It is with heavy hearts that we share the passing of Dr. Jack Lewis. A 1952 graduate of Central, Dr. Lewis served as the team doctor at Central for over 50 years, performing thousands of physicals and walking the sidelines of hundreds of football games. Dr. Lewis received numerous recognitions and sat on many different boards, including being inducted into the inaugural Central High School Hall of Fame in 1999, Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, and Omaha Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame. After receiving his first degree from Stanford University, Dr. Lewis obtained his medical degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine where he then served as a professor of internal medicine. Football games won’t feel the same this fall when Dr. Lewis isn’t on the sideline, offering decades of expertise to our student athletes. Dr. Lewis loved Central, and we will miss him dearly.
The visitation will be held on Thursday, June 23, from 4 – 6:30 pm at the Heafey-Hoffmann Dworak & Cutler Bel Air Chapel on 12100 West Center Road. The service will be held on Friday, June 24, at 11 am at the Presbyterian Church of the Cross on 1517 S 114th Street.
Dr. Jack Lewis
Omaha fight doctor Jack Lewis of two minds about boxing as the city readies to host the National Golden Gloves
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
For the first time since 1988, Omaha plays host to the National Golden Gloves boxing tournament, one of the nation’s showcases for amateur boxing. The 2006 tourney is a six-day event scheduled for April 24-29 at two downtown venues. The preliminary and quarterfinal rounds will be fought at the Civic Auditorium the first four days, with the semi-final and championship bouts at the Qwest Center Omaha the final two days.
Historically, the national Golden Gloves has produced scores of Olympic and world champions. Former Gloves greats include Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr.
Three men with long ties to the local boxing scene recently shared their thoughts on the Gloves with the New Horizons.
The man heading up the event is Omaha’s fight doctor, Dr. Jack Lewis, a 71-year-old internal medicine physician. As a doctor who loves a sport that gets a bad name from the medical community, he’s a paradox. While a staunch supporter of amateur boxing, Lewis is a fierce critic of the professional fight game, which he has come to abhor.
His experience in the prizefighting arena included serving as ringside physician for the 1972 world heavyweight title fight in Omaha between champ Joe Frazier and contender Ron Stander from Council Bluffs. Lewis stopped the fight after the fourth round with a battered Stander blinded by blood in his eyes.
“I love the sport of amateur boxing. I was involved in pro boxing and I didn’t like that from a medical standpoint,” Lewis said. “After just a few years working with the pros, I quit. In some cases, I didn’t know who the fighters were. They were fighting under fake names. I’d ask all these questions and the boxer would say the last time he lost a fight was a month ago in Chicago, and then some guy would come up later and tell me that same guy got knocked out last night in Chicago.
“Those pro boxers move around, have fake names, won’t give you their true medical history.”
Lewis continued, “Those pro boxing days are behind me. That sport needs to be cleaned up.”
More than just a fan of amateur boxing, Lewis is a veteran ringside doctor and longtime president of the Great Plains Boxing Association, the main organizing body for amateur boxing in Nebraska. This is the second time under his leadership his hometown of Omaha is presenting the Golden Gloves nationals.
Lewis is optimistic the event will fare better than recent national Gloves tourneys in cities like Kansas City, where the event failed miserably at the gate.
“We’ve done this before. I think our sales are going very well,” he said.
With Omaha’s success as College World Series host, with the Qwest Center filled to capacity for Creighton University men’s basketball home games, with the arena slated to host a slew of NCAA post-season events over the next several years, plus the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, the Omaha’s known as an amateur sports-friendly town. That’s why there’s talk of Omaha trying to host the Golden Gloves on a regular basis. The event is bid out a few years in advance, so it would be awhile before Omaha could host the event again after 2006.
“Omaha knows how to put people in the seats. Plus, this is really a fight town,” said Harley Cooper of Omaha. The former two-time national Gloves champion is seving as the 2006 tournament director. “It’s an outstanding event, Fans will see the best boxing in the country and probably see some future Olympic and professional champions.”
Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren joins many others in calling the Qwest “a great facility for boxing.” “The people there do a superb job,” he added.
While he never boxed, Lewis lettered in football and rugby at Stanford University, backing up future NFL great John Brodie at quarterback in the late 1950s. He said his athletic background and internal medicine specialization “lent itself” to begin treating athletes.
After graduation from Standford and the University of Nebraska Medical School, Lewis did his internal medicine residency in Oakland, California. He came back to Omaha in 1964 to practice with his physician father.
Right away, Lewis’ sports medicine interest found him treating a variety of athletes – jockeys at the Ak-Sar-Ben thoroughbred race track, football players at his alma mater Central high School, where he has been team physician since 1964, and boxers at the Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves tournaments.
Lewis’ passion for amateur boxing has only grown. He enjoys the purity of the sport. He applauds the protective headgear and other measures taken to ensure fighters’ safety. He believes the competition inside the ropes instills discipline in its participants.
“I think the greatest athlete is the guy that steps in the ring and some guy comes after you. I think it builds character. I think it teaches you resraint. It helps you collect yourself. Through those years I’ve been to many meetings and been to many nationals. I’ve been he ringside physician at hundreds of fights and taken care of a lot of medical problems at the fights. Even though I never fought, I’ve educated myself in boxing and in all the trials and tribulations of the kids.”
Lewis said amateur boxing has suffered unfairly from the ills of its pro counterpart.
“There has been a lot of deaths and those deaths really hurt amateur boxing because then parents don’t want their kids to go into boxing. There’s been a lot of unscrupulous stuff. When I started it was a more popular sport. Today, kids are into doing all kinds of other things. They just don’t go into boxing anymore. And the coaching ranks have really declined. It’s an uphill battle.”
