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Memories of game changer

Sun., April 21, 2013, midnight

Jackie Robinson’s contribution to baseball and civil rights is his legacy. But often forgotten was his overall athletic ability. Baseball may have been his third-best sport. (Associated Press)
Jackie Robinson’s contribution to baseball and civil rights is his legacy. But often forgotten was his overall athletic ability. Baseball may have been his third-best sport. (Associated Press)

Monday: Today is the day baseball honors  Jackie Robinson. Ballparks all over the country will fete the first African-American to play in the major leagues.

But I want to draw your attention to another aspect of Robinson’s life. He may have been, along with Jim Thorpe and Bo Jackson, the greatest all-around athlete America has produced.

At least that was my dad’s contention, although he was bit prejudiced (in a good way), having grown up playing on the same fields Robinson did in Pasadena, Calif., albeit a few years after Robinson. They even attended the same high school, John Muir.

My dad used to talk of Robinson in reverential tones when I was young, though he always mentioned his track and field and football ability before baseball. He felt, after watching Robinson compete for Pasadena Junior College, that baseball was Robinson’s third-best sport. He stood out in football – and played the sport at UCLA – but it was on the track where Robinson had the most potential, according to my dad. Robinson’s older brother, Mack, had finished second to Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympics’ 200 meters, so there was a track record, so to speak, in the family. But track didn’t pay the bills as well as football or baseball, so we never discovered how good a long jumper Jackie Robinson might have been.

We do know, however, how important he was to baseball and civil rights in this country, so that’s more than enough.

Saturday: It was an announcement everyone expected but most Gonzaga fans hoped wouldn’t happen. Kelly Olynyk is bypassing his senior year of eligibility and heading to the NBA. But guess what? The system worked.

If you have a college degree, stop for a second and think why you decided to earn it. Yep, I’m sure most of you silently said, “To get a great job.” College is for more than just prospective employment, sure, but it is the foundation upon which most of us built our future. And if there is a better example of a college basketball player building his future in his four years at a school than Olynyk, I don’t know who it would be.

And there’s a number in that sentence that is important. Olynyk has spent four years at Gonzaga, has earned a degree and is ready to enter the workforce, although the workforce of choice, for him, looked to be a long shot a year ago. Think back 12 months. Did many of us believe the best player on Gonzaga’s team in 2012-13 would be Olynyk?

The 7-footer had just spent a redshirt season, which means his life was filled with school, workouts and practice. The only time any of us saw him was when he jumped off the end of the bench, usually in tandem with Chris Sarbaugh, to cheer a great GU play. But what was going on behind the scenes, as usual, was more important than what was played out on the TV cameras.

Olynyk was transforming himself from a relatively thin 7-foot wing to a toned-up 7-foot post that was unstoppable inside and out and could defend anyone from a bruising center to a cat-quick guard. He went from redshirt to consensus All-American to, yes, we have to say it, first-round NBA pick, in 12 months of hard work.

Good for him. And good for Gonzaga. Olynyk’s transformation wouldn’t have happened at every school. For one thing, few college coaches would redshirt a 7-footer who had been more than serviceable for two years. Yes, GU had options, but there were a handful of games during Olynyk’s redshirt season the Zags and Mark Few had to bite the bullet, because they could have used another big behind Robert Sacre, Elias Harris and Sam Dower. But that big was in a suit at the end of the bench. And it takes a well-tuned program to identify a player’s weaknesses and build a redshirt-year program that gives him an opportunity to correct them.

Plus, the player has to be willing to deal with a year out of the spotlight. Thanks to the confluence of all those things, the next time we see Olynyk on TV, he will be in a suit again. A pretty handsome one, I’m sure. And he’ll be walking up some steps en route to shaking David Stern’s hand. Good for him.


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