Hiroshi “Morris” Morioka’s basketball-dribbling odyssey

Q+A: Hiroshi “Morris” Morioka

This article was published on SLAM Online on March 12, 2012.

by Ed Odeven / @ed_odeven

TOKYO — A dribbling basketball is, well, the heartbeat of the game. But by taking a solo journey from Tokyo to Sendai, Hiroshi “Morris” Morioka (@Morritter) demonstrated the heart of Japan pulsates from every individual, big or small.

Humble and caring, Morioka reminded people that everyone can make a difference to lift people’s spirits in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, disasters.

With a basketball in his hands, the former Oklahoma City Thunder events and entertainment department employee for the 2010-11 season, embarked on a unique journey, a dribbling odyssey, a heart-warming project that reminded people about the joy of giving back to to others.

Before his 11-day January journey, Morioka was quoted as saying, “I’m dribbling 370 kilometers from Tokyo to Sendai as part of the charity project aiming to raise money to send 300 basketballs to junior high schools in Miyagi Prefecture. My goal is to raise enough money for 100 basketballs. Well, as can be expected, in parts of Tohoku area, it hasn’t been possible for children to participate in sports clubs and activities. I hope that this project can help them to enjoy sports again.”

Mission accomplished.

After his project concluded, Morioka told SLAM, “The project will donate about $6,307 to the (Basketball Japan League’s) Sendai 89ers. They have a charity program (Kids Smile Project) to donate 300 basketballs to junior high school in Miyagi Prefecture. I think more than 130 balls will be donated through the project.”

This month, Morioka is gearing up for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs baseball season. He currently works for the Philadelphia Phillies’ top minor league affiliate as a marketing analyst.

A year after the Great East Japan Earthquake, sports teams and the games themselves, are playing an important role in giving people joy at a time when so much uncertainty, anxiety and difficulties are constant themes in the Tohoku region, where nearly 20,000 people died from the earthquake and tsunami.

SLAM: What was the feeling like for you to arrive in Sendai and be involved in a project that was meant to raise people’s spirits? [He arrived at Sendai City Gymnasium on Jan. 29, in time for the Sendai 89ers-Chiba Jets game.]

Morioka: When I got there, I was not expecting [the attention]. There were a lot of people there waiting for me. Honestly, I don’t think it’s for me but a lot of people cheered me up. I think it was more than 200 people outside the arena … more than two hours before the game, before the gates opened [at noon]. I got there at 11:40 a.m. (Traveling that day, from a train station in southern Sendai, he arrived at Sendai station, making a zigzag crossing across the city before getting to the gym.)

SLAM: What did people say to you at the gym that day, and did their support bring you joy?

Morioka: Of course. I was happy because I didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect so many people waiting for me; also Tohoku-area media, especially (showed up).

[Reporter’s note: This included reporters from one TV station, three newspapers and a Tokyo-based radio station, Shibuya FM, in the heart of the city’s fashion and entertainment district. Shibuya FM, which has followers worldwide via live Internet streaming, covered Morioka’s entire journey with reporters along the way.]

I tried to promote myself. I sent emails to every radio station, every TV station, every newspaper, magazine in the Tokyo area, and nationally.

SLAM: How did Shibuya FM report on your trip?

Morioka: During the trip, during the dribble [marathon], they called me. Basically, it was at 11 a.m., they called me and said, ‘What’s up? Where are you right now?’ A typical exchange began with, ‘Where are you right now? How’s the weather? How do you feel?’

SLAM: Did the radio conversations help you cope with loneliness on the road?

Morioka: That was really helpful for me. Cars beeped the horn. That was helpful, too. It was like, hey, one horn encouraged me, and talking to people on the phone is really helpful.

SLAM: Tell us about past long-distance basketball-dribbling projects you’ve done.

Morioka: In 2006, at age 22, from Kyoto to Okayama city, that is my hometown—200 kilometers, or 130 miles. Then [months later], Kyoto to Tokyo was 310 miles, 500 kilometers, when I was in college, also the same year. Both of these basketball-dribbling trips were designed to raise awareness to basketball in general, and the NBA specifically in Japan.

SLAM: How long did those trips take?

Morioka: I spent six days going from Kyoto to Okayama; the other trip to Tokyo was 13 days.

SLAM: Solo trips?

Morioka: Sometimes people came to see, walking with me for only a couple hours. But this time it was basically just myself.

SLAM: On your latest trip, what were the roads like that you traveled on?

Morioka: National roads because I don’t want to miss my way.

SLAM: What was an average day like on the road—from what time to what time?

Morioka: This time it was winter season, so from sunrise to sunset is really short, so this time it’s basically 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. From Kyoto to Tokyo, it was spring season, so I did 7 to 6.

SLAM: Did you stop to eat during these days or were you walking and eating?

Morioka: It depended on the day, especially this time from here to Sendai I really wanted to talk to people. That’s the main point, so I didn’t want to use time for eating, so I was basically walking and chewing, biting some chocolate. … At breakfast, I ate a lot and at dinner I ate a lot, but lunch was just eating some small snack on the road.

SLAM: Who did you want to speak to along the trip? And where?

Morioka: People who wanted to cheer me up. People who read my article from the newspaper, people watch TV or see Twitter or Facebook who like my project, or people who want to do something through basketball.

I tried to take pictures with the ball. Then I was updating the picture or some comment every hour on Twitter or Facebook. I was trying to … but basically it depended on the day; if my fingers were really cold … it’s really tough to handle it.

SLAM: Do you think your project gets other people to think about things they can do to help society?

