Apr 23, 2013

10 Years Ago This Summer . . .
Joe Keller opened his first Jr. Phenom Camp, which has spawned many other camps and his brand Phenom America. Here is an interview he gave marking that occasion. I will post this without further comment, though anyone who has read Play Their Hearts Out knows what I am thinking.

Nov 2, 2012

Q&A with Roberto Nelson as 2012 season arrives

How do you feeling going into the season?

I feel good and I feel confident. The team looks good and the chemistry is there and I think everyone is excited for the year. I think a lot of people have stepped up their games and that is going to make a difference. Personally, I just feel a lot more confident and comfortable in the offense and knowing what I have to do.


How do you see your role this season?

Well, I’ll be starting rather than coming off the bench but otherwise pretty much the same. There will be a little more of a demand for me to be the guy who scores more and facilitates for others more. Obviously, Jared (Cunningham) left for the NBA and somebody has to step up and fill that scoring, but I think it isn’t going to be one guy. The points and stuff will be spread around to the whole team. But I do need to pick up my game and play better just like everyone else. If everyone chips in we can fulfill out goals.


What was your summer like?

Really, I tried to make it feel like my summer was still the school year. I kept that routine, had classes and workouts, tried to make my thing feel year-round. I did go down to Los Angeles for a bit. I worked out with some cool people down there, and played in the Nike Pro-Am against NBA guys like Reggie Jackson and Paul George. That was good, trying to play against guys like that polished my game. They are extremely athletic and go hard every play and never take plays off. You see what it takes. It was a good experience and I went hard. I didn’t even go home (to Santa Barbara) even though I was so close. I never took a break.


Were there particular aspects of your game you worked on most?

Not one thing but everything. All aspects I needed to perfect. I felt like the most important thing was to get in better fitness shape because I am going to play more minutes with Jared gone. I want those to be quality minutes. I am also a little stronger than I was last year. I feel stronger. We got a new strength and conditioning coach at Oregon State and he’s great and helping me get more flexible and stronger.


Your coach, Craig Robinson, praised you recently, said your development “has been what I think will transcend this team. He is easily the best guy on the team.” What is he talking about?

He’s talking about my work ethic. I’m an upperclassman now and the pressure is there to play the role of a leader and go hard every play so we show the freshmen how things are supposed to be. I’ve been doing that and I think that is what Coach was talking about.


I think the casual fan would say there is a lot of pressure on you, both to lead the team and fill some of what Jared did. Is that fair to say?

From the outside looking in it might look like more pressure, but that’s not how I see it. There is an opportunity for me and for the team but I don’t see that as pressure but as a challenge. It’s an opportunity, really. I am going to have more freedom on offense and that will present an opportunity to play the way I think I can play. So, it’s not pressure, it is an opportunity.


Last year so much of your offense was about Jared, what is it going to look like this year?

It is going to look a lot different. We are capable of having a different leading scorer every night. Angus (Brandt), Ahmad (Starks), Devon (Collier) and Eric (Moreland) are all offensively a lot better than they were last year. Everyone has the kind of game now where they could be our leading scorer in some games. I think also we are going to more of an inside-out type of team this year. Devon looks really good and really worked on his post game. Angus’ post game is good and we have Eric too.  So we are going to be an inside-out kind of team for sure.


You have any personal goals, like points per game you want to average or minutes played?

I don’t really have any goals like that and I think as a team we aren’t about setting big goals anymore. In previous years we set big goals like making the NCAA Tournament, but I think we got a little ahead of ourselves. Now we have small goals we are trying to achieve that will lead to something bigger, like playing harder each night. I think that’s the way it should be.


Maybe this is a strange question, but can you guys draw inspiration from Oregon State’s football program?

For sure. We are kinda in the same spot as the football team to start the year. They weren’t picked to win many games but they have surprised people, shown they are better than people thought. Also, having the football team winning makes Beaver Nation much more excited about other sports. Football starts everything off.


What Oregon State player is going to surprise people this year?

