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The Long Road to Recovery: Jade Owens’ Final Year as a Bluejay

January 16, 2019 1 comment

The Long Road to Recovery: Jade Owens’ Final Year as a Bluejay

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in the January-February 2019 issue of Omaha Magazine ( http://omahamagazine.com/)

Injuries are a part of sports, but Creighton University point guard Jade Owens has weathered more than her fair share. After two years spent recapturing the health and athleticism she once took for granted, she’s returned to play for her senior season.

Owens earned a supporting role as a freshman before working her way into the starting rotation her sophomore year (2015-16). She averaged 7 points, 3.5 assists, and 1 steal per game and won admiration for her scrap and hustle. Things were panning out just as expected for the former all-state basketball player from the Chicago suburb of Fenwick.

Then, the summer before her junior campaign, just as she was coming into her own as a Division I player, she suffered the first in a series of major injuries requiring surgery. She was forced to sit out the 2016-17 season. Setbacks caused her to miss 2017-18 as well.

The promise of what might have been lingers. Her father, Ron Owens (who first taught her the game), says the persistent injuries have been “heartbreaking.”

After three separate six-month-long rehab sessions, she put the heartbreak and physical aches behind her to play in the Bluejays’ preseason exhibition (a closed scrimmage). She returned to the court for Creighton’s regular season home opener versus South Dakota on Nov. 7. The game was her first since March 2016.

“It’s been a road,” Owens says of her journey to recovery.

“Everyone always tells you, ‘You’re going to lose basketball one day,’ but you never think that’s going to happen. I lost it, and I’ve had to re-identify how I was on the team, how I fit in with everyone,” she says. “You don’t know how much basketball shapes your life until you lose it. All aspects of my life—different relationships, friendships, school—were affected by it. Just learning to adapt and to come back from things has been a huge life lesson for me.”

Coach Jim Flanery witnessed Owens fighting for 24 months to reclaim the sport that once defined her. “That’s a long time,” he says. Twice she got close to returning before being sidelined again.

“It’s like you get to a point where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and then it gets darker again,” Flanery says.

He describes Owens’ ability to stay hungry and strong enough to withstand “the frustration and disappointment” as a case study in perseverance.

“I just hope I can stay healthy—that’s No. 1—and contribute any way I can,” Owens says. “I know it’s not going to be the same as when I played before. I have to keep that realistic vision and take one day at a time.”

 

She’s learned to lean on her teammates over the years. “They’ve definitely been my rocks,” she says. “They’ve been there for me through it all—through the tears and the laughter. I don’t know if I could have come back without them.”

Her parents have been there, too. “They’ve been behind me the entire time,” she says. Her folks supported her when she considered quitting and when she decided to try coming back even after one failed attempt.

Her father isn’t surprised by Owens’ grit and determination in enduring the grueling physical therapy necessary to recover her mobility and strength.

“I take my hat off to her for sticking it out this long, but I’m not surprised she did the work,” he says. “She just puts her mind to something, and she makes it happen. She’s always been like that. She does whatever it takes to get whatever her goal is.”

He saw her overcome an ankle injury her senior year in high school that resulted in surgery and rehab. That was hard enough, but nothing compared to the last two years. Owens herself still can’t believe she’s on the court again dishing, dancing, and driving after not being able to do much of anything.

“It’s really amazing to me after everything I’ve been through,” she says. “It’s just crazy for me to even think about.”

Then there’s the way she has defied medical opinion.

“Some doctors told me, ‘We don’t know if you can [play basketball] anymore.’ I’ve been hearing that for a long time,” she says.

Her road to recovery began when she noticed pain in her upper thigh during a pickup game on the eve of her junior year. It was treated as a groin problem. Surgery in Omaha didn’t relieve the issue. Then she went home to be examined by a Chicago orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Benjamin Domb, who found the real problem—a right labrum tear. He repaired it. Following six months of recovery, she was no sooner cleared to suit up again when the labrum popped out and she suffered a fracture during her first practice back. Then, this past summer, she suffered a meniscus tear in her right knee that meant another procedure—her third surgery in less than two years—and another arduous recovery regimen.

Fellow CU senior Audrey Faber and junior Olivia Elger marvel at what their teammate has endured.

“I can’t even imagine the long months, days, hours she’s gone through,” Faber says. “Everyone’s excited to have her back. She knows the game, and we have a lot of trust in her.”

Elger says the resilience and mindset Owens has shown “should be a lesson to anyone” dealing with adversity.

That fortitude has not only impressed teammates and coaches, but also Owens’ twin sister, brother, and parents.

“She’s been an inspiration to the family,” her father says.

She is just glad to be back on the court; however, her experiences have done more than nurture athletic recovery. They have inspired a possible career interest. She is applying to medical school (at Creighton and other universities), and she hopes to study orthopedics. She’s even aiming for an internship with her orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Domb.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices, and I know the lingo,” Owens says. “I think I have some insight into sports medicine and what it’s like dealing with injuries.”

Visit gocreighton.com for more information.

The Chubick Way comes full circle with father-son coaching tandem at Omaha South

March 3, 2017 1 comment

This is a piece I recently wrote about the father-son Nebraska high school boys basketball coaching duo of Bruce Chubick aI nd Bruce Chubick II at Omaha South.. The father is the head coach and the son is his top assistant. The story was published in El Perico newspaper before the team claimed a spot in the state tournament, where the Packers will try to repeat as Class A champions. Not surprisingly, these two men have a similar way of doing things. They’re both hard-nosed, straight-shooters who value work ethic above all else. The dad coached his son in high school. Bruce Jr. grew up around the game from the time he was a toddler and went on to be one of the better outstate prep players in Nebraska history before becoming a heavy contributor to some very good Husker teams. Ever since his dad, the venerable high school coach,  took the job at South, Bruce Jr. has been assisting him. Last year they guided the Packers to the school’s first hoops title in a quarter century. Bruce Sr. said his son is one of the best players he’s ever coached and both father and son say their star player, Aguek Arop, is better than Bruce Jr. was at this same stage. Aguek led South to the title last year but he had an experienced team around him. All that experience graduated and this year he’s had to play with a bunch of varsity newcomers. That’s meant some growing pains. But that young talent has matured and Arop may be playing the best ball of his high school career. Opponents have to be concerned that the Packers have been on a roll since the beginning of February and appear to be peaking at just the right time. Whatever happens, the father and son will approach things the Chubick Way.