Morioka: I think that a lot of people who watched my projects, I think, they were inspired or encouraged by my project: ‘Oh, I want to do something because he did this, for the Tohoku area or whatever. I want to do something, I need to do something.’ … I want to encourage people, especially people who live in the Tohoku area. …

I got power from them, I got energy from them, people who cheered me up. That’s the best part of the trip, conversation with people.

SLAM: How widespread was attention to your project?

Morioka: I would say people who read my blog are from more than 20 countries; Japanese people who live overseas, they watch my blog, I’m pretty sure.

SLAM: How much dribbling did you actually do on this journey? Did you take breaks?

Morioka: Basically, it just depended on the day, if some people talked to me. Sometimes it’s like one minute, sometimes it’s like one hour. Sometimes people invited me to have lunch. But basically I don’t want to say no.

If the road was really snowy or slippery, I didn’t want to dribble because I didn’t want to lose my ball and I didn’t want to make an accident.

SLAM: Any problems with police?

Morioka: Nope. They never said [I was a nuisance]. But if they said something to me, I could definitely explain my project, they would understand it. I could show them the newspaper. Because of that, the newspaper is really powerful to make people understand it.

SLAM: Did you count the total number of steps you took for this trip?

Morioka: 520,000 steps I did. For dribbling, the Tohoku area had a lot of snow, so I couldn’t (always) dribble, but I would say, one dribble per three steps, so maybe 100,000, but it could be traveling (he laughs).

SLAM: As a child, did you always take a big interest in traveling and basketball?

Morioka: My parents like to go on a family trip by bicycle, go somewhere that’s a long distance.

I did not have any bad feeling to do a long trip by myself. … I like that.

[He says he began playing on a hoop team at age 10, splitting time over the years at point guard and shooting guard.]

During Morioka’s college days at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, he heard about one of sport apparel and equipment company Mizuno’s sponsored projects: French ultra-runner Serge Girard’s five-continent trek.

“I was so impressed,” he remembers. “He was running from Paris to Tokyo … and at that time I thought I really want to do something like him.”

“That is why I started long-distance dribbling. If I did the same thing as him, probably I will be able to encourage a lot of people because I was encouraged by him.”

SLAM: Did the Oklahoma City Thunder sponsor your latest project?

Morioka: No. I wanted to get some autographed jerseys, I wanted to so some Internet auction, but they couldn’t make it. But it was really a short time … a tight schedule.

SLAM: What did your family think about this project?

Morioka: Encouragement and pride. They sent me flowers from Okayama city to Sendai. My sister works with a flower company in Hiroshima.

SLAM: How was your schedule for the project set up?

Morioka: When I saw the Sendai schedule for home games in January, there were only four home games. … It was really cold in early January and I was so nervous but the chance was only one time because I have to basically get money now.

[He was working a temporary job as a translator, and after it ended in mid-January, the time was right to take this trip, he explained.]

SLAM: Switching topics, who were some of your favorite NBA players?

Morioka: Reggie Miller. When he came to OKC while working for TNT, the game was against Orlando, he was really close. … I wanted to talk to him. I loved his play; he was the best player in my life. Someday I really want to talk to him. That’s my dream.

SLAM: Other future goals?

Morioka: In the future, I’d like to manage a Japanese pro basketball team, be a president or a GM.

SLAM: Other dreams?

Morioka: I have a couple of goals. One of them is dribbling from Los Angeles to New York City; working with the NBA team as a full-time position; selected as a Hall of Famer; and that Japanese national basketball team beats the U.S. national team [laughs].

***
Photos posted here with the original story: http://www.slamonline.com/other-ballers/international/qa-hiroshi-morioka/

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Feature flashback – NAU safety (and future NFL DB) Jeremy Thornburg

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: A humble leader

Nov. 10, 2004

By Ed Odeven

Many football players would brag about making a game-high 17 tackles. That’s just not Jeremy Thornburg’s style.

A soft-spoken, hard-hitting strong safety, Thornburg is driven to play what he calls “the perfect football game.” His 17-tackle outing against the Montana Grizzlies last Saturday wasn’t perfect.

Here’s the Northern Arizona senior’s explanation:

“I had 22 chances to make tackles, and I missed five.”

The personal assessment continues.

“After the Montana game, people came up to me like, ‘Great job, 17 tackles.’ But I was disappointed because I missed five tackles, you know,” he added. “That was my season high in tackles and missed tackles.”

In a season of ups and downs, Thornburg has been the steady anchor for the Lumberjack secondary. He leads the team with 76 tackles (37 solo stops), has broken up six passes, forced three fumbles and made three sacks.

All-conference-type numbers are nice, but victories are much more important to a consummate competitor like Thornburg.

“I think we’re not playing up to our standards at all,” he said after Tuesday’s practice at the Skydome. “We should be giving up 17 points or less a game. That’s our team goal. We’re not doing that at all.”

Opponents are scoring 27.2 points per game against the 4-5 Jacks, who travel to Idaho State for their final Big Sky Conference game of the season Saturday.

In recent weeks, the Lumberjack defense has felt the sting of losing three starters — linebackers Bruce Branch and Ian Gunderman and cornerback Shannon Butler — for the season. In their absence, Thornburg has picked up the slack — on the field and in the leadership department.

He’s had to do a lot more, right? a reporter asked linebacker Sean Sovacool.

“He can handle that, though. He’s a great player,” Sovacool said. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever played with. He’s real active, real energetic, real enthusiastic. I love to watch ‘Burg play and play with him.”

“He’s kind of the guy that brings our secondary together,” added sophomore free safety Jeffrey Wheeler. “He’s also the leader, showing by example, the way he plays on the field and the way he acts off the field. He’s just an all-around great guy.”

