Pau Gasol vs. Dirk Nowitizki revisited

This column was written during the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship, and it appeared in The Japan Times on Aug. 22, 2006.

Battle of NBA stars a big draw

By Ed Odeven

HIROSHIMA — Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki provide the headline attraction for Monday afternoon’s 4 p.m. game here.

Both are NBA All-Star forwards. Gasol collects a lofty paycheck from the Memphis Grizzlies. Nowitzki’s millions come from eccentric Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s bank account.

Both giants provide their respective teams, Spain and Germany, incredible exposure on the national and international levels. And both players do the little things exceptionally well.

Nowitzki had a poor shooting game Sunday in his team’s 80-56 runaway win over Zealand, finishing 3-for-13 from the field at the Hiroshima Prefectural Sports Center. But really, who cares? He grabbed eight rebounds, dished out a game-high five assists and made two steals.

That performance came a day after he lit up the scoreboard for 27 points against Japan, impressing thousands of partisan fans in the process. In doing so, he got his fair shares of claps, oohs and aahs, even though they were rooting for Team Japan, after all, but nevertheless were impressed with the German fellow’s brilliance.

But on this day nobody was more impressed with Nowitzki’s basketball IQ and unselfish play than German coach Dirk Bauermann.

“He just figured out a way to help this team win the game,” the coach was saying in the postgame press conference.

“He did the other things.”

The coach, of course, was referring to Nowitzki’s defensive effort, his tenacity (10.5 on a scale of 1 to 10) at both ends of the floor, his unselfish play (many well-known shooters continue to take shot after shot after shot in the hope that it’ll cure their slump, but not Dirk in this victory) and his precise passing.

“He didn’t have a great game, but he had a good game,” Bauermann added.

And sometimes that’s enough. The truly great players understand that sometimes they must not try to force things. It’s better to help the team shine than to demand the spotlight and stumble in the process.

It’s the notion here that Nowitzki will bounce back with 25 points against Spain.

Others agree.

“I’m sure you’re going to see Dirk Nowitzki’s vintage game (tomorrow),” Bauermann predicted.

Which means 18 to 20 shot attempts, 10 or more makes, and many of the variety that only make one emphatic sound as they sail through the bottom of the net: swish!

Gasol, meanwhile, returned to the hardwood Sunday night against Panama with his Spanish teammates a day after his productive outing in an 86-70 victory over New Zealand. His numbers: 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting, six rebounds, two blocks and a steal were respectable numbers, but not the kind that scream “All-Star, All-Star,” when you stare at the stat sheet.

But wait. It’s just one game. Gasol didn’t have to score 40 in this game to look like a star. He puts 20-plus points on the board day after day during the NBA’s long 82-game season.

Collectively, the Spanish team, which is ranked fifth in the world, exhibited just how balanced, deep and dangerous it is against the Tall Blacks.

Juan Carlos Navarro, whose nickname “La Bomba” was given to him because of his floating layups (or bombs) is an impressive scorer as well. He had 16, too. His free-flowing, acrobatic style of play could’ve produced 25 points, but in the concept of the team game, it wasn’t needed, not when four other Spaniards picked up five points or more, including Alex Mumbru who had 12.

Mumbru did it the easy — or hard (take your pick) — way. He drilled all three of his 3-point attempts. Talk about maximizing your shot opportunities.

Another 16-point hombre was Jorge (don’t call him the Garbage Man) Garbajosa, who hit 6-for-12 from the field. He’s another brilliant perimeter performer on Pepu Hernandez’s deep roster. He’s a mobile, 206-cm forward who is unafraid of banging inside against bigger, stronger centers or stepping outside and curling off screens to score points.

But Gasol is clearly the pulse of this Spanish team, the motivator for a group that looks to continue its climb to the top of the world rankings. He is constantly on the go during a game, setting up shop in the low post, roaming the baseline, raising his arms to remind his teammates that he has a shooter’s touch and then using those same long arms to get in a shooter’s face on the other end of the court.

Gasol’s keen instincts and timing lead to blocked shots, tipped passes and steals, and help spark Spain’s transition to run-and-gun offense.

As this article comes to a close, Spain is leading Panama 28-13 in the second quarter. Indeed, it shows that Spain is a force when it plays at its top level.

Spain vs. Germany will be a great matchup Monday as Nowitzki and Gasol lead their clubs into a game that basketball junkies around the world will watch with great interest.

The outcome is a toss-up in my opinion. But this much is certain: Basketball fans are in for a treat Monday.

You can thank Gasol and Nowitzki for that.

Gridiron flashback: Steve DePriest hasn’t let lack of hands stop his officiating

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Steve DePriest

This feature story appeared on Page 1 of The Birmingham (Alabama) News on Dec. 3, 1999.

2A title game signals victory for referee without hands

By Ed Odeven
News staff writer

DOTHAN — Steve DePriest won’t let his physical limitations stop him from doing what he loves: raising dragsters and officiating high school football games.

He is undeterred because he realizes that, even without hands, he isn’t as disabled as some other people he has met.

“The best thing that happened was where they sent me after my accident — UAB (hospital),” said DePriest, who had to have his hands amputated following an on-the-job accident in 1989. “Because, as I walked around up there, you could see people that were in worse shape than I was.

“I thought, ‘You can sit around and feel sorry for yourself, but you are still going to be disabled. You just got to carry on with life and do the best you can.’ ”

DePriest’s best has been good enough to earn him a spot officiating in today’s Super 6 high school football championships at Legion Field. DePriest, a back judge who lives in Dothan, will work the 2A title game between Southern Chocktaw High School and Lineville High School at 3:30 p.m.

“It’s a big honor to get to go to the Super 6,” DePriest said. “That’s why you call (games) year after year — to get to go to the Super 6.

While he devotes Friday nights to one passion, he devotes Saturday nights to the other — drag racing. He races his 1972 Chevy Camaro at speeds over 100 mph down the one-eighth mile stretch of One Way Dragway in Cottonwood.

“You get a big rush out of it. It’s a lot of fun. It’s addictive,” he said.

DePriest overcame an occupational accident that occurred Feb. 17, 1989. He was employed as an electrical lineman for the City of Dothan, working on power lines.

On that day, electricity zapped his hands, causing severe electrical burns.

“I was working on a de-energized line that was grounded and the boom in the truck came in contact with a hot conductor and energized the control handle on the truck,” DePriest, 43, said. “When I grabbed the handle … (the electricity) went in my right hand and out my left hand.”

He was flown by helicopter to University Hospital. Two days later, his hands and forearms were amputated. He now uses prosthetics with hooks.

He is not bitter. “Life gives you lemons. You have to make lemonade,” he said.

DePriest’s wife, Denice, said the lifestyle of their family, which includes 12- and 14-year-old daughters, hasn’t changed drastically. “We just make the best of everything,” she said.

Still, right after the accident, DePriest struggled to become self-sufficient.

“One of my goals was to pack a suitcase and go somewhere overnight by myself and not have somebody to be with me, so I could get dressed, shower, shave,” he said. “And I can do that.”

DePriest took a year off from officiating after the accident. When he returned, he spent three years working as a clock operator before rejoining the regular crew.

He got support from fellow officials, he said. “They said as soon as I wanted to come back that they wanted me to get back on the field,” he said.

DePriest had to relearn how to do signals and motions and how to handle his flag and whistle. “I’ve worked on it here at home … It took a lot of practice.”

Greg Brewer, an administrative assistant with the Alabama High School Athletic Association, said DePriest has received stellar evaluations.

Doyle Stevenson, a referee with the Southeast Alabama Football Officials Association, said DePriest is top notch.

“He’s an extremely hard-working guy,” Stevenson said. “He hustles well. He doesn’t let his handicap slow him down. I think he realizes he was selected for his ability, not his handicap.”

Ernie Banks brought joy to the ballpark

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 24, 2015) — The Chicago Cubs have been a staple of the Cactus League since 1952, and no one was more synonymous with the organization’s identity than Ernie Banks, who passed away on Friday at age 83.

Mr. Cub was the perfect nickname for the team’s perfect ambassador.

And with his Cubs career starting in 1953, he was a fixture in the Windy City and the team’s spring training home, Mesa, Arizona.

During spring training visits to Cubs games on assignment over the years, I heard stories of those associated with the team praising Banks’ optimism and cheerful demeanor.

There was one occasion I do remember, perhaps in 2002 or 2003: Hall of Famer Billy Williams, who was working as a spring training instructor, telling reporters that Banks, his former Chicago teammate, made the game fun because of his sunny disposition. And there was a big smile on Williams’ face as he said this.

Hockey was the dream job, but swimming became his niche

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 21, 2004.

Lafontaine is living an adventure

By Ed Odeven
Like all young lads growing up in Quebec, Canada, Pierre Lafontaine dreamt of being a professional hockey player for the Montreal Canadiens. And it didn’t take him very long to figure this out.

“I could skate by the time I was 2 years old,” Lafontaine was saying Thursday during a lunchtime interview. “You’d skate with a hockey stick in your hands so you could stay up. That’s just what you do.

“…We’d be on the lake from eight in the morning ’til eight at night playing hockey.”

Little did he know it at the time, while skating on the frozen water of the Montreal suburb Pointe-Claire, but Lafontaine found his niche in an unexpected place: on an unfrozen surface of water, a swimming pool.

“My mother was a principal at a school for disabled kids and she needed somebody to teach swimming lessons to the kids,” Lafontaine recalls. “So I started teaching the disabled kids, and then the Johnson brothers (Tom and Dave), who are now coaching the Canadian team, asked me to coach the 8-and-unders (at the Pointe-Claire Swimming Club) and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll do that while I go to the university.’ And I’m in Australia now.

“I got my start with the 8-and-unders,” the 47-year-old says proudly.

Little by little, Lafontaine worked his way up the coaching ranks. He coached the 9- and 10-year-olds, then the 11- and 12-year-olds at Pointe-Claire while learning the ins and outs of the craft.

The rest is history. Nowadays, Lafontaine is a senior assistant coach at the Australian Institute of Sport and an assistant coach for the Australian Olympic team, which began a three-week training camp at Northern Arizona’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex last Saturday. (Heralded stars like Olympians Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Michael Klim and Petria Thomas are taking part in that camp. The other half of the Olympic team is competing in the Mare Nostrum 2004, four big meets in three weeks in Europe.)

After several years of coaching in his hometown, Lafontaine moved on to the University of Calgary, where he worked from 1984 to 1988 with the university’s club team and intercollegiate squad. After that, he took a post at the newly formed Phoenix Swim Club in 1988.

It’s a job that opened up a world of opportunity for Lafontaine. Charles Keating and Gary Hall Sr. invested a lot of money into establishing the PSC and transforming it into a world-class training center where up-and-coming stars like Gary Hall Jr., an eight-time Olympic medalist, and Anthony Ervin, who tied Hall for the Olympic gold in the 50-meter freestyle in the 2000 Sydney Games, perfected their skills. Lafontaine worked at the club until 2002, save for a three-year stint (1994-97) when he coached at the Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta.

Then in 2002 the AIS announced it was looking for an assistant coach. It was a no-brainer, a wonderful career move for Lafontaine. An exciting change of scenery for his family — wife Alisa and their four children: Marie-Eve, 14; Pierre-Philippe, 12; Anne-Marie, 10; and Marc-Andre, 8.

“We looked at it more as an adventure than an opportunity,” Lafontaine says. “To me, life is made up of a sum of experiences, and that was going to be a neat experience. Everybody’s always looking at Australia and (saying), ‘Ah, that’s kind of an exciting place to try and visit.’ Well, we had a chance to go live there for a while, so that’s what we did. We made an adventure more than anything else.”

The Lafontaines’ adventure revolves around Canberra, the nation’s capital, which is about 90 miles inland from the nation’s East Coast. The city of 300,000 is a great place, he says, noting there are more than 1,000 kilometers of bike trails and it’s only 1 1/2 hours from the beach. “It’s similar to Flagstaff in terms of a lot of open space,” he adds, saying it conjures up images of the Old West.

“Remember the ‘Mad Max’ movies? It’s just like that. It’s bare,” he continues. “There’s properties in Northwest Australia that are (huge) … There’s one property that is as big as the state of Arizona. It’s a cattle ranch.”

The Australian government’s support of swimming is as big as that ranch — maybe bigger. In addition to the major aquatic clubs in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, there are public pools all over the country, sort of like a Circle K at every intersection in the Valley.

“If there’s a town of 1,500 people, they’ll put a 50-meter pool in it,” Lafontaine says. “Every little village with 1,500 people or more has a pool. So there’s a lot of kids that come in from the little towns to the clubs that have no place to go. That’s when they come to train with us; that’s kind of a neat setup.”

This national commitment to swimming certainly deepens the sport’s talent pool. And it continues at the elite level.

For instance, the Australian team currently in Flagstaff consists of 19 swimmers and a support staff of 14 (that includes three physiologists and a massage therapist).

“It’s really the strength of the Australian team,” Lafontaine says. “Whenever we go away, there is always a lot of support staff. It’s not so the coach can do less, it’s so the coach can do more specific work and pay more attention to the needs of the swimmers.”

Having lived in Phoenix for many years, Lafontaine grew accustomed to how much press coverage baseball and football get in the U.S. He says it’s comparable to the media attention swimming receives in Australia.

“You are going to hear about somebody’s ingrown toenail in baseball,” he says, laughing. “That’s why he’s not going to play tonight, and there’ll be a page about his ingrown toenail here. … Well, there’s half a page about a swimmer that went out to the movies with his girl at a certain time in Australia. And every week there’s things about swimming in the paper in Australia, which is kind of fun also.”

