Alex Podlogar

Thinking outside the pressbox

A father’s pride

Published in the March 28, 2010 edition of The Sanford Herald.

Editor’s Note: Akeem Richmond, the former Southern Lee High School basketball star who now plays for the University of Rhode Island, will lead his team against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the final four of the NIT Tuesday night in New York City. Richmond and his father Eric have been connected for a lifetime by the game of basketball. This is their story.

By ALEX PODLOGAR

The father did the work himself. Working second shift, he had the mornings and early afternoons to himself and the kids. After his youngest son had shown such resolve toward the game of basketball, the father decided to give him something no other kid in town would have.

A full court.

So the father went to work, back-breaking as it was. It hurt the wallet even more.

Still, he did it, laying the concrete himself to give his boy what might one day amount to an extra advantage over all the others.

And then the father realized it was all wrong. Dribbling around on his own court in the back yard wasn’t going to help the son. It was the exact wrong thing to do.

So the father ripped up the new court, allowing the North Carolina Sandhills to take over again.

“Larry Bird always talked about the fundamentals being No. 1. I knew that if the kid could dribble in the sand, he could dribble anywhere in the world,” the father recalls.

“Just yesterday, I was out in the back yard and let that sand run through my hands. All I could think was, ‘From the sands of Lemon Springs to Madison Square Garden.”

His mother had already had three girls. The parents were hoping for a boy this time. The mother went to her doctor’s appointment, knowing that the doc would be able to determine the sex of the baby.

The father got the news and told the mother that it would be another girl. The mother broke down and cried, and yet the father turned away, snickering.

On and on it went, until the pregnancy came to term. The whole time, the mother prepared to welcome into the family another little girl. Only when she delivered did she find out the secret the father had been keeping from her.

A month later, holding his infant son, the father held the boy up in the sky as the sun danced around the two of them. His boy healthy, he asked the heavens for a basketball player.

“Man, God has blessed me,” the father says now.

The son can’t wait to get to the gate. The October aromas of funnel cakes and deep fried Twinkies waft over the family before they even have their tickets in hand.

Once inside, the son is shot out of a cannon, past the blinking lights and whirring sounds of the carnival rides at the state fair. Straight to the shooting booth he goes, the father — and the money — in tow.

The son takes the ball, squares his feet and hits it. Then another. And another. Oversized, goofy stuffed animals are pulled off the fencing and handed to the father.

A line forms, and the carney vendor barks to give someone else a chance.

“I went home with a lot of stuffed animals and always gave them to my great-grandmother,” the son recalls.

“They had to close the booth at Carowinds once,” the father recalls. “Even at 3 or 4, he always went right on past the rides and straight for the shooting booth. We had every kind of stuffed animal.”

The father is coaching his son. Of course he is.

They play a parks and recreation game in an elementary school gym and it’s clear which of the boys is the best player on the floor.

The game is gone, but here comes the son on a fast break. As he nears the basket, he elevates — and splits his legs.

He probably first saw the move a few years earlier when Vince Carter did it in the Slam Dunk Contest at the All-Star Game. The son does his own mini-version, taking the ball between his legs while airborne, then lofting a layup high off the glass for a dazzling deuce.

“People all immediately started looking at me like I taught him that,” the father says. “I was like, ‘That’s the first time I’ve seen it, too.’”

The son is 11 years old.

He isn’t even in high school, yet, but the son’s getting invites to the most prestigious summer camps in the country. He goes to Howard Garfinkel’s Five Star Camp, has his picture taken with the legendary recruiting organizer. A different kind of basketball game has begun.

Money can get tight going to all these camps. But the family, with some help from old friends, finds a way.

“People I’ve known since I was kid, they’d help out,” the father says. “All these years, it’s come from everywhere. The community has always supported us.”

After four years starring on the high school hardwood at the new school in town, the son has been through all the tricks of the trade. He knows them all — some of them all too well.

“They lie right to your face,” the young man says as his decision nears. “It’s amazing, but they do it. They’ll tell you everything you want to hear, then never call you back.”

He got calls and letters from all the big-time programs, but roster spots and scholarships fill up quickly. Programs from the mid-major conferences now have the most interest, though Jim Boeheim and Syracuse are still hanging around the periphery.

After months of agonizing deliberation without the help of his father — “I knew that if I said this is where I think you should go, he’d go there. But this was a decision he had to make,” the father explains — he knows he’s made the right call.

The coach has been up front with him from Day 1. The offense suits his style. He has a chance to play right away.

Then the phone rings. It’s the University of Georgia, asking for just a little more time.

The son says thanks, but he has made up mind.