 

The Chubick Way comes full circle with father-son coaching tandem at Omaha South

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Things have come full circle for a father-son coaching duo.

Omaha South head basketball coach Bruce Chubick I guided South to its first state Class A hoops title in a quarter century last year with help from assistant Bruce Chubick II. Thirty years ago the father coached the son to Atkinson-West Holt’s Class C-1 state title. Considered among the state best small school players in history, the 6-7 son played four seasons at Nebraska and eight more professionally.

Today, the Chubicks coach 6-6 senior Aguek Arop, who they feel has a huge future. In 40-plus years, Chubick I can count on one hand his elite players. Since 2013 he’s had one beside him on the bench and another performing for him on the court. Just as Bruce Jr. pursued hoops dreams, Arop, a former Nebraska commit, may be off to prep school to eventually pursue Division I and pro careers.

But first they hope to land in Lincoln for another state title run.

“Little” Bruce grew up around hoops. “We kind of knew from the get-go he was special,” his dad said. Before ever suiting up for his father, the two made a pact.  “We agreed when he’s on the court he’s just another player and I’m just another coach, and off the court there was not going to be any critiquing of what went on during practices or games.”

“If anything, he was probably harder on me than he was on the other players,” Chubick II said, “but I knew the reason why – he expected more. I’d been around the game longer. There were some days I didn’t like what he said to me, but I understood the reason.”

Coaching together is special.

“How many people get to say they had a chance to coach with their dad? That’s a great thing. I’ve been approached by a few schools about coaching them and I said, ‘I made my dad a promise that until he’s done, I’m here.’ Philosophically we’re pretty close. He listens but he doesn’t miss a whole lot. With his experience he sees a lot more than I do. He’s got so much knowledge.”

 

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At 65, Chubick I is the metro’s oldest coach. Even after surviving a heart attack and winning it all he returned this year because he promised his star, Arop, he’d see him through his high school career.

Forget about the senior Chuibck being too old.

“What he’s teaching still works. He’s adapted his style to match the times,” said the son who reminds his excitable dad to ease down.

“There are times when he has to get after these guys and I’m like, ‘Maybe we need to back down about one click because I don’t want to try out my CPR skills right now.’ But he’s fine. Stress is something that concerns me. Hopefully, we assistants help ease some of that. I’ve taken a lot more responsibility.”

Besides, with South an annual contender, it’s no time to retire.

“We’ve kind of built something here and it’s fun to see. He thought about hanging it up a few years ago. He said, ‘If I stop, what do I do?’ and I said, ‘Exactly As long as you feel you’ve got something to give the school and your energy and health is there, why would you stop?’ He’s earned the right to be able to stay in it until he feels like he can’t or doesn’t want to.”

Chubick I confirms “I still like being around the kids.”

Meanwhile, a player they both admire, Arop, reigning Nebraska Player of the Year and sure-fire bet to be 1st team all-state again, has carried more of the load after South graduated a talented senior class.

“He’s been pretty patient with going from one of the best teams in the history of the state to playing with a bunch of inexperienced guys,” Chubick I said. “If I was in his position, I think I would have been in people’s butts. He’s just not that way.”

Despite his star lacking a supporting cast like last season’s 28-1 squad, the head coach said his team’s gelled after a mid-schedule lull.

“They’re coming around. I said at the beginning of the year if we won 14 or 15 and made it to Lincoln that’d be a heckuva year. We’re right there. I think that’s what’s going to happen.”

 

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If they make it, the Packers will go as far as the shy Arop carries them.

“I think he knows if he doesn’t we’re not going to reach our potential,

Chubick I said.” He has to step up and show leadership. It can’t all come from the bench.”

Chubick II sees Arop doing well post-South. Several colleges are eying him.

“His work ethic’s great. Skills-wise, he’s ahead of where I was, no question. His ceiling is not anywhere close to where he’s at right now.”

Chubick I sees a player “cut out of the same fabric” as his son.

“I don’t know if Aguek’s quite as hardcore, but he’s got that same drive.

His motor runs hot all the time. He plays both ends of the court. He’s a team player. Aguek’s a winner.”

It takes two to know one.

What if Creighton’s hoops destiny team is not the men, but the women?

February 8, 2017 1 comment

What if Creighton’s hoops destiny team is not the men, but the women?

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Wouldn’t it be weird if the local college hoops team of destiny this year wasn’t the men’s squad as we all assumed through mid-January, but in fact their female counterparts on campus? Maybe, just maybe, we got this narrative wrong. No worry, there’s still time to jump on the bandwagon and rewrite history. Sound crazy? Not so fast. The Bluejay men are not the same since losing Maurice Watson and even though the Jays are still a quaity team and even still control their own fate, each loss from here on out during the remainder of the regular season and on through the Big East tournament will only further hurt their standing in the eyes of the national pollsters and NCAA selection committee. Unless CU can play very strong the rest of the way, its once realistic if not probable shot at a No. 2 seeding will be long gone and the Jays could very well end up in their customary No. 8 or 9 spot. The once 17-0 Jays have come back down to earth and are not 3-4 in their last seven games. More importantly. they are now exceedingly fragile bunch mentally speaking. Meanwhile, the women’s team, which traditionally gets off to slow starts, once again struggled mightly early in the year, opening at 1-3. They entered the 2016-2017 campaign with a deep, talented and experienced roster, but injuries hurt them early on. Since getting healthier and adjusting to the loss of one of their own top players, they have gelled to go 16-3. The team gets steady contributions from nine, even ten players. At 17-6 and 11-2 the Lady Jays sit just outside the Top 25 and are poised to enter the Big East Tournament in great shape and further enhance their chances for a decent NCAA seed that could help them advance to the second weekend of March Madness. Steady at the helm is veteran head coach Jim Flanery, who has established himself as one of the state’s better college hoops coaches, men’s or women’s side, in the last quarter century. He seems to get the most ouf of his players year in and year out.

