau, the intimidating 6’9, 230-pound inside presence for the two-time defending state champion and season-long No. 1 ranked Eagles. Only recently turned 17, he’s still growing physically and adding to an already formidable skill-set. A scary proposition for opponents. An enticing prospect for the many colleges recruiting him.

With five championships in the last six years, Central’s a dynasty program. Success only begets more, as the metro’s best talent now flocks to the old downtown school on the hill. Despite producing many all-state players, Central hasn’t had a really good big man since star-crossed Dwaine Dillard in the late 1960s. Until Agau.

He’s not only tall, he possesses a huge wing-span, can jump and run the floor better than most kids half his size and shows uncanny timing and instincts for blocking shots. Though he must work on his post moves, ball-handling and jumper, he displays a soft touch around the rim, in the lane and outside.

Adding to interest in him is how this South Sudan native, who never heard of basketball in Africa, came to be in Omaha at all, much less play at a high level. He lived with his refugee family in Khartoum, Sudan and in Cairo, Egypt for the first six years of his life owing to civil war and famine in his homeland.

His Christian Dinka family came to the United States. through a church-based NGO, settling outside Baltimore, Maryland in 2002. All his mother, Agaw Makeir, knew about the U.S. was that it was far off. Fears about not knowing English or American ways were eased by assurances that just as missionaries helped them in Africa other good samaritans would help them here.

“We put that in our head and our heart and said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ It was our dream to come here and for our kids to be able to come here and go to school and have clothes and shoes and sleep at night and not worry about the gun and that people are going to attack you in your home,” she says. “It was a very beautiful thing to come here.”

After a year in Maryland the family moved to Omaha, where refugee relatives preceded them. Omaha is where Agau was introduced to basketball. Central coach Eric Behrens first laid eyes on him when the then-14-year old was shooting hoops one summer day at the outdoor court adjoining the Mason Apartments that the Agaus and other Sudanese families resided in. The youth’s size naturally peeked the coach’s curiosity. Behrens got to know him at Norris Middle School, where Agau attended and where Central often practices. As the Norris basketball team would wind up workouts Behrens and Co would arrive. The two formed a bond. Yet Behrens was surprised when Akoy elected to go to Central because most Sudanese student-athletes were opting for Bryan.

Sudanese players have made their mark in the metro since the mid-2000s. Koang Duluony went to Indiana State. Mading Thok is headed to Ball State. But Agau is, as Husker hoops color man and former player and coach Andy Markowski puts it, “the whole package” compared to those earlier “projects.”

Agau’s made most of his considerable progress since 7th grade, when he first got serious about playing. He’s excelled with Team Nebraska select clubs, balling all over the city, often with older players. The last few summers he’s gone to elite AAU camps and tourneys around the nation to hone his game and raise his stock.

 

 

Central Coach Eric Behrens and Agau

 

 

Upon meeting him the first thing that impresses you beyond his size is his composure and confidence. Struggling to survive and assimilate gave him life experiences rare for an American teen.

“It was a wild journey,” he says of the his family’s crucible.

He’s sure the journey wizened and toughened him.

“Sudan’s a lot different than here obviously. We had to work for a lot more things. When we needed to get things we had to go a far distance. I didn’t go to school, it was too far away. It was really hard. I think some of my maturity is because I really had to work hard when I wanted things. My parents taught me you have to work for everything you want. It’s just something that’s carried on and helps with everything I do.”

The war in Sudan did more than disrupt life, it claimed the lives of several loved ones. Akoy’s father Madut Agau lost his first wife. Akoy’s mother lost her father and five siblings.

The tranquility and pristine countryside Makeir knew growing up was shattered by conflict. “Then come the war, you could see all the grass and trees burned down and it didn’t look like home no more,” she says. “A lot died there. We saw a lot of people dying. We couldn’t help them.”

The family fled attacking government forces and warring factions. Once, Makeir fled with 3-year-old Akoy on her back an infant in her arms. Months on foot exposed them to danger and death by starvation, disease, wild animals, violence. Years of subsistence living in tent city refugee camps short on food and water gave way to starting over in America, where the family scraped for every dime and depended on the kindness of strangers until Akoy’s father found steady work at the IBP meatpacking plant in Denison, Iowa. The elder Agau stays there during the week, coming home weekends to be with his wife and children.

Having made it out the other side alive, Akoy exhibits a poise beyond his years. As a tall African refugee with a talent for the game, he’s the center of attention wherever he goes but he seems comfortable in his own skin.

“Very mature, very much so,” says his coach, Eric Behrens. “All those things that make you stand out, you can handle it in one of two ways – either you embrace it and you go the extroverted route or you kind of shy away from it and squeak into the corner. It’s hard to be in the middle when you’re a guy that gets a lot of attention like that. He’s definitely embraced it and fits in really well.

