Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 for the win?

Nothing like the last day of 2020 to post for the first time to this blog in over a year, and what a year it's been.

A year ago, my niece was playing in her Freshman-of-the-Year first college basketball season at Cal State LA. My brother and nephew were in town for the Rose Bowl, the Oregon Duck women's hoops team were the best around, and we were in the middle of another wait-til-next-year Dodger off-season. 

Oregon wins in a crowded stadium from before-times. 

On New Year's Day we witnessed the Ducks win in Pasadena and then went home to wait for a little March Madness. 

But my first COVID-related sports decision was to run the LA marathon on March 8. If it had been held a week later, it might have been cancelled. I'd been watching the news carefully and had read about patient zero in Italy who had run the marathon. Still, community spread didn't seem to be occurring in the US yet, so I ran the marathon and did my best to stay six feet away from everyone (not an easy thing to do).

The week after the marathon, I was watching/not-really-watching the Jazz-Thunder pregame when it was cancelled. I met my friend for our standing Wednesday-night writing date and measured the distance between tables in my mind. No one wore masks, but as we ate some of our favorite dishes (those green beans, that yellowtail!) and knew it might be our last night eating out for a while. We had no idea how long. 

I was still teaching, trying to prepare for what seemed an inevitable cancellation of school for a while, and then March Madness was cancelled. I mourned the greatness that might have been for the Oregon women, for Sabrina, for Satou, for Ruthie.

And for four months across March, April, May, and June, we lived without sports. We would have loved watching the French Open and college basketball, but instead we watched Tiger King, the entire Star Wars series, Gentified, The Great British Bake Show, Grace and Frankie, POSE, and much more. We missed sports. 

But then, slowly, sports started to figure things out. The NBA came back. The MLB came back. Tennis came back. We watched from home as cardboard fans filled stands and teams both figured it out and failed to figure it out. 

Our school year started back up and we learned from professional sports that reopening with any sort of safety required much larger budgets than what our public school districts could provide. We taught and learned from home, and thankfully we had sports to provide some relief. 

And then athletes across the world of sports took stands for racial justice. Four years after Kaep took a knee, athletes made demands, cancelled games, and refused to shut up and play. 

The Dodgers win!
In August, the Lakers beat the Trailblazers to start the playoffs. In September, the Lakers continued to win, culminating with an NBA title (yay for Gantt), and the Dodgers clinched the division, won the Wild Card and then swept the Padres. 

October was long, and there was that game seven against Atlanta before the Dodgers fought their way back to the World Series. I've been a Dodger fan my entire life, but as long as I've lived in LA, I've never seen a World Championship from the Dodgers. This year, in 2020, in six games against Tampa Bay, the Dodgers finally won it all. 

As college football sputtered to a start, outbreaks occurred all over the country. BCS conferences showed just how much they care about TV contracts and ticket sales and how little they care about public safety. What were they thinking? 

We watched an LA season of Hard Knocks as players and teams dealt with COVID and social justice issues. Despite all that is wrong with the NFL and the performative actions they continue to take, I ended up pulling for both the Rams and the Chargers. 

The Ducks victory in the Rose Bowl, feeling great running the marathon, and being up 4-3 on Gantt in our one-on-one backyard basketball series, are all worthy of note, but the Dodgers winning the World Series is the sports highlight of 2020. Hands down. 

Now, go wash your hands, wear a mask, and stay home so we can get back to sports in 2021. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Sidelined: A Peripheral View of the College Recruiting Process

part 3

Young athletes and their families, coaches and recruiters, and whistles and cheers from one of ten different courts. Young women exhibit speed and strength and skill on every court. Teams from SoCal like Cal Sparks, Cal Stars, Cal Storm, Cal Swish, but also teams from Arizona, Oregon, and Washington. So much talent. So much to take in.

We were there to watch Nicole. She was playing for a new club team, or an old club team, revived by Coach Lindsay Strothers whom had been the coach at Westview when Jamie Nared was there. Even though Coach Strothers left Westview, he continued to work with Nicole since middle school. Now, with Nicole recovered from her torn Patella, she was showing hustle on both sides of the ball. She looked good on the court, but amongst the masses? With all of these girls and all of these schools and all of these coaches? She knew she wanted to play college, so we were just there, back on the sidelines, waiting to see where she would land.

Schools from the East Coast had shown interest in Nicole, so that summer she visited schools in Boston and New York, but she came home certain she wanted to stay on the West Coast. Offers came in from University of Portland and Eastern Washington, but Nicole held on to Pac 12 dreams and was considering walking on at Washington. She wanted to wait; we waited with her.

Going into her senior season, Nicole's best friend, the girl she'd grown up playing hoops with, the girl who carried the team while Nicole was injured, blew out her knee. This season-ending knee injury changed the trajectory of Nicole's senior year considerably. She still played hard, had coaches looking and a few visits and offers coming in, but without Kam, the likelihood of a playoff run diminished.

The season was coming to an end, and Vermont came to watch a playoff game. Tulsa came to visit. They had posters and fancy DI offers to make. So, as her senior season came to a close, Nicole scheduled official visits. She went to Vermont and Tulsa, and she came to LA. She stayed with us as she visited Cal State Northridge and Cal State LA, Cal Baptist and Cal State Bakersfield. And then she started to lean.

It wasn't about PAC 12, or DI, or a poster of her in a big arena. It wasn't about east or west coast or Nike or Adidas.  What it came down to was a coach and a place. Nicole didn't just have a 4.1 GPA. Nicole was smart. She liked one coach, one program in particular, and felt this was the right fit. She went on her official visit, and then, just as if it was the easiest decision she'd ever made, she committed to Cal State Los Angeles.

Aaaaaahhhhhh!!! Yes! My niece is coming to LA, and our family is thrilled. Coach Tornio at Cal State LA coached former students of mine at Palisades High, and on Nicole's visit, Skai Thompson, who played for Emerson and Pali City Championship teams, looked on. Cal State LA felt like family, and Nicole found her home.

So, that is how Nicole's recruiting ends and where her college journey begins. As she graduates from high school, we are proud of this Golden Eagle ready to take flight!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Sidelined: A Peripheral View of the College Recruiting Process

Part 2

My sister in her high school days. 
The fall of Nicole's junior year, she came down to LA for a visit, as she usually did around her birthday. One morning, she came with me to workout in my school's gym. My students watched her shoot as I rebounded. She shot, worked on dribbling, step-backs, and shooting from range. My students watched as she put in work, just like she did on so many mornings before school when she was at home.

Nicole was excited going into her junior year of high school. She had played well under the new head coach her high school hired and had shot well that summer with her club team despite limited minutes.

But it was starting to get hard in terms of recruiting. Girls in her class were getting looks from D1 schools. She dreamed of going PAC 12, but she wasn't getting any taller, and she wasn't putting up consistent numbers on her high school or club teams. She was drawing the attention from some schools after hot shooting at the Boo Williams showcase, but playing in front of coaches and recruiters means schools see you; it doesn't mean offers come, and Nicole was still holding onto PAC 12 dreams.

Nicole: sidelined. 
This was the point when I actually first started writing this blog. I hoped to write, in real-time, about my niece's recruitment journey, but then, she finally had an MRI on a knee that had been diagnosed as patella tendonitis years before. The results shocked us all. Nicole had been playing on a partially torn Patella tendon. Doctors said it wouldn't get better unless she stayed off of it, or possibly after surgery. This season-ending diagnosis hurt, not just because Nicole wouldn't get to show what she could do that season, but it was reminiscent of my sister's high school journey.
Western Oregon NAIA Champs!

When I was in middle school, my sister was a dominant high school athlete. Like Nicole, she made the varsity basketball team as a freshman, but she also played volleyball and track. Until she developed a stress fracture in her foot. That stress fracture benched my sister during her crucial junior year too, and kept her from playing volleyball or running track. She was forced to the sideline. In that time, she dreamed of moving to Portland for her senior season, so she could get more exposure than our small town provided, but, she stayed home, had a decent senior season, and made her way to Western Oregon to play basketball and win an NAIA Championship.