Play after play, you’ll see Thornburg’s versatility and instincts on display. He’ll blitz the quarterback on one play, make a diving pass deflection on the next, and follow that up with a drive-the-ballcarrier-back-to-the-line tackle.

In other words, Thornburg possesses the ideal physical qualities to be a strong safety.

“(At that position) you just have to have the speed of a corner and the tenacity of a linebacker and that’s hard to find,” Lumberjacks coach Jerome Souers said.

NAU found their man in Cathedral City, Calif., where Thornburg lettered three years in football, two in basketball and four in track before graduating in 2000. He also received attention from San Diego State, Colorado State and Utah.

Each year, Thornburg’s numbers — and productivity — have improved. He played in 10 games as a freshman in 2000 and made 10 tackles. He became the starter the next year and collected 52 tackles. After sitting out the 2002 season with a shoulder injury, he returned to the starting lineup last year and made 92 stops, picked off four passes and earned honorable mention all-Big Sky accolades.

In his spare time, the liberal studies major has become one of the Big Sky’s best hurdlers, sprinters and jumpers (he qualified for the 2003 and ’04 NCAA West Regional Championships in the long jump, and was a member of the ’03 Big Sky-winning 4×400-meter outdoor relay unit).

“I think Jeremy has gone through a lot in his experience here,” Souers said. “I think he’s matured a bunch. He’s always been a talented athlete. As talented as he is, you never sense an ego problem. … He’s been a team guy from Day One.

“He’s definitely one of those ‘quiet killers.’ … And I don’t mean to make light of murder or anything like that at all, but he’s a guy you won’t hear coming and when he blitzes and when he covers with support on the run and on special teams (look out).”

When the season concludes, the 6-foot, 190-pound Thornburg will hit the weight room and begin training with the Lumberjack track and field squad, preparing for an opportunity to play football professionally.

“I think track will help me make it to the next level,” he said. “I’ve heard some things from coaches that the scouts are interested in me.

“It doesn’t matter where I play,” was how Thornburg described his post-NAU aspirations. “I just want to play football.”

Thornburg said being a part of NAU’s upset of No. 1 McNeese State in the playoffs last year and an exciting comeback triumph over Portland State in October were two of his favorite games. Another personal favorite: he showed his pure athleticism against Portland State, making a 42-yard reception in the first half, thanks to a well-placed ball by Philo Sanchez, a running back.

Since being an all-conference linebacker/receiver at Cathedral City High, Thornburg has not played many snaps on offense. He’s lined up for a few plays there this season, which, naturally, got him thinking about what might’ve been.

“I feel that if I ever did play offense in the Big Sky I could’ve been an all-Big Sky receiver,” he said.

“My freshman year, I was happy playing defense, and as time goes on you miss the other side of the ball. If I was playing offense, I’d probably be saying the opposite.”

Next year, the Lumberjacks will miss having Thornburg in the lineup. But they are preparing for the future, with freshman Greg Laybourn waiting in the wings.

“I think having Jeremy around, he’s just been the perfect leader by example to show me how things are done,” Laybourn said. “He was in a similar situation to what I’m in now. He came in and played a little bit his freshman year and then started his sophomore year, and that’s what I’m hoping to do.

“Hopefully I can duplicate the aggressive style that he plays.”

And after his playing days are over, Thornburg hopes he’s left a legacy for NAU fans and players.

“I think they’ll say they like the way I played because I like playing hard every play, sprinting to the ball and using my speed,” he said. “I like getting big hits occasionally.”

What do those characteristics add up to?

“He’s just a great football player,” Souers concluded.

You just won’t hear those words coming out of Thornburg’s mouth.

Feature flashback – Federica Pellegrini

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: Italian Olympian roars to stardom

March 5, 2006

By Ed Odeven

It’s probably safe to assume that the best birthday present Federica Pellegrini ever received was in 2004, her sweet 16th.

The gift arrived six days late, though, on Aug. 11, when the Italian swimmer received a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle at the Athens Summer Games.

After this life-changing performance, Pellegrini, who has been dubbed “the lioness of Venice” because of her fondness for collecting photos of lions, as noted by Swimming World’s Phillip Whitten in a 2004 article, told reporters she didn’t expect to be on the awards podium, but that she showed no fear during the race.

Talk about displaying maturity. Talk about grace under pressure. And talk about, well, becoming a national hero in the process.

Nearly two years later, Pellegrini, who completed a three-week stay in Flagstaff (she trained twice a day at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training with the Italian National Team), is a seasoned swimmer, and a proven competitor on the world’s biggest stage.

“Now she is more confident in her swimming,” Italian coach Alberto Castagnetti said after Thursday’s workout, the team’s final training session in town, at the Wall Aquatic Center. “Her character is very strong. Normally, it’s happy, but maybe in the water her character is (more focused).”

This was Pellegrini’s first training camp in Flagstaff, though some of her teammates, like Massimiliano Rosolino, have been here several times. Like her teammates, Pellegrini expressed optimism looking ahead to competing in Shanghai, China, in early April and the European Long Course Championships in Budapest, Hungary, in late July.

“We trained very well, and when you train very well you are happy … I work very, very hard always and am happy about the work I’ve been doing up here,” she said through Rosolino, who serves as the team’s unofficial interpreter. “So I’m very hungry to start the next few meets.”

Can you blame her? Pellegrini has thrived in big-time competitions. In addition to her effort at the 2004 Olympics, Pellegrini garnered national attention by setting three national records (in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle races) at the 2004 Italian Winter Championships in Livorno in March 2004. She set records with times of 25.47 seconds, 54.40 and 1:59.23, respectively.

