"Thank You Warriors" - Dub Nation’s 40 Year Journey to the Promise Land

  (PHOTO BY BECK DIEFENBACH)

(PHOTO BY BECK DIEFENBACH)

By Josh Hunsucker | @jphunsucker

How are you supposed to feel after your team wins the title? Since the 75th Anniversary of the NFL, when Steve Young tossed six TDs for the Niners’ fifth Super Bowl title, I haven’t felt that feeling. I was twelve in 1995, I was six and seven when the Niners won Super Bowls three and four and when the A’s swept the Giants. Think back twenty years, think back twenty-six, twenty-seven years. Do you remember when something, anything, happened that long ago? Not only do you remember what happened, but do you remember how that made you feel?

I don’t. My first sports memory is eating Cheetos at my Dad’s friend’s apartment in the Marina with 3:10 left in Super Bowl XXIII when my Dad said, “Come here, you should watch this.” I sat on the floor in between my Dad’s legs, watching Joe Montana coolly march the Niners down the field for their third championship. I remember the two Bengal defenders colliding as Jerry Rice broke into the secondary. I remember John Taylor jumping and thrusting the ball towards the sky after he caught the game-winning slant. I remember all of that. I have no idea how that made me feel.

I remember watching cartoons before Game 3 of the Battle of the Bay. I remember watching the A’s parade on KTVU. I remember 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. I remember Rickey Watters and Jerry Rice shredding the Chargers. I remember saying that we would win Super Bowl XXIX because Stan Humphreys was horrible in Tecmo Super Bowl. I specifically remember Gary Plummer pulling the “Monkey” off Steve Young’s back. I vividly remember all of that. I have no clue how that made me feel.

In the last quarter century-plus, I have ended every Warriors, A’s, and Niners season in one of two ways: a loss, or having missed out on the playoffs entirely. In more recent years, I remember how I felt when those seasons ended. The emotions run the gamut, most notably: comfortably numb (‘04-’08 Niners, ’09-’10 Warriors, 2010 A’s), hopeful (2000 A’s, ’10-‘11 49ers, ’06-’07 We Believe Dubs), frustrated (’07-’08 Dubs), distraught (2003 A’s), dead inside (’11-‘12 49ers, 2013 A’s), and confused (’14-’15 49ers).

As an A’s and 49ers fan, the fanbase and to a greater extent my fandom is shaped by history and tradition. Even when the teams experience success in the present, we feel trapped by the ghosts of the past. The A’s ever-changing Moneyball roster, regardless of success, gets lost in the glow of Rickey’s neon green Mizuno batting gloves and cannot escape the shadows that covered Stu’s eyes. The Niners of the present, similarly, are always compared to champions of the past and played under the unreasonable pressure of being 5-0 in the Super Bowl, which culminated in 2012 when someone briefly forgot that Frank Gore was on the team. We are rear-view mirror fans. We always look back and long for the better times of the past. Whether we like it or not, it is who we are.

As a Warriors fan, when I look back, I try to remember the good times. That means Run-TMC and Nelly Ball 1.0, when the Dubs got as far as the Western Conference Semis. That means C-Webb, one year and a first round exit. That means “We Believe,” a Baron Davis “And 1” in garbage time of a series we eventually lost and being the best team ever to miss the playoffs. That ultimately means the 1975 champs. A team that played before I was alive and was coached by a man that we called “The Destroyer.” In fact, my best memory of the 1975 team was having Al Attles run the defensive segment of Warriors Basketball Camp circa 1995 and making a t-shirt with his likeness. Relatively speaking, my best memories as a Warriors fan are suboptimal when compared to my memories as an A’s and Niners fan.

  (PHOTO BY JOSH HUNSUCKER)

(PHOTO BY JOSH HUNSUCKER)

40 years is a long time. Since 1975 the Warriors had made the playoff 10 times in 39 years, heading into 2015. That is not much of a history. Part of being a pre-2015 Warriors fan was embracing mediocrity of the franchise. Ask any Warriors fan that liked the team before the Steph Curry era and especially before the “We Believe” era and they will delight in telling you their favor awful/cult hero Warriors players, their favorite underrated Warriors (“Oh yeah, he was kind of awesome”), a reference to three to four crap teams that meant something to them, and their favorite memories as a fan, generally in that order. For example, here are mine:

 

Favorite Awful/Cult Warriors Heroes

1.    Adonal Foyle – Epitome of  the “sadsackedness” era. The guy played so hard but was very limited talent-wise. I will always love you Adonal!

2.   Tony Delk – Held MJ to 14 points and scored 17 points in a tough 87-80 home loss in 1998.

3.    Chris Gatling – Gat Gun!

4.    David Wood – Inexplicably made 1998 USA basketball team.

5.    Larry Hughes – Larry Hughes Headband Night.

6.    Rony Seikaly – Spray painted his shoes black because he did not have team colored shoes.

7.    Anthony Randolph – I still don’t know how he didn’t become a more athletic Chris Bosh.

8.    Earl Boykins/Speedy Claxton – Professional versions of “Circus” King.

9.    Vonteego Cummings – Name alone.

10.  Kent Bazemore – All-time bench guy. Honorary 2015 Champ, right?

 

Favorite Underrated Warriors

1.    Sharunas Marshalonis – Lefty wingmen have a special place in my heart, so does anyone that Bill Walton loves.

2.    Latrell Sprewell – Still one of my favorites.

3.    Jason Richardson – The bright spot on a lot of crap teams.

 

Favorite Crap Teams

1.    ’97-’98 – Almost beat the Bulls at home.

2.    ’02-’03 – Made me think that a team that played absolutely no defense and featured a big three of Antwan Jamison, Gilbert Arenas, and Jason Richardson was worth watching on a nightly basis.

3.    ’93-’94 – C-Webb’s first year, Mully, Spree, Avery Johnson, and Jud Buechler!

 

Favorite Memories

1.    My first game: Mully drops 25 in a 126-118 win against Portland.

2.    Only time seeing MJ live: We lose, Tony Delk holds MJ to 14 points. Tony Delk drinks for free at my house for life.

3.    Pizza Pizza Pizza: Jud Buechler hits a three with under a minute to go to give the Warriors 120 points and all fans in attendance free pizza.

The sad part is that I ripped that off the top of my head in about five minutes but that is exactly what my Warriors fan friends and I talked about. Yes, we sometimes talked about Mully. Yes, we talked about the “We Believe” team. Yes, we talked about the current Warriors and how they may be something special. But all of those conversations existed in the context that the Warriors definition of “best” was being something other than comically awful or being merely a fleeting moment of success.

Being a Warriors fan has meant dreading the end of basketball season. Not because I miss watching below average professional basketball, historically speaking, but because it meant I was weeks away from the team perpetuating its losing tradition through the draft.

Last week, Bleacher Report NBA editor and all-around great human Chris Trenchard asked “What was your low point as a Warriors fan?” My knee jerk reaction was the 11th pick of the 1996 NBA draft. I thought and I thought, that really cannot be my low point. There had to be a gut wrenching loss or a bad trade. There had to be something else, right? Well, there isn’t.

I was at UCLA basketball camp. The Warriors were three years removed from Don Nelson pushing Tim Hardaway out of the organization and heading into the '96-'97 season, the Warriors were looking at washed up versions of Mark Price and B.J. Armstrong as their point guard tandem. I was hopeful that the Warriors would pick Section 925er, Santa Clara alum, and Steph Curry prototype, Steve Nash. That did not happen, this did:

David Stern slowly walks to the podium, the TNT camera focuses in on Stern, he looks at the draft card, “with the 11th pick in the…,” he looks at the draft card, “…1996 NBA Draft…,” he looks down at the draft card, “…the Golden State Warriors select Todd…,” he looks down at the draft card, “…Fuller from North Carolina State University.”

My 1996 self did not notice Stern looking back down at the card four separate times in 12 seconds, but since the advent of YouTube I can honestly say that I can account for at least 18 of the 12,403 views associated with the Todd Fuller draft clip. Every time I watch it I try to talk my self into the idea that maybe David Stern keeps looking down at the draft card because he does not want to misspeak at the podium. I really do. But he looks down four times in 12 seconds. 1/4 of the time he is verifying what he is reading is actually true, this can’t be overlooked or under-analyzed.

The key look down moment is after David Stern says “Todd.” When he says “Todd” he is looking dead-on at the camera, just seconds after he had previously looked down. Then he pauses and looks back down right before he says “Fuller,” as if he is flabbergasted as to why the Warriors refuse to make a good draft pick, let alone why in the world anyone would spend a lottery pick on Todd (pause...look down) Fuller.

Not convinced? Compare the Fuller look down to other lottery picks. David Stern either looks at the name the entire time (Allen Iverson and Peja Stojakovic) or looks up the entire time (Marcus Camby and Ray Allen). Generally, this is based on the complexity of the name. Well, Todd Fuller is about as vanilla as you can get. Yet, he looks down. I knew it, you knew, David Stern knew it, and the Warriors must have known that was an awful pick.

Smash cut back to 1996, I'm in the UCLA dorm common area. David Stern just uttered the name of the 11th pick in the draft and 14-year old me’s heart sinks and I blurt out “Are you F**KING serious, that is why we suck.” I remember thinking to myself, “Why do I like this team? Why do I like a team that never wants to get better? Why do we need another slow white center? Are we ever going to be good? What did I do to deserve this?” I should be having teenage angst over a girl that didn't like me back, not an existential crisis about liking a horrible basketball team. I’ve never been more miserable for a worse reason but that was my nadir as a Warriors fan.

In the grand scheme of sports fandom, having Todd Fuller define your low moment is arguably more depressing than say, Kirk Gibson’s walk off, not handing the ball off to Frank Gore, or being a Cold War Russian hockey fan. At least being an A’s or Niners fan meant that you went to the World Series or Super Bowl and being a Russian hockey fan in 1980 meant that you basically hadn’t lost in forever and hadn’t seen "Rocky IV" or "Miracle" yet. Those teams were relevant. True, those moments were historical gut-punch loses, but at least members of those fan bases can collectively share in those low moments. Having Todd Fuller as your low moment is isolating. It’s 12 insignificant seconds in the history of the Warriors that only 12,000 some odd people in the world have cared to actively remember. Nonetheless, because it’s an objectively trivial moment that I have given a lifetime’s worth of importance, to me it's the worst kind of low point.

Being a Warriors fan means truly appreciating the fleeting moments, like a good sideline closeout by Danny Fortson. Being a Warriors fan means growing accustomed to keeping games close, climbing back but never getting over the top, and making a fatal fourth quarter error to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but always getting sucked into thinking we can win next time. Being a Warriors fan means understanding that we will never have the best player and being OK with that. Being a Warriors fan means consistently showing up in the face of assured doom. Being a Warriors fan meant not being defined by our history because we never really had any.