 

Bluejays Bytes Podcast: Episode 15, Sponsored by Lawlor’s Custom Sportswear

 

 

The great thing about the CU women’s program is that it’s heavily built on Midwest student-athletes. Almost all the players come from within an 8-hour driving radius. There are three Nebraska kids on the roster and the rest come from Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. The lone outlier is from Oklahoma. The Jays doesn’t do any one thing particularly well but they do most everything pretty well and their balance and depth is hard for other teams to match even though CU is often overmatched athletically at certain spots. Being fundamentally sound and hard-nosed can make up for a lot of deficiencies, especially against teams that are about even in terms of overall talent. I’m not saying the Hilltop women’s team will go farther than the men’s team, but they do have the advantage of being on a roll that is weeks long in process and showing no signs of slowing down whereas the guys are still in herky jerk mode trying to adapt to the loss of their indisputable leader on and off the court. Even though his career was prematurely cut short and he only played one and a half seasons in a CU uniform, Watson will go down as one of the school’s all-time top talents in the same category as Silas, Portman, Harmon, Apke, Johnson, McKenna, Benjamin, Gallagher, Harstad, Buford, Sears, Walker, Korver, Tolliver, Funk, McDermott. The same is true of Justin Patton, who may be off to the NBA as soon as next year, and Khryi Thomas, who before all is said and done may be the best of the lot. Marcus Foster has the potential to be in this conversation, too, but he needs to be better than he has been since Watson went out or else he will be remembered as no more than a pretty good scorer and super athlete but certainly not a great or even a difference-maker of a player. I mention all this because by contrast the Creighton women don’t have any one player who can be considered a certifiable star compared to all-time program greats like Halligan, Gradoville, Yori, Nenman, Janis. They are all about team and the whole being greater than the parts. Audrey Faber, Marissa Janning, Brianna Rollerson, Sydney Lamberty. Jaylyn Agnew. Laura Works and Baily Norby are the interchangable heart and soul cogs of the team and have had to be since M.C. McGrory was lost for the season after only nine games. Because the Lady Jays lost one of their best players so early compared to the men losing their best player mid-season the women have had the advantage of more time adjusting to her absence and they’ve compensated well enough that they’re in contention for the Big East title and a nice NCAA tourney seeding.

 

Creighton locks down Villanova in the second half to remain unbeaten at D.J. Sokol Arena

 

 

To be fair, the women losing McGrory was not nearly the blow the men endured when Watson went down, but what the Lady Jays have done since is not only comendable but darn impressive. And coach Jim Flanery deserves much credit for the job he’s done in taking over for school legend Connie Yori and turning out competitive teams year after year with less than eye-popping talent. What he’s done compares favorably with what CU volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth – reigning National Coach of the Year – has done. Bernthal Booth led CU to the Elite Eight this past season and I would love to see Flanery get his hoops program there one of these years. It would be a long shot, for sure, but, hey, it was a longshot for the volleyball team to get there, too. But they did it. Maybe this is the year he makes it happen. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the women’s basketball team does it the same season the volleyball team did? Why stop there? How about both the men’s and women’s teams advancing to the Sweet Sixteen? Neither program has ever done it. Why not this year? Why not do it when both team

Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop

September 18, 2016 2 comments

As Division I collegiate athletics have become an ever larger big business segment for insitutions of higher learning, the recruitment of promising young student-athletes has gotten out of hand. Recruitment starts ever earlier and proceeds with an intensity far out of proportion to the reality that finds very few of these kids ever making much of a mark, athletically speaking, in college, much less in the professional ranks. Often times lip service is given to their academics. This pipedream on both ends of the transaction makes kids over-hungry to be courted and colleges over-zealous to secure their pledges and services. When money is at the root of things, as it is here, bad consequences are more apt to occur, including rash, cruel decisions based on cold calculations, not on the best interests of all involved. A cautionary tale of what can happen is the story of Aguek Arop, an Omaha South High hoops phenom who accepted a University of Nebraska scholarship offer tended to him when he was barely 15. After recently learning NU was no longer excited to have him, he’s reopened his recruitment just a few months before the start of his senior season at South. As my El Perico story reports, the way things played out left South Coach Bruce Chubick none too happy. He feels NU did his young star wrong and he’s not mincing words about it. He also feels Arop will wind up in a better situation, as there are several Division I schools now recruiting him, and will use the motivation of this rejection to have a great senior year. Arop and his teammates are defending the state Class A title his Packers won last year.

 

Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

Aguek Arop

 

Aguek Arop

ERIC GREGORY/Journal Star

 

 

In 2014 Omaha South High’s Aguek Arop realized a hoops dream when, at 15, he accepted an athletic scholarship offer from Nebraska. Now this once storybook wedding between promising player and program has turned cautionary tale.

His Husker commitment made him the latest Omaha Sudanese athlete to make waves in local hoops. But he recently re-opened his recruitment after NU coach Tim Miles, who can’t comment per NCAA rules, made the offer conditional. In August, Miles, reportedly asked Arop, now 17 and a senior who led South to the Class A state title last year, to attend a post-graduate prep school for developmental purposes.