QUICK ASCENSION

Sociologists and sports talk-show hosts point to a definitive time when a star athlete, quietly or noisily, announces they’ve “arrived.”

This might happen during a press conference — “I’m the greatest,” Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali, told reporters and backed it up in the ring — or at a sporting venue.

For Pellegrini, 2004 was her time. It was the year she splashed onto the radar. To put her accomplishments into perspective, remember this: In 2003, she wasn’t ranked in the world’s top 200 in any of her three events.

And now?

She’s coming off another magnificent showing at the 2005 FINA World Championships in Montreal last July, earning a second-place finish in the 200 free 1:58.73, or 13 hundredths of a second (less time than it takes to blink once) behind France’s Solenne Figues.

“I think when you do very well when you’re young you can stay positive and things can only get better,” said Rosolino, a three-time Olympian

“She’s still very young, but in two or three years … ,” added Castagnetti without completing the thought.

A visible display of excitement was on Castagnetti’s face when he made those remarks. In other words, he expects her to have a bright future.

THE FUTURE

Pellegrini began her international career as a sprinter, focusing on the 50, 100 and 200 free events. In the years to come, Castagnetti said her best event should be the 400 free.

That’s why her coaches have tailored her training to make that tradition to middle-distance sprints.

“I think that in Beijing (the 2008 Summer Olympics) she’ll swim the 400 freestyle and not the 200,” the coach said. “Normally, now she’s not so strong in the 400.”

Castagnetti said she’s shown some frustration in making this transition, But he’s urged patience for his young pupil.

“I think she’ll come back really strong before Beijing next year in the world championships in Australia,” he added.

When Castagnetti makes these observations, it’s useful to remember that he competed in the 1972 Olympics and knows a thing or two about gauging talent, such as:

“For me, (her success in Athens), is not surprising because I hoped she would win and not (place) second. But for the people in Italy, it’s a surprise.”

Maybe then, but not now. These days, this cheerful signorina has remained level-headed about her accomplishments, enjoying the process of training and competing and starting from scratch after a marquee meet.

After her final March workout at NAU, Pellegrini was content to say that her stay in Flagstaff was a rewarding experience, a chance to take full advantage of this city’s 7000-foot elevation and complete a challenging training camp.

Previously, she had trained at high altitude in Spain and at a ski resort’s pool in northwest Italy.

Naturally, her stay here wasn’t all work, work and more work in the big pool that’s been used by international standouts from all corners of the earth — and locals as well.

Leisure time was part of the plan, too. Two Sundays ago, Pellegrini went horseback riding — on a white horse; she likes white horses, she said, smiling — with a few coaches and teammates in picturesque Canyon de Chelly.

“When I went horse riding I was very happy,” she said.

OK, so it wasn’t a birthday activity, but it was a well-deserved day of fun.

 

The life (and work) of a bull rider

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: Gone in eight seconds

June 18, 2005

By Ed Odeven

Count to eight. But not too quickly. If you do, you’ll be too fast to simulate the amount of time a bull rider has to brave the elements — a bull’s bucking and spinning, flesh-ripping horns and, oh yeah, 2,000 pounds of danger — for eight seconds.

That’s the duration of a ride, a day’s work.

Above all, this job is an adrenaline rush for a bull rider.

“The easiest way I explain it is a lot of people put something in their arm to get the feeling we get every eight seconds (on the bull),” said Jason Mattox, a bull rider from Wickenburg, Friday evening at the 24th annual Flagstaff Pine Country Pro Rodeo at the Coconino County Fairgrounds. “They’ve got to pay to hurt themselves; whereas (for) us, it’s a particular rush that you can’t compare to nothing.

“It’s like time’s stopped. You don’t notice anything around you and you don’t hear anything. You are just so focused and you are in a zone, you know. It’s hard to explain, but it’s easy to explain.

“You do it once and it gets in your blood. Once you get ridin’ in your blood, it’s hard to get it out.”

Mattox was one of 20 bull riders who competed at the Fort Tuthill arena Friday night.

Another rider, Josh Lozinsky of Marana, has similar feelings about his job.

“I’ve never experienced anything else (like it),” Lozinsky said. “You’ve got a wild animal underneath you. You’re trying your best just to compete with him. It’s one-on-one. It’s really exciting.”

Bulls named Sling Shot, Luck Of The Draw, Hurts So Good and Gotcha were in the field Friday night. They are bulls from the Salt River Rodeo Company, a well-regarded stock contractor.

Or as FPCR vice president of promotions John Davison said: “(They are) the best ones you can use.” They are certified by the Professional Bull Riders and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association as first-rate bulls, he added.

Friday, Lozinsky and Mattox were the best riders. Both kept their balance, holding tightly with one arm (two aren’t allowed) to a rope attached to the bull with the crowd roaring with delight as their time aboard Big Poppa and Forty Below, respectively, got closer to eight seconds.

Both made it.

Lozinsky was the winner Friday, finishing with 86 points (a perfect score is 100, which is rare, and the scoring is based on up to 50 points each for the bull and the rider).

Mattox earned an 83.

A rider who doesn’t stay on his bull for eight seconds doesn’t score points or earn a paycheck that day.

Before the competition began, Lozinsky was asked what he thought of Big Poppa.

“I’ve never even seen him before, but they all say he’s one of the really good ones around tonight,” he said.

But did Lozinsky have any idea what to expect once his name was called and he and Big Poppa exited the chute into the arena?

“Your test drive is those first eight seconds you get on him,” Lozinsky said.

When it was over, Lozinsky had plenty of reasons to smile.