“He’s very outgoing. He knows kids from every different social setting. He’s a real popular kid. He’s good with adults, too, Very articulate. He knows how to speak to teachers. He’s like in four honors classes. He’s a really bright kid.”

And he can play a little, too.

Observers rate Agau as the state’s best Division I college basketball prospect, period, since Erick Strickland and Andre Woolridge in the early 1990s. Strickland and Woolridge were small guys though.

 

 

Behrens, a standout at Central himself in the early ’90, says, “I think defensively he has to rank among the all-time greats in Nebraska. His offensive game continues to develop but he has a chance to be really good on that end as well.”

The few big men from Nebraska who’ve attracted power conference suitors and made an impact in big-time college hoops include Rich King, Dave Hoppen and Chuck Jura.

“I didn’t get to watch Chuck Jura or Dave Hoppen or guys like that,” says Behrens, “so limiting the conversation to the last 15 or 20 years, Akoy’s as good as anybody since I’ve been around it. I can only think of Matt Hill (Lincoln Southeast / Texas) who would be in the same conversation as far as big guys go.”

Ranked a 4-star, top 100-150 recruit, Agau’s projected as a legit major or mid-major contributor in college at the power forward spot. The fact he’s come so far in such a short time bodes well for his future hoops.

He was barely 15 when he started for Central as a freshman. He was a factor right away but still largely a role player. His profile dramatically rose in the 2010 state finals when he erupted for a monster game versus Norfolk, recording 18 points, 15 rebounds and 9 blocks. His near triple double helped lock up the title and served notice Central would be all but unbeatable with him around.

He didn’t look it, but that big stage freaked him out.

“Well, first of all, that was probably the most nerve wracking game ever. When we were in the locker room Coach Behrens was like, ‘There’s a packed house and probably most of them are for Norfolk.’ I went out ready to warm up, looked up and saw so many people, and I turned around and ran right back to the locker room. I was so nervous, it was the scariest thing. But then once the game started everything was just normal. I basically just played and didn’t think about it.

“And truthfully I didn’t think I had that great of a game. I just went out there and played like I usually do, and then they told me the stats and I couldn’t believe it.”

A year later at state he and his team once again found themselves matched up with Norfolk, only in the semifinals, and this time he got his triple double with a 11-10-10 line. He went on to lead Central to the championship against Bryan.

Norfolk head coach Ben Ries, whose No. 2 ranked Panthers could face Agau and Central again at state this year, says, “He is the most dominating defensive player to compete at our level. His timing, length and athleticism pose a great challenge for every team. What has been impressive is his ability to be unselfish and know his role. When Central combines their athleticism on the perimeter with Akoy’s ability to protect the basket it becomes a struggle to score.”

With Agau and 6’6 Tre’Shawn Thurman choking the paint, contesting any shot launched near the basket, and smaller teammates pressing, Central held foes to a stingy 34 percent field goal mark. In the regular season the Eagles had 153 blocks to their opponents’ 22. They forced 470 turnovers, committing only 309.

At 27-0 entering the 2012 state tournament, Central is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as Class A champs this weekend at the Devaney Center in Lincoln. The Eagles dominated the regular season, winning by an average score of 71 to 45, and its most dominating player by far is Agau. He normally puts up modest stats, averaging about 12 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. But as anyone who’s ever seen him play will tell you, it’s the intangibles that make him a difference-maker on a remarkably well-balanced squad that pressures foes with quickness, height, leaping ability, a deep bench and effective passing.

They get lots of steals that lead to fastbreak layups and dunks.

 

 

The way Central shares the ball explains why no one averages more than 12 points a game. Any one of seven guys can go off any given night. Agau could easily double his point total if Central force fed him the ball. He’s cool the way it is.

“We’re all really good players, we’re all capable of 20-plus point games. If any one of us went to a different team we’d be able to score a lot. It’s just something we all know we can do. If a guys gets 18 or 20 points, no one has a problem with it because the next game it’s someone else. Our individual scoring is something we don’t really look at as long as we’re winning.”

Behrens appreciates his big man not being a prima donna.

“He’s a great teammate. For as much attention and for as many Division I scholarship offers as he has he’s very unselfish. He’s really just focused on winning – whatever that takes, and that’s a really nice thing for us coaches and for his teammates to have, and it’s kind of rare.

“And he’s a real leader on the team. He’s really good at knowing when a guy needs a kick in the butt or a pat on the back. Plus, he’s a hard worker, both in the team stuff we do but also in terms of individual skill work he does outside of that, and that’s why he’s got so much better – he works at it, he works very hard at it. And he works hard in the weight room, so he’s gotten a lot stronger.”

