2007 training camp interview with … gymnast Yewki Tomita

This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Star in January 2007.

Japanese training re-energizes Tomita

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO — No one would ever accuse Yewki Tomita of being a slacker.

Years in the gym have given his body a chiseled physique and made him mentally tough as well.

Call him optimistic. Call him focused. And though he has been slowed by shoulder injuries and a slew of surgeries during the past half-dozen years, the Tucson native has never given up the sport he loves or lost sight of his goal: to compete for USA Gymnastics in the Olympics.

So here he was in Japan, the land of his heritage, for an intense weeklong training camp with his father, Yoichi, and the USA Gymnastics men’s team last week.

The group, which included 10 of the 14 U.S. national team members, left The Land of the Rising Sun on Sunday, but not before engaging in productive, mutually beneficial practices and some fun along the way. (The athletes strengthened their friendship during a sushi dinner — sans coaches — last Thursday; the coaches, meanwhile, were talking shop at another Tokyo eatery.)

“Training camps in general, even if it’s just the U.S. guys, are special,” Yewki said after Friday’s workout. “But to have the dynamic of traveling to Japan and training with the current Olympic (team) champion, it definitely makes for a special time.”

That special time — the fourth time in the past five years that the two nations have held joint training camps, including ones in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2004 and last year — has given Tomita and his teammates plenty of time to enjoy the camaraderie of their Japanese counterparts without the stress of competition.

“This is the fourth time that our two teams have trained together and it’s been a very productive experience for all the athletes and coaches,” said Dennis McIntyre, the men’s program director for USA Gymnastics.

“We wouldn’t keep doing it if it didn’t meet everybody’s goals.”

For Yewki, a week of twists and turns and plenty of stretching exercises at the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences in Tokyo provided a solid workout as he continues his recovery from a pair of shoulder surgeries. His right shoulder was operated on in April, while the left one underwent a medical procedure two months later.

As he observed his 26-year-old son training, Yoichi discussed his comeback in an optimistic manner.

“(He’s doing) very good,” said the elder Tomita. “I’m very pleased. He had surgery and he just came back from surgery.

“I think he’s way beyond (on the rehabilitation calendar). We are pretty pleased about his progress.”

Yewki, who resides at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, has not competed since March. But he had a memorable month, capturing the first-place medal in the high bar at the French International meet in Lyon.

He’s now in preparation mode for the Winter Cup Challenge, which commences Feb. 8 in Las Vegas. In that prestigious domestic meet, he said he will not compete in the rings, vault or parallel bars.

So how does he feel physically?

“My right shoulder isn’t quite there (yet), but my left shoulder is almost there, so I’m pretty pleased by that,” he said.

“The doctor doesn’t think I’ll be perfect until April, so I can’t expect (miracles).”

Maybe not, but one thing the younger Tomita can be sure of is that every hour he spent in the gym with the reigning Olympic champs was time well spent.

“I think the overall goal was to interact with the Japanese team and take from what they are doing and observe them and learn from them as much as possible, because that’s something that we don’t get to do on a daily basis,” he said with a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

“There’s a guy here (in Tokyo) who does vault as good as anybody I’ve ever seen. I can admire that. I don’t do vault right now, but eventually I might come back to it and it’s something that I can learn from as well.

“Yeah, I do tend to watch my events more. And there are a lot of strong high-bar guys here, which is my strong event, and there are a lot of strong pommel-horse guys in Japan on certain skills that I like to watch, especially the dismount.”

Or, as Yogi Berra once said: You can observe a lot just by watching.

Far away from his hometown, Tomita watched. He trained. He continued his quest to make it to Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.

“It’s been a great camp,” Yewki concluded.

For father and son, last week also gave them a chance to have a mini-family reunion, too.

Yewki’s younger sister, Naomi, an elementary school teacher in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, visited them Saturday in Tokyo.


One of Japan’s best coaches: swimming mentor Norimasa Hirai

This column was written during the 2012 Summer Olympics for The Japan Times.

Hirai’s impact on swimmers profound

By Ed Odeven

Valentine’s Day is not associated with a passion for one’s job, but rather, you know, a different kind of affection.