Despite the smaller number of young boxers, Tom Lovgren said “there are kids around that can fight and the Golden Gloves is still a major contributor to the U.S. Olympic boxing team. He said a Gloves title still carries weight in the world of boxing.
“If you are a national Golden Gloves champion, you’re highly respected when you make a turn to the pro ranks.”
Lewis said another thing unchanged in the sport over the years is that ethnic-racial minorities are disproportionately drawn to boxing.
“Our best known boxers in the state now are Latino. There’s been a great influx of Spanish-speaking kids. Unfortunately, many of them don’t have U.S. citizenship and the rules require you to be a citizen in order to compete at nationals (Golden Gloves).”
In the history of the Golden Gloves there have been but five national champions from Nebraska. According to Lovgren, the best of the bunch was Harley Cooper, who won his titles in 1963 and 1964 (the first at heavyweight and the second at light heavyweight). He won those titles when he was in his late 20s. which is much older than the typical Gloves fighter. Since retiring from the ring, Cooper’s devoted time to developing and suporting area amateur boxing. He never turned pro.
“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Lovgran, a former prize fight matchmaker and a longtime observer of the local fight scene. “The first time anybody saw hiim in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”
Besides Cooper, the only other Nebraska boxers crowned national Gloves champions were Carl Vinciquerra and Paul Hartneck in 1936, Hartneck again in ’37, Ferd Hernandez in 1960 and most recently Lamont Kirkland in 1980. A number of other Nebraskans advanced to the semi-finals or finals, only to lose.
In general, Lewis said, area kids are at a distinct disavantage.
“Amateur programs here are not strong. We don’t have enough coaches to train these kids. We don’t have enough fighters to have regular smokers that season them. Every year, our kids go to nationals with maybe 10 to 12 fights under their belt and they face opponents with 70 to 80 fights.”
Harley Cooper said Omaha holding the nationals can only help raise the level of the amateur boxing scene here.
“It wil let our kids see what they have to strive to obtain – the different skills and knowledge they will need to be a world-class boxer. Seeing is much better than someone explaining it to you.”
He added the biggest difference between “our boxers and the fighters from bigger cities is the opponents’ strength, size and skill.”
“It’s going to be a great weekend for amateur boxing in Omaha, Nebraska” Lovgren said. “I just hope a couple of guys from Omaha can go as far as the finals.
A raucous home crowd could help spur a local fighter to do great things.
“It can’t hurt,” Lovgren said. “Who knows? Anything can happen. Boxing’s a funny game.”
“There’s still some kids out there. We should see some real good boxing,” Lewis said.
A final elimination stage before the nationals will be held March 17 and 18 at the Omaha Civic Auditorium’s Mancuso Hall. Winners in this Midwest Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions will complete Nebraska’s 11-man contingent for the April national tourney.
Tickets for the nationals may be purchased at the Qwest Center box office or via Ticketmaster by phone at 402-1212, or online at http://www.ticketmaster.com.
For more details, call the Qwest Center at 997-9378 or go online at http://www.qwestcenteromaha.com.
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–
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.”
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.”
Whether you’re a Omaha resident who lives here year-round or part of the year, a native returning home, or a visitor here for the first or tenth time, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of some places to see and things to do in the metro. I prepared the following list for the Omaha World-Herald a few years ago. At least one of the attractions is now defunct (Project Omaha) and if I were making a new list today I would include some additional sites (including the House of Loom and TD Ameritrade Park). The point is, it’s by no means a comprehensive list but more of a sampler of, as the headline says, some of the obvious and not so obvious sites to check out.
Finding the Essence of Omaha in all the Right Places Leads You to Obvious and Obscure Sites
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha World-Herald
Loves Jazz & Arts Center
2510 No. 24th St., 502-5291
Steep yourself in Omaha’s rich African-American heritage through photographs, videos and other art/historical materials at this gem of a cultural center in the heart of the black community. See displays on the music and civil rights legacy of black Omaha. Catch lectures, panel discussions, poetry slams, live music jams, film screenings and other educational-entertainment programs.
South High School
4519 So. 24th St., 557-3640
Reminiscent of a visit to grandma’s attic, this one-of-a-kind museum in a public school setting uses artifacts along with student-made videos, books, games and other resources to explore Omaha history, including the stockyards. The collection’s size and depth will impress. Note the Brandeis department store Xmas window mockup. Call 557-3640 for a visit or a guided tour of historic city sites.
The Jewell Building
Omaha Economic Development Corp. offices
2221 No. 24th St.
This National Register of Historic Places and Omaha Landmark designee was home to the famed Dreamland Ballroom, hosting scores of jazz/blues performing legends and overflow dance crowds. Now the offices for the Omaha Economic Development Corp., the restored Georgian Revival building features a large photographic display of those halcyon Dreamland nights of Basie, Ellington and more. A North O shrine.
The Nebraska Jewish Historical Society
Jewish Community Center
333 So. 132nd St., By appointment at 334-6441
Photographs and archival documents depict Jewish life in Omaha from the turn of the last century through today. Special collections highlight the Jewish American experience of local merchants, war veterans and figures of national prominence, including Henry Monsky and Rose Blumkin. Print/video interviews reveal an Omaha Jewish community that was once much larger but that remains vibrant.
Cathedral Cultural Center and the St. Cecilia Institute
St. Cecilia Cathedral campus
3900 Webster St., 551-4888
The history of Omaha’s Catholic archdiocese and its cornerstone edifice, St. Cecilia Cathedral, is revealed in artifacts, photos and interpretive panels. The life and work of Thomas Kimball, architect of the Spanish Renaissance worship site, is well-chronicled. The center, located just east of the church in midtown, presents temporary art exhibits, lectures, receptions and other programs. Free admission.