How long will he live in Australia?

Lafontaine admits he’s not sure. His contract is up in December. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s in a hurry to leave the Land Down Under.

“They’ve approached me (about) staying there for the next four years,” he says, “and that would be interesting to do. But I think sooner or later I would love to coach in a college setup in the U.S. I think that would be really good. We are keeping our doors open right now.

“I think my family would probably like to stay until 2008, only because the Chinese Olympics are in 2008, and the world championships are in 2007 in Melbourne and the Commonwealth Games are in 2006 in Melbourne. There’s a huge amount of things happening in swimming, and I think in sports the Asian-Australian corridor in the next four years will really be an exciting time in life.”

Appreciating Igor Larionov and Ron Francis (circa 2002)

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on June 3, 2002.

Larionov, Francis remarkable contrasts
By Ed Odeven

Two aging stars. Two inspirational leaders. Two players whose value to their teams extend far beyond the stat sheet.

Without a doubt, these are the common characteristics shared by Detroit’s Igor Larionov and Carolina’s Ron Francis, the oldest players on their respective teams that clash in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight in Hockeytown, commonly known as Detroit.

As much as the deft-passing centers have in common on the ice, the personal backgrounds and experiences of Larionov and Francis are as different as “Sesame Street” and “Seinfeld.”

Larionov, 41, was born and raised in the now-dismantled U.S.S.R. during the days of the Cold War. He made his NHL debut with the San Jose Sharks at the age of 29, an age when many players are already contemplating a second career.

Francis, 39, grew up in another hotbed of hockey, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. He made his NHL debut as the ripe old age of 18 in 1981 with the Hartford Whalers. (Yes, those Whalers, who during the 1970s won the World Hockey Association’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup while playing in Boston and going by the name of New England Whalers. And now, Francis is back in his second tour of duty with the franchise, except now the Whalers, err, Hurricanes call North Carolina home.)

Larionov helped lead the Soviets to numerous World Hockey Championship gold medals and Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988. But his biggest battles were fought off the ice.

Before the collapse of Russia’s communist regime in the early 1990s, Larionov voiced his opinion, attacking the principle pillar of Russian society: our way is the only way.

“It is easy to fight on the ice,” ex-Red Wing Slava Fetisov told The Detroit News in 1996. “But not many people fight the Communist system.”

Fetisov along with Larionov paved the way for the future influx of Russians in the NHL.

“”He stood up for himself and other guys,” Fetisov said. “He never gave up. That means more than fighting on the ice, no?”

Pundits and scholars recognize Larionov’s influential place in the Soviet Union.

“Larionov is the most important athlete in the history of Soviet sport, leading the campaign for Soviet athletes to play abroad without defection,” Robert Edelman, the author of “Serious Fun: A History of Spectator Sports in the U.S.S.R.,” said in a 1995 interview.

Francis never battled an oppressive regime. Instead, he’s quietly made opposing players shake their heads and slam their sticks in frustration during 21 years of on-ice battles. A model of consistency and unselfish play, Francis has amassed 1,701 regular-season points during his career, which places him No. 5 on the league’s all-time scoring list.

That’s not all.

Francis is No. 2 on the league’s all-time assists list (1,187 helpers), trailing only the inimitable Wayne Gretzky (1,963). Midway through his career, Francis was a key player for the Pittsburgh Penguins who won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.

Remarkably, even at this stage of their careers, Larionov and Francis are still dominant playmakers.

“He’s smart, but gritty. He plays different than anybody I’ve ever played with. He makes passes in different directions, not just straight ahead,” Detroit captain Steve Yzerman said during a recent discussion of Larionov.

Said Carolina’s Martin Gelinas: “Ron will say something when it needs to be said, but he has a very calming influence in the room. “He always goes about his business in a quiet manner, but it’s always effective.”

So, instead of just being marveled by the exploits of the game’s younger stars, give Larionov and Francis their due. For different reasons, these dynamic veterans have led amazing lives and continue to perform amazing feats on the ice.

“Jazz”

“Jazz” by Ed Odeven

Improvisational pizzazz
Lyrical ingenuity
Musical purity
Testing the limits
Carefree, yet rigid
Melodic cacophony
Rhythmic rhapsody
Cornets chirping
Clarinets cackling
Pianos prancing (notes)
Basses booming
Bassoons bellowing
Saxophones snarling
Weepy, smoldering blues
Poetic, elegant revues
Surely, it beats the news.
Ah, jazz.

Snapshot of future Hall of Famer Big Unit’s career in 2002

This column on just-elected Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 23, 2002.

As Unit gets older and better, comparisons to Ryan inevitable

By Ed Odeven

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.