Observers say it’s an odd change of heart about a heralded player from a program fresh off two straight losing seasons and lacking any in-state scholarship players. Miles surprised many when he offered Arop so early but shocked more with this twist.

South coach Bruce Chubick Sr. said, “It’s an unknown quantity down there. I think they’re in panic mode.”

Upon getting the news Arop, reigning Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska, said, “I think my mind just kind of went blank. I didn’t really know what to think, I’ve now moved on. I didn’t take it personal. I looked at it as business.”

Chubick knows his star felt a deep sting.

“Nobody likes to be rejected. He was hurt and I was hurt. He’s like one of my kids and when your kids hurt, you hurt. I knew it was a tough thing for him. He loves Nebraska. He stayed true to his word. I’m proud of him for that.”

As for questions about Arop’s readiness, Chubick feels he’s ahead of two other Division I players he coached at this same point in their careers: his son Bruce Chubick and John Turek, both of whom starred at NU and professionally overseas. He said Arop has things you can’t measure in terms of “heart and determination,” not to mention a 6-foot-6 frame, 7-foot-plus wing span, high motor and huge athleticism.

“That kind of gets lost in the shuffle.”

Chubick doesn’t like the way NU handled the situation.

“I kind of felt in the spring they were getting cold feet about the fact he hadn’t grown, that he’d got hurt – missing his sophomore season. I mean, there were some indicators we kind of picked up on,” said Chubick.

“If they would have just set Aguek down and told him, nobody would have been happy but at least they would have been up front. You see, he played in all these tournaments all over the country and played really well, but all the college coaches knew he was committed to Nebraska, so they left him alone. So, he pretty much went through the summer circuit and then they (NU) pulled the plug after the fact, when it was too late to be recruited by these schools.”

 

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2017 Omaha South G/F Aguek Arop will move on from Nebraska and has reopened his recruitment.

 

Chubick also didn’t appreciate Miles passing the buck.

“They wanted me to break it to him,” Chubick said, “and I wasn’t real fond of that because it’s not really my place. I mean, he held true to his commitment.”

Though NU technically didn’t de-commit, Chubick said their loss of interest got couched “under the ruse of going to a prep school, which to me meant they didn’t have a plan for him.” He said, “If Nebraska would have said we want you to redshirt that first year, that would have been the indicator they really had a plan.” In his opinion no redshirt option was broached because NU’s “loaded at the 3 spot, which is probably what he would have to play.” He noted, “They have a freshman and a transfer coming in who play Aguek’s position. The math doesn’t add up.” Meaning, he said, even if Arop went the prep school route, “they wouldn’t have a scholarship for that position and they’re all about numbers down there, which I think is a mistake.”

Chubick said, “I’ve told Aguek, things happen for a reason and maybe this is a good thing. A couple schools that have expressed interest in him were in the NCAA tournament.”

He expects Arop to play his final South season proving a point.

“Oh, I think he’s going to be hungry as all get out. I want him to be pissed and have the I’m-going-to-show-you attitude, and I think he’s got that. ”

Arop simply said, “I can’t wait for the season to start.” He appreciates his coach having his back. “He’s always looking out for us. He doesn’t let anyone try to take advantage of us.”

As for where he’ll play in college, he said he’ll choose “the best fit for me” and one “somewhat close to home.”

South opens its season in December.

A good man’s job is never done: Bruce Chubick honored for taking South to top

July 19, 2016 1 comment

Bruce Chubick cuts a John Wayne-like figure with his tall frame, square jaw and plain-spoken, don’t-mince-words ways. He is, for sure, a throwback to an earlier era and in fact at age 65 he represents a distant generation and hard-to-imagine time to the players he coaches at Omaha South High. But the well-traveled Chubick, who is nothing if not adaptable, has found a way to reach kids young enough to be his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and gotten them to play hard for him. The South High boys basketball program was down when he took it over about a dozen years ago. It was the latest rebuilding job he took in a long career that’s seen go from school to school, town to town, much like an Old West figure, to shake things up and turn the basketball fortunes around before lighting out for the next challenge. Much like his counterpart at South, boys socer coach Joe Maass, who has risen the school’s once cellar-dweller boys soccer program to great heights, Chubick has elevated South High hoops to elite status. After coming close the last few years, Chubick’s Packers finally won the state Class A title this past season – he survived a heart attack en route – and for his efforts he’s been named Nebraska High School Coach of the Year. His team’s championship came just weeks after South’s soccer team won the Class A crown, giving the school and the South Onaha community it represents the best run in sports they’ve had in quite a while.

 

A good man’s job is never done: Bruce Chubick honored for taking South to top

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico

 

Omaha South High 2016 Nebraska High School Coach of the Year Bruce Chubick and his wife Dianne envision one day taking off in their new motor home and not coming back. The couple recently made a road trip by car, but duty still calls the much traveled Chubick. At 65 he’s the metro’s oldest head coach. He’s back prepping for the next boys basketball season with his reigning Class A state champion Packers.

He lost key players from that 28-1 squad that won South’s first state basketball title since 1990. South is the latest rebuilding project he’s engineered at Nebraska and Iowa schools. South came close to hoops titles under him in 2015 and 2012 before breaking through versus Fremont in last March’s finals – giving him his second title after leading West Holt to the C1 crown in 1988 behind his son Bruce.

“It was real satisfying we got it done. I think I appreciated this one a lot more just knowing how valuable that is for a community and school,” he said.

This coming season Chubick lacks depth but has talent in returning all-Nebraska star Aguek Arop. The athletic wing bound for Nebraska may be the main reason Chubick’s coming back despite health concerns. In the midst of last year’s dominant run Chubick suffered a heart attack during a game and elected to coach through it before seeking treatment.

“I didn’t want to quit on the players,” he explained.

He’s no stranger to toughing out difficulties. His son Joe had brain cancer and the family endured an ordeal of doctors, tests and procedures. To get away from it all, Chubick built a cabin in the Montana wilderness, where the family went off the grid for two years. It was a trying but healing time.

“It made the family close. I wouldn’t want to do it again,” he said. “it was a simple but tough life. There’s a lot of stories there, trust me.”

He later survived a kidney cancer scare. Then the recent heart issue. Stints opened clogged arteries. He’s still coaching because he keeps his word.

“I promised Aguek (Arop) when he came in I would stay until he graduated, so I want to keep my word,” said Chubick, who may have his best player ever in Arop. “Aguek is probably the most gifted of all of them, i mean, he’s really special.”

 

Omaha South Coach Bruce Chubick Sr. recovers from heart attack. https://t.co/u7xdhliQwG @nebpreps

 

 

It’s no accident Chubick calls rebuilding programs “the fun part” of his job. He’s been building things his whole life. That cabin. Houses,. Until now, he’d always left after  building a program up. “Once you get ’em built I never thought it was that much fun.” But he’s still at South even years after laying a successful foundation. “South happened toward the end of my career. It’s pretty comfortable. I really like South. It’s a good place for us. We found a home when we landed in South Omaha. Once we got this thing built I thought I might as well enjoy it a few years before I turn the keys over to somebody else.”

His “logical” successor is his son Bruce – his top assistant.

This lifelong student of the game grew up in Council Bluffs, where he played whatever sport was in season. “I was the one who usually organized teams. One neighborhood played the other.” He starred at Abraham Lincoln High. While at Southwestern Junior College in Creston, Iowa and at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa, he coached junior high ball. “That was my work study program,” he said. At SJC coach Ron Clinton let Chubick and his mates help strategize “how to play teams.” Game-planning and leading got in his blood.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t work with kids.”

His wife Dianne, who’s seen nearly every high school game he’s coached, said she most admires “the way he can touch kids,” adding, “When they come into his program they’re like his family and he wants the best for every one of them.”

He said his son Joe’s resilience in the face of struggle has affirmed for him that “things are what you make of them.”

Chubick still hungers to coach. “Honest to God we were on the bus after we won the championship headed back to Omaha and before we got out of Lincoln city limits I was thinking about next year. How we’d have to build around Aguek and figure out which players would have to step up.” He said he believes in “that old adage – when you’re through learning, you’re through. That’s true with coaching. You think you know it all, you should quit because you never know it all. I use the analogy that coaching’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You pick up pieces here and there and you try to put the puzzle together. For most coaches, the puzzle’s never complete. I’m not sure mine’s complete.”

His health will determine when he retires. “As long as my health holds up, I don’t think it’s time. Not yet.”

He won’t take it easy in the meantime. “A lot of people go through life and they don’t really live – they just kind of go through the motions. We’ve gotten our money’s worth. We’ve lived.”

Follow his and his team’s viviendo en grande (living large) journey at http://southpackerspride.com/.

 

Bob Boozer, basketball immortal, posthumously inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame

May 20, 2016 1 comment

Former K-State forward Bob Boozer (left) was recognized as part of the Wildcats’ all-century team in 2003 and will now enter the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame this fall in Kansas City.

 

Bob Boozer, basketball immortal, posthumously inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame

 

I posted this four years ago about Bob Boozer, the best basketball player to ever come out of the state of Nebraska, on the occasion of his death at age 75. Because his playing career happened when college and pro hoops did not have anything like the media presence it has today and because he was overshadowed by some of his contemporaries, he never really got the full credit he deserved. After a stellar career at Omaha Tech High, he was a brilliant three year starter at powerhouse Kansas State, where he was a two-time consensus first-team All-American and still considered one of the four or five best players to ever hit the court for the Wildcats. He averaged a double-double in his 77-game career with 21.9 points and 10.7 rebounds. He played on the first Dream Team, the 1960 U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Rome. He enjoyed a solid NBA journeyman career that twice saw him average a double-double in scoring and rebounding for a season. In two other seasons he averaged more than 20 points a game. In his final season he was the 6th man for the Milwaukee Bucks only NBA title team. He received lots of recognition for his feats during his life and he was a member of multiple halls of fame but the most glaring omisson was his inexplicable exclusion from the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Well, that neglect is finally being remedied this year when he will be posthumously inducted in November. It is hard to believe that someone who put up the numbers he did on very good KSU teams that won 62 games over three seasons and ended one of those regular seasons ranked No. 1, could have gone this long without inclusion in that hall. But Boozer somehow got lost in the shuffle even though he was clearly one of the greatest collegiate players of all time. Players joining him in this induction class are Mark Aguirre of DePaul, Doug Collins of Illinois State, Lionel Simmons of La Salle, Jamaal Wilkes of UCLA and Dominique Wilkins of Georgia. Good company. For him and them. Too bad Bob didn’t live to see this. If things had worked out they way they should have, he would been inducted years ago and gotten to partake in the ceremony.

I originally wrote this profile of Boozer for my Omaha Black Sports Legends Series: Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. You can access that entire collection at this link–

https://leoadambiga.com/out-to-win-the-roots-of-greatness-…/

I also did one of the last interviws Boozer ever gave when he unexpectedly arrived back stage at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha to visit his good buddy, Bill Cosby, with whom I was in the process of wrapping up an interview. When Boozer came into the dressing room, the photographer and I stayed and we got more of a story than we ever counted on. Here is a link to that piece–

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/05/11/bill-cosby-on-his-own-terms/

 

 

JOHN C. JOHNSON: Standing Tall

May 14, 2016 3 comments

None of us is perfect. We all have flaws and defects. We all make mistakes. We all carry baggage. Fairly or unfairly, those who enter the public eye risk having their imperfections revealed to the wider world. That is what happened to one of Omaha’s Black Sports Legends, John C. Johnson, who along with Clayton Bullard, led Omaha Central to back to back state basketball titles in the early 1970s. Both players got Division I scholarships to play ball: Johnson at Creighton and Bullard at Colorado. John C. had a memorable career for the Creighton Bluejays as a small forward who could play inside and outside equally well. He was a hybrid player who could slide and glide in creating his own shot and maneuver to the basket, where he was very adept at finishing, even against bigger opponents, but he could also mix it up when the going got tough or the situation demanded it. He was good both offensively and defensively and he was a fiine team player who never tried to do more than he was capable of and never played outside the system. He was very popular with fans.His biggest following probably came from the North Omaha African-American community he came out of and essentially never left. He was one of their own. That’s not insignificant either because CU has had a paucity of black players from Omaha over its long history. John C. didn’t make it in the NBA but he got right on with his post-collegiate life and did well away from the game and the fame. Years after John C. graduated CU his younger brother Michael followed him from Central to the Hilltop to play for the Jays and he enjoyed a nice run of his own. But when Michael died it broke something deep inside John C. that triggered a drug addction that he supported by committing a series of petty crimes that landed him in trouble with the law. These were the acts of a desperate man in need of help. He had trouble kicking the drug habit and the criminal activity but that doesn’t make him a bad person, only human. None of this should diminish what John C. did on and off the court as a much beloved student-athlete. He is a good man. He is also human and therefore prone to not always getting things right. The same can be said for all of us. It’s just that most of us don’t have our failings written or broadcast for others to see. John was reluctant to be profiled when I interviewed him and his then-life partner for this story about seven or eight years ago. But he did it. He was forthright and remorseful and resolved. After this story appeared there were more setbacks. It happens. Wherever you are, John, I hope you are well. Your story then and now has something to teach all of us. And thanks for the memories of all that gave and have as one of the best ballers in Nebraska history. No one can take that away.

NOTE: This story is one of dozens I have written for a collection I call: Out to Win – The Roots of Greatness: Omaha’s Black Sports Legends. You can find it on my blog, leoadambiga.com. Link to it directly at–

https://leoadambiga.com/out-to-win-the-roots-of-greatness-omahas-black-sports-legends/

 

From the Archives: Creighton Basketball and the Big Dance

 

 

 

JOHN C. JOHNSON: Standing Tall

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

“I got tired of being tired.”

Omaha hoops legend and former Creighton University star John C. Johnson explained why he ended the pattern of drug abuse, theft and fraud that saw him serve jail and prison time before his release last May.

From a sofa in the living room of the north Omaha home he shares with his wife, Angela , who clung to him during a recent interview, he made no excuses for his actions. He tried, however, to explain his fall from grace and the struggle to reclaim his good name.

“Pancho” or “C,” as he’s called, was reluctant to speak out after what he saw as the media dogging his every arrest, sentencing and parole board hearing. The last thing he wanted was to rehash it all. But as one of the best players Omaha’s ever produced, he’s newsworthy.

“I had a lot of great players,” said his coach at Omaha Central High School, Jim Martin, “but I think ‘C’ surpassed them all. You would have to rate him as one of the top five players I’ve seen locally. He’d be right up there with Fred Hare, Mike McGee, Ron Kellogg, Andre Woolridge, Kerry Trotter… He was a man among boys.”

 

John C. Johnson

 

The boys state basketball championship Central won this past weekend was the school’s first in 31 years. The last ones before that were the 1974 and 1975 titles that Johnson led the Eagles to. Those clubs are considered two of the best in Omaha prep history. In the proceeding 30 years Central sent many fine teams down to Lincoln to compete for the state crown, but always came up short — until this year. It’s that kind of legacy that makes Johnson such an icon.

He’s come to terms with the fact he’s fair game.

“Obscurity is real important to me right now,” Johnson said. “I used to get mad about the stuff written about me, but, hey, it was OK when I was getting the good pub, so I guess you gotta take the good with the bad. Yeah, when I was scoring 25 points and grabbing all those rebounds, it’s beautiful. But when I’m in trouble, it’s not so beautiful.”

As a hometown black hero Johnson was a rarity at Creighton. Despite much hoops talent in the inner city, the small Jesuit school’s had few black players from Omaha in its long history.

There was a rough beauty to his fluid game. It was 40 minutes of hell for opponents, who’d wilt under the pressure of his constant movement, quick feet, long reach and scrappy play. He’d disrupt them. Get inside their heads. At 6-foot-3 he’d impose his will on guys with more height and bulk — but not heart.

“John C.’ s heart and desire were tremendous, and as a result he was a real defensive stopper,” said Randy Eccker, a sports marketing executive who played point guard alongside him at Creighton. “He had a long body and very quick athletic ability and was able to do things normally only much taller players do. He played more like he was [6-foot-6]. On offense he was one of the most skilled finishers I ever played with. When he got a little bit of an edge he was tremendous in finishing and making baskets. But the thing I remember most about John C. is his heart. He’d always step up to make the big plays and he always had a gift for bringing everybody together.”

Creighton’s then-head coach, Tom Apke, calls Johnson “a winner” whose “versatility and intangibles” made him “a terrific player and one of the most unique athletes I ever coached. John could break defenses down off the dribble and that complemented our bigger men,” Apke said. “He had an innate ability on defense. He also anticipated well and worked hard. But most of all he was a very determined defender. He had the attitude that he was not going to let his man take him.”

Johnson took pride in taking on the big dudes. “Here I was playing small forward at [6-foot-three] on the major college level and guarding guys [6-foot-8], and holding my own,” he said in his deep, resonant voice.

When team physician and super fan Lee “Doc” Bevilacqua and assistant coach Tom “Broz” Brosnihan challenged him to clean the boards or to shut down opponents’ big guns, he responded.