I’ll give you two. The first is Angus. His confidence level is really high, and confidence for him is a big thing. When he is confident he plays well. He is making shots now, inside and out. That guy can shoot it. He can score around rim. He’s just playing really well. The freshman I would mention is Jarmal Reid. He is doing really well right now. He has adapted to the college game really quickly and he’s a small forward who is strong and can finish at rim. In practice, he goes down and battles Joe (Burton) inside and if you can battle with Joe as a freshman that’s a good sign.


People who read Play Their Hearts Out will want to know how your dad is doing and how your relationship is. Can you give us an update?

We have that father-son relationship and it is still really strong. I call him all the time and get his opinion. His opinion is still important to me, not just from the standpoint of a father but as a coach who knows my game. He is going to try and get up here (from Santa Barbara) for as many games as possible. To be honest, it is just going to come down to what we can afford. If I win the lottery tomorrow, then he is going to be up here for every game. Right now though the plan is for him to come up here for a stretch where he can see like five games. Then he’ll see me when we go to L.A. and to the Bay (Area). As far as how he is doing, he’s coaching again, working with some kids and that he loves that. I know how my dad is. He can’t stay away from basketball. It is a blessing for him to be able to coach again and help kids. That’s what he wants to do and he’s good at it.


Last two questions: How is school and how is your golf game?

I’m on track to graduate this spring and then I will apply to graduate school here, maybe something to do with video production and photography, which I really love. My golf game is not good. I didn’t play all summer. I went to the driving range and while I would not say my swing is ugly, it is not where it used to be.









Nov 1, 2012

Q&A with Demetrius as 2012 season arrives

So how are you feeling going into this season?

I am feeling good. I worked really hard this summer and this is the best I’ve ever felt since I’ve been in college. Last summer I had problems with my knees but my knees and everything feel great now and I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.


I know you worked hard this summer, what was the typical day for you like?

I would wake up around 9:30 a.m., get some breakfast and then go to class. Classes would end and I’d get some lunch and be at the gym by 1 p.m. That’s about 90 minutes before workouts began, so enough time to do some stretching and get treatment and do some foam rolling, just getting my body ready. Then I’d lift weights and then the team would work out together. Then, after practice, when my legs were really tired, I’d do some extra leg workouts. Then I’d get in the ice bath. I hate the ice bath. I’m not sure I feel it doing any good, but you gotta do it. We had study hall some nights, so those nights I’d go to study hall around 6:30 or so. Then home and just relax and sleep.


What did you work on most this summer?

I worked on my foot speed, my quad strength, my hamstring and calf strength, a lot of lower body exercises to get my lower body to be able to take on a long season and hopefully a lot of minutes. I didn’t feel like my body wore down last year. Actually, it may sound crazy, but I felt like my body got stronger about the middle of season and was good to the end and that is why I feel like I played better down the stretch. But I only played like 18 or something minutes a game last year, and I am hoping I play 25 or more now.


Did you put on weight?

Not really. Going into last season I think I was like 192 and I am about 195 this year. In the summer I got up to 205, but I lost that weight quickly as we started really practicing and even though I lost the weight I feel bigger, stronger, really ripped. So I lost that extra weight but I don’t feel like I lost any strength.


What aspects of your game did you focus on?

Just being more able to knock down open shots, three-pointers but also mid-range. In our offense, you can get a lot of assists in driving and kicking, so I also worked on coming off down screens and tight curls and being able to read whether to go to the rim or kick it down to a big man or to take the lane and then kick it to a shooter.


You stayed in Albuquerque almost the whole summer, right? Did you do anything fun?

Not really. I really understand now that summer is when you put in the most important work. It is when you get better and stronger. I did decide to take one road trip back to Arizona. We had a weekend off and so I just woke up one Thursday and drove back to Arizona to see my mom. I surprised her for her birthday and we went to dinner and movie. It was great. She is doing great. Still working as a corrections officer there.