El Museo Latino
4701 1/2 So. 25th St., 731-1137
National touring art exhibits complement a Latino Presence in Omaha section with photographs-narratives drawn from local community founders and elders. Listen to these pioneers’ oral history interviews in Spanish or English. Learn how the current Latino immigrant wave echoes earlier migrations in transforming Omaha. The El Museo Latino building was the former Polish Home and the original South High.
801 So. 10th St., 444-5071
The former Union Station is a beautifully appointed, restored Art Deco railroad terminal now home to interactive Omaha history displays and major touring shows. The Smithsonian affiliate and National Register of Historic Places site exhibits train cars and engines and a model layout of downtown’s U.P. yards. Enjoy lectures, discussions and films. The Durham also holds the Bostwick-Frohart collection’s 8 X 10 view camera photos of early 20th century Omaha.
Sokol South Omaha
2021 U St., 731-1065
Omaha’s ethnic enclaves celebrate their own and the Czech community is no different. Aside from the classic gymnastics program that’s part of any Sokol facility, this site maintains a museum featuring photographs and other memorabilia related to the nearby Brown Park neighborhood as well as local Sokol history, Czech traditions and leading Omaha Czechs. Tours by appointment at 731-1065.
3902 Davenport St., 595-2199
Built on a 5.5 acre estate this ornate Gold Coast home of George and Sarah Joslyn reflects the grandeur of early Omaha. The John McDonald-designed 35-room Scottish Baronial castle, now being restored in all its splendor, features exquisite mosaic tiles, in-laid woodwork, a ballroom and a conservatory. A splendid backdrop for teas, receptions and dinners, the mansion’s an Omaha Landmark and National Register of Historic Places site. For tours and rentals, call 595-2199.
Joslyn Art Museum
24th and Dodge, 342-3300
Sarah Joslyn’s magnificent memorial to her entrepreneur husband, George, opened in 1931. Designed by John and Alan McDonald, with a 1994 Norman Foster addition, the stunning Art Deco temple showcases a comprehensive permanent collection. Enjoy exhibits, lectures, concerts, films and tours. The new sculpture garden provides a major new attraction. The pavilion atrium is a popular gathering spot.
Douglas County Historical Society
Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus
30th and Fort
Discover a vast repository of history pertaining to the city of Omaha and to Douglas County through archived newspapers, clipping files, maps, plats, atlases, documents, diaries, letters, books, artifacts, photographs and audio visual materials. Located in Building 11A on the historic MCC Fort Omaha campus. Call 451-1013 to schedule research visits.
General Crook House Museum
The restored 1879 Italianate quarters for Indian Wars campaigner Gen. George Crook includes Victorian era decorative arts, costumes and furnishings. Classes and a reference collection on the history/appreciation of antiques are available. Tea aficionado Mona Christensen hosts proper teas. Call 455-9990 to arrange tours or private functions. Located in Building 11B on the historic MCC Fort Omaha campus.
Orsi’s Italian Bakery
621 Pacific St., 345-3438
It’s a bakery/pizzeria not a gallery but walls of family and neighborhood photos depict Omaha’s Little Italy section through the years, including Santa Lucia festivities, Mason School graduation classes and local Italian-American sports icons. Orsi’s is an anchor business in the trendy nouveau residential urban community emerging in this historic district south of the Old Market.
Omaha Central High School
124 North 20th St., 557-3300
Omaha’s oldest all-grades public school dates back to 1859 but the stately National Register of Historic Places building on Capitol Hill was completed in four phases from 1900 to 1912. John Latenser’s Renaissance Revival design included an open courtyard. This school known for academic rigor boasts many distinguished grads. Exterior markers note the school-site’s rich history. Call 557-3300 to arrange viewing interior displays.
The Omaha Star
2216 No. 24th St., 346-4041
Since 1938 the Omaha Star newspaper has carried the collective voice of the local African American community in calling for equal rights and decrying bias. A beacon of hope on North 24th Street, the Star was a mission for its late founder and publisher, Mildred Brown. The apartment she kept in back has been preserved just as she left it. The National Register of Historic Places building is undergoing restoration.
Boys Town Hall of History
132nd and Dodge, 498-1300
The story of this fabled American institution is told in audio, video, artifact displays. Learn how Rev. Edward Flanagan’s original home for boys grew into a childcare leader at satellite campuses across the nation. See how the school’s band, choir and athletic teams helped put Boys Town on the map. View the Oscar Spencer Tracy won portraying Flanagan in the 1938 movie, Boys Town. Marvel at the many notables who’ve visited the Omaha campus.
W. Dale Clark Library
215 So. 15th St., 444-4800
Omaha history can be found in hundreds of books and videos as well as in decades-worth of local newspapers on microfilm. Inquire about Omaha history talks.
Omaha Community Playhouse
6915 Cass St., 553-0800
The Omaha Community Playhouse represents a significant portion of local live theater history. The original site at 40th and Davenport is where legends Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire got their starts on stage. At the height of their stardom they returned for benefit performances of The Country Girl that raised money to construct the current Playhouse, which contains a collage of famed players who’ve trod the boards there.
Livestock Exchange Building
4920 So. 20th St.
For nearly a century the Omaha Stockyards and Big Four meatpacking plants ruled the roost. The hub for the booming livestock market was the 11-story Livestock Exchange Building, an example of Romanesque and Northern Italian Renaissance Revival design. The stockyards are gone but the National Register of Historic Places structure lives on as an apartment-office site. The grand ballroom still in use today. Historical monuments outside the building describe its lively past.
Ford Birthsite and Gardens
32nd And Woolworth Ave.
Markers and descriptive panels commemorate the birthsite of the 38th President of the United States, Gerald R. Ford, who was born Leslie King on July 14, 1913 in a Victorian style home at 3202 Woolworth Avenue in Omaha. The surrounding gardens in honor of former First Lady Betty Ford make the spot a popular choice for weddings, receptions and other events.
Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center
1326 So. 32nd St., By appointment at 595-1180
In addition to dedicated laboratories for examining, evaluating and conserving historical and art materials, the facility features a small exhibition on President Gerald R. Ford. The center’s state-of-the-art facilities include a microscopy laboratory and a digital imaging laboratory. There’s also a library of reference works on conservation and collections care.
Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame
Boys & Girls Clubs of Omaha, North Unit
2610 Hamilton St., North BGCOO 342-2300, NBSHF 884-1884
Until a permanent structure is built a wall of descriptive plaques honor Hall of Fame inductees, whose ranks rival that of any state athletic hall in the country. We’re talking history-makers in Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Boone, Marlon Briscoe, Don Benning, Johnny Rodgers and many more. Looking at the names and achievements arrayed before you a story of staggering dimensions emerges.
Malcolm X Memorial Birthsite
3448 Pinkney St., 1-800-645-9287
The struggle to build a brick-and-mortar memorial to the slain activist is symbolized by the stark 10 acres of land the Malcolm X Foundation has been trying to develop for decades at his birthsite. Only a simple sign marks the spot. Paving stones lead to nowhere. A fence encloses an empty lot. Dreams for a visitors center, museum and plaza remain deferred. A most forlorn National Register of Historic Places site.
Prospect Hill Cemetery
3230 Parker St., 556-6057
Omaha’s oldest cemetery was founded in 1858 and is the internment site for many early city leaders, their familiar names still adorning streets and structures today. Some notorious figures also lie there. Often referred to as Omaha’s pioneer burial ground, Prospect Hill remains an active cemetery as well as a historic site open for visitation daily. A state historical marker describes its rich heritage. Free admission.
Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters
3215 State St., 453-9372
A heroic, tragic chapter of the Mormon Migration played out in what’s now north Omaha when thousands of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent the winter of 1846-1847 in an encampment. 325 died there. An audio-visual display details the struggles encountered in reaching this Winter Quarters, the camps’s harsh conditions and the arduous journey to the Salt Lake Valley. View a pioneer cabin, pull a handcart and visit the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery. Free admission.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center
601 Riverfront Dr., 661-1804
Learn about the historic Corps of Discovery expedition led by famed explorers Lewis and Clark, including information about sites along the trail. A National Parks Service ranger can answer questions and help you plan a site trip. The Riverfront Books store offers an array of educational materials for sale that can enhance your experience on the trail.
Union Pacific Railroad Museum
200 Pearl St., Council Bluffs, (712) 329-8307
Artifacts, photos and interpretive panels chart the development of the transcontinental railroad and its role in helping pioneers settle the West. View displays about the heyday of passenger travel and innovations made by the nation’s largest railroad, Union Pacific, which is headquartered in Omaha. The museum’s housed in the Bluffs’ historic, newly restored Carnegie Library.
Historic General Dodge House
605 3rd St., (712) 322-2406
This restored 1869 Victorian home was the residence of Civil War veteran and railroad builder Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, a military, political, financial wheel whose counsel was sought by presidents. The 14-room, 3-story mansion commands a terrace view of the Missouri Valley. Note the exquisite woodwork and “modern” conveniences unusual for the period. The home is used for a variety of receptions and other events.
Western Historic Trails Center
3434 Richard Downing Ave., Council Bluffs, (712) 366-4900
Discover the history of four historic western trails — Lewis & Clark, Oregon, Mormon and California — through exhibits, sculptures, photographs and films at this State Historical Society of Iowa center designed and built by the National Park Service and local partners.
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Exhibits on Display for the College World Series; In Bringing the Shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum Announces it’s Back (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha For Free (learningtoliveoutsidemybox.wordpress.com)
- Nebraska prizes its U.P. ties (omaha.com)
‘The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story’ – Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman Team Up for a New Documentary Film
Silver was turned onto this story by noted food writer Matthew Goodman, author of the book Jewish Food: The World at Table and the former Food Maven columnist for The Forward. Co-producers on the project, Silver will direct Goodman’s script.
The bagel film project arose from a meeting Silver arranged with Goodman for his insights into the food of the Catskills, the famous East Coast Jewish resort that is the subject of a second documentary Silver is prepping. In the course of their Catskills conversation he mentioned his findings on the bagel and suggested it might make an interesting film.
According to Goodman, long an admirer of Silver’s films, she said, “’Would you like to work together on it?’ Of course, I was delighted. I think she has a wonderful literary sensibility when it comes to her work.”
As research by these first-time collaborators reveals, the rise of the bagel has strong reverberations with the greater immigrant story in America and the assimilation and discrimination that is part of it. “It came from Poland, it struggled and strained and went through everything most other immigrants do before it prospered,” Silver said. “That caught my imagination so totally when we figured that out that we decided, Okay, let’s do this.”
Immigrant tales have long fascinated Silver, whose parents, the late Maurice and Doris Micklin, came here in the wake of the Russian revolution. Hester Street explores turn of the century life for newly arrived Jews on the Lower East Side and their struggles to blend in. Crossing Delancey eyes contemporary Jewish life in Manhattan and the conflict of traditional versus modern values.
The now ubiquitous bagel was brought here by Eastern European Jews, among whose members were artisan bakers steeped in the closely guarded tradition of Old World–read: handmade–bagel baking techniques.
“This was artisanal baking. These guys were the holders of the keys of the kingdom, as it were, when it came to bagels. This was the knowledge of the correct way to bake a bagel that had been passed down from generation to generation, going all the way back. The way to do it was a pretty tightly held secret,” Goodman said.
“They took great pride in their ability. It was not easy to do. The ovens were not easy to work. The dough unwieldy. It took a long time. You had to apprentice awhile before you became a member. So these guys really were craftsmen,” he said.
Unfortunately one of the things lost over time is that sense of artisanship, he added. “They were masters at making bagels. There was an art to it,” Silver said. “They were artists and they really cared about the quality of the product.”
Old-style bagels, much smaller than the modern variety, were distinctive for their hard crusts, chewy interiors and savory flavor. The International Bagel Bakers Union Local 338 formed to protect the recipes, methods and interests of the master bagel bakers. Only sons or nephews of current members could join. Every bagel in New York City came out of a union shop.
With the advent of bagel-making machines that churned out bagels faster than any hands could, the oldways became obsolete and the bagel assimilated into the cultural melting pot, turning blander and fatter in the process.
“Part of the story we’re telling in this film is that the demise of the union really led to the demise of the bagel as well,” Goodman said. “The machine just couldn’t make as good a bagel as the men could, for a number of reasons. One reason being the traditional bagel dough was too stiff to go through the bagel machine. It kept breaking down the machines. So bakery owners started adding water to the dough so it would go through the machines better, but that ended up making the bagel softer. And bagels since that time have gone through all sorts of changes with the addition of dough conditioners, which most bakeries use now, to relax the gluten in the dough immediately so bagels don’t have to sit overnight. It’s a big money saver for the bakery owners, but it reduces the flavor of the bagel significantly.
“A lot of places don’t even boil their bagels anymore before baking them, which is the hallmark of the bagel — boiled before baked. They just sort of steam them because they don’t want that hard crust. They think people don’t want to chew that hard.”
Goodman said the bagel’s transformation from hand-crafted, ethnic food stuff to homogenized, mass-produced staple reflects “the American public’s taste. The American public likes big, soft, bland, white baked goods. But that’s part of the story, too — that as the bagel became less Jewish and more mainstream American it had to take on more of mainstream America’s tastes.” A similar thing happened with pizza and many other ethnic foods whose authentic characteristics were diluted or distorted on the path to Americanization.
The story of the bagel in America is also the story of the IBBU Local 338. Bagel bakers fought hard to improve the arduous conditions they worked in, using their union as leverage in negotiations with employers.
“The conditions were terrible. The heat of the bakery while they were baking got to be like 110 degrees. Bakers often slept on benches in the bakery. They went through a lot. After a great deal of effort, they built a strong union. It was a terrific thing,” said Silver, who is doing much of her studies at the famed Yivo Institute of Jewish Research in New York, where former Omaha resident Leo Greenbaum is associate archivist-acquisitions archivist.
Goodman “discovered” the IBBU while doing research for an essay on the history of the bagel published in the Harvard Review. He’d never heard of the union.
“I just thought it was a fantastic thing, you know, a union composed entirely of bagel bakers,” he said. “And the more I looked into it the more fascinated I became by the story of a union that for several decades controlled all of the bagel bakeries in New York City and then within a span of less than a decade had been wiped out. I thought this was a really poignant story. It’s a little-known story. And also a story that allowed the telling of a larger story about the way ethnic foods assimilate in the larger society and also the demise of the labor movement.”
The IBBU, whose exclusive ranks never exceeded 300-some members at any one time, reached beyond New York, although that’s where it was centered.
“My sense of it is if you were a bagel baker anywhere in the country you were a member…It happened that the vast majority of bagel bakers were in New York, but I believe there were members in places like Chicago and Boston,” Goodman said.
Long before bagel machines replaced them and broke their union, Local 338 brethren faced challenges from bakery owners, who, Goodman said, used “strikebreakers and scabs” to try and crush their solidarity. Resistance to the union included the emergence of “non-union shops,” said Goodman, “many heavily subsidized by organized crime. So, there was certainly a lot to deal with.”
By the mid ’70s the union was no more.
“The older guys retired. Some ended up working in non-union shops, working in much poorer conditions than they had been working in previously. Some joined the general bakers union and went to work in other union shops, not necessarily baking bagels. A lot of the guys left New York and took off around the country to open their own bagel shops. That’s how bagels really got introduced to different parts of the country that had never known bagels before. That’s the first time places like Albuquerque or Sacramento had seen fresh baked bagels,” he said.
Goodman and Silver say a fair number of IBBU bakers are still around, but no one’s quite sure exactly how many. The filmmakers’ plans call for on-camera interviews with many of these men, some quite aged now. There’s a sense of urgency to record and preserve the bakers’ stories before the legacy of their craftsmanship and union is irretrievably lost. For his Harvard Review essay on the bagel Goodman interviewed some of the men, tapping memories of long ago.
Memories of favorite foods, especially aromas, are known to be among the strongest our brains store. As the bagel is a food bound up in ritual, whether along family ethnic lines or urban lifestyle lines or breakfast staple lines, it is a food that serves as a nostalgic “touchstone,” Silver said.
“People think about it and it’s sort of like Proust’s (Marcel) madeleines. It has kind of ringing memories for people.” Her own remembrances of things past take her back to when she was a little girl and her father brought her to a downtown Omaha bakery for “the best rye bread you can imagine and wonderful bagels.” Goodman too recalls the traditional bagels of his childhood.
The filmmakers are counting on the public’s bagel nostalgia, including memorabilia, to help illustrate their story. In a letter recently emailed to Jewish newspapers nationwide, the filmmakers made an appeal: “As part of our research for the film, we are interested in obtaining all manner of visual material concerning the history of bagels in America: old photographs of bagel shops or bagel bakers, home movies that include bagels, newspaper or magazine advertisements for bagels, etc.”
Readers with materials are asked to respond to email@example.com. The filmmakers’ letter ends with, “We would be very grateful for any assistance you might provide. We look forward to hearing from you.”
The pair hope to start production in late fall. They must first secure funding.
In a new immigrant twist on the bagel’s evolution in America, the filmmakers say the rare bagel made today in the traditional manner is usually crafted by…Thais. Oy vey!
- Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Last Location of New York City’s Legendary H&H Bagels Shut Down (laughingsquid.com)
- Are Florida’s “Brooklyn-Style Bagels” a Sham? [Food] (gizmodo.com)
- Man Who Brought Bagels to America Has Died (business-opportunities.biz)
Having Survived War in Sudan, Refugee Akoy Agau Discovered Hoops in America and the Major College Recruit is Now Poised to Lead Omaha Central to a Third Straight State Title
UPDATE: I have no idea if Akoy Agau is even considering Nebraska or Creighton or UNO, but any local hoops fan has to hope that one of the three in-state Division I programs manages to land him. If you saw Agau lead Omaha Central High to the Class A state title against Omaha South the other night then you saw what a difference maker he can be. If you didn’t see him, then all you need to know is that he had 16 points, 13 rebounds and 14 blocks. That’s right, 14. It’s not the first time he’s put up numbers like these in the state tournament and with his senior year to go and Central returning far more than just him it’s a sure thing, barring injury, that he will dominate the tournament again next year. The University of Nebraska needs him the most. The program is mired in medicority and it needs a boost to go along with whoever the new head coach is going to be because it’s going to be players not coaches who turn things around and Agau is the type of player you can build a program around, especially if you surround him with eight or nine other legit prospects. Creighton is of course a rock solid program by comparison but a mid-major like CU is always in a precarious position and it needs him to infuse local talent into a program whose best players come from Iowa and everywhere else but Nebraska. When Antoine Young departs after this season there will not be a single scholarship player from the state left in the program. The fact that Agau is an Omaha Public Schools student and a rare quality big man would help solidify the program over the next five-six years. UNO is the least likely to get him but imagine what Agau’s presence could do in raising the profile of this fledgling D-I program. He could help turn it from a pretender to a contender in a very short time. Chances are, Agau will not stay home but instead take his considerable upside somewhere else. I hope I’m wrong.
Most of my writing these days covers the arts-culture-creative scene but I still jones to do a sports story every now and then, and here’s a new one for The Reader that I am fond of. It profiles Akoy Agau, a 17-year-old junior at Omaha Central High School, where he is both a top student and a major college basketball recruit whose team is heavily favored to win its third consecutive Class A (largest class in Nebraska) state title. Agau is not only very tall at 6’9 he is highly skilled and athletic, which makes him the rare quality big man in these parts. His story takes on another dimension when you add to it the fact that he and his family are Sudanese refugees who were displaced by war in their homeland and he was only introduced to basketball after he came to the States, where he’s adapted remarkably well and progressed his game at an exceedingly fast pace. He has another year of high school ball ahead of him, and then it will be off to play collegiately somewhere. Whether or not he becomes an impact player at that next level is beside the point given how much he’sovercome and how far he’s traveled.
©by Leo Adam Biga
A truncated version of this story was published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In this sparsely populated state where basketball’s never fully taken root, the annual hoops crop is slim pickings, especially when it comes to big men. Only rarely does a promising post player emerge on the high school scene here and it’s even rarer for one to do much at the next level.
All of which explains some of the intrigue attending Omaha Central junior Akoy Agau, the intimidating 6’9, 230-pound inside presence for the two-time defending state champion and season-long No. 1 ranked Eagles. Only recently turned 17, he’s still growing physically and adding to an already formidable skill-set. A scary proposition for opponents. An enticing prospect for the many colleges recruiting him.
With five championships in the last six years, Central’s a dynasty program. Success only begets more, as the metro’s best talent now flocks to the old downtown school on the hill. Despite producing many all-state players, Central hasn’t had a really good big man since star-crossed Dwaine Dillard in the late 1960s. Until Agau.
He’s not only tall, he possesses a huge wing-span, can jump and run the floor better than most kids half his size and shows uncanny timing and instincts for blocking shots. Though he must work on his post moves, ball-handling and jumper, he displays a soft touch around the rim, in the lane and outside.
Adding to interest in him is how this South Sudan native, who never heard of basketball in Africa, came to be in Omaha at all, much less play at a high level. He lived with his refugee family in Khartoum, Sudan and in Cairo, Egypt for the first six years of his life owing to civil war and famine in his homeland.
His Christian Dinka family came to the United States. through a church-based NGO, settling outside Baltimore, Maryland in 2002. All his mother, Agaw Makeir, knew about the U.S. was that it was far off. Fears about not knowing English or American ways were eased by assurances that just as missionaries helped them in Africa other good samaritans would help them here.
“We put that in our head and our heart and said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ It was our dream to come here and for our kids to be able to come here and go to school and have clothes and shoes and sleep at night and not worry about the gun and that people are going to attack you in your home,” she says. “It was a very beautiful thing to come here.”