He could also score, averaging 14.5 points a game in his four-year career (1975-76, 1978-79) at CU. Always maneuvering for position under the bucket, he snatched offensive rebounds for second-chance points. When not getting put-backs, he slashed inside to draw a foul or get a layup and posted-up smaller men like he did back at Central, when he and Clayton Bullard led the Eagles to consecutive Class A state titles.

He modeled his game after Adrian Dantley, a dominant small forward at Notre Dame and in the NBA. “Yeah, A.D., I liked him,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t the biggest or flashiest player in the world, but he was one of the hardest working players in the league.” The same way A.D. got after it on offense, Johnson ratcheted it up on defense. “I was real feisty,” he said. “When I guarded somebody, hell if he went to the bathroom I was going to follow him and pick him up again at half-court. Even as a freshman at Creighton I was getting all the defensive assignments.”

Unafraid to mix it up, he’d tear into somebody if provoked. Iowa State’s Anthony Parker, a 6-foot-7, high-scoring forward, made the mistake of saying something disparaging about Johnson’s mother in a game.

“When he said something about my mama, that was it,” Johnson said. “I just saw fire and went off on him. Fight’s done, and by halftime I have two or three offensive rebounds and I’m in charge of him. By the end, he’s on the bench with seven points. Afterward, he came in our locker room and I stood up thinking he wanted to settle things. But he said, ‘I’m really sorry. I lost my head. I’m not ever going to say anything about nobody’s mama again. Man, you took me right out of my game.’”

Doing whatever it took — fighting, hustling, hitting a key shot — was Johnson’s way. “That’s just how I approached the game,” he said. He faced some big-time competition, too. He shadowed future NBA all-stars Maurice “Mo” Cheeks, a dynamo with West Texas State College; Mark Aguirre, an All-American with DePaul; and Andrew Toney, a scoring machine with Southwest Louisiana State. A longtime mentor of Johnson’s, Sam Crawford said, “And he was right there with them, too.”

He even had a hand in slowing down Larry Bird. Johnson and company held Larry Legend to seven points below his collegiate career scoring average in five games against Indiana State. The Jays won all three of the schools’ ’77-78 contests, the last (54-52) giving them the Missouri Valley Conference title. But ISU took both meetings in ’78-79, the season Bird led his team to the NCAA finals versus Magic Johnson’s Michigan State.

When “C” didn’t get the playing time he felt he deserved in a late season game his freshman year, Apke got an earful from Johnson’s father and from Don Benning, Central’s then-athletic director and a black sports legend himself. If the community felt one of their own got the shaft, they let the school know about it.

Expectations were high for Johnson — one of two players off those Central title teams, along with Clayton Bullard, to go Division I. His play at Creighton largely met people’s high standards. Even after his NBA stint with the Denver Nuggets, who drafted him in the 7th round, fizzled, he was soon a fixture again here as a Boys and Girls Club staffer and juvenile probation officer. That’s what made his fall shocking.

Friends and family had vouched for him. The late Dan Offenberger, former CU athletic director, said then: “He’s a quality guy who overcame lots of obstacles and got his degree. He’s one of the shining examples of what a young man can accomplish by using athletics to get an education and go on in his work.”

What sent Johnson off the deep end, he said, was the 1988 death of his baby brother and best friend, Michael, who followed him to Creighton to play ball. After being stricken with aplastic anemia, Michael received a bone marrow transplant from “C.” There was high hope for a full recovery, but when Michael’s liver was punctured during a biopsy, he bled to death.

“When he didn’t make it, I kind of took it personally,” Johnson said. “It was a really hard period for our family. It really hurt me. I still have problems with it to this day. That’s when things started happening and spinning out of control.”

He used weed and alcohol and, as with so many addicts, these gateway drugs got him hooked on more serious stuff. He doesn’t care to elaborate. Arrested after his first stealing binge, Johnson waived his right to a trial and admitted his offenses. He pleaded no contest and offered restitution to his victims.

His first arrests came in 1992 for a string of car break-ins and forgeries to support his drug habit. He was originally arrested for theft, violation of a financial transaction device, two counts of theft by receiving stolen propperty and two counts of criminal mischief. His crimes typically involved a woman accomplice with a fake I.D. Using stolen checks and credit cards, they would write a check to the fake name and cash it soon thereafter. He faced misdemanor and felony charges in Harrison County Court in Iowa and misdemeanor charges in Douglas County. He was convicted and by March 2003 he’d served about eight years behind bars.

He was released and arrested again. In March 2003 he was denied parole for failing to complete an intensive drug treatment program. Johnson argued, unsuccessfully, that his not completing the program was the result of an official oversight that failed to place his name on a waiting list, resulting in him never being notified that he could start the program.

Ironically, a member of the Nebraska Board of Parole who heard Johnson’s appeal is another former Omaha basketball legend — Bob Boozer, a star at Technical High School, an All-American at Kansas State and a member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal winning Dream Team and the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks NBA title team. Where Johnson’s life got derailed and reputation sullied, Boozer’s never had scandal tarnish his name.

After getting out on in the fall of 2003, Johnson was arrested again for similar crimes as before. The arrest came soon after he and other CU basketball greats were honored at the Bluejays’ dedication of the Qwest Center Omaha. He only completed his last stretch in May 2005. His total time served was about 10 years.

He ended up back inside more than once, he said, because “I wasn’t ready to quit.” Now he just wants to put his public mistakes behind him.

What Johnson calls “the Creighton family” has stood by him. When he joined other program greats at the Jays’ Nov. 22, 2003 dedication of the Qwest Center, the warm ovation he received moved him. He’s a regular again at the school’s old hilltop gym, where he and his buds play pickup games versus 25-year-old son Keenan and crew. He feels welcome there. For the record, he said, the old guys regularly “whup” the kids.

“It feels good to be part of the Creighton family again. They’re so happy for me. It’s kind of made me feel wanted again,” he said.

Sam Crawford, a former Creighton administrator and an active member of the CU family, said, “I don’t think we’ll ever give up on John C., because he gave so much of himself while he was there. If there’s any regret, it’s that we didn’t see it [drug abuse] coming.” Crawford was part of a contingent that helped recruit Johnson to CU, which wanted “C” so bad they sent one of the school’s all-time greats, Paul Silas, to his family’s house to help persuade him to come.

Angela, whom “C” married in 2004, convinced him to share his story. “I told him, ‘You really need to preserve the Johnson legacy — through the great times, your brief moment of insanity and then your regaining who you are and your whole person,’” she said. Like anyone who’s been down a hard road, Johnson’s been changed by the journey. Gone is what’s he calls the “attitude of indifference” that kept him hooked on junk and enabled the crime sprees that supported his habit. “I’ve got a new perspective,” he said. “My decision-making is different. It’s been almost six years since I’ve used. I’m in a different relationship.

 

 

 

Having a good time used to mean getting high. Not anymore. Life behind “the razor wire” finally scared him straight. ”They made me a believer. The penal system made me a believer that every time I break the law the chances of my getting incarcerated get greater and greater. All this time I’ve done, I can’t recoup. It’s lost time. Sitting in there, you miss events. Like my sister had a retirement party I couldn’t go to. My mother’s getting up in age, and I was scared there would be a death in the family and I’d have to come to the funeral in handcuffs and shackles. My son’s just become a father and I wouldn’t wanted to have missed that. Missing stuff like that scared the hell out of me.”

Johnson’s rep is everything. He wants it known what he did was out of character. That part of his past does not define him. “I’ve done some bad things, but I’m still a good person. You’ll find very few people that have anything bad to say about me personally,” he said. “You’ll mostly find sympathy, which I hate.” But he knows some perceive him negatively. “I don’t know if I’m getting that licked yet. If I don’t, it’s OK. I can’t do anything about that.”

He takes full responsibility for his crimes and is visibly upset when he talks about doing time with the likes of rapists and child molesters. “I own up to what I did,” he said. “I deserved to go to prison. I was out of control. But as much trouble as I’ve been in, I’ve never been violent. I never touched violence. The only fights I’ve had have been on the basketball court, in the heat of battle.”

He filled jobs in recent years via the correction system’s work release program. Shortly before regaining his freedom in May, he faced the hard reality any ex-con does of finding long-term work with a felony conviction haunting him. When he’d get to the part of an application asking, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” — he’d check, yes. Where it said, “Please explain,” he’d write in the box, “Will explain in the interview.” Only he rarely got the chance to tell his story.

Then his luck changed. Drake Williams Steel Company of Omaha saw the man and not the record and hired him to work the night shift on its production line. “I really appreciate them giving me an opportunity, because they didn’t have to. A lot of places wouldn’t. And to be perfectly honest, I understand that. This company is employee-oriented, and they like me. They’re letting me learn things.”

He isn’t used to the blue-collar grind. “All my jobs have been sitting behind a desk, pretty much. Now I’m doing manual labor, and it’s hard work. I’m scratched up. I work on a hydro saw. I weld. I operate an overhead crane that moves 3,000-pound steel beams. I’m a machine operator, a drill operator…”

The hard work has brought Johnson full circle with the legacy of his late father, Jesse Johnson, an Okie and ex-Golden Gloves boxer who migrated north to work the packing houses. “My father was a hard working man,” he said. “He worked two full-time jobs to support us. We didn’t have everything but we had what we needed. I’ve been around elite athletes, but my father, he was the strongest man I’ve ever known, physically, emotionally and mentally. He didn’t get past the 8th grade, but he was very well read, very smart.”

His pops was stern but loving. Johnson also has a knack with young people — he’s on good terms with his children from his first marriage, Keenan and Jessica — and aspires one day to work again with “kids on the edge.”

“I shine around kids,” he said. “I can talk to them at their level. I listen. There’s very few things a kid can talk about that I wouldn’t be able to relate to. I just hope I didn’t burn too many bridges. I would hate to think my life would end without ever being able to work with kids again. That’s one of my biggest fears. I really liked the Boys Club and the probation work I did, and I really miss that.”

He still has a way with kids. Johnson and a teammate from those ’74 and ’75 Central High state title teams spoke to the ‘05-’06 Central squad before the title game tipped off last Saturday. “C” told the kids that the press clippings from those championship years were getting awfully yellow in the school trophy case and that it was about time Central won itself a new title and a fresh set of clippings. He let them know that school and inner city pride were on the line.

He’s put out feelers with youth service agencies, hoping someone gives him a chance to . For now though he’s a steel worker who keeps a low profile. He loves talking sports with the guys at the barbershop and cafe. He works out. He plays hoops. Away from prying eyes, he visits Michael’s grave, telling him he’s sorry for what happened and swearing he won’t go back to the life that led to the pen. Meanwhile, those dearest to Johnson watch and wait. They pray he can resist the old temptations.

Crawford, whom Johnson calls “godfather,” has known him 35 years. He’s one of the lifelines “C” uses when things get hairy. “I know pretty much where he is at all times. I’m always reaching out for him … because I know it is not easy what he’s trying to do. He dug that hole himself and he knows he’s got to do what’s necessary. He’s got to show that he’s capable of changing and putting his life back together. He’s got to find the confidence and the courage and the faith to make the right choices. It’s going to take his friends and family to encourage him and provide whatever support they possibly can. But he’s a good man and he has a big heart.”

Johnson is adamant his using days are over and secure that his close family and tight friends have his back. “Today, my friends and I can just sit around and have a good time, talking and laughing, and it doesn’t have nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. There used to be a time for me you wouldn’t think that would be possible. I still see people in that lifestyle and I just pray for them.”

Besides, he said, “I’m tired of being tired.”

 

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