These qualities forged a fan base that irrationally loved many unlovable teams. For the last 25-plus years, Warriors fans have filled the Coliseum/Oracle to near capacity. Inexplicably, they never quit on teams that quit on them. That is not to say that the organization did not push us close to our breaking point on a few occasions. When Chris Cohan low balled Baron Davis and broke up the “We Believe” Warriors, something shifted. Warriors fans had seen competent basketball for the first time in over a decade and in two seasons the Warriors were back to losing over 50 games again.

  (PHOTO BY BLEACHER REPORT)

(PHOTO BY BLEACHER REPORT)

In 2009, the Warriors drafted Steph Curry. My top three draft options that year were Johnny Flynn, Steph Curry, and Ty Lawson, in that order. In defense of Johnny Flynn I saw the UCONN game that year and became a believer. That draft was the only good and lasting thing that Chris Cohan did for the Warriors besides bring back the “The City” style uniforms and selling the team.

Under new ownership, Warriors fans were exposed to something new, an ownership group that gave a crap about winning. Initially Joe Lacob’s absolute positivity baffled and confused us. Saying something like this: “I'm looking forward to a tremendous ride on our journey to the return to greatness. We will work extremely hard to represent you as the championship organization that you deserve and the team that you will be proud to be a part of,” just doesn’t compute to a Warriors fan in 2010. It was too lofty for me not be skeptical. Return to greatness? When? Championship organization? Yeah, ok.

This attitude boiled over on the disastrous Chris Mullin Jersey Retirement Night when Joe Lacob inexplicably took the mic to address the crowd right after he traded fan favorite Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut. There was a poison in the crowd that I had never seen come out in all my years of watching Warriors hoops. Although Lacob was ultimately vindicated by the trade and correct in his assessment of the Warriors impending success (which were not helped by Rick Berry’s futile pleas to the crowd), he was tone deaf to the emotions of a fan base that had experienced decades of losing and refused to be put on by another owner that they felt was lying to them about working “extremely hard” to build an organization that the fans deserved and could be proud of. The Warriors finished 23-43 that year and the status quo was felt as though it would remain firmly in place.

  (PHOTO BY BLEACHER REPORT)

(PHOTO BY BLEACHER REPORT)

With Mark Jackson in his second year and a core group of competent players, the 2012-13 Dubs started to give off a “We Believe 2.0” vibe. There was guarded optimism when Steph made it through the season healthy and we actually gave the Spurs a series in the Western Semis. More importantly, basketball was fun to watch again. We played hard. We played creatively. We, as Jalen Rose says, “gave up good shots to get great shots.” We played together. This carried into the 2013-14 season, which ended in the most hopeful and satisfying seven game series loss in all of sports.

I remember thinking last year after the Clippers series, “we can actually be proud of that team.” We were banged up, down in the series, and fought all the way until the end. We were eliminated but there was a pseudo-Spartan romanticism to losing, “with your shield or on it.” I can live with those losses. As a Warriors fan, I am not gut punched by those losses because losing in seven games and going down swinging was better than we, yes “we,” had ever done as long as I had been alive. Were there problems with the team? Yes. But they were fixable basketball problems, not systemic organizational issues that infected and poisoned the team as they had previously.

The 2014-15 season was like playing a season of NBA 2K on a skill level setting which is one below the level that think you might not be able to beat. Sure the computer may go into “no effing way the user wins mode,” at times, but for the most part, everything fell into place perfectly under new head coach Steve Kerr. Losing not only became rare, it became surprising. Literally almost everything went right and success turned into legitimate cultural significance.

Steph gets the most all-star votes, “Steph Curry with the shot,” “Chef Curry with the Pot,” thisthisthis, and this all became things, then we led the Association in wins, offense, and defense, Steph won the MVP, swept NOLA, out-grinded Memphis, overwhelmed Houston, and Riley Curry set the world on fire. Before we could even realize what the hell was going on, we were squaring off in the Finals against the “best player in the world”/ best player of this generation.

  (PHOTO BY EZRA SHAW (@EOSHAW))

(PHOTO BY EZRA SHAW (@EOSHAW))

Going into the Finals my inner Warriors fan took the position that making the Finals was gravy. We haven’t suffered like MJ did against the Pistons or LeBron against the Spurs and Mavs and just making the Finals seemed like enough of a happy ending. Another part of me felt abject fear whenever the name LeBron James was uttered. But still, a part of me remained that said, "hey, we can absolutely win this."

With the exception of Games 2 and 3, where the Cavs played harder and smarter than the Warriors, the Dubs put together four of the most beautiful basketball games I have ever seen. They played their best basketball, on the biggest stage, in the history of the franchise. As the final moments of the fourth quarter of Game 6 ran out I focused on one thing, remember the feeling, soak it in.

It is hard to describe the wave of emotions that come with winning the title. Joy and disbelief were the first that hit. That joy was pervasive for most of the night after Game 6, as I watched interviews and highlights well into the start of the next day.

However, after looking back on that night, witnessing the win in Game 6, reading about the celebration at Morton’s the next day, watching the championship in-flight Coco video, sharing in the happiness with 1,000,000 of my blue and yellow clad basketball friends at the parade, and re-watching the parade on Saturday, one feeling has been present through this entire playoff run and has only grown since the clock hit 0:00, thankfulness.

  (PHOTO BY JASON MILLER)

(PHOTO BY JASON MILLER)

Being in a position where I have no effect on the outcome of the games (contrary to what I tell myself while executing any of my dumb superstitions), I am thankful that I get to watch a team that plays unselfish basketball and does so in a way that it is not only entertaining but, as a basketball junkie, is beautiful to watch. I’m thankful that Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber meant what they said when they bought the team and acted on it. I am thankful that Bob Meyers had the vision to build a championship team out of a mold no one had ever used, or at least used properly. I am thankful that Steve Kerr decided to take a coaching job close to his kids. I am thankful that Kerr surrounded himself with a great coaching staff (and that on some level Bill Walton’s mojo was aimed in the Warriors direction). I am thankful that everyone on the team embraced their roles, even when they changed. I am thankful that Steph Curry has no ceiling, that Iggy has no fear, and that Draymond has no filter.

Most of all I am thankful that we as fans all got to be a part of this ride. When Steph Curry spoke at the parade his first words to the millions in attendance were “We did it! We did it!” WE. It was clear that “We” extended to everyone, not just the team. This Warriors team embraced the motto strength in numbers (in case you missed everything this season) and a big part of that was making us fans feel like we were a part of the team. The MVP continued to emphasize the theme of inclusion, asserting that “We deserve this,” an assurance to the fans that stuck through the lean decades that suffering through every 50-loss season or bad draft was worth this moment of glory.

As I listened and re-listened to Steph’s speech this weekend the overwhelming feeling that runs through me continues to be thankfulness. For all I know, the parade that I went to on Friday may be the only one I will ever get to experience as long as I live. If it is, I am thankful guys like Steph Curry, who made that parade possible, understood the importance of making every fan feel like they just as well could have been up on that stage too. “Celebrate this trophy like there is no tomorrow,” Steph urged the crowd as he closed out his speech.

Thank you, we will.

“Celebrating Sarah” - A Fallen Skier Paves the Way For Two NorCal Olympians

  Brita Sigourney (center) celebrates after an X Games event with Sarah Burke (on Brita's right)

Brita Sigourney (center) celebrates after an X Games event with Sarah Burke (on Brita's right)

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

For the majority of her life, Canadian freeskier Sarah Burke didn’t necessarily know where the sport of skiing was going, she just knew she was pushing it forward, and she did not want it to ever stop. By the time of her death at age 29, Burke had added to the progression of the sport more than any other competitive female skier who ever lived. When South Lake Tahoe’s Maddie Bowman and Carmel’s Brita Sigourney compete in their first Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, they’ll be skiing in a first ever event that Burke pioneered, the Olympic Women’s Skiing Halfpipe.

From the minute Sarah Burke strapped on a pair of skis, she was always intent on taking things to the next level. Riding with the boys, seeking out the most difficult terrain, sending the biggest airs. As she got older and starting competing, she found herself constantly lobbying for the inclusion of more women in events. If there was a sponsored slopestyle event in Colorado or a halfpipe event in Utah, Sarah wanted to make sure there was a contest available for the girls as well.

“When I started (in slopestyle and halfpipe) I was the only girl,” Burke once said. “And it was always a battle, always a fight to be there.”

Using her beaming smile and undeniable aerial talent on skis, Burke slowly but surely integrated women into the mainstream competitive freestyle skiing scene throughout her twenties. She promoted ski camps in order to get other girls to try her sport, and years later would go as far as to coach her direct X Games competitors in the offseason in order to teach them new tricks and progress her sport further. Burke was hooked on the adrenaline rush of skiing down a halfpipe on skis, and she wanted as many other girls to experience it as possible with her.

For Burke, development of a women’s ski halfpipe tour to go along with a nationally televised Winter X Games event was not enough. Inevitably, the end goal was to get her sport into the Olympic Games in Sochi, and she was convinced she could pull it off. True to form, midway through 2011, it was announced that the 2014 Winter Olympics would feature the women’s ski halfpipe event. As the first girl to land a 720, 900, and 1080 in a halfpipe, it was seemingly only a matter of time before Burke would be crowned as the first Olympic gold medalist in a women’s halfpipe.

Tragically, Sarah Burke would never get a chance to appear on the Olympic medal stand she essentially built herself and sing her national anthem. Burke died on January 19, 2012, nine days after crashing during a training run on the Eagle Superpipe in Park City, Utah.

Not long after her death, Sarah’s husband and acclaimed skier Rory Bushfield, spoke in an interview about how Burke passed away doing what she loved to do.

“She was an amazing skier, always pushing herself. She was doing things she didn’t need to do to get a gold medal. She was doing them to push her side of the sport, like she did to get skiing halfpipe into the Olympics. Halfpipe skiing will debut in Sochi and that was her dream all along. She could have easily just won events with her stock run, but instead she was constantly learning new tricks and progressing the sport. And also getting other girls to do the same.”

Two of the women that will compete in the Olympic halfpipe event that Burke pushed so hard for are Maddie Bowman and Brita Sigourney. Both of which grew up skiing on the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. Bowman learned to ski at Sierra-At-Tahoe, while Sigourney first laid tracks at Alpine Meadows. Both were flying down mountains before the age of five.

Bowman grew up in South Lake Tahoe, a stones throw from the chairlift. The daughter of two professional skiers, Bowman’s parents passed down an uncanny sense of balance and feel for the snow. Ms. Bowman was also an elite gymnast. In the end, it was a perfect recipe to produce a halfpipe skier.

But of course, when Bowman was a youngster, the idea of skiing inside a halfpipe hadn’t really taken hold for women yet, so her earliest years were spent on the alpine downhill racing team. Soon enough, however, Bowman was introduced to the new-age free skiing disciplines such as slopestyle skiing and halfpipe. It wasn’t long before she was hooked.

“I quit racing when I was thirteen,” says Bowman. “It was a little too serious for me, so I switched over and joined the freeride team at Sierra, my home mountain. I kind of fell in love with it. Just skiing with all my friends all day. It was the best. I couldn’t turn that down. I had to keep going.”

  Maddie Bowman and company will compete for Olympic gold on February 20th

Maddie Bowman and company will compete for Olympic gold on February 20th

As a junior at South Lake Tahoe high school, Bowman was starting on her state championship soccer team, as well competing in the Winter X games on ESPN. After earning a silver medal in the 2012 X Games, Bowman has won X Games gold in the halfpipe for the past two years. Now still just 20 years old, the 5 foot 1 inch Bowman has asserted herself as one of the favorites to win Olympic gold in Sochi.

Clipping at the heels of Bowman during these Olympics, with chance to win Gold herself, will be the 24-year-old Brita Sigourney. Unlike her counterpart, Sigourney didn’t get to grow up at the base of her home mountain. Instead, she grew up five hours away in Carmel, CA. This didn’t stop Brita’s dedicated parents from getting their ski-obsessed daughter up to Alpine Meadows virtually every weekend in the winter, regardless of the traffic conditions.

Growing up closer to the beach than the mountains, Sigourney developed into an exceptional water polo player in high school, leading to an offer to play collegiately at UC Davis. So for three years of college, Brita did both. Balancing her time between the pool and the halfpipe. Soon, polo would give way to skiing and by 2011, Sigourney was a silver medalist at the X Games. The following year, she won bronze and this past year she placed 5th at X-Games in the lead up to Sochi.

For the past few years, Sigourney had to battle through a series of harsh injuries. The list includes a microfracture in her knee, broken collarbone, torn ACL, and fractured pelvis. Through all this, she has persevered.

“I’ve had a lot of injuries in my career. And I definitely have to gather a new sort of motivation after every one I think,” said Sigourney. “I actually think I’ve benefited from each one, because it’s given me the time to step back and look at why I ski and how much I love it. Your first day on snow after so long of just rehab and gym time is the best feeling ever. It’s crazy, my mom asks me every day, and I don’t think she fully understands why I ski, because she is so heartbroken every time I get hurt. Probably more than I am.”

While Sigourney may not be America’s best chance at a gold medal, she is perhaps the most capable of throwing the biggest trick. In the 2012 Winter X Games, Brita became the first woman to land a 1080 in a full women’s halfpipe run.

Of course, the first woman to ever pull off a 1080 was Sarah Burke. If you asked Brita where she learned how to take things a step further and land one in competition, the answer is probably from working with and watching Sarah Burke.

The last qualifying event for the Women’s Ski Halfpipe event in the 2014 Olympics was recently held in Park City, Utah. Almost exactly two years removed from the accident, Bowman and Sigourney found themselves at the top of the same Eagle Superpipe that claimed Burke’s life. Bowman had already qualified, but Sigourney skied that day with her Olympic dreams still in the balance. You could say Sarah Burke had paved a new course toward Olympic dreams. Maddie Bowman and Brita Sigourney were at the top, ready to realize them.

  Skiing pioneer, Sarah Burke.

Skiing pioneer, Sarah Burke.

“36 Hours in Vegas” - A Short, Strange Trip to the WCC Basketball Tournament

  The ultra-intense Rex Walters nearly led the USF Dons to an upset win over BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

The ultra-intense Rex Walters nearly led the USF Dons to an upset win over BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

When deciding upon my mode of transportation to my inaugural visit to the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas, I felt it was only appropriate to take a bus. I figured you fly to a major conference basketball tournament like the ACC or the SEC, but you drive to a mid-major conference tournament. That’s just customary. So I ended up riding a Tufesa bus out to Sin City (via Salt Lake City), one that proudly markets their ability to transport you from Mexico to the Southern United States comfortably in the middle of the night. This particular Monday morning trip only produced a total of four passengers.

If you take the Tufesa to Vegas, the closest they’ll get you to the WCC Tournament is out front of the Excalibur Hotel on the strip. From there, it is up to you to hail a cab, or use the empty pedestrian overpass to simply walk over the crowded freeway in order to get to the Orleans Hotel & Casino. The Orleans is located off the strip in a relatively seedy area. One of the more prominent landmarks surrounding the Orleans is a Deja Vu “All-Nude” gentlemen's club. Across the street lies various cheap eats and convenience stores ready and willing to soften the blow of some bad-beats on a the blackjack tables.

Walking through the parking lot approaching the main entrance of the Orleans, there really is hardly any sign that a Division 1, ESPN televised basketball tournament is going on inside. It wasn’t until I reached the glass front doors of the casino and saw some “WCC Tournament” stickers that I was able to confirm I was in the right place.

As is true with all Las Vegas hotels, the Orleans casino floor is an intentional maze, free of clocks or useful maps, designed in way that makes you completely give up on where you were originally going in favor of just sitting down at a table with half drunk strangers and gambling.

By this time it was just 10 minutes until the Saint Mary’s Gaels and Gonzaga Bulldogs were set to tip-off in a semi-final tilt, and I was literally lost in the middle of the casino floor with a standing room only ticket in my hand.

“Can you tell me where the basketball game is going on in this place?” I ask a tired-looking poker dealer. “Yeah,” he responds. “Walk down past those slot machines, make a right at the T.G.I. Friday’s, and you’re there.” Easy enough, I thought to myself, and proceeded to make my way past the slots in search of the T.G.I. Friday’s landmark.

As dedicated as I was to WCC semifinal basketball, the lure of T.G.I. Friday’s happy hour potato skins and discount Bud Light proved too much for me to ignore. Minutes later, I found myself placing my order with a muscle-bound server in a Friday’s uniform chock-full of flair.

The game was on a flat screen TV, my thinking went, and how incredibly good are potato skins after a 6 hour bus ride?

“Hey man, you going to the game?” asks a heavy-set man from Washington state. “As a matter of fact I am,” I respond.

Steve was his name. And he was “In Vegas for a little while for various reasons,” some of which were to soak in both the WCC tournament and the PAC-12 tourney the following week. He, like so many other Gonzaga fans I encountered over the weekend wasn’t an actual alumnus of the school, but a fan nonetheless who “has been watching the Zags play for a long, long time.” (i.e. since the 1999 Santangelo, Calvary, Frahm team.)

  One of the many backroads to the Final Four (photo by @section925 on instagram)

One of the many backroads to the Final Four (photo by @section925 on instagram)

By halftime of the Gonzaga v. Saint Mary’s semi-final, I had managed to settle up at T.G.I.’s, ride along the flat-moving-escalator to the Orleans Arena down the hall, and find my standing-room-only seat among the other degenerate basketball junkies in attendance.

The atmosphere inside the Orleans is a bit weird. The home to minor league hockey’s Las Vegas Wranglers, the arena is a far cry from the homely feel of McKeon Pavillion in Moraga or War Memorial in SF, or the Kennel in Spokane. Aside from the die-hard fans who flew in from their respective WCC campuses, most of the spectators inside the arena almost just seemed to be there by accident. Maybe they were gambling on the game, maybe they were just looking for some more Las Vegas entertainment, maybe they were staying on the 12th floor of the Orleans and wanted a break from their wife and teenage kids, maybe they liked basketball just a little too much.

Concessions sold garbage food like nachos and dippin’ dots (“the ice cream of the future”), but no beer was allowed to change hands. You also couldn’t place a bet on the game inside the Orleans Casino. To do that, you’d have to seek out one of the countless sportsbooks outside the Orlean’s property line. Somehow, this rule helped protect the integrity of the game.

On the court, Gonzaga was a flat out better team than St. Mary’s. David Stockton (John’s son) controlled the game throughout and Kevin Pangos played like his efficient self. In the post, Sam Dower dominated Brad Waldo. With Matthew Dellavedova gone to the NBA and Gonzaga laden with senior experience, the Gaels proved to be no match. The Gonzaga faithful, outnumbering St. Mary’s supporters by about 5 to 1, reveled in the victory over their arch-rival from the Bay Area. As St. Mary’s players walked into the locker room after their convincing loss, all they could hope for was a bid to the NIT. Their dreams for another trip to the Big Dance had been dashed.

Game two of this night of semi-final matchups pitted another Jesuit school visiting Sin City (University of San Francisco) versus the mormons of BYU. As it turned out, this game ended up being a Las Vegas late-night instant classic.

The upstart Dons of San Francisco, coached by the fiery ex-NBA sharpshooter Rex Walters, played above their heads against the Cougars of BYU. Walters, who earlier this year watched his starting point guard Cody Doolin quit the team after a inter-team fight in practice, was a joy to watch coach. Screaming one second, laughing the next, Walters provided a welcome sideshow on the USF sideline. He was gunning for a huge upset win and his freewheeling coaching style was on full display. The Dons took the Cougars into overtime, but eventually fell two points shy of the upset, 79-77. Walters, gracious in defeat, will hopefully be back in Vegas next year for another crack at the big boys of the WCC.

Not long after the Dons loss, I found myself sitting in the lobby of the Palms Casino food court, eating the only food that was readily available, which happened to be a McDonald’s Extra Value Meal. ESPN announcers Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham apparently weren’t hungry, as they slowly walked by with loosened ties, only to disappear into a sea of slot machines. However, it wasn’t long before a couple members of the USF team arrived at Mickey D’s, jonesing for a postgame meal of any sort.

Tim Derksen, USF’s sophomore guard who played valiantly in the OT loss, sat quietly with a couple college buddies wearing “USF Sixth Man” T-shirts. Far across the casino floor, the Palms Sports Book’s giant big screen TV is airing SportsCenter on loop. Derksen’s friend nudges him on the shoulder, encouraging him to look up and watch his highlights play out on the big screen. Derksen raises his head for a moment, only to look back down and resume eating his french fries before the ESPN anchor can tell us who won. He, like the rest of the patrons at this late-night Vegas McDonalds already knew the outcome.

The Dons would ship out of town the next morning, while I would stay one more night to watch Gonzaga win the 2014 West Coast Conference crown. Only one team from the WCC would get to head back home a winner. The rest of the league would have to concede that Sin City had gotten the best of them. As history shows, it’s never easy to leave Las Vegas on top.

  David Stockton cuts down the nets at the Orleans (photo by Ethan Miller)

David Stockton cuts down the nets at the Orleans (photo by Ethan Miller)

A Local Star Prepares to Take Flight in Berkeley

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

The basketball gym at Riverview Park in North Augusta, South Carolina is nothing fancy. It’s the type of sprawling, multi-purpose gym you’ve been to a million times. A place to hold indoor soccer games, summer hoop camps, or a Friday night co-ed volleyball league. It’s your run of the mill suburban rec center that allows weekend warriors to shake off the dust of another long work week and get out and run. This all changes, however, for one week every July. That’s when the best basketball players in the world under the age of 18 descend on North Augusta to compete in the most prestigious AAU tournament there is. They call it the “Peach Jam”.

As you can imagine, for better or worse, Nike has their fingerprints all over the Peach Jam. The flagship tournament marks the culmination of the “Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL)”, which is effectively a group of prestigious AAU basketball tournaments run by Nike designed to highlight the athletes Nike hopes to one day sponsor. In the end, it works out for everyone. Nike puts on the tournaments, players get exposure, and college coaches get to see all the best talent of tomorrow crammed into one gym competing against one another.

Last year’s Peach Jam headliner was undoubtedly Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. Widely considered the best high school player to come along since LeBron James, Wiggins fell one point short in the tournament championship. He lost to Cal’s Jabari Bird.

Playing for the Oakland Soldiers, an AAU team LeBron once played for extensively, Bird found his team down 50-49 with under 10 ticks on the clock. Bird was being guarded by Wiggins on the left wing when the ball came his way. Without hesitation, he rose up and fired off a three with everything on the line. Wiggins couldn’t help but commit a foul. Bird calmly strode to the free throw stripe, in a sweltering South Carolina gym in July, under the watchful eyes of the Mike Krzyzewskis of the world, and calmly drained the game winners.

Sure enough, before Bird could even board his flight back out to Oakland, The North Carolina Tar Heels came calling, Jabari’s dream school.

“My dream school growing up was North Carolina. I wanted to be just like Jordan,” explained Bird in his high school coach’s office. “They came on too late though. I remember right after we won Peach Jam, I’m on my way home, and I get a text from one of their coaches offering me a scholarship. It was kinda crazy. UNC was a school I always watched growing up. But I had to say no. It was too late.”

Indeed, the 6’6” swingman, who’s always made sure to wear number 23, had worked his whole life to receive that text. For someone to offer him a chance to follow MJ’s exact footsteps and play for the Tar Heels of UNC. But Jabari is serious when he says it was too late. The Vallejo, CA native had promised to be a California Bear, and number 23 is a man of his word.

In order to connect the dots and fully understand where Bird developed his respectful demeanor, his cool confidence and his Jordan-esque smile, it helps to walk the halls of his alma mater, Salesian High School. Located in the heart of Richmond, the private school of 451 students shares a fence with the neighboring Richmond High School located just steps down the road. The quaint Catholic school features manicured lawns at the base of intelligent architecture. Students walk the halls in traditional school uniforms, while the administration is quick with a smile to the rogue stranger passing by. Principal’s Timothy J. Chambers popular slogan is “come and see”, and to be sure, the school’s excellence speaks for itself.

On the day I visited with Jabari, it was the second day of a new school year at Salesian. The back to school hustle and bustle didn’t stop Principal Chambers from corralling me into his office for a chance to discuss the attributes of his latest student done good.

“He was great,” says Chambers with beaming pride. “I can say that without a qualification. He was a leader. In the hallway, in the classroom, wherever he was. His language, his style, he had no pretense to superiority at all.”

It would be hard to blame Bird for having said pretense, considering his presence on campus. The main entrance to the school opens up to the a trophy case featuring the State Championship trophy Jabari won as a Junior in 2012. Down the hall, a conference room is adorned by a blown up photo of Bird in a McDonald’s apron from a photoshoot he did following his selection as a McDonald’s All-American. Yet despite all this pomp and circumstance surrounding the 18 year old, it hasn’t seemed to have gotten to his head.

Bill Mellis, a former team manager for the Cal Bears basketball team during the Jason Kidd era and current Salesian head coach, jumps at the chance to speak fondly of his former player both on and off the court.

“I’ll just say that for someone that was as recognizable and in the limelight, he is very down to earth. He loved his senior class. Not just the basketball players, but all the way down to the teachers. He treated everyone with respect and didn’t walk around like he was better than anyone else. One of his first year’s here, during a spirit week, he came in a full on purple Teletubby costume. He can laugh at himself. He was never above anything.”

If our location for an interview was any indication (cramped in the back corner of Mellis’ “under-construction” basketball office) Jabari’s reputation for humility in the face of humungous hype certainly seems to hold weight. With his never ending legs and Inspector Gadget arms coiled up like an accordion on his old coaches’ couch, Bird is at ease discussing the long arch of his basketball career.

The son of a San Quentin Prison guard, Jabari had his old man around in the afternoons to rebound for him when he was itching to get some shots up in the family’s backyard. That’s because his dad, Carl Bird, worked the graveyard shift, in part to have more time to spend with young Bari. It also didn’t hurt that Carl knew his way around a basketball court himself. A 6’8” forward who led the Cal Bears in scoring twice during the 1970’s, Carl was drafted by the Golden State Warriors and eventually cut out a long career for himself in professional leagues overseas.

“My dad always worked with me in the backyard. It would then go to HORSE, and he would always beat me in HORSE, then it went to one-on-one. I’m a little kid, and he’s like 6’8” 240, a big guy, but he wouldn’t let me win. He wasn’t about letting me win. That definitely helped me with my competitive edge.”

Not only did Jabari benefit from patterning his game after his father, he also remembers becoming infatuated by the Greatest Of All Time, Michael Jordan, at a very young age. It just so happened that the youngster grew up to be the same height as MJ, with a similar body-type and style of play.

“Growing up I just watched Michael Jordan videos all the time. I mean, who didn’t want to be like Mike? I remember watching him in the Finals versus Utah. Just as a little kid next to my mom, imitating his moves on the couch, trying to do whatever he did. I even watched Space Jam all the time. I had all his DVD’s. Everything.”

Inspired by Jordan like so many his age, Bird became consumed with the game of basketball, playing any chance he got. Whether it was an outdoor playground in Vallejo, inside at the Mare Island Sports Center, or at an AAU tournament with the Vallejo Hustlers, Bird was rarely seen during his youth without a basketball under his arm.

When it came time to pick a high school to attend, Bird chose Benicia High. A relatively unknown program, Bird’s reasons for attending Benicia were threefold. The school was relatively close by, all his friends were going there, and the coach was the son of Al Attles. The same Al Attles who drafted Carl Bird onto the Warriors decades earlier. After experiencing a five inch growth spurt the summer leading up to his freshman season, Bird became a breakout player for Benicia averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds playing against guys four years older than him. It wasn’t long before he got his first call from the Oakland Soldiers.

“I remember the Soldiers called me after my freshman year, and I knew who the Soldiers were. Carl Foster called me. I was super nervous at the tryout. When I walked into the tryout I saw all these elite guys like Jabari Brown, Dominic Artis, etc, and I was thinking, ‘I’m not supposed to be here’. I don’t want to say I was star struck. But there was just a lot of talent in the gym, Aaron Gordon, everyone. Initially, I didn’t feel like I belonged there.”

Whether Bird felt he belonged or not, he turned in a great performance at the tryout and was able to make the squad. With an alumni list of players that include LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Chauncey Billups and the like, there was no understating how big of a deal it was for Jabari to become a Soldier. For the next three summers, Bird would tour the United States, stopping off at an array of elite tournaments to play the best talent the team could find. Alongside him the entire way was Aaron Gordon, the current Arizona Wildcat who won California’s Mr. Basketball award twice while at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose.

“I was motivated. On the Soldiers I was never known as ‘that guy’. When people talked about the team I played on, in my age group, it was always about Aaron Gordon. And Aaron is a good friend of mine, but at the same time, I see him as a rival. Any accolade he got, I wanted it too. Being on the same team as him pushed me to work hard because I wanted everything he had. I wanted be seen on the same level as him.”

It was that first summer with the Soldiers that Jabari met point guard Mario Dunn. An electrifying player in his own right, Dunn had just finished his first year at Salesian, and continually sung the praises of the school and the basketball program in front of Bird. Because Bird’s coach at Benicia had recently been let go, Jabari figured why not head over to Salesian and chase down a state championship with his buddy Mario. He eventually achieved just that, but not before being embroiled in an alleged recruiting violation.

In what by all accounts was a mix up in the bureaucratic paperwork of the California high school athletics governing body, it was deemed illegal that Jabri had talked to Mario about Salesian before enrolling in the school. Forced to succom to the “Pre-Enrolment Contact” rule, Bird’s Salesian team had to forgo six of their wins that they earned at the beginning of the season. Coming back from a brief suspension, Bird, Dunn and current Oregon point guard Dominic Artis were able to make it all the way to the Division IV State Championship game only to fall short at Arco Arena. The next year, with Artis gone to a Las Vegas prep school, Bird broke through and brought home the elusive State Championship trophy back to Richmond.

Following his subsequent Peach Jam title over Andrew Wiggins, Bird returned home last summer with the world at his fingertips, literally. Virtually any school in the nation had their doors wide open for Jabari, should he have chosen to walk through. Ultimately, he chose to be a Cal Golden Bear, becoming just the fifth McDonald’s All-American to come to Berkeley, joining the likes of Shareef Abdur Rahim, Leon Powe and Jason Kidd.

“Cal was the first college to offer me a scholarship when I was a freshman at Benicia. Honestly, that meant a lot to me. I came into high school as an unknown player, and as soon as I started putting up numbers, Cal came calling and offered me. After that, Washington and Arizona and other schools started calling. But I was always the type of guy who knew he wanted to stay close to home.”

By staying home, Bird became the most heralded Bay Area high school senior to stay local for college since Leon Powe went from Oakland Tech to Cal. Stanford and Cal’s rosters have largely been made up of talent from Southern California as of late, not to mention St. Mary’s looking all the way to Australia to fill out their roster. Last year’s NBA rookie of the year, Damian Lillard from Oakland High, ventured out to Utah to play for Weber State in lieu of staying local. It’s a trend Bird is excited to try to change.

“That is one of my goals. To show kids from the Bay Area following in my footsteps that you don’t necessarily need to go away to play college ball. You can be an All-American, stay close to home, and still accomplish your dreams. Jason Kidd did it, Leon Powe did, I want to do that too.”

While not every superstar from Northern California stays local like Bird, there will be a host of local hoopers doing damage in the PAC-12 this year. Dominic Artis from Salesian will be running the point for Oregon, Aaron Gordon is poised to dominate at Arizona, and Darin Johnson from Sacramento is set to breakout at Washington.

“The PAC-12 should be awesome to watch this year,” says Jason Lincoln, a videographer from the hit YouTube site “Yay Area’s Finest”. “I’ve watched a ton of basketball in the Bay Area over the years, and this is definitely one of the best senior classes I’ve ever seen.”

Lincoln, along with Yay Area’s Finest head honcho Travis Farris, has been filming highlight videos of Bird, his boyhood friend, for as long as he can remember. It’s a passion project that Farris and Lincoln have pushed to become what is now a famed YouTube channel that attracts a cult following of basketball lovers.

“Those guys have been filming me since I was in the ninth grade. I’m all for it and I love supporting it. I think its cool because people say they have all these highlights and want them to get out and Travis and Jason are always there. If you put on a show, YAF is going to put it out.”

Highlight tapes aside, Jabari knows full well that if he expects to send Cal to the Final Four, or find himself on an NBA roster, he has his work cut out for him. Bird’s best attribute is his mid range game. Using his length and smooth athleticism, Bird should have little trouble in college getting off one dribble pull up jumpers and finishing lobs in transition. But there are still some holes in his game that he must fill in order to play at the highest level. Namely defense and ball-handling. Two things Coach Mellis believes Jabari will sure up, so long as he buys into Mike Montgomery’s no nonsense style over in Berkeley.

20 years ago, Bill Mellis shared the huddle with Jason Kidd as the Cal Bears knocked off the two time defending National Champion Duke Blue Devils. He watched the magician that is J Kidd pick apart a seemingly helpless Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. Duke’s chance at an historic three-peat evaporated, while Cal marched on to the Sweet 16. The Sports Illustrated cover photo from that game is prominently displayed in the Salesian basketball office still to this day.

As I finish talking to Bird and he uncoils from his seat in his coaches’ office, Jabari lets out one of his signature smiles as he discusses his Unit 1 freshman dorm arrangement at Cal. Mellis has walked those dormitory halls a thousand times. Eaten at Top Dog down the street, gone to Memorial Stadium every Saturday. More importantly, he’s seen and heard the Harmon Gym crowd explode with noise and spill over onto Bancroft Avenue after another “You had to be there” performance from Jason Kidd. As Mellis and Bird embraced each other a week before Jabari headed off to college, they both knew. They knew the story of the coming years about to unfold was going to be filled with unexpected twists and turns, gut wrenching defeats and historic victories. They both knew it, and were ready for it to begin. But for now, the two could just smile.

“Country Comes to Town” – Sonny Dykes Arrives in Berkeley to Lead the Golden Bears

  (Photo by Brant Ward, The Chronicle)

(Photo by Brant Ward, The Chronicle)

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

Deep in the heart of Texas, days after Sonny Dykes was introduced as Cal’s newest football coach, his father, Spike Dykes, is talking pigskin with a couple of football junkies on the “Cook’s Pest Control Hotline.”

At 75 years old, and with a glorious football career in his rearview mirror, Spike has no politically correct filter, no recruiting agenda, no schtick, just some stories about the good ol’ days of amateur football in the Lone Star State. And when the topic comes up of his boy moving out west to coach the Golden Bears, Spike shoots straight as an arrow.

“You talk about country come to town,” says Spike with a chuckle. “I think we probably dance to different drummers, you know what I’m saying? I don’t think I’d fit too good out there (in California). But I hope he does, I hope he can do it.”

And by “I hope he can do it,” we all know what Spike really means. Can his boy Sonny do what has proved impossible for the past 55 years in Berkeley? Can he bring a Rose Bowl berth to the faithful of Strawberry Canyon? Can he restore order in program that finished 3-9 last year while sporting the lowest graduation rate of all Pac-12 schools (48%)? One thing we’ve learned already, if Sonny succeeds, he’ll do so by keeping things simple, just like his old man did.

Born in the fall of 1969, Sonny Dykes grew up in Big Spring, Texas, as the son of a football coach. In a state certifiably obsessed with football, where a good seat at a high school game can require a Season Ticket Personal Seat License, Sonny was fed football for as long as he could remember. Naturally, he wanted to be the next Roger Staubach. The only catch was that he wasn’t very good. At least, not good enough to play for his dad, who was the coach of Texas Tech at the time. Fortunately, he knew how to handle a baseball bat.

“I was just kind of an average high school football player and if wanted to play I was gonna end up going to some school I’ve never heard of to play football,” Sonny told KNBR. “I just happened to be a little better at baseball. I could at least go to a school I’ve heard of. I was just kind of a guy on the baseball team.”

But following his graduation, there was no shaking the football lifestyle that had been ingrained in him at a young age. Even if he wasn’t good enough to cut it as a player, he couldn’t help but go back to it as a coach.

Sonny’s first legitimate coaching job took him 55 miles south of downtown Dallas to a small football town called Corsicana, Texas. The city’s motto is “Live, Work, Play.” It was Sonny’s kind of town. Sonny coached the quarterbacks at Navarro College. In his second year they made it to the Texas Junior College Championship. Soon thereafter, Sonny wound up at the University of Kentucky, where he served as an assistant to Hal Mumme, the Godfather of the “Air-Raid” offense. The Air-Raid concept led him back to Texas Tech, where he coached under fellow Air-Raid master Mike Leach. This was followed by a stint in the Pac-10 as an offensive coordinator at Arizona, and finally three years as the head man of Louisiana Tech in the WAC. Today, Sonny finds himself behind the wheel of a team and program ripe with potential, but fraught with flaws as he heads into the 2013 season facing perhaps the toughest schedule in college football.

This will be the first year Cal has had a new football coach since Jeff Tedford was hired back in 2002. Much like Dykes, Tedford was brought in based on his acumen as an offensive coordinator. Dubbed a “quarterback guru,” Tedford came to Berkeley with an offensive mindset, determined to jumpstart a god-awful program. In his freshman campaign, Tedford gave Bears fans a winning season, just one year removed from a 1-10 debacle under Tom Holmoe. By his third season, Tedford had the Bears ranked in the top 10 nationally, knocking on the Rose Bowl door.

During the middle of Tedford’s time in Berkeley, good times were rolling, and there seemed to be no end in sight. Tie-dyed “TedHead” shirts were printed, Marshawn and DeSean routinely ran wild, multi-million dollar stadium renovations were drawn up, and the Bears even flirted with a number 1 ranking. Somewhere along the line, however, Tedford seemed to lose his mojo, quality quarterbacks slowly stopped walking through his office door, and he was eventually forced to give up the once-promising program he cultivated.

In his shoes now stands a swashbuckler named Sonny Dykes who has been entrusted with the tall task of bringing the Bears back to Pac-12 prominence. It appears he plans to do so with the mantra of “KISS… Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

While Tedford was known for implementing a thick, complex playbook each fall, Dykes plans to take the exact opposite approach with the Air-Raid, or “Bear-Raid,” as it is now appropriately called in Berkeley. No doubt, Tedford’s offense worked wonderfully when it was run by a quarterback up to the task (see Rodgers, Aaron), but the complexities of the Tedford attack seemed to fall apart under his less adept signal callers in the past few years. Dykes, on the other hand, values the power of simplicity to make his offense move.

The Air-Raid style that Dykes will use traces itself back through a web of successful coaches. It is said the initial framework of the offense was spawned at BYU during the exciting passing years of Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer. LaVell Edwards was the coach during that era, and it was his mission to give his quarterbacks a simple, free and easy system to work in. Huddle only when you have to, use four wide receivers, let the QB go from the shotgun, and have him audible whenever he sees fit. This system worked, year after year, and it spawned a coaching tree that eventually named the system the “Air-Raid.” Hal Mumme took to it first, followed by Mike Leach, and now Sonny Dykes. 

In his three-year stay at Louisiana Tech, Dykes more than proved the value of the Air-Raid. Last season, Dykes’ offense churned out 577 yards and 51 points on average per game—all with an offensive playbook that consists of roughly 20 core plays. Huddles were mainly an afterthought last season, as Dykes’ offense reeled off the second-most offensive plays from scrimmage in all of Division I. Get to the line, survey the defense, snap it and let your athletes make plays. Rinse and repeat.

“Athletes who make plays” certainly have not been in short supply in Berkeley over the past decade. One would be hard pressed to flip on the tube on a fall Sunday and not see a Cal alum starring for an NFL team. Pro talent has been steadily flowing through the Cal recruiting pipeline, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t fully blossomed in Berkeley, especially at the quarterback position. Sandy Barbour and company are banking on the hope that a little simplicity will be just what the doctor ordered.

While Tedford leaves behind all the positives that come with a renovated Memorial Stadium and a new high-performance training facility, he also leaves his successor with an incredibly competitive schedule to navigate. Dykes inherits the least experienced team in all of the Pac-12 (five returners on defense, four on offense to be exact), and must face Big-10 power in Northwestern right out of the gate. Two weeks later, the team expected to claim the national championship and the Heisman Trophy, Ohio State, will show up in Berkeley. Sprinkle in a late September road test at Oregon and you have yourself a murderous first month of the season to contend with.

Dykes can only hope his simple, straightforward offense will jibe with what will likely be redshirt freshman Zach Kline at quarterback. If Kline can channel his inner Jim McMahon and Steve Young, the Bear-Raid will provide all the freedom he needs to make plays. What the offense won’t provide is a complex, intricate system designed to deceive the defense and hide offensive flaws.

Sonny Dykes, born in America’s football heartland to the son of a famed Texas coach, knows the drill all too well. Success isn’t measured by progress, or talent, or potential, but rather the cold hard facts of wins and losses and BCS Bowl appearances. It’s “win now,” and after that, it’s “what have you done for me lately.” It’s coaches at SC and Oregon bending the rules and breaking for the NFL as soon as it gets too hot. It’s Mike Leach at Washington State, it’s Jim Mora Jr. at UCLA, David Shaw at Stanford. It’s non-conference games vs. Big-10 powers. It’s the Wild West of college football, and good ol’ Sonny now finds himself right in the thick of it all. The Bear-Raid era is upon us and Cal fans can only pray it delivers the Rose Bowl they have long deserved.

  (Photo by Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

(Photo by Lenny Ignelzi/AP)

“Good Kid, Mad City” – Steph Curry Captivates The Bay, One Jumper at a Time

  The love is mutual.

The love is mutual.

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

I received the text out of the blue, around 6:15pm, on a dreary late December Tuesday night.

“Dubs vs t-wolves tonite at oracle. Can you roll?”

Normally, the answer would be no. I was all the way out in the Sunset District of San Francisco, the game started in less than an hour, the Warriors were playing pretty awful, Monta Ellis had just been traded to the Bucks for a bloke named Bogut, the list of excuses went on.

But anytime you can watch Luke Ridnour run the point for the T-Wolves alongside Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, and Michael Beasley, you have to go, right? So I did. I dragged my ass through the city, over the bridge and down to The Oracle.

By the time I got to my buddy Mike’s “lower-bowl-between-the-baskets” seats, it was already early in the second quarter. Beside some fundamentally sound pick-and-roll two-man game between Ridnour and Love, the game was sloppy at best. It had a “too many games in too few nights” NBA feel to it.

It wasn’t until just before halftime that I finally received the memo that it was “Chris Mullin Night” at the Arena. This meant that Mully would have his #17 jersey lifted to the rafters during a halftime ceremony. The ‘T’ and ‘M’ from RunTMC were going to be on hand, not to mention Tom Tolbert, Al Attles, Rick Barry, and Greg Papa. A who’s who of Warrior greats. Even Sharunas Marchulenis’ face was on my ticket stub. Suddenly, this night was shaping up to be much more interesting.

