Getting to know … Jerald Hoover

By Ed Odeven
Aug. 28, 2013

One of the most intriguing sports documentaries I’d ever read about was Jerald Hoover’s “Four Square Miles to Glory,” an ode to Mount Vernon, New York’s rich basketball history. Which is why I sought out an interview with Hoover, the project’s producer/director.

Mount Vernon, located on the outskirts of New York City, has nurtured a dazzling array of basketball talent that starred at the high school, Division I and pro levels, including NBA-playing brothers Gus and Ray Williams and Rodney and Scooter McCray, and current standout guard Ben Gordon, who completed his ninth NBA campaign in the spring.

The 47-year-old Hoover is a novelist (“My Friend, My Hero,” “He Was My Hero Too,” among others), Boy’s Club mentor and sports columnist for various media outlets, including blackathlete.net. He also operates Write Mind Foundation, which is devoted to helping improve literacy in the inner city.

Hoover’s formative years as an NBA scribe were enriched by the inimitable, longtime New York Post basketball columnist Peter Vesey, whom he describes as a mentor and friend.

Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Hoover.

***

You have mentioned to me that Peter Vecsey is your mentor. Can you summarize how important he has been for media coverage of the NBA for decades?
 
For me, I grew up reading Pete’s column while he was with the New York Post.  I just like thousands of other kids longed for Pete’s Hoop Du Jour. Right away you knew either Pete had serious connections or he was psychic.
  
 And based on his relentless communication efforts with an impressive range of contacts, how significant has his unmatched pursuit of stories and dishing out knowledge of the sport been for those who aspire to do those things, particularly in the big media markets and the U.S. media capital,NYC?
 
It gave me an insight that you should be thorough and know your stuff.  If it meant asking extra questions or asking more people, do what you have to do to get it done.  
 
In directing and writing “Four Square Miles to Glory,” what was the most satisfying aspect of that creative journey/mission?
 
Satisfying in knowing that I started something from scratch and out of the blue to being able to interview the likes of, Commissioner David Stern, Phil Jackson, Jerry West, Willis Reed, Clyde Frazier and the list goes on and on. Those people that I mentioned aren’t from Mount Vernon where the story takes place, but they either coached or played with or against someone from Mount Vernon.  That showed me the respect level the guys from Mount Vernon had around the League.
 
Do you think the new-wave GMs, who place more of an emphasis on analytics like the Billy Beane sabermetrics approach in baseball, is a real transformation in the NBA or simply something that will be fused into the way the GMs and talent evaluators do their work?
 
It might be a little bit of both.  The NBA is above the other major sports a fad league.  If something works for someone else, the others are prone to give it a try. There was a time when the teams in the NBA tried to all get big or very strong point guards like the Lakers and Celtics had with Magic Johnson and Dennis Johnson.  Then there was a time when teams tried the Twin Towers (approach). The NBA is funny like that. It’s a copy cat league.
 
Within the next five years, do you believe Jay-Z will be one of the premier basketball and/or sports agents? 
 
I don’t know, it’s hard to say, but I will add that if he’s truly committed to it with his name alone he will attract the big names.

Flashing back to your childhood, who was the first NBA or college player you found yourself being a huge fan of?
 
Jamaal Wilkes was and is my all-time favorite player.  In the early to mid ’70s he starred in a tear-jerking movie called, “Cornbread, Earl and Me.”  I won’t go spoiler on it because some people may not have seen it, but it was an awesome movie for that time period.  I was hooked on him ever since.
 
And was it a game or series of moments that especially captured your attention?
 
I guess watching Magic as a rookie take the NBA by storm after winning the NCAA Championship and then winning an NBA championship. He and Larry Bird were both incredible.

Of the coaches with, say, five years of less in the league, are there a few you believe will rapidly rise and become well-accomplished bench bosses, a la Doc Rivers?
 
Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel has a chance….
Thinking of your own column and feature writing work on the NBA, is there a subject matter and/or published piece that holds No.1 special significance to you, that brings you pride knowing that it was something you worked on?
 
Probably the very first live game I covered which was Michael Jordan’s comeback (in 2001) with the Washington Wizards. I remember even wearing a fresh three-piece suit for the occasion. The game was at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and it was a who’s who in sports that was there. It was credentialed as if it were an NBA Finals.

Follow Jerald Hoover on Twitter: @jerryhoover65 

 

 

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Ichiro flashback – 1999 spring training in Arizona

In recognition of Ichiro Suzuki’s remarkable career, which includes his 4,000th career hit on Wednesday for the New York Yankees, here is a story I wrote for The Rafu Shimpo (Los Angeles’ English-Japanese newspaper) in the spring of 1999. At the time, Ichiro was a guest player for the Seattle Mariners.