Nevertheless, a story published on Feb. 14 by the Asahi Shimbun highlighted Norimasa Hirai’s passion for his job and the guidance he has given the Japan national team in his role as head coach.

“He’s very humble about what he doesn’t know,” Tsuyoshi Aoki, a Japan Swimming Federation vice president told the Asahi Shimbun. “That’s why he listens to people and tries to understand people. More than anything, he has passion.”

I have known Hirai for almost a decade — first watching him conduct a number of intense high-altitude training camps in Flagstaff, Arizona.

He’s polite, but a stickler for details. He’s patient, yet demanding; kind, but assertive. He doesn’t tolerate nonsense. He demands results, and gets them.

And yes, he pushes athletes to be the best they can be, starting them out as youngsters at Tokyo Swimming Club, his longtime employer.

Olympic insider/man behind the scenes, Sean Anthony, who coordinates countless high-altitude training camps for international teams in Flagstaff isn’t surprised by what Hirai has accomplished over the years, including guiding Kosuke Kitajima to double gold medal performances in the men’s breaststroke at the 2004 Athens Games and 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“It should be noted that we see hundreds upon hundreds of elite international swimmers come through our altitude training site here in Flagstaff (at Northern Arizona University), and few coaches demonstrate Nori’s particular brand of genius for consistently developing athletes,” Anthony told The Japan Times on Monday. “What an honor it is to know him and to have had the opportunity to watch him work his magic with talented swimmers for well over a decade now.”

The 49-year-old Hirai has written books about swimming, but he isn’t a pompous know-it-all.

In essence, he has described his views on mentoring his swimmers this way: “The coach’s role is to train athletes with a long-term perspective.”

Years of hard work and dedicated, smart training have paid off for Hirai and the Japan national team. Monday was a banner day for the nation in the pool. One of the nation’s best, in fact.

In a span of 24 minutes, Japan collected three bronze medals on Monday. For some nations, that can be achieved in a decade or two.

For Japan, a nation with ample swimming talent and excellent training methods, that’s a big reminder that the JSF is doing a heck of a lot of things right.

Here’s a brief rundown:

■ At 7:51 p.m., Aya Terakawa began her 100-meter women’s backstroke race, the Osaka native finishing third behind American champion Missy Franklin and Australian runnerup Emily Seebohm.

(Satoko Tanaka and Mai Nakamura in 1960 and 2000, respectively, also earned medals for Japan in the event.)

“I knew the last 15 meters was the key,” Terakawa said after completing the race in 58.83 seconds.

■ At 7:58, Ryosuke Irie was in the pool en route to a bronze medal in the men’s 100 back (52.97, rallying from sixth place to third in the final 50 meters. American Matthew Grevers didn’t make life easy for Irie, setting a terrific pace on his way to a gold medal in 52.16 and an Olympic record in the process.

“I tried to go out hard and tried to ride with the other guys,” Grevers admitted afterward. “They tried to catch up and I was thinking, like, ‘go away.’ ”

To his credit, Irie didn’t fade away. He got better — much better — as the race progressed.

“Getting a medal was very important to me and before the race when I saw all the Japanese flags (in the spectators’ stands) I felt very proud,” said Irie, who placed fifth in the 200 backstroke at the Beijing Games and third in the 100 back at the 2011 FINA World Swimming Championships in Shanghai.

Irie knows the Olympics are a greater proving ground than any world championship. Which is why he was beaming with pride during post-race interviews.

“Four years ago, I was expected to be a young ace and I could not get any medal,” he said. “That was my incentive to become stronger.”

■ At 8:15, Satomi Suzuki, a 21-year-old Fukuoka native, splashed into the water for the women’s 100-meter breaststroke, and when it was over she had secured the bronze in 1 minute, 6.46 seconds.

“I wanted any medal,” Suzuki revealed. “I was thinking half and half to get a medal and personal best.

“If I smile, I’m happy, but I’m very nervous in my heart,” she explained, without needing to remind the gathered crowd of reporters that her third-place effort brought a smile to her face.