First collegiate workout, a long, long way from the sands of Lemon Springs, the son, by himself now, goes up for his patented jump shot.

He never gets it off.

The defender — a teammate delivering a hard lesson and an unabashed glimpse of what might be an ugly future — is there in a flash and swats away the shot.

After the workout, the coaches tell the son what he already knows. He must quicken his release at this level, or the role they have planned for him will disappear.

“In high school, that was never a problem. I could always get a shot off,” the son says.

The son’s team is hanging by a thread. A raucous ACC crowd can sense its team is on the cusp of a first-half blowout. Put the team away and head on to New York.

The son enters the game, weaving around the perimeter on offense, hoping for the slightest of openings.

He gets one, slipping past his defender inside the 3-point arc, and pulls up. The 17-footer swishes easily through the net.

He’s in the game for this very reason. Running around screens, he gets open again, this time from behind the arc, and lets it fly.

Swish.

Later, the game close, the son streaks up the floor and his team has numbers. He deftly angles toward the wing and gets the pass. In the blink of an eye, he rises, his shoulders perfectly square, and flicks the shot from 21 feet.

Boom.

He hits another 3 in the second half, and his team does the rest of the work, finishing off the bracket’s top seed at their place.

As the horn sounds, the place falls quiet, and the father, who’s witnessed, by his count, more than 1,000 of his son’s games while missing “maybe three or four, and all of those were this year,” bounds over the railing behind his son’s team bench.

Look closely, with all those empty reserved seats, and it appears as though the son was the only player with his parents in attendance. The father and son embrace in a man-sized hug.

“It’s truly a blessing to have a guy like that in my life,” the son says. “I thank him for that.

“I thank God for him.”

March 29, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

February 26, 2010

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June 12, 2009

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Williams is model of perfection

williamsclip

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Above The Fold

I am Alex Podlogar, the sports editor for The Sanford Herald in Sanford, N.C. I have been a sports editor for two North Carolina newspapers with circulations around 10,000-12,000 for 11 years and have been recognized eight times by the N.C. Press Association eight times for my work. The honors include nods for sports columns, sports feature writing, spot sports news reporting and tab design. My experience covers all things prep sports, but also includes two U.S. Opens in Pinehurst as well as the U.S. Women’s Open. I keep a newspaper-affiliated blog and host the county’s sports talk radio show, The PODcast.

You can find my resume among the links at left as well as several past clips that have appeared in The Sanford Herald. Please feel free to contact me at apodlogar@charter.net.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Cubs fan going crazy

Published in The Sanford Herald on July 27, 2008

By ALEX PODLOGAR

Sports Column

They’re never on time. Never. How does this happen? How? How come you never get called back to see the doctor at the time of your appointment? If you have the first appointment of the day, do you get called back late then?

Come to think of it, I’ve never had the first appointment of the day in anything that requires an appointment. Not a doctor, not a dentist, not even a mechanic. Do “first appointments” even exist?

These are some of the questions that go through your head as you sit here, leafing through months-old Sports Illustrateds.

Oh look, there’s the one with Kosuke Fukudome on the cover. That was early May.

Ah, May. The Chicago Cubs were in first place, despite Alfonso Soriano getting off to a horrendous start. Then he caught fire, and the Cubs held on to first place. Then he got hurt. Then the All-Star break came and went. Then the Milwaukee Brewers stopped losing. The St. Louis Cardinals kept winning. Then the 5-game lead disappeared. Then the panic. The kicking things. The sleepness nights. Then the wife’s phone call to the pyschol…

“Mr. … um, Poad-logger? Uh, Alex? Hi. Did I get that right?”

“Close enough.”

“The doctor will see you now.”

“OK.”

Leather couch? Check. Legal pad? Check. Tweed sweater? Check.

Just like in the movies.

May as well hit the couch. I’d be more comfortable in the chair, but there’s a couch, and well, aren’t you supposed to be on the couch?

Waiting.

Waiting.

Wringing hands.

Sheets and Sabathia. Sabathia and Sheets. Braun. Pujols. Hart. Ludwick, Hardy, Wainright…

OK, calm down. Nobody plays until 8 tonight.

Deep breath.

Door opening. Wire-rim reading glasses? Check.

“So, Mr. … um, Poad-loj-er. Uh, Alex. Hi there. How’d I do?”

“Pod-lo-gar. Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, I’m Dr. Kendall. Your wife called to set up the appointment. Glad you could make it.”

“Kendall, huh? Like the catcher.”

“Excuse me?”

“The Brewers’ catcher, Jason Kendall.”