As it appeared in The Rafu Shimpo…
Headline: Ichiro yearning for chance to play in major leagues
Secondary headline: The Orix BlueWave star, considered the top all-around player in Japan, could someday be the first non-pitcher to make it in the U.S.

By ED M. ODEVEN
Rafu contributor

PEORIA, Ariz. — The big question isn’t if Ichiro Suzuki has what it takes to be a major league ballplayer. The big question is when the Japanese superstar will get the opportunity to do so.

After Suzuki’s short spring training stay in Arizona, the consensus among those at the Seattle Mariners training complex was unanimous: Suzuki can be a successful major leaguer.

Unfortunately, for Suzuki, who simply prefer to be called Ichiro, that’s easier said than done, because the talented 25-year-old outfielder has three years remaining on his contract with the Orix BlueWave.

And there is uncertainty surrounding his future, especially over whether the Pacific League team will allow Suzuki to pursue his dream of playing in the United States once his current contract expires.

Solid Debut

Suzuki appeared in two games for the Mariners while in Arizona. Last Thursday, the speedy Japanese all-star batted leadoff and was Seattle’s starting right fielder in an 11-4 exhibition victory over the San Diego Padres.

In his North American debut, Suzuki went 1 for 4 with a single, a run scored and a stolen base. He scored the Mariners’ first run in the first inning after reaching first base on an error and stealing second base.

Although he had pregame jitters, Suzuki settled down and relished his experience.

“Before the game, the other players told me just to enjoy myself. I did,” said Suzuki, whose .350 batting average is the highest all-time in Japan.

“I had been looking forward for so long to playing here, to play alongside Ken Griffey, that I was prepared for it, and it was exciting as I had expected it to be.”

Suzuki’s second outing was cut short due to an upset stomach Saturday. He left the game after the second inning and was replaced in the Seattle lineup by veteran Butch Huskey.

Suzuki struck out on a called third strike in the first inning and flied out to short left field in the second. He felt too ill to play in Sunday’s game.

“Of course I’m disappointed that I couldn’t play (more),” he told about 50 members of the Japanese media in a crowded room for a mid-game press conference.

“In two games I couldn’t show everything.”

Yet even with limited playing time for the Mariners, Suzuki discovered there are areas of his game that can use improvement.

“I found things that I need to do to be a better baseball player,” he said, adding that major league players possess a quality lacking with the typical Japanese player.

“(Here), every player in every game and every practice is hyper and really energized. That’s impressive. I need to show more energy.”

Awesome Ability

He may have only had limited opportunities to showcase his skills, but Suzuki certainly made a good first impression with the folks in the Seattle organization.

“He’s impressed us. He’s got excellent baseball skills,” Mariners manager Lou Piniella said. “He’s a good hitter, an excellent hitter, actually. He’s a very adroit outfielder. He’s got a good throwing arm (and) good fielding mechanics. He can run and steal a base. So he’s got all the tools.”

Superstar Ken Griffey Jr. agreed.

“He can play. He’s got all the tools,” said Griffey, who has slugged 56 home runs in back-to-back seasons. “He has a great arm. He can run. He can hit. He can throw. He’s got it all.”

And how. Suzuki, considered the finest all-around player in Japan, has won five consecutive batting titles in just five full seasons in the Pacific League.

He became the first Japanese to get 200 hits in a 130-game season (210 in 1994).

Asked whether Suzuki has the ability to play in the major leagues, Piniella and Griffey concurred that Suzuki can do it, mentioning the only setback he’d have would be getting used to America.

“The biggest adjustment he’s going to have is staying in the U.S.,” Griffey said.

Said Piniella: “He could do very well here on the major league level. He puts the ball in play. He’s a good hitter. He plays the outfield well and he can run.

“But yeah, it takes the Puerto Rican kids time to adjust here. (And) it takes the Venezuelan kids time to adjust here. So, I’m sure that he would adjust.”

Once Suzuki gets adjusted, “I think he can be a productive player in the first or second spot in the lineup used more as a speed player, hitting and running, bunting once in a while, getting on base like (a Quentin McCracken) type of player,” said Piniella, referring to the Tampa Bay Devil Ray outfielder.

Future Aspirations

The three-time MVP said he enjoyed training with the Mariners and playing in two games with Griffey who he “likes so much.”

Still, he is obligated to play for the BlueWave for three more seasons.

In the meantime, Suzuki patiently longs for the day when he’ll be able to pursue his dream of playing in the major leagues.

In three years, he said he wants to play for any major league team. But the Mariners are “one of my top teams.”

Chuck Armstrong, president and chief operating officer of the Mariners, said his club’s good relationship with Orix hinders any future negotiations to lure Suzuki to Seattle.

“We have a friendly working agreement,” Armstrong explained. “And just as I wouldn’t want them to come and take one of our players, we are not planning to take one of their star players.