Meanwhile, at 8:32 Takeshi Matsuda, the Beijing Games’ bronze medalist in the 200 butterfly, began his semifinal heat and delivered a fantastic performance, winning the race in 1:54.25.

He’s seeded first for Tuesday’s final, even ahead of 17-time medalist Michael Phelps, who won the second heat and qualified fourth-fastest overall in 1:54.53.

After the first set of heats, Matsuda analyzed his effort so far.

“I was quite tense but as a heat it was really good,” said Matsuda, Team Japan’s swimming captain and the pride of Miyazaki Prefecture. “Normally in the first 50 meters I swim slower and for the rest of the race I try to swim faster.”

That mission remains intact.

Through three days of Olympic competition, Japan earned four swimming medals, including Kosuke Hagino’s bronze in the men’s 400-meter individual medley, the Sakushin Gakuin High School senior surprising most so-called swimming experts as well.

Those four medals equal the same number hauled in by Japanese judoka in that span, including Kaori Matsumoto’s 48-kg gold, her nation’s first at the London Games.

No matter how you analyze the results, stacking up comparably with judo, a sport invented by the Japanese, is always a splendid feat for Japanese swimmers.

And hey, thanks to the swimming team, Japan enters Day Four of the Olympics in third place in the total medal standings behind China and the United States, both of which have 17 apiece, with 120 total medals issued.

Remember this: Norimasa Hirai may be a name that only appears in the headlines on a regular basis once every four years, but those that understand the impact of his coaching prowess will tell you this: It’s a labor of love for Hirai-sensei.

2004 Fiesta Bowl

This article on the 2004 Fiesta Bowl appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in January 2004.

KSU digs too big a hole to win


TEMPE — Friday’s Fiesta Bowl started out with plenty of Kansas State mistakes. Dropped passes. Bad snaps. Dumb penalties.

But in the second half the Wildcats had turned a potential rout into a competitive contest in their 35-28 defeat to Ohio State at Sun Devil Stadium.

“We were just inconsistent” was what longtime KSU coach Bill Snyder said when it was over.

After senior quarterback Ell Roberson had brought the Wildcats to within a touchdown on a 1-yard plunge with 2:47 to go, KSU tried an onsides kick and recovered the ball.

But there was a flag. KSU was penalized for being offside, and it kicked again. The second onsides kick, though, was recovered by KSU.

In essence, that play summed up the game. In other words, even when the ball bounced Kansas State’s way, it didn’t.

After forcing the Buckeyes (11-2) to punt on the next possession, the Wildcats, who trailed 35-28, had one last shot at the end zone, taking over at their own 10 with 1:12 left. They quickly moved the ball to the Ohio State 7, and had one last shot at the end zone as time expired.

Roberson’s Hail Mary pass was batted down, sending the Wildcats (11-4) to a season-ending defeat in dramatic finish. They entered the game with seven consecutive wins, including a shocking 35-7 triumph over seemingly invincible Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship on Dec. 6.

The Fiesta Bowl was somewhat overshadowed by the news that Roberson was accused of sexual assaulting a woman at a Scottsdale hotel New Year’s Day.

Roberson was unavailable for comment after the game.

Snyder made the decision Friday to start Snyder.

“Well, a great deal of work investigation by our administration gave me information that led me to believe that Ell Roberson was not guilty of what he was charged of,” Snyder said. “He hasn’t been charged what he was seemingly implicated in.”

Of course, one can wonder how much of a distraction the Roberson situation had on the Wildcats.

Senior center Nick Lechey said, “I think we handled it as best as we could.”

“I don’t think it had any effect (on our performance),” added defensive end Thomas Houchin.

The Wildcats’ three premier playmakers on offense — Roberson, tailback Darren Sproles and receiver James Terry — combined for more than 6,000 yards entering the game. The trio was a non-factor in the first half, accumulating just 114 yards of total offense.

To make matters worse, Roberson had a horrendous first half, completing 5 of 15 passes for 60 yards. Many of his passes were off the mark, as was the timing between he and the Wildcat receivers.

“I think his head wasn’t in the game in the first half,” Smith said.