“Um, yes. OK. Well, that’s kind of why we’re here, isn’t it?”

“Because Jason Kendall bats ninth, behind the pitcher? Or because the Cardinals do the same thing? You want to break that down?”

“Do you?”

“Already have. Several times.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“Like the sample size isn’t large enough to determine whether it’s really a good idea or not yet.”

“Well, uh, OK. So, have you always liked baseball?”

“Love it.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s the best of all sports. At least it is to me. I like the nuances.”

“Tell me about that.”

“Well, you know, the simple stuff. There’s no clock. The defense possesses the ball. Why 2-1 is a good count to hit-and-run. When to bunt. When not to bunt. The hanging slider. Everything.”

“And why the Cubs?”

“WGN. Harry Caray. My family got cable when I was 8. I’d come home from school, and there they were, on TV already. Or in the summer, all the day games. They started at 2. The Cubs were always on, and I loved baseball. Harry was funny even to an 8-year-old. They had Ryne Sandberg. And they were good. Won the division that year and could’ve been in the World Series. Until Leon Durham happened.”

“They’re good now too, right?”

“Well, they’ve been good for the first two-thirds of the season. Now they seem like they’re falling apart. All of a sudden they can’t hit. Ramirez and Fukudome look lost. D-Lee can’t hit on the road. Soto may have hit the rookie wall. They’re pitching fine, but Woody’s got a lingering blister. Soriano just came back, and when he’s hot, he’s great. But he can strike out four times a night, too. And center field has been something of a mess. And don’t get me started on Bob Howry.”

“But they are still in first place.”

“For now.”

“What makes you think they won’t hold on?”

“Are you kidding?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, have you heard of the Chicago Cubs? Does Steve Bartman ring a bell? Although Bartman gets a raw deal. Why Alex Gonzalez doesn’t get more heat for blowing a double-play ball right after that, I’ll never know. But there’s more. How about Will Clark hitting about .680 against us in the 1989 NLCS? The billy goat? The black cat? 1969? 1908? They haven’t won a World Series in 100 freaking years!

“And you think that has something to do with the 2008 team?”

“You know what? I don’t. I really don’t. Curses are stupid. But this team is flawed. Especially when Jason Marquis takes the hill.”

“You think the season’s going to end badly?”

“In a word, yes.”

“I don’t understand. Why?”

“Because it always does. I can’t explain it, but it always does. And usually in the most crushing fashion imaginable. Like last year, when we got swept in the first round. I mean, it’s been 100 years.”

“So why bother?”

“Huh?”

“Why bother following the Cubs? Why not choose another team, like the Red Sox?”

“Choose another team? Choose another team?! Doc, I think this session is over.”

“We have 15 more minutes. Hang on.”

“Hang on? No offense sir, but you can’t just go around picking teams here and there because they happen to be good.”

“Wouldn’t that make you happier?”

“To be a bandwagon-jumper? No thanks, Doc. There’s nothing worse.”

“Maybe you don’t want to be happy.”

“What are getting at?”

“Aren’t the Cubs known as the ‘Lovable Losers’? And you, like so many others, have stuck with them through thick and thin. Mostly thin, right?”

“Gee, thanks, Doc.”

“Listen to me. If the Cubs were to win a championship, how would you feel?”

“Like buying everything that had ‘Cubs’ and ‘World Champions’ on it.”

“Would you? Or would you lose something? Something like your identity as a fan. Maybe Cubs fans revel in their collective misery. It’s your trademark. It defines you as a fan. You feel like you’re sports’ — all of sports’ — best fans because you never turn away from your team, no matter how many times they break your heart.”

“Um, Doc, I think you and I need to trade places. Maybe you should lie down here for a while.”

“Think about it Mr. … uh, Alex.”

“You really think I’d feel like I lost something, other than my access to the credit card, if the Cubs won it all? That I’d feel worse if the Cubs won the World Series?”

“You wouldn’t have anything left to complain about.”

“And that’s a bad thing? Really, I’m paying for this?”

“Food for thought, Alex.”

“I think my time is up. Thanks, Doc, this really helped. I’ll make sure not to schedule another appointment on my way out.”

“Think about it.”

“OK, answer me one question, Doc. When things are going badly for the Cubs, would a fan who desperately wants them to win turn away from the game on TV? Turn off the online gamecast? Be so angry that he wants to kick something? Fail to sleep at night knowing another game was lost in the standings? Thinks changing his watch might break the losing streak?”

“That was five questions, Alex. And I think we have a lot to discuss. I’ll see you next week.”

“Would Thursday work? I have my first anger-management seminar on Wednesday. My boss thinks I need that for some reason. He should talk. He’s a Pirates fan.”