“I just kept trying as hard as I could and never quit, and it end up working out,” Lozinsky said. “I’ve had more memorable ones, but I haven’t been able to go lately and it really made me feel good. Made me feel like a winner again.”

“The weekend’s already paid for itself and more,” he added, “If I go to the other ones and unfortunately have a bad day, I’m not going to be in the hole.”

Lozinsky, 23, broke his leg twice last year and has slowly regained his form and strength. This was his third pro rodeo of 2005.

On the other hand, Mattox, a 26-year-old who’s competed professionally for seven years, has had a more hectic schedule. Thursday, he competed in a rodeo in Pleasant Grove, Utah. After traveling all night, he arrived in Flagstaff at 5:30 Friday morning. He departed Flagstaff for Sky Harbor Airport late Friday night, caught a plane to Oregon, where he participated in a rodeo in Roseburg Saturday. Today, he’s in Washington for another bull-riding competition.

This is a typical week for a rodeo cowboy, who typically earn between $20,000 and $100,000 per year, according to Mattox. The season begins in January and ends in October. National and world championship finals are held in December.

“You always try to hit about three or four or five a weekend, from about Wednesday or Thursday to Sunday,” said Mattox, who’s headed to Reno, Nev., next weekend.

Mattox tries to go to 80 to 125 rodeos a year.

“If you stay healthy, you’ll be all right,” he said. “You won’t go to all of them because sometimes you’ll get bulls you don’t want to get on.”

Call it the cowboy’s version of “Fear Factor,” or just plain common sense.

Sometimes, one rider’s fear is another’s challenge. Last weekend, Mattox scored 87 in Riverside, Calif., riding Saratoga — “a bull they don’t like very much.”

He meant his fellow bull riders.

“A lot of guys don’t mess with him, but he took to me pretty good,” Mattox said.

The same was true with Forty Below. Before his turn Friday, Mattox talked about his experienced aboard the bull.

“I’ve been on him before,” he said. “He’s a good bull. I should do very well.”

He was right. An 83 is a respectable score. Mattox’s top score this year is 92, though.

To strive for perfection as a bull rider, Mattox prepares himself for his job like many other athletes — he works out regularly and tries to maintain a healthy diet. He also watches film of his rides.

The reason?

“I like to see what I’m doing wrong,” he said. “Maybe you’re not moving your feet when you’re supposed to or you’re kind of sitting up too high. You learn from watching film, just like with football or baseball and you can pick something up from the other team.”

And remember this: Bulls are predictable.

“Ninety percent of the time they are going to do the same thing they usually do,” Mattox decided.

So what’s the key to becoming an elite-level bull rider?

“We’ve got to keep in shape, mentally and physically, because the stock we’re riding against, the bulls, they are athletes as well,” Lozinksy said. “They are not going to want to give up, they are not going to let up, so we’ve got to go out there and give it 100 percent.”

‘I’m an athlete, an artist, and a master’s student, too’

This feature article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: Just another athlete

January 3, 2004

By Ed Odeven

Elisabeth Walker is one of the best athletes you’ve never heard of.

Take 1999, for instance, when she set four world records in a span of 10 days.

The encore? A year later, the Canadian swimmer captured three gold medals at a prestigious international competition in Sydney, Australia. All told, Walker set eight world records during the year.

Since then, Walker has continued to establish herself as one of Canada’s aquatic stars. At the Ontario University Athletic Championships in February 2002, Walker shattered four world records in the 50-meter butterfly, 100 butterfly, 100 freestyle and 200 individual medley in one weekend.

While watching Walker swim, you see the graceful, efficient techniques of a seasoned veteran.

It isn’t until she steps out of the pool that you realize, in a sense, that she’s different than other world-class athletes: Walker happens to make her mark competing for the Canadian Swimmers With A Disability (CSWAD) national team, of which she’s been a member since 1992.

Walker does not have the full use of her arms. Below the elbows, her forearms only measure about four inches long; and, as she has abnormally developed hands, she needs to grip most things with both of them clamped together.

Walker has a condition known as dysmelia, which according to the Web site http://www.books.md, is “a congenital abnormality characterized by missing or foreshortened limbs, sometimes with associated spine abnormalities; caused by metabolic disturbance at the time of primordial limb development.”

That hasn’t stopped Walker from competing in the S7 category, which includes swimmers with paraplegia, restricted arm and leg movement and partial amputations, as well as cerebral palsy and other disabilities, from doing what she has loved all her life: swimming.

But as she’s grown older, she shrugs off the notion that she’s truly different than other athletes.

Simply put, she says she wants to be recognized as an ordinary person.

“At times, it’s very frustrating,” Walker said after a recent afternoon training session at NAU’s Wall Aquatic Center. “People tell me that I’m amazing. But I want them to know that I’m an athlete, an artist, and a master’s student, too.”

Nonetheless, she relishes the opportunity to be a role model for others with various disabilities.

“I find that fulfilling,” she said.

TRAINING IN FLAGSTAFF

Walker, 26, and the CSWAD team spent Dec. 25-30 training at NAU’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex.

The group, which consists of 15 swimmers ranging in age from 18 to 32, and a support staff of nine, is currently wrapping up its stay in Arizona with a six-day training stint at Phoenix Brophy Prep High School.

Generally, elite-level teams spend three weeks training in Flagstaff’s high altitude (7,000 feet) before returning to train at lower elevations. But highly regarded Canadian sports physiologist Dr. Stephen Norris, who works at the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary and accompanied the team to Arizona, has tailored the 12 days of training to maximize the impact it will have on the athletes.

Thus, the twice-a-day training sessions at NAU were anything but easy.

“It’s very tiring,” Walker said of training at high altitude. “But it’s worth it.”

Added teammate Walter Wu, a 31-year-old visually impaired swimmer from Richmond, British Columbia: “It’s basically eat, swim, sleep for the whole time we’re here.”

Well, mostly. After all, the team did attend the Coyotes-Kings game on New Year’s Eve at the brand-new Glendale Arena.

During the course of the year, CSWAD members train at their hometown clubs with other able-bodied swimmers. Walker, for example, resides in St. Catharines, Ontario, where she works out at Brock University pool for 10 training sessions each week. Occasionally, the swimmers will get together for national camps, which also provide them with a chance to develop team unity and camaraderie.

The next big meet the team will prepare for is an international competition in Denmark in early March.

Canadian coach Craig McCord, who has run a Vancouver swim club for 20 years, said Walker is one of the team leaders.

“Lis has been around for a while, and she comes into these camps with a very business-like attitude,” McCord said. “She knows what she wants to get done and she knows what the expectations of the coaching staff are.

“I think it’s just her level of professionalism. She’s very personable and well spoken. She’s the athlete rep, the person I interact with in regards to how the athletes interact with the coaching staff.”

INTERNATIONAL SUCCESS

Walker is a veteran of three Paralympics. As a 15-year-old, she went to the 1992 Summer Paralympic Games in Barcelona. Four years later, she participated in the Atlanta Games and earned a bronze medal in the 100 backstroke.

At the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia, she continued her rise to stardom, by earning three gold medals (50 butterfly, 200 IM and a team gold in the 4×100 medley relay) and setting world records in all three events in the process. She also finished fifth in the 100 butterfly.

“To be more than a second below the world record (in the 50 butterfly) is unbelievable,” Walker told reporters in Sydney. “This was my pressure event and it’s a big relief to get it out of the way. The caliber of the athletes at these games has really shot up compared to four years ago.”

Walker’s stepped up her level of performance, too, and even exceeded her own lofty expectations.

“The last one was by far my most successful,” she said, reflecting on competing in Sydney. “I had a goal of one gold medal and one world record there, and I came home with three gold medals and (three) world records.”

SISTERLY LOVE

Walker has a twin sister, Rebekah, who has customary use of both arms but has a slight learning disability. Growing up, the two were always together, practically inseparable.

Walker said she and her sister are best friends and learned to help each other as kids. Elisabeth took longer to learn everyday tasks like buttoning a coat and tying shoes, while Rebekah was a little behind in her scholastic endeavors.

“For each other, we are the perfect complement,” she said.

Nowadays, Rebekah juggles several jobs, working as a full-time nanny, at a bar and as an artist.

Rebekah also had the opportunity to share one of the most exciting times in her twin’s life four years ago, when she accompanied her sister to Sydney for the 2000 Paralympics. After the conclusion of the games, the two spent three months backpacking through the Australian countryside.

“What a wonderful experience that was to share with my sister,” Walker said, smiling.

LIVE AND LEARN

Dr. Norris, who regularly works with Canada’s able-bodied national-team athletes, such as the speed skaters, downhill skiers and hockey players, said he was initially nave about how to interact with disabled athletes. But, he said, “In 72 hours, that disappeared.”

Now, he’s as impressed with Walker’s athletic ability as anyone else.

“Of the six billion people on the planet that can swim, she’s in the 99th percentile. She’s a fine swimmer,” Dr. Norris concluded.

Coach McCord, meanwhile, said he’s learned that CSWAD swimmers don’t want special treatment.

“You’re going to obviously have to modify workouts and routines to fit their disability, but in general they get trained the exact same way the able-bodied athletes get trained,” he said.

Walker will compete at the Athens 2004 Paralympics, which will be Sept. 17-28. Not surprisingly, she’s thrilled about the opportunity to compete in the historic city.

“To be there in Greece, where the Olympics originate from, will be an amazing experience,” said Walker, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical education and recently took a leave of absence from school (she’s working toward a master’s in occupational therapy) to devote more time to prepare for the upcoming Paralympics.

Summing up the rewarding experiences she’s had as a Paralympian, Walker stated, “You get to see the best of both worlds: the great athleticism, and the chance to learn about what people with ‘disabilities’ can do.”

Feature flashback – Randy Johnson

This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: As Unit gets older and better, comparisons to Ryan inevitable

By Ed Odeven

(May 23, 2002) — I’ve seen the amazing Randy Johnson start four games this season at Bank One Ballpark. He’s won all four of those starts.

That’s what the Big Unit does: He dominates like few pitchers ever have in the history of baseball. Johnson, 38, is now 65-23 with 1,178 strikeouts in 843 innings since joining the Diamondbacks in 1999. (Take a moment to fathom those out-of-this world statistics; and while you’re at it, ponder what the Houston Astros — knowing what they now know — would give if they could get a “re-do” an ill-fated decision and go back in time to sign Johnson to a free-agent deal in December 1998.)

An intimidating 6-foot-10 left-hander, Johnson is a cool, composed performer on the mound. Coming at ’em with the trajectory and velocity of missiles, Johnson routinely fires 96-to-98 mph fastballs at hitters. Those fireballs are hard enough to hit.

Then, when trouble arises Johnson reaches back and adds a little more heat, a little more punishment to befuddle opposing batsmen. Johnson has a knack for showmanship, as he demonstrated on Opening Day, throwing a 101 mph pitch to San Diego’s Deivi Cruz on the game’s next-to-last pitch.

And let’s not forget his devastating, knee-buckling sliders. That’s what Johnson used to deliver the knockout blow to Cruz and give Arizona a season-opening win. Cruz whiffed on a slider, sending the frenzied crowd home with a smile. There have been plenty of smiles during Johnson’s tenure with the team and three straight Cy Young Awards to go with it.

Johnson is tied with teammate Curt Schilling for the major league lead in victories. At an age when most pitchers are showing signs of slowing down, Johnson appears to be getting stronger and better. He has lasted at least seven innings in each of his 10 starts this season.

The best parallel one can use to explain Johnson’s maturation as a pitcher is Nolan Ryan, the game’s all-time strikeout king with 5,714. As a youngster, Ryan tried to simply blow batters away with his fastball. He lacked pinpoint control, and essentially tried to win games by throwing, not pitching. Ryan settled down and became a great pitcher.

Similarly Johnson has learned to pitch. He has learned that his slider sets up his overpowering fastball. He has learned that even on an “off night,” he can deliver the goods and keep his team in the game.

After surrendering three runs and six hits, pegging two batters, walking three and fanning 10 against the Giants on Tuesday, the word in the Arizona clubhouse was that Johnson pitched well enough to win, even if it wasn’t a vintage Johnson performance

“Crafty is the perfect word for it,” D-backs catcher Damian Miller said to describe Johnson’s performance. “People get spoiled because of what he’s capable of doing. …Even a crafty Randy is still the best pitcher in baseball.”

It’s hard to find a convincing reason to argue with Miller’s point.

Feature flashback – Devin Dugi

This featured appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: Natural talent

By Ed Odeven

March 15, 2003

When you watch Devin Dugi with a basketball in his hands, you are watching a skilled marksman at work.

Intently focused, Dugi eyes his target, squares his shoulders, leaps and shoots the ball. The ball floats toward its intended target and drops out the bottom end, tickling the twine on its way down … Nothing but net. For Dugi, it’s not an occasional occurrence. It’s his trademark.

From the baseline, from the top of the key, from the wings and everywhere in between, the Tuba City High School senior perfected this technique. How? It took countless hours of practice, firing up spot-up shots, fadeaway jumpers and high-arcing Js.

It all started on the dirt court outside the Dugis’ home in Tuba City. Since he was a youngster, he’s spent hour after hour, day after day, shooting jumpers from all corners of the court. Bushes mark the boundary of the three-point arc, which is slightly longer than three-point range on college courts. It is here where Devin’s dad, Jimmy, drilled him on the fundamentals of basketball.

“If you’re going to play, play right,” Jimmy Dugi says of his b-ball mantra. “That’s how he learned it.”

This approach, according to the elder Dugi, means “to shoot it the correct way, not just jungle ball … not just throwing it in.”

Fast forward to late February. Dugi and his Warrior teammates are playing in the Class 3A state semifinal game against region rival Monument Valley at America West Arena.

Before the game, Tuba City coach Earl Flaggs and Richard Obert, a longtime Phoenix prep writer, briefly conversed about Dugi, a player whose all-around abilities have been talked about in basketball circles around the state.

Devin didn’t disappoint. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard scored a game-high 27 points in the 59-56 loss to the Mustangs and buried several NBA-range three-pointers.

“He’s used to seeing the line and shooting,” Flaggs said, “so he thought he was shooting a college three. Well, fortunately there were about 15 scouts at the game that were like, ‘Oh my goodness.’

“(Obert) came up to me after and said, ‘Coach, are you kidding?'” Flaggs recalled. “And I said, ‘He had an off-game tonight.'”

Dugi has not had many off-games in Flaggs’ two years at Tuba City. This season he led the Warriors with 23.5 points and contributed 8.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game. And Dugi was one of 24 Arizona hoopsters nominated for the 2003 McDonald’s All-American Team, a who’s who of the nation’s top players for the past quarter-century. Across the country about 1,500 players are nominated each year. Then the number is narrowed down to 20 all-stars — guys who are usually future NBA lottery picks — who play in the annual McDonald’s game.

Dugi, a member of the Navajo Nation, is the first Native American to be nominated to the McDonald’s team.

“It’s fun to be recognized with those kind of people, (like) LeBron James and past players like Michael Jordan, Kobe (Bryant) and Shaq (O’Neal),” he said.

Flaggs is very honored to have one of his players receive this prestigious accolade.

“Oh, it’s great,” said Flaggs, a former star guard at Gunn High in Palo Alto, Calif. “It’s probably one of the true highlights of my time here. I wanted to be able to put a stamp on this program that quality basketball players are here, and it has simply been a matter of them not being exposed. That’s why you haven’t heard more about the quality of basketball that comes out of Tuba City.”

BREAKOUT YEAR

Dugi has played competitive basketball since he was 8. That was when he played pee-wee ball for his dad’s team. As a sophomore, he averaged 30 ppg for the Warrior junior varsity squad in 2000-01, the year the Warriors won their second straight 3A state championship.

“In this day and age you can’t really do that unless you have a real proficient outside shot,” Flaggs said.

But it’s at the varsity level, not JV level, that high school players are truly evaluated and analyzed as possible college prospects.

Flaggs entered the picture when there was a coaching vacancy at Tuba City. In July 2001, Flaggs was weighing job offers in the Valley and in Tuba City. He took a trip to the reservation to see the Warriors play.

“We had a two-day Warrior camp where all the kids could come in town and were here for a weekend to play pickup basketball and I could get a chance to see the talent,” Flaggs said. “And that’s the first time I saw Devin. He was playing with a lot of boys from the last state championship team who were still in town.

“I really didn’t know what to expect, but like I said, I saw him playing against a very talented group of kids, two-time state champions. Instantly, I knew — it doesn’t take long for coaches to recognize special kids. At that point, it was clear that this was a special kid who had some unusual talent for a 15-year-old boy.”

Those talents were on display since Day One. Dugi averaged 23.1 ppg and shot better than 50 percent from the floor and from three-point range and converted 80 percent of his free-throw attempts as a junior. And he had 10 games in which he averaged 32 points a game, including a memorable game against Winslow in which he scored two points in the first quarter and 30 more over the next three.

Flaggs calls it a breakout year.

“He had a long stretch of big games there,” the coach said. “As a team, we really maximized our potential and had an unexpected participation in the state championship (tournament) last year. We clearly were not a team that you looked at in the beginning and thought state championship. We’d lost nine of the 11 players plus the coach and there was no summer program. A lot of the coaches around the 3A teased me about taking this job when I came in, but I’m a guy that likes challenges like that.”

Dugi credits Flaggs for helping him understand the finer points of basketball.

“I learned to distribute more to my teammates, how to pass, how to create shots for myself, how to play better all-around,” said Dugi, who wants to study sports medicine in college.

WORKOUTS

Dugi doesn’t just shoot jump shots. His workout regimen keeps him in peak physical condition year-round. He runs three miles every day, lifts weights and jumps rope.

Then there’s Flaggs’ exhausting exercise. He brought his players out to the TCHS football stadium’s bleachers and had them jump from row to row, a la bunny-hops, for up to 1 1/2 hours with short breaks in between several leaps. Dugi and senior teammates Donny Curtis and Michael Justice, who are also expected to play college ball next season, had the most stamina in this drill, Flaggs said.

That exercise has strengthened Dugi’s lower-leg muscles and helped him increase his jumping ability — he has a 37- to 40-inch vertical leap and can slam dunk a basketball with two hands.

Dugi’s discipline, his father observed, to always practice shooting is why he’s become such a sharpshooter. “He’d be doing it in the heat in the summertime … all year long,” the elder Dugi said. “He’s always been a good shooter.”

FAMILY INFLUENCE

Family support has been an integral part of Dugi’s upbringing. His parents, Jimmy and Cynthia, and his four younger sisters regularly attended Warriors games wherever they were played.

In fact, Dugi’s dad missed only one basketball game in Devin’s four years in high school. His mother was sick and had to go to the hospital that day.

Years ago, basketball was more of a leisure activity than a passion for many Navajos. Jimmy grew up in Shadow Mountain in a sheep camp — he says it was like a ranch. Then the family followed the traditional ways, moving their camp on a quarterly basis.

“Basketball wasn’t really a top priority,” he said of his younger days. “It was at the bottom of the list.”

Jimmy, a 1983 TCHS grad, remembers playing ball as a kid and in high school, but not with the same unbridled support his son now receives.

“(My parents) were supportive, but not really excited about watching,” he said. “Now, my dad likes it.”

Jimmy’s three older brothers also played basketball, as did several of his uncles. That provided him with a good working knowledge of the sport.

“I carried what I learned on to Devin,” said Jimmy, who works as an assistant water system operator for a utility company.

He also gave his son an understanding of what his talents in basketball can bring: a college scholarship and an opportunity to get a well-rounded education.

“I’m really proud of him, and this opportunity could bring him a better future (because he’s) playing basketball.”

Said Devin: “I just get a lot of help from my coach and my dad pushing me.”

FUTURE OPPORTUNITIES

Last summer, Flaggs had the Warriors play 65 games. They participated in the University of Arizona’s summer camp tournament. They won it.

Then the Warriors went to the University of Utah’s summer camp. They advanced to the tournament semifinal against Utah’s West High School.

Dugi scored a personal-high 50 points in the game. He had 37 by halftime and finished with 12 three-pointers.

“That again solidified him as a player that’s worthy of being recruited,” Flaggs said.

An estimated 30 schools have expressed interest in Dugi, including Division I programs Utah, BYU, UTEP and Washington State. Other schools include Mesa State (Colo.), Fort Lewis, and several community colleges from Arizona.

Dugi, who maintains a 3.0 GPA, has an ACT-qualifying score, and thus, is academically eligible to play next year. But where will the first-team All-State performer go?

Flaggs said the process is ongoing, and that Dugi, his parents and him are now working out the specifics about official campus visits. (Athletes are allowed to take one official visit at up to five schools.)

Of course, with the shooting touch and athleticism Dugi has displayed at Tuba City, and while playing for traveling all-star squads like Arizona Pump N’ Run, many coaches realize he can be an impact player at the next level.

“If you have Devin on the wing and you have a solid post player, a kid who can regularly score in a one-on-one opportunity, you have to commit yourself to double-teaming,” Flaggs said. “Well, do you double-team on a consistent low-post scorer and leave this kind of kid open on the perimeter? Or do you play it single, play it straight up and allow the kid on the inside who’s proven he can score on you the ability to score?

“That’s probably the root reason for Devin getting as much interest as he is. He just is going to be a kid, if he works as hard as he possibly can and really commits himself to his own personal success, is really going to create those kind of matchup problems.

“Devin reminds me a lot of Jamaal Wilkes from the old Laker championship teams. Very smooth jump shoot, seemingly unlimited range and the ability to quietly score 32 points, have 12-13 rebounds, four or five steals and two or three blocks,” Flaggs concluded. “I think his biggest upside is his ability to play on the perimeter and shoot with this kind of size. When you find a kid who’s 6-4 and change who can shoot the NBA three with consistency and handle the basketball, that’s what these coaches are getting excited about.”

Staying grounded, Dugi understands what’s taken him to this level and what’ll make him stronger at the next level.

“I can always get better,” Dugi said.

That’ll certainly mean countless more jumpers on dirt or indoor courts.