After a year in Maryland the family moved to Omaha, where refugee relatives preceded them. Omaha is where Agau was introduced to basketball. Central coach Eric Behrens first laid eyes on him when the then-14-year old was shooting hoops one summer day at the outdoor court adjoining the Mason Apartments that the Agaus and other Sudanese families resided in. The youth’s size naturally peeked the coach’s curiosity. Behrens got to know him at Norris Middle School, where Agau attended and where Central often practices. As the Norris basketball team would wind up workouts Behrens and Co would arrive. The two formed a bond. Yet Behrens was surprised when Akoy elected to go to Central because most Sudanese student-athletes were opting for Bryan.
Sudanese players have made their mark in the metro since the mid-2000s. Koang Duluony went to Indiana State. Mading Thok is headed to Ball State. But Agau is, as Husker hoops color man and former player and coach Andy Markowski puts it, “the whole package” compared to those earlier “projects.”
Agau’s made most of his considerable progress since 7th grade, when he first got serious about playing. He’s excelled with Team Nebraska select clubs, balling all over the city, often with older players. The last few summers he’s gone to elite AAU camps and tourneys around the nation to hone his game and raise his stock.
Upon meeting him the first thing that impresses you beyond his size is his composure and confidence. Struggling to survive and assimilate gave him life experiences rare for an American teen.
“It was a wild journey,” he says of the his family’s crucible.
He’s sure the journey wizened and toughened him.
“Sudan’s a lot different than here obviously. We had to work for a lot more things. When we needed to get things we had to go a far distance. I didn’t go to school, it was too far away. It was really hard. I think some of my maturity is because I really had to work hard when I wanted things. My parents taught me you have to work for everything you want. It’s just something that’s carried on and helps with everything I do.”
The war in Sudan did more than disrupt life, it claimed the lives of several loved ones. Akoy’s father Madut Agau lost his first wife. Akoy’s mother lost her father and five siblings.
The tranquility and pristine countryside Makeir knew growing up was shattered by conflict. “Then come the war, you could see all the grass and trees burned down and it didn’t look like home no more,” she says. “A lot died there. We saw a lot of people dying. We couldn’t help them.”
The family fled attacking government forces and warring factions. Once, Makeir fled with 3-year-old Akoy on her back an infant in her arms. Months on foot exposed them to danger and death by starvation, disease, wild animals, violence. Years of subsistence living in tent city refugee camps short on food and water gave way to starting over in America, where the family scraped for every dime and depended on the kindness of strangers until Akoy’s father found steady work at the IBP meatpacking plant in Denison, Iowa. The elder Agau stays there during the week, coming home weekends to be with his wife and children.
Having made it out the other side alive, Akoy exhibits a poise beyond his years. As a tall African refugee with a talent for the game, he’s the center of attention wherever he goes but he seems comfortable in his own skin.
“Very mature, very much so,” says his coach, Eric Behrens. “All those things that make you stand out, you can handle it in one of two ways – either you embrace it and you go the extroverted route or you kind of shy away from it and squeak into the corner. It’s hard to be in the middle when you’re a guy that gets a lot of attention like that. He’s definitely embraced it and fits in really well.
“He’s very outgoing. He knows kids from every different social setting. He’s a real popular kid. He’s good with adults, too, Very articulate. He knows how to speak to teachers. He’s like in four honors classes. He’s a really bright kid.”
And he can play a little, too.
Behrens, a standout at Central himself in the early ’90, says, “I think defensively he has to rank among the all-time greats in Nebraska. His offensive game continues to develop but he has a chance to be really good on that end as well.”
The few big men from Nebraska who’ve attracted power conference suitors and made an impact in big-time college hoops include Rich King, Dave Hoppen and Chuck Jura.
“I didn’t get to watch Chuck Jura or Dave Hoppen or guys like that,” says Behrens, “so limiting the conversation to the last 15 or 20 years, Akoy’s as good as anybody since I’ve been around it. I can only think of Matt Hill (Lincoln Southeast / Texas) who would be in the same conversation as far as big guys go.”
Ranked a 4-star, top 100-150 recruit, Agau’s projected as a legit major or mid-major contributor in college at the power forward spot. The fact he’s come so far in such a short time bodes well for his future hoops.
He was barely 15 when he started for Central as a freshman. He was a factor right away but still largely a role player. His profile dramatically rose in the 2010 state finals when he erupted for a monster game versus Norfolk, recording 18 points, 15 rebounds and 9 blocks. His near triple double helped lock up the title and served notice Central would be all but unbeatable with him around.
He didn’t look it, but that big stage freaked him out.
“Well, first of all, that was probably the most nerve wracking game ever. When we were in the locker room Coach Behrens was like, ‘There’s a packed house and probably most of them are for Norfolk.’ I went out ready to warm up, looked up and saw so many people, and I turned around and ran right back to the locker room. I was so nervous, it was the scariest thing. But then once the game started everything was just normal. I basically just played and didn’t think about it.
“And truthfully I didn’t think I had that great of a game. I just went out there and played like I usually do, and then they told me the stats and I couldn’t believe it.”
A year later at state he and his team once again found themselves matched up with Norfolk, only in the semifinals, and this time he got his triple double with a 11-10-10 line. He went on to lead Central to the championship against Bryan.
Norfolk head coach Ben Ries, whose No. 2 ranked Panthers could face Agau and Central again at state this year, says, “He is the most dominating defensive player to compete at our level. His timing, length and athleticism pose a great challenge for every team. What has been impressive is his ability to be unselfish and know his role. When Central combines their athleticism on the perimeter with Akoy’s ability to protect the basket it becomes a struggle to score.”