During a halftime radio interview, Snyder said, “He (Roberson) needs to settle down, and some other things need to happen.”

Roberson made things happen in the second half, running the option methodically, firing passes downfield and guiding his team in catch-up mode.

Collectively, the Buckeyes said they were not surprised KSU rallied from deficits of 21-0 and 35-14.

“We knew they were a good team and they were going to come back,” Buckeyes defensive end Will Smith said.

“We knew we were in for a fight for 60 minutes,” OSU defensive tackle Tim Anderson added.

After it was over and the final statistics were tabulated – including KSU’s 4-for-17 effort on third downs and Roberson’s abysmal 20-for-51 effort passing, it didn’t take a whole lot of contemplation to figure out why OSU won the game.

“We just didn’t get it done,” Lechey concluded.

It was that kind of night for the Wildcats. Too little, too late.

A feared pass rusher (Jeff Charleston)

This feature story on future NFL defensive end Jeff Charleston appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in November 2005.


By Ed Odeven

If you ask Jeff Charleston to explain how he became a successful first-year starter on the Idaho State defense, he’ll give you a modest answer.

“It was pretty much having to come in and work every day,” Charleston said Wednesday.

If you ask coaches why he’s become one of Division I-AA’s most feared pass rushers, you’ll get a more detailed response.

“He is extremely fast,” said NAU coach Jerome Souers, whose team plays host to Idaho State Saturday at 3:05 p.m. at the Skydome. “He has a great feel for the game and he’s a tenacious player. … You’ve got to know where (he’s) at on the field at all times.”

But even if you know where Charleston is, he still makes plays. He is fourth in I-AA in sacks (11) and is one of 16 finalists for the 2005 Buck Buchanan Award, which is given annually to I-AA’s top defensive player.

Four times this season, Charleston has recorded two or more sacks, getting three against Eastern Washington and two apiece against Southern Utah, Montana State and Sacramento State. He has 51 tackles (25 solo stops) in nine games for the 5-4 Bengals.

This productivity doesn’t surprise Bengals coach Larry Lewis.

“The biggest thing is his relentless work ethic,” Lewis said. “He just never quits.”

One textbook example illustrated this point, a scene repeated week after week on the Pocatello, Idaho, campus.

After practice, “he’s just in the dome (working out) when we get done,” Lewis said. “He’s self-made. Nobody can outwork him (on this team). I’ve just seen very few kids work as hard as Jeff Charleston does.”

Charleston, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound senior defensive end, grew up on a 50-acre farm in Monmouth, Ore. It is there where he learned the value of hard work, while tending to cattle and sheep and bailing hay, and how much fun it is to play football.

“Every summer after you get done working, you look forward to football camp. It’s a lot easier than working in the field,” said Charleston.

Nobody’s ever said it’s easy to go up against 300-pound offensive linemen for four quarters. But Charleston makes it look easy.

“If you’re a tackle and you know he’s on the outside edge, you are going to have your hands full,” Souers said. “You’ve got to have great technique.”

NAU’s young offensive line — senior Jacob Wolfe at left tackle, two sophomores and two freshmen are slated to start Saturday — will be tested by Charleston and his linemates.

“As a game plan, we cannot be in a dropback, predictable (passing) situation,” Souers said. “That’s when he’s at his best.”

In 2004, Charleston transferred to Idaho State from Division II Western Oregon, a school in his hometown. He said he just wanted a change of scenery and a chance to play at a higher level.

Or as Lewis put it: “He really wanted a bigger challenge. Jeff had great goals ahead of him. He needs that challenge every day. He wants to prove that every day (he’s one of the best).”

Charleston had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules.

Which is why Charleston has made such a big splash on the I-AA scene this season.

This year, NFL scouts have started to pay big-time attention to Charleston.

“He was off the radar a year ago,” Lewis said.

And now?

“They said, ‘We haven’t seen this kid. We don’t have video on him,'” Lewis said, recounting conversations he’s had this season.

“He’s gone from a kid whose gone from nothing to ‘oh, man we better go see this kid,'” Lewis added.