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cavaliers stun Trojans in first round

Published in The Sanford Herald on November 10, 2008

By ALEX PODLOGAR

Sports Coverage

FOUR OAKS — One small step in a tournament, one giant leap for a program.

The Southern Lee Cavaliers just keep making history.

In only their second year and in the state playoffs for the second time, the Cavaliers did the unthinkable — they knocked off No. 2 seed South Johnston, advancing to the second round of the NCHSAA State 3-A Football Tournament after clipping the Cape Fear Valley Conference champion Trojans 24-21 on Friday night.

For a program that seems on the verge of breaking a school record each time it steps onto the field, Southern Lee won its first playoff game in school history and sent the biggest shock wave through the entire state of North Carolina, becoming the highest seed to win in the first round in any of the eight tournaments.

“I’m so proud of the guys,” said Cavaliers star running back Raymond Brown, who rushed for 100 yards on 17 carries. “We’ve worked so hard, practiced so hard. We knew we were ready. I’m just speechless. This is just an incredible feeling.”

The Cavaliers (7-5) never trailed, taking a 7-0 lead on James Butler’s 9-yard run with 10:57 remaining in the second quarter to take that same lead into the half.

The scoring picked up mightily in the second half, and after a wild opening minute of the third quarter that featured three turnovers, both teams settled in and traded scores.

Southern Lee led by 10 points twice, setting another school record with the first field goal in the program’s history, a 23-yarder by Cameron Reed, who didn’t even begin the season as the placekicker.

As the final seconds ticked down, South Johnston (10-2) unable to do a thing about them, most of the Cavaliers raised their hands to the air in triumph. The visiting sideline emptied as the clock showed zeros, the team rushing to the middle of the field to celebrate in a stadium in  which they lost 40-14 a year ago to a team that beat them 29-25 in Sanford on Oct. 5.

“These kids are amazing. And they’ve done amazing things all year,” said Cavaliers coach Bryan Lee. “And one of the most amazing things they did was that they came to practice this week, and it didn’t matter to them that they were a No. 15 seed. It didn’t matter that most of them were just second-year varsity football players and it didn’t matter that they had to go on the road to face the No. 2 seed.

“I’m just elated, but it hasn’t really sunk in yet. We did it. That team over there was our conference’s champ, and they’re putting their equipment up for the year. I don’t mean any disrespect by that, but it’s incredible to think that we made that happen.”

South Johnston coach Joe Salas, who said following the Trojans’ win in Sanford that Southern Lee would be dangerous in the first round, was unavailable for comment.

Jeremy McLeod, after playing lockdown defense on star wide receiver Dee Walden in the first half, returned to the offense in the second half and rushed eight times for 89 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown run that gave the Cavaliers a 14-0 lead with 4:20 remaining in the third quarter.

South Johnston answered quickly with an 18-yard run by Tony Davis to cut the margin to seven 30 seconds before the end of the third period, but Southern Lee’s Joey Cherry pounced on an onside kick to give the Cavaliers possession near midfield.

Southern Lee managed to move the ball inside the 5-yard line, but on fourth-and-1, Lee sent out the kicking unit for only the second field goal attempt of the season.

Reed made the decision a good one, splitting the uprights for a 17-7 with 6 minutes to go.

“Our special teams have taken a beating all year long,” Lee said. “But we got every onside kick, we made every extra point and Cameron’s field goal was the difference in the game.”

But South Johnston wasn’t done.

The Trojans scored in two plays and needed only 30 seconds, getting an 8-yard touchdown run from Josh Snead to make it 17-14. That brought South Johnston closer to the Cavaliers than they had been in the entire game with 5:25 left.

Again, the Cavaliers snapped up the onside kick try, this time it was Demetrius McIver hauling it in. Then it was McLeod’s turn again. The shifty back who was the team’s leading rusher as a freshman during its junior varsity season three years ago went 30 yards on one play and then scored from 5 yards out to give Southern Lee another 10-point edge, 24-14, with 3:05 to go.

“I was fresh in the second half,” McLeod said. “Raymond told me I had to step up, and I stepped up.”

South Johnston answered once more, getting a fortuitous pass interference penalty on fourth down to keep the drive alive before Pat Dunigan hooked up with Walden for a 25-yard touchdown.

Still ahead by three, Princeton Tabon caught the third onside kick try, and after a first down, the Cavaliers could begin dreaming about the second round.

“There are a lot of teams sitting at home now and we’re in the second round,” Lee said. “Anybody who still has doubts, shouldn’t. But we’d like to plant our flag here and keep on going. That’s our plan.”

