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Friday, June 4, 2010


John Wooden came about as close to sainthood as one can get without sprouting wings. On June 4, 2010, the former UCLA coaching legend passed away, taking with him 99 years of wisdom.

I never got the chance to meet Wooden, but one evening with the Pusch Ridge (Tucson) Christian Academy boys' basketball team told me everything I needed to know about the hall-of-fame coach and fabled humanitarian -- a man who literally re-sculpted the hoops world.

The Lions got a chance to sit with Wooden in the coach's living room during a Southern California tournament in early 2005. I can just imagine the scene as players, coaches and parents sat on the floor in silence as the coach waxed philosophically about the game he loved and the life we should all aspire to live.

I loved this particular story for the magnificient quotes that I was able to get from those fortunate to sit down with the man who led the Bruins to the most improbably dynasty in all of college sports. Turns out, the sit down with Wooden worked.

The struggling Lions turned their season around immediately and in somewhat remarkable fashion.

Link to the original article by clicking the "headline" or read it in its entirety in the post below

By Christopher C. Wuensch
Explorer Newspapers


"WOODEN SOLDIERS: Chance meeting with a basketball coaching legend propels Lions"
by Christopher C. Wuensch
Explorer Newspapers
IF you could scale the highest mountain and ask the all-knowing guru who sits atop it just one question, what would you ask?
In the world of basketball, legendary hall-of-fame coach John Wooden is that guru. During a late December voyage to the Golden State, the Pusch Ridge boys basketball team got the rare opportunity to sit down with the guru and their season hasn't been the same since.

Before its 520-mile trip to Santa Clarita, Calif., to compete in the Hart Holiday Classic, the Lions found themselves in an unenviable position. Squabbling, illness and inexperience within the Class 2A program left Pusch Ridge's young team struggling for answers and, more importantly, wins.

The most blatant problem, however, was playing together as one.

That selfish play was never more evident than in the Lions first and only loss in the region, a game they should have won at home against Baboquivari. Although more than half the team was battling a flu-like illness - the "me-first" attitude was the factor that cost Pusch Ridge the game, said head coach Tom Norris.

In other words, the team with no seniors put the quintessential "me" in the word "team."

"The unity wasn't there," says junior forward David Robison of the ailments that plagued the team early on.

Lions point guard Jordan Cook echoed his teammates' thoughts.

"We weren't clicking. Guys were sick, injured," said the junior. "We weren't meshing well at all."

All that changed on a dreary southern California afternoon, in a place where legend claims it never rains.

After winning its game in the Hart Holiday Classic, the Lions were approached by Wooden's niece, who asked the team if it would like to meet the legendary former UCLA men's basketball coach, who lived nearby, politely asking if the team didn't mind wading out in the rain to do so.

"I know the coaches and I would have swam there if we had to," said Norris of the thought of meeting the 94-year-old Wooden at his unassuming condo in Encino.

In 29 seasons, 28 of which were spent coaching UCLA, Wooden amassed 664 wins against just 162 losses. During the 1960s and early '70s, Wooden took the Bruins to never before-seen heights. Under his tutelage, UCLA staked four 30-0 seasons, 10 national championships and 20 Pac-8 titles. During that stretch UCLA won an amazing 88-straight games and claimed seven consecutive NCAA titles from 1967 to 1973.

During his tenure at UCLA, Wooden was able to harness the raw talents of future NBA legends Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor, aka Kareem Abdul Jabbar, teaching them the true meaning of playing unselfishly together as a team.

The Lions got to meet with Wooden, who has been enshrined in the Basketball Hall-of-Fame in Springfield, Mass., as both a player and a coach, for an hour-and-a-half. During the visit he spewed forth his vast wisdom through quotes and poetry, citing fabled historic icons from Abraham Lincoln to Mother Teresa.

"It was such a prestigious moment," said Robison. "We couldn't believe it."

Quietly the players sat on the floor, along with many of the coach's medals and accolades too numerous to fit on the already filled walls, and absorbed everything the former coach had to say. Wooden spoke of basketball, answering questions in a methodical, roundabout fashion, lecturing that sports aren't the most important part of life.

Legend has it that Wooden can tell you the whereabouts of 172 of his 180 players from UCLA and may be more proud of those who went on to succeed outside of basketball.

"I could have sat at that man's feet for hours and listened to him," said Cheryl Morgan, mother of Lions' junior forward Ryan Morgan.

Outside the vortex of Wooden's condo, Pusch Ridge closed out the Hart Classic with a 1-3 record, but the results may have been somewhat skewed. In those four games, the Lions where pitted up against tough Class 5A-sized teams from inner-city Los Angeles and Bakersfield, Calif.