“If something should work, obviously, it would be some kind of mutual cooperation thing. (But right now), that’s not what we have in mind.”

A vital supporting role: Sean Anthony reflects on years of Olympic preparation work in Flagstaff

Sean Anthony enjoys a smile with swimmer Natsumi Hoshi, bronze medalist in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2012 London Olympics. Hoshi is wearing a swimsuit featuring a design of Italian swimmer Federica Pellegrini, who has also spent a lot of time training in Flagstaff over the years.  COURTESY PHOTO

Sean Anthony enjoys a smile with swimmer Natsumi Hoshi, bronze medalist in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2012 London Olympics. Hoshi is wearing a swimsuit featuring an image of Italian Federica Pellegrini, who has also spent a lot of time training in Flagstaff over the years.  COURTESY PHOTO

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Aug. 12, 2013) — Flagstaff, Arizona, is known in international Olympic circles as a home away from home for many elite athletes, and as one of the top destinations of choice for high-altitude training.

Throughout the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century, Northern Arizona University’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex (later renamed the Center for High Altitude Training at Northern Arizona University), served a growing number of Olympians and aspiring Olympians. In a November 2004 press release, it was summed up this way: “Including the Athens Games, over the past 10 years athletes from 39 countries have trained in Flagstaff, earning 191 Olympic and Paralympic medals.”

Fast forward to 2012 and these numbers emphasize Flagstaff’s role in preparations for the London Olympics: “Hypo2 Sport worked with hundreds upon hundreds of athletes in the lead-up to London, and we congratulate the 152 athletes from 22 countries who made it onto their country’s 2012 Olympic or Paralympic squad. And we celebrate your results: 23 Olympic medals with 74 top-8 performances, and 23 Paralympic Medals with 52 top-8 performances,” it was reported on Hypo2 Sport’s website.

Indeed, some major changes took place in Flagstaff over the past decade. Due to budget cuts during the economic downturn, the CHAT lost its funding and official U.S. Olympic Training Center designation in 2009, and closed down. That prompted Sean Anthony, who had worked as the center’s longtime assistant director (in many ways a key liaison to all those teams) for many years, to establish his own company, Hypo2 Sport, working with athletes in essentially the same capacity.

And so Hypo2 Sport was established to continue the services that HASTC and CHAT provided: giving world-class athletes opportunities to hold high-altitude training camps in Arizona.

Of course, coordinating schedules and requests from athletes, coaches and their teams from around the world presented unique challenges for HASTC and CHAT. And that continues to be true for Hypo2 Sport, where Anthony has continued to build upon the relationships he established while working out of the Northern Arizona University-based center.

Case in point: In November 2004, Anthony was a special guest, invited by the Japan Swimming Federation, to the Tokyo Swim Center Invitational (See related story below). At the time, he said, “It’s a great honor to receive such a generous invitation from the Japan Swimming Federation. This invitation is an indicator of just how effective we’ve been in building a strong relationship with the Japanese. I’m excited to have the opportunity to build on this relationship and to represent both HASTC and NAU in Tokyo.”

I first met Sean Anthony in the summer of 2000, when he helped set up interviews with Egyptian swimming siblings Rania and Mahmoud Elwani, among others, who were holding final high-altitude camps before the Sydney Games.

Over the years, it has been a pleasure to observe Anthony interacting with elite athletes, coaches and support staff — from Australia and Italy, Slovenia and Spain, Poland and Brazil, Japan and Canada, and the list goes on — and to hear about all aspects of these relationships. He has often provided a key tidbit or anecdote about an athlete or coach or team that enhanced a story or interview.

Anthony truly enjoys multicultural exchanges and being exposed to the day-to-day grind of sports in this context. For him, it is a true labor of love.

In a recent email interview, Anthony reflects on his work and the rewarding experiences he’s had along the way.

* * *

You have one of the most unique jobs of anyone I’ve ever met. What are the most rewarding aspects of the work you do? And what are the most challenging aspects of it?

I’ve always been fascinated by other languages and cultures, and genuinely love meeting people from other countries and getting a glimpse of what the world looks like through their eyes. To be able to indulge in my fascination while working with the caliber of people who tend to wear Olympic gold medals around their neck and hold Premiership trophies aloft is really icing on the cake. I get a special kind of feeling when I open up my email client and see emails from people I work with from all over the world. It makes me feel connected in a way I just could not imagine getting from most other lines of work.

The most challenging aspect is that, unless you are born where a person is born and brought up within the culture he/she was brought up within, there is a bit of a gap that is almost incapable of being breached. The more years I do this, and the more I share experiences with people of different cultures, the more I understand how fundamentally different we are as well. Language certainly gets you closer, but it’s awfully hard to make it all the way.

Is there a motto or slogan you think best summarizes the role you’ve played in helping facilitate the home away from home for thousands of Olympians?