With Agau and 6’6 Tre’Shawn Thurman choking the paint, contesting any shot launched near the basket, and smaller teammates pressing, Central held foes to a stingy 34 percent field goal mark. In the regular season the Eagles had 153 blocks to their opponents’ 22. They forced 470 turnovers, committing only 309.
At 27-0 entering the 2012 state tournament, Central is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as Class A champs this weekend at the Devaney Center in Lincoln. The Eagles dominated the regular season, winning by an average score of 71 to 45, and its most dominating player by far is Agau. He normally puts up modest stats, averaging about 12 points, 6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. But as anyone who’s ever seen him play will tell you, it’s the intangibles that make him a difference-maker on a remarkably well-balanced squad that pressures foes with quickness, height, leaping ability, a deep bench and effective passing.
They get lots of steals that lead to fastbreak layups and dunks.
Behrens appreciates his big man not being a prima donna.
“He’s a great teammate. For as much attention and for as many Division I scholarship offers as he has he’s very unselfish. He’s really just focused on winning – whatever that takes, and that’s a really nice thing for us coaches and for his teammates to have, and it’s kind of rare.
“And he’s a real leader on the team. He’s really good at knowing when a guy needs a kick in the butt or a pat on the back. Plus, he’s a hard worker, both in the team stuff we do but also in terms of individual skill work he does outside of that, and that’s why he’s got so much better – he works at it, he works very hard at it. And he works hard in the weight room, so he’s gotten a lot stronger.”
On a team without a star, Agau is its MVP. When he fouled out of the regular season finale versus Bellevue East the Chieftans made a run. He sat out the district opener recovering from minor knee surgery and in his absence lowly Northwest played Central even until the Eagles pulled away at the end, among the few times anyone’s hung withthem that long. The lead is usually double digits at the half and the game long decided before the final quarter.
If Agau leads Central as expected to the Class A title, he will be three-fourths of the way toward a goal he set as a 13-year-old.
“It’s a funny story,” he says. “Since middle school I’ve been saying to my friends I’m going to win four state titles. I have this big thing where I would win four state titles and then when I win the fourth title when they interview you on TV after the game that’s when I’ll make my (college) decision public. But I don’t know if it’ll be all that.”
Local fans would love to see him end up a Husker, Bluejay or Maverick, but his offers extend far beyond Nebraska. He’s not hinting which way he’s leaning, though his mother makes no bones about preferring him to stay close to home.
“That’s something we talk about a lot,” she says. “We tell him if he would go to a different state it would be hard for us. Bur if he goes away that will be fine with us, too.”
Her fondest wish for the family’s move to America was for Akoy, her eldest, “to try and help himself for his future” and for all her kids to take advantage of opportunities unavailable in Sudan.
“I always tell them, ‘You guys are blessed to be here, and you should be happy for what you have,’ because what they have – me and their dad we didn’t have that. We didn’t have good school, good home.”
She’s thankful her kids can “focus on school and education.” She’s thankful, too, that Akoy is thriving and setting a good example for his brothers and sisters. “He’s a good big brother. We hope his brother Magay will follow him.” Magay is a very tall and talented freshman at Central.
The fact that Akoy still retains the Dinka language and some Arabic also pleases his mother, who keeps Sudanese cultural traditions alive at home.
There’s a conspiracy of hearts when it comes to Akoy, whose mother counts as allies and advisors Scott Hammer and Coach Behrens. With so many adults looking after his best interests, she says, “we teach him from both sides.”
Agau says his parents “don’t really understand” the sport or the success he’s enjoying, though his mother understands enough to say, “basketball is good for his college.” A family that had no prior exposure to the sport will likely have part of its American Dream realized through it. None of it may have unfolded under different circumstances but as Agau says, “We don’t dwell on what would have happened if we would have stayed back in Sudan, we just focus on being happy where we are now and what we have. We’re very grateful. Being able to go to school and get our education is most important. Getting to play basketball is an extra.”
Still, he’s keenly aware basketball is his ticket to larger opportunities. He’s also aware of the attendant expectations and hype that come with success.
“I can’t really get focused or take too seriously all these things people are saying about me. I just keep focusing on what I’m doing and just keep going to the gym and getting better because, personally, I don’t think I’ve done anything yet. I’m still in high school, there’s the next step of graduating from high school and then going to college. I still have a lot to do.”
That same low-key, taking-care-of-business attitude permeates the Central program. It helps explain why the Eagles have played consistently well, avoiding the lulls that happen when teams take opponents for granted or get too far ahead of themselves or get too full of themselves. It’s why the pressure to live up to being the Nebraska prep version of the high-flying Phi Slamma Jamma hasn’t derailed them.
Typically, Akoy takes it all in stride.
“That pressure is there now because everyone expects us to be good. We’ve been playing really well, so everyone expects us to win the state tournament. We just have to make sure we keep on getting better individually and as a team in order to be able to win state again.”
He has another year of high school ball ahead of him, and then it will be off to play collegiately somewhere. Whether or not he becomes an impact player at that next level is beside the point given how much he’s overcome and how far he’s traveled.
- You: Sudan accused of fresh crackdown on Ethiopian opponents (menafn.com)
- Op-Ed Columnist: In Sudan, Seeing Echoes of Darfur (nytimes.com)
- Bombing attacks increase on Sudan border (foxnews.com)
- UNHCR seeks urgent aid for Sudanese refugees (devex.com)
- Omaha Hoops Legend John C. Johnson: Fierce Determination Tested by Repeated Run-Ins with the Law (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the series Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness – Black Women Make Their Mark in Athletics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)