Since returning from Southern California soaked with Wooden-isms, the Lions (10-7, 6-1) have reeled off six straight wins and have vaulted from being a marginal team searching for an identity to winning first place in the Class 2A Desert Region.

"He told us to listen to coach," said Cook of the advice passed along by Wooden, "and do everything as a team."

Working together, the Lions have resurrected their season, dropping conference foes Benson, Bisbee, Desert Christian, St. Gregory's and Tombstone (twice).

"Every night it's somebody new who steps up," said Norris.

Not all the credit for turning the season around belongs to Wooden.

"In California we did a lot of soul searching," said Norris, who annually plans getaways such as the Hart Classic trip to give the team a chance to bond. According to the coach, it was only a matter of time before this fledgling squad learned to play together, whether it was this year or next.

If Norris learned anything from Wooden, it's to take every game one at a time, which is exactly what the Lions intend to do as they lumber toward the region and state playoffs.

Pusch Ridge still has a long way to go before claiming its first region title in school history. Looming over the horizon of the season's second half is rematches with Benson, Desert Christian and St. Gregory.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Rockin' Robin

Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts passed away this week at the age of 83. In homage to the Philadelphia Phillie hurler, I salute Roberts with a column written on Groundhog's day of this year.

Despite a storied career, Roberts has the dubious distinction of yielding the most home runs by a pitcher in the history of baseball.

Link to the column by clicking the "headline" or read it in its entirety below:

by Christopher C. Wuensch
Bleacher Report.com

"Ode To A Gopher"

by Christopher C. Wuensch
Bleacher Report

Today is Groundhog Day, the glorious time of year when we celebrate the most notorious gopher this side of Caddyshack.

Men such as "Punxsutawney" Phil Norton , who, in one tragic inning on Aug. 8, 2000, joined a litany of infamous gopher ballers to yield a Major League record four home runs in one inning.

Today we rejoice the pitchers who brought inclement weather to the bleachers of ball parks in the form of hailing home runs—many of whom lost their own silhouettes in the shadows created by the likes of Bonds, McGwire and Sosa.

The irony being that Western Pennsylvania’s famous marmot, Punxsutawney Phil , is said to have lived to the ripe old age of 123 by ingesting an “elixir of life—a mysterious “Groundhog Punch.”

So by all accounts, Phil Norton is not fuzzy, nor lives in an underground burrow. In fact, the lefty grew up 1,100 miles south of Punxsutawney in Texarkana, Texas. But his place in baseball history is concrete—that is, until another gopher-ball pitcher coughs up five dingers in a single inning.

When he does, you’ll hear the collective sighs emanating from Norton, a former Chicago Cub and Cincinnati Red, and the other 25 pitchers with whom he shares the dubious mark.

Among them will be future and current hall-of-famers Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Catfish Hunter.

Those enshrined in Cooperstown certainly aren’t immune from playing the role of the gopher.

Warren Spahn served up 71 more homers than he got wins in his 21 year career. His National League record 434 home runs given up didn’t keep him out of the hall. Perhaps personally slugging 35 homers (third-best all-time for a pitcher) helped Spahn gain access among the game’s greats.

Other notable pitchers going down in gopher lore with Johnson, Smoltz and Catfish include:

Bert Blyleven
His 50 homers given up in 1986 is a single-season record.

Fergie Jenkins
He led the Majors in homers-yielded a record seven times.

Frank Tanana
Allowed 448 career home runs at a clip of one dinger per every six strikeouts, tops all-time in the American League.

As far as legends go, however, no one topped Robin Roberts when it came to doling out free souvenirs to the paying customers in the cheap seats.

Roberts surrendered a Major League-best 505 home runs in his career. Even more remarkable is that the Springfield, Ill., native still managed to carve out a Hall of Fame career behind six 20-win campaigns. He twice struck out more batters in a season than anyone else and made seven all-star squads.

The state of Vermont was so enamored with the pitcher, they officially dubbed July 21 as “Robin Roberts Day ."

Roberts is 83-years old now. There are no reports of a man in a top hat yanking him from a serene slumber this morning to predict the weather.

Had he been so rudely awakened, his prognosis would have been simple to forecast.

Pitchers and catchers report in 16 days.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Test of Life

The Hellebuyck family hasn't spoken to me since this article hit the newstands in the fall of 2005; unless you count the angry message left on my voicemail. I truly believe I delivered this piece from a balanced perspective, telling both sides of the story - especially Eddy's and his struggles. Turns out, Hellebuyck never did get his appeal overturned and can be found splattered all over the Internet these days under the search terms 'steroid cheat.'

It's an unfortunate moniker. The Hellebuyck family was very accomodating and even invited me to the house one night to enjoy an evening of Kenyan cuisine (it was delicious).