We all know what happened next. A dumpster fire broke out at center court. A textbook PR nightmare. An ugly lesson of sociology. An awful night in Warrior history.

It should have just been Mully out at center court with his wife and kids, and Mitch Richmond and Timmy Hardaway, and maybe Tom Tolbert. But god forbid if Warriors’ owner Joe Lacob decided to skip out to center court with a shit eating grin on his face and take the mic “to say a few words”.

When you are the owner of a franchise, there isn’t exactly someone above you to tell you when a bad idea is actually a terrible idea. So Joe Lacob went with his gut and took the mic, just days after trading away fan favorite, Monta Ellis.

A litany of angry boos rained down from the upper deck when Lacob tried to congratulate Mullin for being one of the best Warriors of all time. Mully attempted to take the mic back and put out the fire. It didn’t work. More boos rained down.

The lower bowl decided not to boo. Maybe because they were just stoked to be sitting in the lower bowl and were in a good mood, maybe because they were close enough to Lacob’s seats to feel some sympathy for the 5’2” owner. The upper deck, meanwhile, was unmerciful.

Rick Barry stole the mic (wearing a tan corduroy blazer, no less), and basically yelled at the fans to shut up and respect Mully’s night, but to no avail.

At that moment, the “We Believe Era” of Warrior basketball seemed like a lifetime ago. The Dubs were getting their ass-kicked by the T-Wolves, Monta was gone for good, and Mullin Night was getting drowned out by drunk/angry boo birds.

What a difference a year makes.

As it stands today, Lacob’s decision to get rid of Ellis not only seems defensible, but maybe even advisable. Curry and Ellis were allegedly not getting along, and there wasn’t enough room in the Warrior backcourt for two small guards who needed to constantly be shooting. Warrior brass decided to roll the dice on Curry’s ankle and not look back. If the 2013 playoffs are any indication, this has been the smartest decision Lacob has ever made in his life.

The phase “that player was born to _____” gets thrown around quite a bit. But in Stephen Curry’s case, it is safe to say he was indeed born to shoot. His dad, Dell, wasn’t much of a jumper, or a passer, or a defender, but if you left him open he didn’t seem to ever miss. A journeyman in the truest sense of the word, Dell played for five different NBA teams during his career. The formula went something like this: give Dell a uniform, give him a point guard that can find him open (ie. Muggsy Bogues), and he will nail jump shots for you. Rinse and repeat.

Now, what do you get when a shooter of that caliber marries a standout ACC volleyball star? Well, you get a more athletic version of Dell. And for this, Warrior fans are grateful.

Even though Steph was born with the perfect shooter’s DNA, it was always tough to believe the younger Curry would turn himself into a top tier scorer in the NBA. Talented, yes, but not LeBron, Carmelo, or Durant talented. Having the name Curry written on his back wasn’t enough to get big college basketball programs to give him a look. Instead, he had to settle on tiny Davidson College as a proving ground for his NBA worth. Three years later, after dominating the mid-major circuit, the NBA finally came calling.

Curry’s rap for his first three years in the league was “great shooter, bad ankle”. It seemed anytime Steph found himself getting in a groove and putting up big offensive numbers, his fragile ankle would give way. He’d spend a few weeks on the injured list while he tried to find a new ankle brace that would work out better. All the while Bay Area sports talk would argue whether or not Steph “would ever get right”.

The “Stephen Curry National Coming Out Party” took place where coming out parties are supposed to take place, at Madison Square Garden. On sport’s biggest stage, in a nationally televised game, Mr. Curry went unconscious for four quarters. When he awoke, the 25 year old had poured in 54 points and 11 three pointers. Even though the Knicks ended up winning the game versus the shorthanded Warriors (D Lee got suspended for fighting the Pacers the night before), the New York fans were sheepishly cheering on the three-point artist by games end. The performance was a spectacle in a very Steph Curry kind of way. It wasn’t LeBron manhandling lesser opponents; it was Steph simply mastering the art of the three point shot. Just casting up a ton of shots… and not missing.

More of the same Steph Curry heroics were put on display when the underdog Warriors took on the Denver Nuggets in round one of the playoffs. Steph single handedly turned the series into appointment television for basketball fans across the nation. The 6’3” guard whipped The Oracle faithful into a frenzy, basically shooting whenever he touched the ball, draining three after three. In game four, Curry scored 22 points, in the third quarter alone.

Now in the Western Conference semi finals, the Warriors are flying back to Oakland tied 1-1 with the experience laden San Antonio Spurs. Game 1 turned out to be one of the more gut-wrenching losses in franchise history, with the Dubs blowing a 16 point lead with four minutes left in the game. Steph Curry’s second 22 point third quarter outburst of the playoffs had gone to waste and the Charles Barkley’s of the world seriously wondered if the Warriors could overcome such an inexcusable loss.

Game 2? Well game 2 turned out to be the Klay Thompson show. The second year player out of Washington State pulled his best Steph Curry impression and made 8 of his 9 three point shots on his way to a career high 34 points. The last time the Warriors had won a game in San Antonio, Thompson was a six year old.

Now dubbed the “Splash Brothers”, the Steph-Clay combo has no shortage of confidence from their coach, Mark Jackson. Says Jackson about his youthful backcourt, “I have the greatest shooting backcourt that has ever played the game… call my bluff.”

Calling Steph Curry and Klay Thompson the greatest shooting backcourt that has ever played the game is more than a little ridiculous when you stop and think about it. But at this point, no one in Dub Nation is thinking twice about anything, not even Joe Lacob. The hopes of a Warriors trip to the Western Conference Finals rests in the hands of Steph Curry. A good pair of hands indeed.

  The Big Fundamental may have got the best of St. Mary’s Brad Millard in ’97, but this is 2013.

The Big Fundamental may have got the best of St. Mary’s Brad Millard in ’97, but this is 2013.

San Francisco’s Bruce-Mahoney Game – “A Tradition Unlike Any Other”

  A left handed Timmy Hardaway, Trevor Dunbar, displays his handle on The Hilltop (Photo by Doug Ko, SanFranPreps.com)

A left handed Timmy Hardaway, Trevor Dunbar, displays his handle on The Hilltop (Photo by Doug Ko, SanFranPreps.com)

By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com

San Francisco isn’t supposed to still have this much tradition left in it.

It was supposed to be lost somewhere during the Dot Com boom and bust. Or at a martini bar in a gentrified yuppie hideout, or at a Mark Zuckerberg keynote address on internet privacy, or at an Orange Friday at AT&T Park. The seven by seven stretch of real estate bordered by the Bay and Ocean Beach is thought to have become too blue for it’s own good. Too liberal, too progressive, too obsessed with 3G, 4G and 5G. Too far from its roots.

In a city of transplants and tech mercenaries, the notion of being from San Francisco, has developed an increasingly foggy definition. Ask a post grad on polk street who’s “from San Francisco” where they went to high school, and the zip code usually won’t start with 941.

To be certain, not all of the tradition has gone by the wayside. Not even close. It is still there, still burning as hot as ever, it just requires one to look a few layers below the surface, like inside a 55 year old gymnasium near the corner of Fulton and Masonic.

The first time Sacred Heart Cathedral and Saint Ignatius (both private Catholic high schools in San Francisco) played against each other, the year was 1893, or maybe it was 1891, but no one seems to be exactly sure. Fittingly, the game was held on Saint Patricks Day, on the corner of 8th and Market. The Irish of SH beat the Wildcats of SI by a final score of 14-4. Leather helmets may or may not have been worn and the forward pass may or may not have been invented at this point. The game was believed to be a cross between football and rugby. Admission to the game was five cents even.

World War I came and went, Babe Ruth did his thing for the Yankees, and eventually history gave way for the arrival of The Greatest Generation.

For the six years between 1939 and 1945, America was at war. Up and down the hallways of SI and SH, conversation didn’t consist of SAT scores and safety schools, but rather when and where you and your buddies were headed off to fight for your country. The era was ripe with pride and love for country and the football, basketball and baseball fields held less relevance in the grand scheme of things as they do today. To call the era tumultuous would be an understatement. America’s history was hanging in the balance.

As heated as the rivalry between Sacred Heart Cathedral and Saint Ignatius was in the 1940’s it obviously paled in comparison to the realities of war overseas. Many products of the two proud schools lost their lives serving their country, but two stood out as special young men.

The Bruce-Mahoney Trophy was established in 1947 to memorialize the death of Bill Bruce of Saint Ignatius and Jerry Mahoney of Sacred Heart. Bruce served as the student body president for SI, graduating in 1935. During his tenure as Wildcat, he was also a standout football player. Mahoney was an All-City football and basketball player at SH and also went on to be an accomplished boxer during his time in the service. Both men died while members of the Navy during WWII, Bruce in an airplane crash, Mahoney in a sinking submarine.

Since 1947, these two San Francisco cross-city rivals have duked it out for the right to hold the fabled Bruce-Mahoney Trophy. Each year, the two schools play a football game in the fall at Kezar Stadium. Once the home of the San Francisco Forty Niners, Kezar is an historic venue that sits on the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park. The winner goes up 1-0 in the three game Bruce-Mahoney Series that also includes basketball and baseball.

Come winter, the first time the two schools meet in basketball counts toward the Bruce-Mahoney Series. If the series moves to 1-1, the first baseball contest of the Spring, held at Pac Bell Park, ultimately decides who takes home the trophy for the Summer.

While the football and baseball games between these two schools are wondrous events in their own right, it is on the basketball court where the Bruce-Mahoney rivalry reaches it’s most fevered pitch.

Fittingly, the Bruce-Mahoney basketball game takes place in the heart of San Francisco, inside War Memorial Gymnasium on the campus of USF. Built in 1958, the 5,300 seat facility seeps with history and nostalgia. Some call it “The House That Bill Russell Built” as it opened it’s doors two years after Russell left the Hilltop for a hall of fame career for the Boston Celtics. For the Bruce-Mahoney game, literally every seat is accounted for. Students from both schools pack the upper levels, the last rows ducking to avoid the low ceiling.

At this point, of course, the football game has already been decided months ago. Now, the trophy is on the line in earnest. For the crop of seniors down 1-0 in the best of three Bruce-Mahoney series, every possession takes on a do or die significance. The 10 players on the court carrying the bragging rights and expectations of a sea of fellow students and proud alumni. A palpable tension fills the air, every basket cheered passionately, every foul call argued vehemently.

Much like the Axe in the Cal-Stanford Big Game, the fabled Bruce-Mahoney trophy serves as a constant reminder of what’s at stake. In the 65 years the trophy has been in existence, St. Ignatius has won the series 45 times, compared to just 20 wins for Sacred Heart Cathedral. Sacred Heart Cathedral won the trophy last year, however, and were looking to build momentum and close the gap with a repeat series win in 2013. If they wanted to retain the trophy in 2013, they would need to not only beat SI in hoops, but they would also have to win on the diamond.