Hmmm … that’s a really difficult one. I think my role is all about relationships, and exuding both a confidence in being able to get the job done as well as a desire to do so that comes from a place of genuineness. I want my clients to feel they are being cared for in a real person-to-person way, not in a strictly business, transactional sense. I really do care, value the connection, and I hope that that shows. This can, of course, lead to difficulties when professional differences occur and you need to draw lines in the sand. It’s far easier to do with clients who have not also become friends.

I also think I try to create an environment where pretty much any request can be somehow accommodated. Where anything is possible. I know how to say “no problem” in about seven different languages so maybe “mondainai” is most apt for a slogan. I just go off and figure out how to get things done, even when I’m not sure where that will lead.

Can you think of a few examples of ways that your interaction with athletes, coaches and support staffs from around the world have enriched your life?

It has really been an all-encompassing and ongoing process of enrichment, and I would be hard-pressed to come up with specific examples. Travel, and the exposure to the new and different, really does broaden the mind and I’m fortunate in that, even though I do not actually travel all that much, the world comes to me.

It was somewhat of an epiphany when I was in a meeting about community and it dawned on me that my best friends are scattered all over the world – the international elite sport community is, in a strong sense, my community.

If you weren’t working in the field you are in, is there a “dream job” you would have pursued?

Travel writer. I don’t have to reach far for that one.

Besides the elevation and weather, what makes Flagstaff an ideal training ground, in your view, for Olympic athletes to train?

It’s a few things. There is that appropriate elevation for training at moderate altitude and generally amenable Southwest weather. But it’s also the accessibility to a major international airport, the capability to get down quickly in elevation (for higher intensity work, etc.), the proximity to extracurricular activities (Grand Canyon, etc.) and high-caliber training venues and support services. And then, of course, there is the matter of a certain organization who ties everything together to create an efficiently seamless altitude training camp. We have a “plug-and-play” type of setup that makes it pretty easy for athletes to do training camps. One phone call does it all, as the saying goes.

When you think of the massive list of athletes you can choose from to root for, is it as exhausting as it is fun to tune into the Olympics every four years to see those with Flagstaff ties compete against the world?

I honestly love seeing, and knowing, all the names. It’s a real source of pride. But when a Japanese swim client goes head-to-head with another client from Denmark, or when Carlton plays Collingwood at the MCG arena in Melbourne (in the largest spectator sporting event — Australian rules football — in the world, per capita, by the way), it does make for some confusion on the cheering front. I like it much better when the lines of allegiance can be clearer.

Who are a few key names for sports fans to keep an eye on for the 2014 Sochi Games that have put in time training in Flagstaff in recent years?

I wouldn’t have any names to give you as almost all our clients are in Summer Olympic sports. We don’t do much with winter sports just due to the inconsistency in snowfall in our altitude sites (mainly Flagstaff).

Language and cultural barriers can be a challenge to overcome for many jobs. That said, have you received unforgettable advice via a book or mentor to help remind you about the best way to bridge that gap?

Most of it has been on-the-job training, to be honest. But I do remember reading Michael Crichton’s novel, “Rising Sun,” very early on in my career with working with the Japanese, and was floored by some of his observations regarding the Japanese. It was very illuminating for me at the time.

What are a few of the most thoughtful and special and treasured gifts and souvenirs you’ve received from high-altitude training visitors during or after their stay in Flagstaff?

Norimasa Hirai, club coach for Tokyo Swimming Center and national team coach for the Japan Swimming Federation, once brought me a beautiful, traditional wall hanging (kakejiku) that his grandmother had made. I’d worked with Hirai-sensei for quite a few years already and I thought this was very intimate and thoughtful of him. But I’ve got polo shirts, jackets, coffee cups, pennants, balls, etc. from all over the world, representing some of the world’s best teams and athletes and they are all important to me in some way, all representative of something special that comes out of each and every training camp. I am the antithesis of a pack rat in all other aspects of my life, but it’s very difficult to throw any client gifts away when each is tied to some particular memory.

I also think I’m most touched by the sensitivity my sport clients show for things that are important in my life – like my son. A famous Collingwood player came rushing over to me at the end of last year’s camp to give me a jumper of his for my son (the two had met the year before and kicked a footy around together). And there was a Japanese coach who, upon learning that my son had gotten into yo-yos, showed up for training camp with some special yo-yos he’d brought from Tokyo. It takes a deep-rooted sort of thoughtfulness to do these things and it’s very touching.

What changes, big or small, do you see happening in the next decade for Flagstaff as a training mecca at high altitude?

I think people in Flagstaff are more aware than ever of the impact, both financial and otherwise, our international clients bring to the community and doors continue to open. But the biggest change will probably be the development of a new Olympic-size pool and, hopefully, additional indoor field space, along with even more centralization of the various training camp components we coordinate.

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