We are talking the day before your first exhibition game and you’ve just found out you’ll be starting that game. How’d you find out you’d be a starter and how does that feel?

Coach Alford pretty much told me three weeks ago that he was going to go with 4-guard rotation, with me playing, at times, the one and the two and the three and, sometimes the four, and that I need to be ready. He told me that was what we were going with until you show me otherwise. He can still go with a traditional lineup, but he is going with this and I can’t say I am not happy about it. It feels good. (NOTE: Demetrius scored 22 points in that exhibition)


So what new challenge does that present to you, knowing you are going to spend some time at the forward spots?

My biggest challenge is just to remember to hit the glass over and over. Every single shot goes up I need to hit the glass. My mentality before was to find a body for a second or two but then when the big man gets it to go. But I am one of the big men now. But it also means that if I get the rebound, I can go. Coach lets us do that. Any one of our four guards who get the rebound, we are gone. So, I am more excited to rebound now because when I get the ball I can go, which leads to open assists and layups.


We talked about this before, but it really seems like you bought into the team concept last year for the first time. What does that mean?

It was about me putting myself aside and being in this program with two feet. Being happy for my teammates, being juiced about a pass or excited about plays that I was not involved in. In the past, I was happy but I was also concerned about doing my own thing. Last year, I was invested in the entire team and that was a great feeling, being here in this atmosphere and really playing for the school and for the fans and for my teammates and not for myself. Growing up it was all about me, me, me. Me before the team in everything. It took me a while to adjust to being another type of player, someone who doesn’t think of himself as any better than anybody else, just somebody focused on trying to fight to win and fight to keep playing.


Last year New Mexico was picked to win the MWC but this year people view UNLV and SDSU as superior. You cool with that?

If you look at it, we are in same position as last year. Because even though we were picked to finish first, we weren’t ranked and UNLV and SDSU were. So, we are underdogs again and that is fine. We will just have to go the tournament in the Virgin Islands and remind people we are still on the map.


Who is going to have a breakout year for the Lobos, and you can’t say Demetrius Walker?

I think Cam (Cameron Bairstow) is going to have a big year for us. He’s going to surprise some people.


You live with Kendall Williams, another kid from Play Their Hearts Out. He got some preseason love, named first-team All-Conference.

Tony (Snell) too, I think he was second team. They are two guys who are going to really carry the scoring load for us and draw attention.


And you are getting very little attention.

And that is FINE! I was a sixth man last year and people saw I could play that role but now I’ve got to find my role with the first team. If I do that, maybe people will notice. Maybe they won’t. I’m fine with whatever as long as we win.





Mar 13, 2012

The Big Dance

You still can’t dance. But you’re going dancing. Congrats.


That was my text message to Demetrius Walker on Saturday night, after New Mexico defeated San Diego State to win the Mountain West Conference Tournament. In the celebratory aftermath, Demetrius and teammate Jamal Fenton did a dance, something they call “Cookin,” which I won’t even try to describe. You can watch it here:


While watching Demetrius do that silly dance it hit me: Demetrius is going to play in the NCAA Tournament. The Lobos have had a bid to the so-called Big Dance sewn up for weeks, but it hadn’t settled in that the kid I have known since he was 10 years old would be playing on basketball’s biggest stage. Watching him dance with a huge smile on his face brought it home. There were many days when I’ve wondered whether Demetrius would even make it through a college season without transferring, and now he is vital cog on a top 25 team that has a chance to win a game or two in the tournament. It is amazing.


He is not the first kid from Play Their Hearts Out to participate in March Madness. Justin Hawkins played in the last two NCAA tournaments with UNLV and he and the Runnin’ Rebels are back. They take on Colorado in Albuquerque on Thursday. But because Demetrius’ future has always been so fragile, seeing him reach this point feels more monumental.


The Lobos play Long Beach State in Portland on Thursday. If you watch that game, you are likely to see a totally different Demetrius that the one who played most of the season for New Mexico. He’s confident but restrained, dedicated on defense, a team player. After the San Diego State victory, when I asked him how he felt about where he was in his life, he said: “I really feel like I have found my place.”


It’s the perfect way to describe what has happened. Demetrius has developed into a key sixth man for New Mexico, something I didn’t see coming. Early in the season, you he was too focused on his offense. He’d enter a game and immediately look to get his shot, which often led to several low percentage attempts and a quick hook from coach Steve Alford. About midway through the season, he was unhappy and he told me so, but he didn’t look for an exit like he had so many times in the past. He kept working, and in the past few weeks everything clicked. He learned how to play defense at the Division I level, and he stopped looking for any shot and instead took (almost) only good shots. He found his role: Defend well, make your free throws, take the offense that comes to you. This may seem rudimentary, but remember Demetrius’ history and the lack of coaching he received for much of his career.


In the quarterfinals of the MWC Tournament against Air Force, he scored 19 points on 5 of 6 shooting. In the semifinals, he scored 14, making 3 of 7 shots from the field and all six of his free throw attempts in a huge victory over UNLV. I can’t remember a single shot of his from those games that made my cringe. It was Demetrius’ play in the final, however, that signaled to me that he might be on his way to becoming a good college player.


Coming off two good performances, I worried that the old Demetrius might surface, the one hell bent on getting his shots. But after he missed his first three attempts against San Diego State, he didn’t start jacking. He took only one shot the rest of the way as his teammates were hot and he deferred to them. He came in late and made 7 of 8 free throws to help ice the game, and finished with seven points. It was an important contribution in an important game. He wasn’t the star, but that was okay. He was content being something else: Part of a team.


I worry that the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament might lead him to revert to his old ways, I worry that a tough loss will send him reeling a bit, and I worry about the unknown, because with Demetrius that is a requirement. Stuff happens. But for the next few days, I am going to just enjoy watching him play, enjoy that he’s found his place.


* * *

I will be in Albuquerque covering the games from that site for Sports Illustrated. As a bonus, I get to watch Justin in person. Carmen Hawkins will be there and I’m going to coax her into attending a PTHO reading/signing/ discussion on Wednesday night at Bookworks. It starts at 7 pm and the address is: 4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW.


I hope to see PTHO readers and Rebels and Lobos fans.


* * *

Demetrius and Justin aren’t the only PTHO kids in the tournament. Kendall Williams, Demetrius’ teammates, is another, and there is Justin Cobbs at Cal. Gary Franklin Jr. plays for Baylor, and I will get to see him in Albuquerque as well. Make sure to check them out and root hard.

Feb 16, 2012

Roberto and Bruce's Big Night
It is a big week for Roberto Nelson and his family. On Thursday evening, Oregon State plays at Stanford and on Saturday the Beavers face Cal, two tough and important contents. Those games take on even more significance for Roberto as his father, Bruce, will be in attendance both nights.
Those who read Play Their Hearts Out or the eBook I wrote, Hand-Me-Down Dream, know how close Roberto was with his father. They understand how it gutted him to lose Bruce just before his senior year of high school. While Bruce has been in prison, Roberto has matured, but he has felt Bruce’s absence every day.
Bruce was released from prison Dec. 24, but he hasn’t been able to travel to Oregon to see Roberto because of limitations that the state put on him. He is not on parole, only probation, so eventually he will be able to see Roberto play in Corvallis, Oregon, but probably not until next season.
I’ve talked to Bruce and Roberto a few times lately but not about their reunion. It seemed silly asking Roberto: “So, are you excited to see your dad?” I know how he feels, and I know how Bruce feels, and their emotions are going to be what you’d expect. I get chocked up thinking about it.
I’ll be at the Stanford game (and Cal on Saturday as well). I want to see Bruce and Roberto. But I’m not going to stick around after tonight’s game. I’m not going to lurk by the team bus so I can witness the moment that Roberto and Bruce reunite. I did a lot of lurking in order to report Play Their Hearts Out, but this is one scene I am going to intentionally miss.
It is their moment and I’m going to leave it alone.

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