But my sister had bigger hopes for Nicole. And despite the injury, Nicole couldn't wait to get back on the court. We were all waiting, but now we were all sidelined and left hoping this injury wouldn't mean the end of Nicole's college-playing dreams.
Westview seniors see off Nicole on senior night. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Sidelined: A Peripheral View of the College Recruiting Process

Small-kid Nicole on the great wall. 
Part 1:

My niece is a basketball player. She's a really good basketball player. We (her mom and I) didn't think she would fall in love with hoops, but when she moved back to Portland, Oregon after three years living in China, she found comraderie on the court.

Those first few middle school seasons were rough. We watched and wondered if she would stick with it. My husband and I cheered maybe a little too enthusiastically back then, yelled at a few officials, screamed a little too voraciously, but eventually we put ourselves more appropriately in check. We realized this was Nicole's journey; we were sidelined.

Over time, Nicole also started putting things in check. She developed solid skills: a beautiful three-point shot, solid handles, a step-back jumper, a Euro-step, and she had tons of support. Her mom played college hoops and wanted to provide all that Nicole wanted in order to meet her goals. But skills and support can't make you love basketball.
Nicole and Jamie, back in Jamie's high school days. 

Before she started high school, she made her way through the Westview development program, and she followed the Westview varsity team faithfully. She became friends with players and found role models who showed her what going-to-college-to-play-ball looked like. Jamie Nared, a senior when Nicole was in the seventh grade, went to play at Tennessee. Watching this top recruit, Nicole was able to see what hard work on the basketball court looked like and some of the rewards it could bring.

I watched all of this from a distance, as Nicole joined club teams and played under new coaching staffs. She made varsity as a ninth grader, and I heard updates from Nicole and my sister about how her team was doing and how Nicole was playing. Toward the end of the season, she started getting more minutes, but it wasn't until her sophomore season that she started putting up impressive numbers. She also kept looking up, now at college programs and players she admired, most notably Oregon State, where she watched and developed friendships with dominant guards like Sydney Wiese.
Nicole and the PAC-12 three-point record holder.  

The summer after her freshman year, she came to Southern California where my family could finally watch her play. Her new club team had some amazing athletes, one being Bendu Yeaney, who ended up at Indiana. Nicole played alongside Bendu and other great players. She watched and learned, but also during this time, Nicole stopped growing. There was some height on her dad's side of the family, so we hoped, but Nicole plateaued at about 5' 7". We knew this meant that if Nicole wanted to play at the next level, she would have to stand out in other ways. And then, during her junior year, when recruiting was just starting to heat up, something shifted.

Nicole and Indy-bound Bendu. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

My First Marathon: From the Stadium to the Sea with SRLA

My goal for the year was to run my first marathon with my middle school's Students Run LA team. Ever since I heard about this program, I knew the only way I would ever run a marathon was if I was training with kids. So, when our school got the grant to start a team this year, I was off and running.

All summer I worked to trim time off my 5K and 10K paces. But in January, just as the runs started getting longer, and after a brutal cold/flu hit the Nakada-Gantt household, my speed started to taper and I plateaued.

This, along with longer distances, probably contributed to the development of hip pain that started out as post-run soreness, but quickly became an injury I worried would keep me from running/finishing my first attempt at 26.2 miles.

I rested for the last couple of weeks before the race, and my massage-therapist-sister worked on my IT band, quad and knee, on the days leading up to the big day, so I felt like I could make a go of it.

With these kids pushing me, and David leading the way, I started running away from Dodger Stadium. At first, I didn't feel too bad. As we made our way out of downtown, however, I started to look forward to those downhill stretches a little too much.

By Hollywood, I was in considerable pain with each step and suffered through each mile even as I tried to enjoy it. Seeing friends and family along the route definitely helped propel me down the road and the spirit of our diverse city reminded me that I love LA! Mile 21, though? Yeah, that whole mile sucked.

But I finished. I ran slower than I wanted, (my goal was 4:20, which was the time it took Kathrine Switzer when she was the first woman to run Boston 50 years ago) and this pace definitely took a toll on my body. But with my Students Run LA team chasing me, I had to keep going.

At 5:10, I crossed the finish line, and I clearly need to learn to run more efficiently, because my running app clocked me at over 27 miles! 

I think our SRLA team is all going to run it again next year, so here's to running faster. Maybe next year I will make that time goal.

Thanks for all of the support through this long grind: family, friends, and everyone who came out to the race to support. But mostly, thanks to SRLA. This organization is changing lives. If you are looking for a great non-profit to support, head over to Students Run LA and consider a donation. Maybe you'll help some lucky kid find a coach like Mr. Tarula who will inspire you with a mid-marathon speech about marathon running as an allegory for life.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Throwing Cookies in 2017

I only posted here three times this year, but that was more than I've posted in the past three years, so that's something.

Unfathomably, the blog which has received and continues to receive the most clicks is "How to Heal an Achilles Tendon" from 2013. Somehow over 500,000 people have visited that post.

This year's posts have averaged about 200 visits each with my post about Sloane Stevens' US Championship topping the list. Then, there was my post about Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, followed by my post about marathon training.

I didn't write about the Dodgers making it to the World Series. Their loss to the Astros broke my heart, and reminded me how hard it is to have a horse in the race. It's exciting, but exhausting. Still love my boys in blue, and like every off-season, there is the optimism of waiting until next year.

I've continued to boycott the NFL, and listened with pride as a student-athlete of mine wrote about taking a knee for a speech and debate tournament. Her original oratory took home first place, and hopefully inspired others to reflect on the promises and failures of our nation.

Sloane is sidelined again with a knee injury, but she posts adorable photos of her and boyfriend/soccer star: Jozy Altidore.

And I'm still training and trying to get faster. I posted my best 10K time this past week and am feeling pretty healthy post-holiday (we'll see how I feel after Cabo next week). I'm looking forward to March and running my first LA Marathon with our Students Run LA team.

SRLA Team Emerson! 
And that's about it. Oregon football struggled, but Oregon hoops on both the men's and women's sides looks promising, so I still say, go Ducks.

I also recently learned about Left Wing FĂștbol which may change my entire life and perspective on competition. Their unofficial motto is: We change the way we play to change the world, but that can wait for a future blog post. Oh, and following my niece Nicole's basketball career (she's a junior this year) is something I plan to write about in the next year. We will all have to wait to see where she decides to take her talents for college.

Monday, September 25, 2017

NFL 2017 Season: Taking a Knee and Taking a Stand

I was in the middle of my junior year basketball season when Operation Desert Storm began. It was then, as I stood for the National Anthem as a player, followed by "Proud to Be an American" (a song many of opponents played before games to show support of the troops) that I considered turning my back or sitting down before the game. My parents probably would have supported me, and some of my teammates. I know I would have met hostility from the crowd (if they even noticed my protest) but for several weeks, during every playing, by a band or something prerecorded, I stood there, wishing I was more brave, expecting more of myself. I didn't sing along or salute during this time when I disagreed whole-heartendly with our country's military action, but I didn't take a knee. I stood at attention.

I haven't been watching the NFL this season. I was inspired by this Cowboys fan who isn't watching until Colin Kaepernick has a job.

Some of you might think boycotting the NFL is no big deal. Maybe you don't watch it, or maybe you turned your back on the league long ago. That would be understandable, but until this season, I still watched. In our home, the NFL is tuned to the Red Zone every Sunday, and it's Sunday Night, Monday Night, and Thursday Night Football. But with Kap out of a job, and the league still not taking care of its aging players, (this ESPN article captures the realities NFL families face in retirement) it felt good to take a stand this season, to say, "No, I can't watch this game knowing that the league's owners and management care so little for its players."

And then Trump decided to put his two-cents in during a campaign speech.

Not only does he call protester's mother's bitches, not only does he call for them to be fired, but he also shows no regard for the health of these athletes. They are expendable. They are not worthy of constitutional rights or protection from bodily harm.

So, this week, what is it, week 3? I still didn't watch, but I am proud of all of the players who #StandwithKap and #TakeAKneeNFL because police brutality in America must be addressed. Our country needs to do better. It isn't about the flag. It isn't about the military. This is about a country that is denying life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to Black Americans, and if you boo people exercising their right to protest, if you don't understand why this is important, you haven't made an honest effort to consider what it is like to be Black in America. They are taking an enormous risk, and knowing how I struggled to take a tiny one as a high school athlete, I doubt they are taking this lightly. Just listen to Dolphin's Safety Michael Thomas.