You be the judge: fair reporting or skewed witch hunt in the name of a salacious story.

Click the above "headline" to link to the story or read it in its entirety below.
A Test of Life: Runner Rebuilding Life in Oro Valley While Fighting Doping Allegations

by Christopher C. Wuensch
Explorer Newspapers

It's well after sunset and the running track at Ironwood Ridge High School is pitch black, save for a magnificent strip of orange sky resisting the gathering darkness. The fading light is barely enough to reveal four lanky silhouettes circling the track so quietly their feet hardly make a sound.

Across the undulated field is Eddy Hellebuyck. His stopwatch, a permanent fixture on his wrist, gives off just enough light to reveal the intensity of his flinty face.

Hellebuyck knows dark days. The 44-year-old Belgium native has experienced them firsthand, morphing from world-class athlete and running coach into the guy on the business end of pointed fingers and quiet murmurs.

His resume is impressive: 29 marathon wins on several continents, top 10 finishes in the Boston, Chicago, New York and London marathons, four USA Track and Field Masters records and a spot on the 1996 Belgian Olympic squad.

But on January 31, 2004, none of that mattered after Hellebuyck tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug recombinant Erythropoietin, commonly referred to as r-EPO. The penalty was a two-year suspension from all USA Track and Field sanctioned events. With it came the scorn of the running world, despite steadfastly denying ever taking the endurance-building drug.

When the whispers became shouts, it was time to for Hellebuyck (pronounced Hell-a-buck) and his family to leave their home in New Mexico and head for the anonymous solitude of Oro Valley and the opportunity to start anew. "We left Albuquerque because of that," said Hellebuyck, who at the time was New Mexico's cross country high school coach of the year. "I wanted to get a fresh start, absolutely."

While the rest of the nation was grappling with the Barry Bonds vs. BALCO issue, Hellebuyck was dealing with a firestorm of his own. It culminated in his eventual firing from Albuquerque's La Cueva High School and a program he developed from ashes into a nationally-ranked cross country powerhouse. A year after Hellebuyck's departure from La Cueva, the boys cross country team slipped from No. 1 in the state to fifth, the girls from second to 10th - both with nearly the exact same team.

With a new home comes a chance for a new start for Hellebuyck and an opportunity to hone his latest passion: coaching on the international level.

The four silhouettes gliding in the darkness of Ironwood Ridge High School belong to Samuel Githinji, Joseph Mutinda, Philip Samoei and Albert Kiplagat - a quartet of Kenyan distance runners training under Hellebuyck's tutelage.

Although his name may not resonate throughout the social consciences of the country the way Bonds' does, the Hellebuyck handle is well known in the international track and field community. He and his wife Shawn - who doubles as his agent - receive between 30 and 50 e-mails a week from runners looking to train with the former Olympic athlete.

More than 200 Kenyans are living in the United States, training and running in races. They leave Kenya for the opportunity to make money in a medium that, to them, is more livelihood than sport.
There is money to be made as a professional runner. Hellebuyck's success enabled him to retire to Oro Valley at the age of 44. As for the Kenyans, they'll earn as much money as they can before their six-month visas expire in February by running in various races throughout the country.

The winter marathon season starts in December and continues through February. During that time they'll run nearly every weekend, earning anywhere from $100 to $1,000 dollars a race. Kiplagat likely will enter the marathon season as the money leader of the quartet. Running in smaller races throughout the Southwest, he has earned roughly $7,000 in prize money to date.

There is no disposable income for these men, however. Practically every cent will return to Africa with them to support their families - and not just their immediate family. All four are running for an extensive extended family that reaches upward of 100 members.

The money is used to buy land and machines on the farms. It is not uncommon for the foursome to send money home to pay wages to the workers on their farms. Other money goes to start businesses in Kenya and to fund the education of sons, daughters, brothers and sisters.

In Kenya there is no public education. A year's worth of high school starts around $700 a year, and even with an education, a job isn't guaranteed.

Returning home with empty pockets is not an option for these men, so running the risk of doping and getting caught is a risk they say is not worth taking.

"We take advantage of the altitude and punish ourselves in training," said Githinji.

One of the only Kenyans ever to test positive for r-EPO is Bernard Lagat. The Olympic 1,500 silver medalist, who by sheer coincidence is a Tucson resident, was cleared of doping in October of 2003.

Hope of the same vindication for Hellebuyck comes from a fellow Belgian countryman.

In August, a Flemish disciplinary committee overturned a World Anti-Doping Agency charge that Belgian triathlete Rutger Beke had failed several drug screens. Beke, like Hellebuyck, also tested positive for r-EPO. Beke was able to prove, through a team of doctors, that his body produced elevated amounts of erythropoietin, or EPO. Beke's case opened a door for Spanish triathlete Virginia Berasategui to have her r-EPO ruling overturned as well.