On this night, St. Ignatius would prevail over Sacred Heart Cathedral by a score of 56-46. Trevor Dunbar ran the show for the Wildcats all night from the point guard position. A wizard with the ball in his hands, Dunbar repeatedly drew oohs and ahhs with his uncanny dribbling skills. Led by Khalil James, Sacred Heart never seemed to back down and proved fun to watch. Undersized, the Irish did yeoman’s work on the glass all evening to keep the game in question deep into the fourth quarter.

After the final buzzer sounded at War Memorial and the Wildcats of St. Ignatius climbed into the stands to greet their fellow students, yet another small chapter of the Bruce-Mahoney series was etched in history. More important than who won and who lost on Tuesday night, was that the history and tradition between these schools grew one game stronger, and for that, San Francisco should be proud.

  Many would argue Gonzaga at USF doesn’t get this full… (Photo by @ConnorBuestad via Instagram)

Many would argue Gonzaga at USF doesn’t get this full… (Photo by @ConnorBuestad via Instagram)

London Calling: Cal Alum Alysia Montano Heads to the Olympics in Search of a Medal

  Montano’s first Olympic race will be the morning of August 8. The final is held on August 11. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Montano’s first Olympic race will be the morning of August 8. The final is held on August 11. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com

Traditionally speaking, rummaging through a collection of YouTube videos featuring a middle distance runner is not exactly an enthralling experience. Unless, of course, you are talking about the video library of newly minted US Olympian, Alysia Montano. A runner who makes watching a pack of girls run two laps around a track not just tolerable, but downright captivating.

At last month’s Olympic Trials, Montano cruised to an impressive victory in the Women’s 800m with a time of  1:59:08. It was the fourth time Montano had won the US Title in the 800, and it was her first time punching her ticket to the ever-elusive Olympic Games. In the case of Montano, elusive would be the operative word, considering the long road Montano was forced to take to arrive in London.

The first thing anyone notices about Montano (formerly Johnson before marrying in 2011) when she sets foot on a track is the flower she wears in her hair for every race. But then comes the infectious smile, the hell-bent running style and the happy-go-lucky post race interviews. And then there’s the way Alysia Montano likes to finish her biggest races, with a tumbling dive across the finish line. It is this signature dive that might find the UC Berkeley graduate in NBC’s London studios alongside Bob Costas, discussing the triumph of winning an Olympic Medal.

Alysia Montano’s first notable dive on a national stage came in 2007 when she was a just a junior at Cal. The overwhelming favorite going into the race was the eventual three-time Olympian Hazel Clark, a seasoned racer with a long frame and smooth running style. It wasn’t an Olympic year, but it was Montano’s first chance to lay claim to the title of “Fastest 800 Meter Runner in America.”

On a rainy, wet track, Montano shot out in front of Clark and dared the seasoned Olympian to try to catch her from behind. Well versed in the strategies of middle distance running, Clark hung back behind Montano, letting the youngster set the pace and complete the stressful task of leading from the front. On the second of the two-lap race, Clark gradually closed in on Montano until the two runners were neck and neck as they crossed the finish. Clark and Montano both dove for the tape, with Montano winning by an inch. As her body bounced to an eventual halt, Montano was left with her tongue hanging out, clutching the blue finish line tape in her arms.

“Me and my coach were talking before the race and he told me that the last 50 meters was going be where I needed to find something and dig deep and go after it, and that’s what I did,” explained Montano, almost matter-of-factly.

With 2007 complete and an 800m NCAA and National Championship in hand, Montano set her sights on Beijing and the 2008 Olympics. She was the fastest woman in America now, with seemingly nothing that could stop her.

The 2008 Olympic trials were held in Eugene at the University of Oregon. Known as “Tracktown USA”, Hayward Field in Eugene is considered the Mecca of US track & field. With boisterous, knowledgeable crowds, the stadium is the last of a dying breed when it comes to track outposts that consistently draw big crowds and create memorable moments. What Madison Square Garden is to basketball, Hayward Field is to track and field.

2008 was expected to be the year that Montano would fulfill her dream of making the US Olympic team, but she instead suffered a runner’s worst nightmare. A nagging foot injury gave way completely during Montano’s quarterfinal race, leaving her writhing on the track in agony. Montano’s attempt at running through her injury resulted in a broken foot and subsequently, broken dreams. As track officials carried Montano off the track, she was left with the sobering realization that her next chance at the Olympics was four long years away. Hazel Clark would wind up winning that year’s Olympic Trials, sending her to her third Olympic Games. Montano could do nothing but sit home in Berkeley and ponder what might have been.

“I showed up at the Olympic trials and ran the first round, and my foot literally felt like it was crumbling,” Alysia told ESPN. “I remember kind of a black-out phase. I don’t really remember the last 50 meters. I remember looking up in the sky and felt like my dream had passed me by.”

  Agony in Eugene (Photo by Eric Gay, AP)

Agony in Eugene (Photo by Eric Gay, AP)

Done with college, Montano was faced with the lonely prospect of training on her own for the next four years, in hopes of getting another shot at her Olympic dream. After a year dedicated to rehab under the guidance of her trusted coach, Tony Sandoval, Montano put together a magnificent year in 2010, highlighted by her personal best 800m time of 1:57:34. No other female runner in the world ran a faster time during that calendar year. At the 2010 World Indoor Championships, Montano went on to win a bronze medal, not to mention her second US Outdoor Championship. After a year marred by injury, Montano was back winning championships and competing at an elite international level. A true testament to the impenetrable will and perseverance she’s known for.

2011 brought with it the exciting challenge of competing in the IAAF Outdoor World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. The event had the look and feel of a true Olympic competition and gave Alysia the opportunity to battle the best runners the world had to offer. In a race that Montano had no business winning, she maintained pace with the leaders throughout, only to fall short of her first international outdoor medal as she was bypassed down the home stretch. Once again, Montano found herself diving across the finish line in dramatic fashion, only this time, it was more like a full-blown barrel roll. The fact that the dive only landed her in fourth place was almost beside the point. Alysia had laid it all out on the line in a way which was inspiring to watch. If she was going to get beat on an international stage, she was going to make sure she went down swinging.

Mariya Savinova of Russia wound up winning the race, followed by Caster Semenya of South Africa and Janeth Jeposkosegi-Busienei of Kenya. Savinova and Semenya both hold sub-1:56 personal bests, while Montano has never run below a 1:57. People often say of track that runners are running against the clock, and in this case Alysia couldn’t quite beat it. “I got stuck twice during the last 150m, its just about positioning,” explained Montano after the race. “The 800 is an unforgiving event.”

This past month brought Montano full circle, as she arrived back in Eugene for the Olympic Trials with a second chance to realize her Olympic dream. This time, things went much smoother, as Montano exorcised her demons at Hayward Field and ran away from the pack to become the US Olympic Trials champion. During the race that secured her Olympic berth, Montano wore a Hibiscus flower in her hair to honor her grandma’s Jamaican heritage. Not just any grandma, mind you, her 100 year old grandma, a centenarian who still carries an unflagging vitalitiy and passion into her triple digits. A grandma who’s energy has undoubtedly rubbed off on her champion granddaughter.

The 800m is often debated as being the toughest event in track & field, as it requires the all-out effort of a sprinter coupled with the long term stamina of a long distance runner. Try sprinting a lap around a track at full speed, and when you’re done, do it again without stopping. “The 8 is just a fearless event,” Montano has said. “You have to go into it really believing in what you have been doing in your training, and believing in your coach and in yourself.”

Only two American women have ever medaled in the 800 at the Olympics. Madeline Manning won gold in 1968, while Kim Gallagher won silver in 1984 and bronze in 1988. The last Olympics in 2008 saw Pamela Jelimo of Kenya take the gold with a daunting time of 1:54:87. Needless to say, Alysia will have her work cut out for her when she arrives in London. “My whole mentality is to be brave and have heart and I have no control over what goes on when my heart is out there on the line. I’m prepared to run a really, really fast time. Those girls on the Olympic stage are not running slow,” says Montano.

Of course, there is a reason why Jelimo isn’t already wearing a London-issued gold medal around her neck; she still needs to show up to the track and cross the finish line first. An unexpected fall, inclement weather, an unusual pace, nothing is a foregone conclusion when runners take their marks for the gold medal race of the 800 meters.

In years past, the likes of Florence Griffith-Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee have captured the hearts and minds of the average American sports fan. Unlike some of her most celebrated predecessors, Alysia Montano will only be running one event in London and she certainly won’t be the favorite. But, with her penchant for beating long odds in dramatic fashion, don’t be surprised if one way or another she winds up tumbling across the finish line in a fit of glory.

Where it all started… Alysia’s photo finish to knock off Hazel Clark back in 2007 (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

"Giving New Meaning to the Phrase 'Locked in at the Plate'" - Baseball inside San Quentin Prison

  The sun creeps up over the walls of San Quentin Prison

The sun creeps up over the walls of San Quentin Prison

By Connor Buestad | connorbuestad@gmail.com 

Sure I had my fears. Who wouldn’t? At San Quentin California State Penitentiary, you name it and they’ve done it. Murder, rape, armed robbery, the list goes on, and it isn’t pretty. Some are on death row, others are simply there for life, a few are expecting to get back out on the “outside” as they call it, sooner than later.

I arrived at the prison’s visitor’s parking lot early on a Saturday morning. Look left, and I can see the north end of the San Francisco Bay in all its glory, morning light glistening off sailboats and the Tiburon ferry. Look right, and I’m confronted with a cluster of barbed wire, bars and high walls. Two worlds, so close yet so far away.

As it came time to enter, discussion ensued among teammates about what was to be allowed into the prison. I had never been, but I assumed prison security would be tight. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Aside from peering into my bag and lazily sweeping a metal detector in front of me, the guards let me in scot free. Compare this process to that of boarding a pedestrian flight to Seattle on SWA and it’s almost laughable. Put it this way, if I wanted to bring in a Costco sized tube of Crest, no one was stopping me.

A brief trek though the Maximum Security wing of the prison, home to the infamous Scott Peterson, led us to the “yard”. Down a ramp, around a corner, and there I was in the heart of the “Q”. My first impression was, yes, this really does seem like the movies. Eliminate the new hospital that was recently built, and I could of sworn I was in Shawshank. (Red and Andy Dufrense had to be around here somewhere, I thought.) One of the first things I noticed was a large clock overlooking the yard. Ironically, it was broken. Perhaps time really did stand still in this place.

As we set down our gear and trotted out to warm up, I was amazed by how active and engaged everyone was. Sure, a few prisoners chose to spend their Saturday morning lounging with fellow prison buddies, but they were the minority. Instead, it seemed as if most prisoners were wrapped up in their own world, doing their best to get the most out of their free time outdoors. Prisoners were participating in running, boxing, horeshoes, pingpong, chess, guitar, pushups, basketball, and tennis, just to name a few. There was even a religious ceremony of sorts going on in deep right-center field, complete with a mini-bonfire and a small hut. What should have been time spent loosening up for the game, ended up being a field study for Sociology 101.

  Mount Tamalpais serves as a constant reminder of life on the outside

Mount Tamalpais serves as a constant reminder of life on the outside

As with any baseball game, there is copious amounts of banter that takes place between the two competing teams. Playing shortstop, I was afforded a brief two-minute conversation with any San Quentin Giant who reached 2nd base. Topics breached included Pablo Sandoval’s recent slump, favorite Bay Area radio stations, and how much a Snickers costs on the street as compared to in the slammer. What struck me most, however, was the sincere “thank you’s” I received for coming inside their world to play. On three different occasions, a prisoner looked me dead in the eye and said, “thank you very much for coming, I appreciate it.” You can say what you want about the prison system in this country, but this type of compassion told me something is working.

During the course of the game we had our share of brief interruptions. One of which was called “yard down”. This occurs when there is some sort of disturbance or security issue somewhere within the prison walls. Midway through the 6th inning, I took a knee with the other 200 some-odd convicts, hoping the delay would be short lived so we could get back to the game. Two minutes later we were back at it.

I was interrupted for a second time by the prison basketball game that was taking place adjacent to our baseball game. This too was a game between a team from the outside versus the San Quentin Warriors. The interruption I speak of? Well, just an emphatic fastbreak dunk which set off a rowdy scene among the crowd of prisoners, presumably gambling on this, the “game of the week.”

The longer I spent inside these prison walls, the more I was impressed by the demeanor of its inhabitants. I went in expecting a rowdy bunch of criminals, but I instead found a calm, subdued group of individuals immersed in their activity of choice. Call me crazy, but it seemed like the prisoners were living a life of simplicity and routine that some readily enjoyed. Surely, there are horror stories that even the most loquacious prison guard would never confide in me, but the mood inside San Quentin on this Saturday could best be described as pleasant.

The San Quentin Giants ended up losing on this day. Surrendering a 4 run lead to fall by the score of 14-12. Shoddy pitching and errors on defense lead to the Giants demise, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of hustle. Following the game, the players manicured the field with water and rakes as if it was their brand new Corvette, a microcosm of the pride each player took in playing for their prison. Finally, both teams congregated on the pitcher’s mound for a brief prayer, lead by a veteran San Quentin outfielder. The topic of the prayer was religion, but the theme was undoubtedly hope. To quote Andy’s letter to Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Amen.

  Maybe the Field of Dreams isn't in Iowa after all?

Maybe the Field of Dreams isn't in Iowa after all?


St. Mary’s Matthew Dellavedova: In the Midst of a Basketball Odyssey

  Driving on Robert Sacre in the WCC title tilt in Vegas (photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Driving on Robert Sacre in the WCC title tilt in Vegas (photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com

In order to trace the steps of St. Mary’s College point guard Matthew Dellavedova, one must fly all the way to the southeast edge of Australia to Melbourne, then trek a hundred miles northwest to a city called Maryborough. There, you’ll find an unassuming town that prides itself on having an historic train station and a competitive Aussie Rules football team. This, as it turns out, is the corner of the globe where “Delly” first fell in love with the game of basketball. A game that is now taking him on a trip to places he could have only dreamed of as a youngster growing up down under.

It goes without saying that Dellavedova grew up far removed from the competitive playgrounds of US cities where the NBA’s future stars typically cultivate their games. He was just as far removed from the brightly-lit gymnasiums where suburban ballplayers attend summer hoop camps and AAU tournaments. Matthew Dellavedova grew up off the grid of competitive basketball. Fortunately for Matt, basketball turns out to be a game that requires very little infrastructure, so long as one has a penchant for putting the ball through a hoop. If we learned anything from Larry Bird a.ka. “The Hick From French Lick”, a dirt driveway with a shoddy hoop in the front yard can supply all the tools one needs to make it as a basketball player.

It was at the tender age of 16 when the lure of fierce competition, state of the art facilities and worldwide exposure led Dellavedova to the Australian Institute of Sport. Built in 1981 in an effort to improve Australia’s Olympic team, AIS has slowly evolved into a place where the best young sports stars of Australia go to hone their skills and market themselves as great athletes to a multi-national audience. During his time at AIS, Dellavedova began to set his sights on coming to America and following in the footsteps of the likes of Adam Caporn, Daniel Kickert and Patty Mills.

As Dellavedova began to wind down his youth career, his relatively modest tool-kit of height and athleticism left Matt with a limited number of Division 1 scholarship offers. “I only went on two visits,” explained Dellavedova. “I went to the University of the Pacific and then to Saint Mary’s. I ended up really liking the people and the atmosphere here at SMC, so I decided to come.” And with that, the 18 year old from rural Australia showed up in Moraga, California, equipped with an unorthodox jump-shot and “deceptive” athleticism. He was in theory joining Saint Mary’s to replace perhaps the best point guard the college had ever seen in Patty Mills, but no one would have blamed him if he didn’t come close to achieving such a tall task.

Instead, Dellavedova burst onto the scene as a freshman during the 2009-2010 season to help lead St. Mary’s to their greatest basketball season of all time. Dellavedova made the WCC All-Freshman team, scoring in double figures and leading the league in minutes played per game. On a team led by guard Mickey McConnell and forward Omar “Broadway O” Samhan, Dellavedova surprised everyone by how quickly he assimilated himself to major D1 college basketball. Using a formula of two parts grit and one part talent, Dellavedova hounded opposing point guards on the defensive end, looking more like a weathered boxer in the twelfth round than a basketball player in the fourth quarter.

When asked about SMC’s run into the sweet 16 during his freshman year, Dellavedova tends to play it down, as he does with most things he talks about. There is no question Dellavedova prefers to simplify things and keep his basketball career in perspective. In other words, Matthew Dellavedova refuses to believe the hype.

To be sure, there was no shortage of hype when St. Mary’s took the court versus second seeded Villanova for a chance to advance to the sweet 16. While Samhan stole the headlines, it was Matthew Dellavedova who quietly added 14 points while keeping Villanova’s dynamic guard duo in check for all 40 minutes. If ever there was a game that put St. Mary’s on the map, it was their Cinderella victory over Villanova. “I remember it all going by very fast,” said Dellavedova. “I was just focused on the games and really had no idea how big the tournament was to all the fans throughout America. When it was all over, I finally had time to appreciate how big of a win that was for the St. Mary’s community.”

Following a sophomore year in which the Gaels narrowly missed the field of 64, Dellavedova took over the reins as the undisputed team leader for his junior season. With the graduation of point guard Mickey McConnell, it was finally Dellavedova’s team, and he certainly knew what to do with it. After Gonzaga’s decade reign over the WCC, Delly and company were finally able to dethrone the Zags and win both the WCC regular season and tournament championships in the same season.

In what was a thrilling conference tournament final in Las Vegas, Dellavedova found himself locked in a pick-and-roll chess match with 7-foot Gonzaga forward Robert Sacre. “Sacre kept guarding me at the top of the key, because when we screened, they would switch defenders on us,” explained Dellavedova. Fortunately, Delly’s love for the art of the running floater proved to be a pivotal asset down the stretch. Delly repeatedly grinded his way into the lane, somehow always finding a way past Gonzaga’s athletic defenders. St. Mary’s looked to have the contest secured, when the Zags’ Elias Harris’ last second prayer from the top of the key was answered, sending the game into overtime where the Gaels narrowly eked out a historic victory.

  Guarding Tony Parker in international play (photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)

Guarding Tony Parker in international play (photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)

Perhaps it was fitting that when I got a chance to chat with Matthew Dellavedova, he arrived at the interview wearing his St. Mary’s practice gear, still sweating, fresh off a Tuesday morning workout. It was mid-April and the sun was shining bright on SMC’s sprawling countryside campus. Needless to say, it was a perfect time for Dellavedova to be out enjoying himself. If ever there was an “offseason” for Matthew Dellavedova, this would be it. Instead, St. Mary’s feisty point guard showed virtually no signs of sun exposure, a gym rat in the truest sense of the word. Beside getting out to Bianca’s Deli at the intersection of Moraga Road and Moraga Way for his regular Grilled Chicken and Jack (add Avocado), Dellavedova is most comfortable staying dedicated to the gym, and it shows.

Dellavedova’s commitment to constant improvement now has him set to cross paths with basketball’s greatest collection of current talent, the 2012 edition of the USA Dream Team. Dellavedova recently earned a spot on Australia’s national team, known as the Boomers. He will get to play alongside SMC alumnus and current NBA guard Patty Mills, as well as the Golden State Warriors’ new aquisition, Andrew Bogut. With the London Olympics starting in late July, Dellavedova is now preparing to square off against the likes of Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. When asked about his thoughts on playing against such extraordinary talent, Dellavedova responds in his signature low-key manner, “It will be good to test my skills against the best.”

There is no question that Dellavedova has leveraged his international basketball opportunities as a means to improve his play as a Gael. Last summer he got to play against France’s Tony Parker, and at the 2011 FIBA Oceania Championships Dellavedova was able to go up against the Spanish national team, in Spain. Facing a raucous home court advantage for the Spaniards, Dellavedova ran up and down the floor with Spanish legends in the making: Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Ricky Rubio. Games like these go a long way in explaining why Delly plays with such a high level of poise in the WCC. A road game at Gonzaga versus Kevin Pangos doesn’t exactly intimidate a player who is used to matching up with Ricky Rubio in front of his home country crowd.

Go to any St. Mary’s game at McKeon Pavilion in Moraga and it doesn’t take long to notice how important Australian basketball is to the Gaels, and vice-versa. Year after year, SMC opens up their campus to basketball stars in the making, looking for a place to call home and a platform to pursue their dreams. Aussie flags and chants are common at McKeon, and St. Mary’s games are closely covered back in Australia.

Come late July, St. Mary’s students and alums will undoubtedly tune in to follow their adopted native son, Matthew Dellavedova. Who knows how he will perform under the bright lights of the Olympics, stuck with the task of guarding Chris Paul, Kobe, or even LeBron. However, one thing Dellavedova has proven thus far in his distinguished career, he won’t be overwhelmed by the situation.

For 30 minutes I talked to Matthew Dellavedova, and for 30 minutes I tried to uncover some insight on what it’s like to take St. Mary’s to the sweet 16 as a freshman, or win the West Coast Conference title in overtime, or guard Ricky Rubio on his home soil of Spain. But, no matter how far I dug, the more I became content with the fact that Dellavedova really doesn’t believe the hype. The intrinsic satisfaction of seeking out and playing against the best basketball players in the world is what seems to drive Dellavedova to continue to strive and improve. Luckily for Moraga, they get one more year to call him their own.