And in the process Charleston has drawn comparisons to ex-Bengal sack maestro Jared Allen, who won the 2003 Buck Buchanan Award as a college senior. He’s in his second season with the Kansas City Chiefs and leads the team with five sacks through Sunday.

Now as his college career winds down — the Bengals have two remaining games — Charleston has his sights set on a career in the NFL. Yet he still looks back on his college career with fond memories.

“Just being able to play on Saturdays is a big thrill,” he said.

“I’m trying to make more mental adjustments right now…” (Brian McFall, minor league baseball player, July 2003)

This featured story appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in July 2003.


By Ed Odeven

Brian McFall isn’t having any trouble adjusting to the minor leagues.

Now playing for the Arizona Royals I, one of two Kansas City rookie ballclubs in the eight-team Arizona League, McFall has made a smooth transition from junior college to the minors. And while doing so he has shown the same productive hitting stroke that made him a star at Sinagua High School and a standout at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.

Through Thursday, McFall was batting .301 with four homers and 24 RBIs, both of which are tied for second in the short-season rookie league that started in late June. McFall’s 12 extra-base hits are tied for fourth. He has a .566 slugging percentage and a .371 on-base percentage.

Instead of patting himself on the back for his offensive accomplishments, McFall has decided to focus his attention on improving the mental aspects of his game.

“What I like is that I’m trying to make more mental adjustments right now, because I don’t feel that anybody can physically dominate me or physically is above me,” McFall said after the Royals’ 9-7 win Thursday over the Peoria Mariners at the Peoria Sports Complex.

“(All the players) in professional baseball, I’ve learned, … are all good obviously,” added McFall, who was the 72nd overall pick by the Kansas City Royals in Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft in June. “I think the people that move up are the people who can make the mental adjustments and be able to do that.”

What adjustments is he trying to make?

“Right now I’m just trying to keep (my cool),” McFall continued. “I’ve always been intense in the game and when I get out I get pretty fired up about it. I’m learning to forget about it and not take it out in the field and not take it to the next at-bat. Now (in the Arizona League) we’ve got 60 to 70 games, and next year I’m going to have 140 games. One at-bat really doesn’t mean anything.”

McFall, who was a shortstop and pitcher at SHS before graduating in 2002, has played first base or designated hitter in all 21 of the Royals’ games this season. He demonstrated his fundamental understanding of playing first base in Thursday’s victory, calling off the charging pitcher on a high pop-up — “I got it, I got it, I got it!” he shouted as the players avoided collision — flawlessly handling all his chances at the bag and completing a 6-3-5 double play with a quick, accurate throw to third in the eighth.

“I think I have decent range for first base because I grew up playing shortstop, so I think that helps,” said McFall.

Royals I manager Lloyd Simmons, who coached Seminole (Okla.) State College from 1976-2001, said McFall has made a positive impact since the season began.

“He’s a hard worker,” Simmons said. “He loves the game. He loves to play. And he’s willing to put in the time and the work to make a change, a new position. He’s done a great job for us.”

On Thursday, McFall, the cleanup hitter, went 1-for-4 and delivered the big hit for the Royals — a three-run go-ahead homer to left-center in the seventh. He showed patience at the plate, too, making the opposing pitchers throw strikes.

Simmons declined to compare McFall to other players, but offered some solid insight.

“The hitting coach (Tom Poquette) and me, he’s always asking us questions,” the veteran skipper said. “He wants to be a great player, and, like I’m saying, he’s not scared to work hard, whether it’s in the weight room, on the field, extra ground balls. Whatever it is, he’s willing to put in the extra effort, and that’s what it takes to be a great player. And I think he will be.”

When Simmons speaks about a player’s potential, people listen. He is, after all, a legend. Simmons is the winningest coach in collegiate baseball history, compiling a 1,643-312 record at Seminole State. During his years there, the school made 13 appearances in the National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association World Series. He was inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame in 1997.

In short, Simmons said successful teams — the Royals I are the Arizona League’s first-place club — need to have guys like McFall on their roster.

“When you go through that many guys in that many years and you’re blessed with that many wins over those years and go to the (NJCAA) World Series a record number of times and everything, you have guys like him,” Simmons said. “You’ve got to have guys like him that are willing to put out their effort every day to be a great player.”

For the first time in his life, the 19-year-old McFall is focused only on baseball. There are no classes to worry about, no final exams to prepare for. And he’s loving every moment of it.

“Just playing every day and just meeting guys from a whole bunch of cultures, (like) the Dominican guys, that’s awesome being able to see all these cultures,” he said.

And it’s a good way for him to improve speaking Spanish.

“I studied it in high school, and (now) I’m picking it up,” he said. “I’m getting pretty good, communicating with everybody.”

He’s also gotten used to an early-morning training regimen. Simmons’ squad arises around 5:15 a.m., goes to breakfast at 6:30, begins its workouts at 7, walks off the field at 9:15 or 9:30 for a small snack and then prepares for the 10:30 games. Due to the stifling summer heat in the Valley, the rest of the season’s games are scheduled to be played at night.

“The only thing I wish would be a little better is most rookie leagues are in stadiums where 5,000 people come to watch the game, and this one is in 110-degree heat and nobody watches the game,” McFall said.

If this season is an indication of things to come, McFall should be playing before rowdy crowds in the future.

Playing for the Cavs in 2010 … Jawad Williams

This Hoop Scoop column appeared in The Japan Times in April 2010.

Persevering Williams making most of shot in NBA

By Ed Odeven

The NBA playoffs begin this weekend, which means – hallelujah! – the “real season” is only hours away.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, who racked up a league-best 61-21 record in the regular season, have one of the most gifted all-around players (LeBron James) in the game’s history, a future first-ballot Hall of Fame center (Shaquille O’Neal) and a strong cast of role players. This includes lithe 206-cm forward Jawad Williams, who paid his dues in far-flung outposts in Spain, Israel and the NBA Development League, as well as a successful stint with the JBL’s Rera Kamuy Hokkaido in 2007-08 before finally securing a regular paycheck from the Cavs this season.

Williams played in 54 games and averaged 13.7 minutes per game with a modest 4.1 points-per-game average and 1.5 rebounds per game this season. He scored a season-high 17 points on Feb. 9 against the atrocious New Jersey Nets and also filled in as a starter in six games to spell James and other Cavs regulars when called upon to do so by coach Mike Brown.

Statistics matter, of course, but a job in the world’s best basketball league means much more to Williams.

For the easy-going Williams, life is good these days, playing for his hometown team in a season filled with countless highlights.

“I feel like everything’s going great,” Williams said during a recent phone conversation. “I couldn’t ask for a better situation right now, playing for my team in my home state.”

With the season winding down, Williams was asked to assess the way the Cavs have played. It came as no surprise that his answer was upbeat and positive.

“I think we are where we should be right now,” were the words he chose to describe the situation.

Up next: The Cavs face the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs. Williams is ready for the challenge.

“This team is built for the championship,” he said. “All we have to do is continue to work hard and compete.”

* * * * *
Williams capped a four-year collegiate career at the University of North Carolina with a title in 2005, averaging 13.1 ppg for Roy Williams’ squad, which also included future NBA players Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, David Noel and Marvin Williams. He scored 13 points in the NCAA championship game against Illinois, knocking down three 3-pointers in process.

And then he went unpicked in the 2005 NBA Draft. For some players, that fact might have signaled the end of their careers. But for Williams it gave him greater motivation to compete.

“We have a never-give-up attitude in my family,” Williams told me. “One thing my parents instilled in me is the attitude that I’ll go as hard as I can and hope for the best outcome.

“Patience is a virtue in this game because nothing is guaranteed,” he continued. “When you do have that one chance, you have to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity.”

For Williams, that meant starting his professional career with the Fayetteville Patriots of the NBADL in 2005, and moving on to the D-League’s Anaheim Arsenal the following season, where he made 49 starts in 50 games and averaged 19.2 points and 4.6 rebounds and rounding out the busy season with a 19-game stint with Alta Gestion Fuenlabrada Madrid of the Spanish League.

Williams accepted an offer to come to Japan for the 2007-08, and made the most of the opportunity while playing for the Hokkaido-based club. In 35 games, he averaged 24.7 points and 7.1 rebounds, statistics he acknowledged were indicative of his growth as a player.

“I expanded my game,” he said, “and I think that’s what brought me back to the NBA.”

A quick primer: Williams played for the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2006-07 preseason (four games). His time with the perpetually bad franchise, however, didn’t carry over into the regular season, and so his familial advice kept him inspired to stick with his plan: to keep pursuing his lifelong goal.

Overseas opportunities with the aforementioned clubs, and Hapoel Galil Elyon of the Israel Premier League (10 games after Rera Kamuy’s 2007-08 season), gave Williams the necessary workload he desired and the time to hone his skills. Then he returned to the United States and joined the Cavs’ summer team squad in July 2008.

That move paid off. Williams earned an invitation to Cleveland’s training camp in the fall of 2008, and made the team’s roster to begin the season.

His patience was tested, though, when the Cavs waived him on Jan. 7, 2009. But, as you know by now, it didn’t signal the end of his time in Cleveland; he was signed to a pair of 10-day contracts last season, followed by a short stint with the NBADL’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The Cavs re-signed him to a contract for the remainder of the season on April 8.

For Williams, this has been his first full NBA season, and he cherishes the experience.

“I am very well-traveled,” the 27-year-old said. “It took me a long time to be where I’m at right now. It’s a blessing to be where I’m at. I can’t complain at all.”

Reflecting on his time with Rera Kamuy, Williams summed up the experience as a “great time” and said his teammates and the nation as a whole treated him generously. He expressed pride in his performance on the court, too, pointing to his nearly 25 ppg as an example of his creed to “try to fill out the stat sheet in every category.”

Williams developed a positive impression of the JBL for being organized and for its well-mannered fans and said several of the league’s top Japanese players, including Rera Kamuy guards Takehiko Orimo and Ryota Sakurai, deserve the public’s admiration.

“Those guys were real talented and overlooked,” said Williams, whose mother Gail played college ball at Cleveland State and sister Na’Sheema suited up at power forward for Vanderbilt University and in the defunct ABL. “As time goes on, people will see there are very talented players there, like (Yuta) Tabuse.”

* * * * *
Williams’ basketball pedigree won’t be fully chronicled in this story. It will be noted, however, that he first dunked a basketball while playing in an AAU tournament as a seventh-grader. A story on cavs.com notes that after that game he received his first autograph request.

Call it an unforgettable moment. Or as he recalled: “It felt good. It was seventh grade. Not too many guys were doing that then.”

More than a decade later, Williams is entering his prime as a basketball player. His physical skills are still developing, but his mental makeup as an athlete has already revealed its signature trait.

Matt Doherty, Williams’ first coach at UNC, said perseverance has paid off for Williams.

“The tough thing at North Carolina is everyone expects to be drafted. The thing I was really proud of is that Jawad stuck it out,” Doherty, who now coaches at Southern Methodist University, was quoted as saying in a Cleveland Plain-Dealer article in February. “He didn’t let if affect him. A lot of kids struggle with the emotional side of not getting drafted. He stuck it out, and now I see him on ‘SportsCenter.’ ”

Does Williams feel lucky?

“I wouldn’t call it luck. I call it being blessed,” he said. “Things just happen to fall into your lap sometimes, but I worked hard to get to this point.”

Coach Brown, in his fifth season at the helm, isn’t one of the NBA’s most recognizable faces, but he commands respect from the Cavaliers players.

“He knows when to push us and when to back off,” said Williams.

Another thing Williams always anticipates is fierce competition in practice; he routinely guards King James. It’s a terrific measuring stick for any player looking to stay sharp on defense.

“He’s the toughest guy I have to guard on a daily basis,” Williams said bluntly, adding that it prepares him for difficult duels against guys like Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest and Kevin Durant.

For opponents, James creates headaches and nightmares. For Williams, he makes his job a joyful experience.

“He’s very unselfish,” Williams said of the Cleveland superstar. “He cares about everybody’s success and everyone around him and I think that’s what sets him apart from everybody around him.”