On a team without a star, Agau is its MVP. When he fouled out of the regular season finale versus Bellevue East the Chieftans made a run. He sat out the district  opener recovering from minor knee surgery and in his absence lowly Northwest played Central even until the Eagles pulled away at the end, among the few times anyone’s hung withthem  that long. The lead is usually double digits at the half and the game long decided before the final quarter.

If Agau leads Central as expected to the Class A title, he will be three-fourths of the way toward a goal he set as a 13-year-old.

“It’s a funny story,” he says. “Since middle school I’ve been saying to my friends I’m going to win four state titles. I have this big thing where I would win four state titles and then when I win the fourth title when they interview you on TV after the game that’s when I’ll make my (college) decision public. But I don’t know if it’ll be all that.”

Local fans would love to see him end up a Husker, Bluejay or Maverick, but his offers extend far beyond Nebraska. He’s not hinting which way he’s leaning, though his mother makes no bones about preferring him to stay close to home.

“That’s something we talk about a lot,” she says. “We tell him if he would go to a different state it would be hard for us. Bur if he goes away that will be fine with us, too.”

Her fondest wish for the family’s move to America was for Akoy, her eldest, “to try and help himself for his future” and for all her kids to take advantage of opportunities unavailable in Sudan.

“I always tell them, ‘You guys are blessed to be here, and you should be happy for what you have,’ because what they have – me and their dad we didn’t have that. We didn’t have good school, good home.”

She’s thankful her kids can “focus on school and education.” She’s thankful, too, that Akoy is thriving and setting a good example for his brothers and sisters. “He’s a good big brother. We hope his brother Magay will follow him.” Magay is a very tall and talented freshman at Central.

The fact that Akoy still retains the Dinka language and some Arabic also pleases his mother, who keeps Sudanese cultural traditions alive at home.

There’s a conspiracy of hearts when it comes to Akoy, whose mother counts as allies and advisors Scott Hammer and Coach Behrens. With so many adults looking after his best interests, she says, “we teach him from both sides.”

Agau says his parents “don’t really understand” the sport or the success he’s enjoying, though his mother understands enough to say, “basketball is good for his college.” A family that had no prior exposure to the sport will likely have part of its American Dream realized through it. None of it may have unfolded under different circumstances but as Agau says, “We don’t dwell on what would have happened if we would have stayed back in Sudan, we just focus on being happy where we are now and what we have. We’re very grateful. Being able to go to school and get our education is most important. Getting to play basketball is an extra.”

Still, he’s keenly aware basketball is his ticket to larger opportunities. He’s also aware of the attendant expectations and hype that come with success.

“I can’t really get focused or take too seriously all these things people are saying about me. I just keep focusing on what I’m doing and just keep going to the gym and getting better because, personally, I don’t think I’ve done anything yet. I’m still in high school, there’s the next step of graduating from high school and then going to college. I still have a lot to do.”

That same low-key, taking-care-of-business attitude permeates the Central program. It helps explain why the Eagles have played consistently well, avoiding the lulls that happen when teams take opponents for granted or get too far ahead of themselves or get too full of themselves. It’s why the pressure to live up to being the Nebraska prep version of the high-flying Phi Slamma Jamma hasn’t derailed them.

Typically, Akoy takes it all in stride.

“That pressure is there now because everyone expects us to be good. We’ve been playing really well, so everyone expects us to win the state tournament. We just have to make sure we keep on getting better individually and as a team in order to be able to win state again.”

He has another year of high school ball ahead of him, and then it will be off to play collegiately somewhere. Whether or not he becomes an impact player at that next level is beside the point given how much he’s overcome and how far he’s traveled.

Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’

April 1, 2011 28 comments

Architectural detail on East Side of Central

Image via Wikipedia

It was two years ago when I first heard about Steve Marantz‘s then in-progress book about racial tensions in late 1960s Omaha – our shared hometown – through the prism of basketball. I knew then I would have to write about it.  Fast forward to my getting a copy of the book earlier this year and finding it a compelling read and then my filing the story below for a local publication that is still looking for an editorial hole to drop it in. Those editorial holes are getting harder to come by as papers literally shrink, but that’s another story. I highly recommend Marantz’s book for its glimpse at the convergence of racial, cultural, social, and political streams that came to a head in 1968 in Omaha and a lot of other places. He was there when it played out and now more than four decades later he revisits the story with the perspective of time.  The four battlegrounds where the events of his story blow up are stand-ins for larger forces: there’s the staid old school, Omaha Central High, with a diverse student body and out-of-touch administration in an era when interracial friendship, especially romance, could only happen on the down low and when expectations for black and white student achievement contrasted sharply; there’s the Omaha Civic Auditorium where George Wallace’s appearance set off violence; there’s North 24th Street, the black business hub with its mix of black and white owners, that became the target of outrage; and there’s the state basketball tournament in Lincoln, Neb., where black teams from Omaha historically got the shaft from all white officiating crews. But what elevates Marantz’s book is its occasional intimate glances at the personal costs exacted by the contradictions and the turmoil.

Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in his New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’

©by Leo Adam Biga

(Awaiting print publication)

America’s social fabric came asunder in 1968. Vietnam. Civil rights. Rock ‘n’ roll. Free love. Illegal drugs. Black power. Campus protests. Urban riots.

Omaha was a pressure cooker of racial tension. African-Americans demanded redress from poverty, discrimination, segregation, police misconduct.

Then, like now, Central High School was a cultural bridge by virtue of its downtown location — within a couple miles radius of ethnic enclaves: the Near Northside (black), Bagel (Jewish), Little Italy, Little Bohemia. A diverse student population has enriched the school’s high academic offerings.

Steve Marantz was a 16-year-old Central sophomore that pivotal year when a confluence of social-cultural-racial-political streams converged and a flood of emotions spilled out, forever changing those involved.

Marantz became a reporter for Kansas City and Boston papers. Busy with life and career, the ’68 events receded into memory. Then on a golf outing with classmates the conversation turned to that watershed and he knew he had to write about it.

“It just became so obvious there’s a story there and it needs to be told,” he says.

The result is his new book The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central: High School Basketball and the ’68 Racial Divide (University of Nebraska Press).

 

 

 

 

Speaking by phone from his home near Boston, Marantz says, “It appealed to me because of the elements in it that I think make for a good story — it had a compact time frame, there was a climatic event, and it had strong characters.” Besides, he says sports is a prime “vehicle for examining social issues.”

Conflict, baby. Caught up in the maelstrom was the fabulous ’68 Central basketball team, whose all-black starting five earned the sobriquet, The Rhythm Boys. Their enigmatic star, Dwaine Dillard, was a 6-7 big-time college hoops recruit. As if the stress of such expectations wasn’t enough, he lived on the edge.

At a time when it was taboo, he and some fellow blacks dated white girls at the school. Vikki Dollis was involved with Dillard’s teammate, Willie Frazier. In his book Marantz includes excerpts from a diary she kept. Marantz says her “genuine,” “honest,” angst-filled entries “opened a very personal window” that “changed the whole perspective” of events for him. “I just knew the vague outlines of it. The details didn’t really begin to emerge until I did the reporting.”

Functionally illiterate, Dillard barely got by in class. A product of a broken home, he had little adult supervision. Running the streets. he was an enigma easily swayed.

Things came to a head when the polarizing Alabama segregationist George Wallace came to speak at Omaha’s Civic Auditorium. Disturbances broke out, with fires set and windows broken along the Deuce Four (North 24th Street.) A young man caught looting was shot and killed by police.

Dillard became a lightning rod symbol for discontent when he was among a group of young men arrested for possession of rocks and incendiary materials. This was only days before the state tournament. Though quickly released and the charges dropped, he was branded a malcontent and worse.

White-black relations at Central grew strained, erupting into fights. Black students staged protests. Marantz says then-emerging community leader Ernie Chambers made his “loud…powerful…influential” voice heard.

The school’s aristocratic principal, J. Arthur Nelson, was befuddled by the generation gap that rejected authority. “I think change overtook him,” says Marantz. “He was of an earlier era, his moment had come and gone.”

Dillard was among the troublemakers and his coach, Warren Marquiss, suspended him for the first round tourney game. Security was extra tight in Lincoln, where predominantly black Omaha teams often got the shaft from white officials. In Marantz’s view the basketball court became a microcosm of what went on outside athletics, where “negative stereotypes” prevailed.

Central advanced to the semis without Dillard. With him back in the lineup the Eagles made it to the finals but lost to Lincoln Northeast. Another bitter disappointment. There was no violence, however.

The star-crossed Dillard went to play ball at Eastern Michigan but dropped out. He later made the Harlem Globetrotters and, briefly, the ABA. Marantz interviewed Dillard three weeks before his death. “I didn’t know he was that sick,” he says.

Marantz says he’s satisfied the book’s “touched a chord” with classmates by examining “one of those coming of age moments” that mark, even scar, lives.

An independent consultant for ESPN’s E: 60, he’s rhe author of the 2008 book Sorcery at Caesars about Sugar Ray Leonard‘s upset win over Marvin Hagler and is working on new a book about Fenway High School.

Marantz was recently back in Omaha to catch up with old Central classmates and to sign copies of Rhythm Boys at the Bookworm.

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