The drug r-EPO increases the amount of red blood cells the body generates, allowing more oxygen to circulate throughout the body. More oxygen, for anyone involved in a distance sport, spells longer endurance. In higher altitudes the body naturally produces more red blood cells, the same affect of r-EPO. Hellebuyck trained in Albuquerque for several years - including at the time of the test - where the elevation is 5,300 feet above sea level. Albuquerque is the highest-elevated metropolitan city in the United States. In comparison, Oro Valley's elevation is roughly 2,600 feet above sea level.

Synthetic r-EPO is legal in prescription form and has several medicinal benefits. Doctors have used the drug to prep patients for chemotherapy and to combat AIDS. It's also believed to help reduce rejection rates in transplant patients.

Common doctor-prescribed forms of the drug are Epogen and Procrit. The drug is administered via injection and can't be taken all at one time. To properly gain all its benefits, the user must inject three times a week for several weeks. Once in the body, however, the drug only lasts around 40 hours and is gone before the effects start showing. As with any drug, there is the potential for harmful side-effects, especially when not prescribed or taken properly. Iron deficiencies are common among r-EPO abusers.

The problem with detecting r-EPO is in the test itself, which, until recently, struggled to differentiate between natural and synthetic levels of EPO.

"That was the early problem with the tests for it," said Jude McNally, Managing Director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center of the University of Arizona Pharmacy Department. "When they thought about testing athletes for it, somebody convinced the world he didn't take and it showed it was still there."

Since the United States Anti-Doping Agency began testing for r-EPO in 2004, nine American athletes have been suspended for a positive test for r-EPO. Five of them, including Hellebuyck, were track and field athletes; the rest, cyclists. The native-Belgian and naturalized American has been tested six times since 2001, three of them coming in 2004, and has tested positive only once.

Hellebuyck isn't through fighting, claiming he is the victim of a false positive. He still has one more appeal to go. To assist in that battle, he's employed the same lawyer who represented Tyler Hamilton, a competitive cyclist fighting a similar r-EPO charge.

Although banned from competition by the United States Track and Field for two years - a common penalty among first time offenders - the International Association of Athletes Federation has backed Hellebuyck, which has kept his case open.

His two-year suspension will be over in January, but Hellebuyck isn't ready to give up yet.

"I have a chance that they can completely overturn it," said Hellebuyck. "I'm going to be suspended until January 31st anyway, but at least it's going to clear my name. That's the big thing."

Hellebuyck's oldest son is a freshman at Fort Lewis College in Durango and will be transferring to Pima Community College and then to the UA where he will run on the Wildcat cross country team. His younger son, Jordan, 10, is a future running star. Jordan finished fourth among all ages in the 5K at the Nov. 6 Everybody Runs event in Tucson.

Hellebuyck doesn't want the stigma of "cheater" to follow his sons through life the way it has him for the last two years.

"I don't want them to always see an asterisk behind (the) Hellebuyck name," he said. "I don't want that. It's really important that we're fighting that."

A return to coaching on the high school level could prove difficult for Hellebuyck, who will turn 45 nine days before his suspension is lifted. Eventually, he would like to crack the higher levels of coaching, perhaps with the UA or PCC cross country programs.

While finding coaches is in short order around the Amphi and Marana school districts these days, prospective candidates still must undergo stringent background checks - including Class-One fingerprinting. The same process is applied to assistant coaches and even volunteers.

"Normally we wouldn't even know something like that," said Mountain View High School athletic director Susan Sloan of hiring a coach on suspension from the USATF. "But if it did come to our attention, I'm thinking we probably wouldn't choose (Hellebuyck). I don't think the schools would touch him because we are trying to get so far away from drug enhancements or even the supplements."

MUSD's hiring procedure doesn't include anything about performance steroids, but chances are, past discrepancies would be found out through a pretty powerful "grapevine," said Sloan.

Hellebuyck isn't the type of guy who will sit around and wait for the phone to ring. The next two months will be busy ones, traveling to races in Las Vegas and Los Angeles with his Kenyan prodigies. Once they have returned to Kenya, others will take their place and the learning will begin all over, and, perhaps, for Hellebuyck, a new day will dawn.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


In a little more than two weeks, representatives from throughout the world will converge on Vancouver and ignite the flames of competition in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

This column idea came to me on deadline on a warm and sunny Tucson afternoon back in 2006, the last time the snowy games took place.

While the Catalina Mountains that surround Tucson see their share of snow, the metropolis in the valley hardly ever gets a single flake. On the rare occurrences it does snow, the city basically becomes crippled. That's what happen when a city of a million people has only one snow plow.

Click the above "headline" to link to the story or read it in its entirety below.