And with each step, the Cavaliers will be making history.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Panthers too much for upset-minded Cavaliers

Published in The Sanford Herald on March 2, 2008

By ALEX PODLOGAR

Sports Coverage

GREENSBORO — Akeem Richmond tried.

The two-time All-State performer kept running off screens, kept running down loose balls and falling out of bounds, kept pleading with his teammates to stay in the game, to stay with him. He kept rising up for shots, usually with hands in his face, and kept trying to knock them down and give his Southern Lee Cavaliers a chance.

He barreled through the lane, slicing between two defenders, using a hard dribble to create a sliver of extra space and then softly laid a shot high off the glass, drawing contact and the whistle. The next trip down the floor, he rose from behind the arc, waiting that slim split-second longer until his defender started his gravitational slip downward to release the feathery shot, which was good as soon as it left his hand.

And then he did it again. The same way. The same hope when it left his hands, the same roar from the visiting faithful when it fell through.

And yes, he would do it again. Again. Catch. Rise. Wait. Release. Hope. Swish.

Tied.

Tied at 51 with 1:12 to go in the third quarter, the Southern Lee Cavaliers were on the road in a gym that had witnessed its team win eight straight sectional championships. The Cavaliers’ star had just scored his team’s last 12 points and mighty Dudley, winners of two of the last three state championships, was on the ropes in its own building.

And then a freshman took over.

A freshman.

Richmond had 21 points in the second half alone, keeping his Cavaliers in the game almost by himself to score a game-high 30.

It wasn’t enough.

Dudley won its ninth straight sectional title, advancing to the eastern regional semifinals behind 21 points and 17 rebounds from super frosh P.J. Harriston in an 80-67 victory on Friday night.

“It was a heckuva ballgame,” said Dudley coach David Price. “Two teams that made the regionals last year, and it’s a shame that one of us had to go home.”

The Panthers (27-2) led throughout the game, using a huge size advantage in the paint to control the boards and push back every Cavaliers’ charge, even Richmond’s. Dudley held a commanding 53-29 edge on the glass, running up a 12-point lead early in the second quarter before taking a 36-30 edge at the half.

The Cavaliers (26-4), who lost to Dudley 76-60 in Greensboro on Dec. 20, mounted several mini comebacks, none more impressive though than the one engineered by Richmond and his team’s suffocating defense, the same defense that sparked nine points in 22 seconds in a critical run the night before.

“The kid played a heckuva game,” Cavaliers coach Chris Cherry said of Richmond’s performance. “He did it on the biggest stage. He played like a superstar tonight.”

But no response was more emphatic or demoralizing to the Cavaliers than the one orchestrated by the 6-foot-6 Harriston. With Richmond on fire and Southern Lee believing it could pull off the impossible, Harriston brought the Dudley faithful to its feet.

In the third quarter’s final 72 seconds after Richmond had tied it at 51, Harriston scored on an offensive put-back, had a steal at midcourt that he took the rest of the way for a dazzling layup while being fouled, and kept an offensive possession alive with another board that was kicked out to Marcus Heath, who buried his fourth 3-pointer of the game to cap a brilliant 8-0 spurt that handed the Panthers a 59-51 lead entering the final period.

“That was the critical point in the game,” Cherry said. “(Harriston) kept a couple of possessions alive with two, three rebounds at a time, and then we threw it away and they hit that big 3. But that’s what good teams do. They take advantage of things like that, and that’s what Dudley did.”

A layup by Brandon Pennix to open the fourth quarter stretched the Dudley lead to 10, and though the Cavaliers continued to make gutsy efforts to get back into the game — Richmond added nine points in the fourth quarter after his binge in the third — Southern Lee never got closer than five points the rest of the way.

“The game was really tough,” Richmond said. “All in all, I thought we played well. But we knew we needed to play perfectly to beat them, and we didn’t do that. But we gave all we had. I’m proud of our team.”

Dudley, which fell to Kinston in the regional finals a year ago, will play Northern Vance, which beat Rocky Mount 77-74 on Friday night, next week in Greenville.

Pennix added 12 points and 13 boards for the Panthers while Heath added 19 points and eight rebounds. Ricky Smith chipped in 12 points and seven rebounds.

Aaron Mellette had eight points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots for the Cavaliers while Darrell Alston shook off foul trouble to add 11 points in one of his finest all-around performances of the season.

“The kids laid it all on the line,” Cherry said. “We were neck-and-neck with them for 27, 28 minutes.”

Ultimately, it was the Cavaliers who would rise up, hope for a moment, and then fall back.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment