Coming home ...

Ray Maloney, Sports

Coming home ...

By Ray Maloney - Journal Sports Writer

When it comes to scariest movies of all time, the Wizard of Oz has often been overlooked, but those blasted flying monkees have long been the cause of many a sleepless nights for me.

But, Dorothy was right on point when she proclaimed, ‘There’s no place like home, no place like home, no place like home.’

After spending much of the past year at a newspaper in southwest Wyoming, I spent much of the last few days traveling home to assume my new duties as sports writer at the Daily Journal. It is something I am seriously looking forward to.

My interest in sports has deep roots - really deep roots that embedded in love, passion and character. While character has often by associated with sports, love and passion are two other elements that cannot be overlooked.

I have to tell you a story.

As a seven-year-old boy growing up in Bismarck, I lived next door to a retired English teacher. The teacher, who was 88 years old, and I, would stand in our backyards every summer morning and, over the fence, analyze the boxscores from the newspaper of the baseball games of the previous day. The teacher died later that summer, but before, did something I can never repay.

For you see, Rita Murphy taught me everything that is good and decent. She taught me the game of baseball. She instilled in me a desire to learn and she taught me a passion. It really doesn’t matter what your passion is, but there has to be a passion in life. I consider myself to have been Miss Murphy’s last student and she was the first woman, other than my mom, I ever loved.

A small and scrawny child - how times have changed - I was nowhere close to being a gifted athlete, but a chance meeting while in study high as a freshman in junior high school forever changed my life. As I was sitting there, in the back row, the football coach from Bismarck High School was preparing to meet with players who were interested in playing that fall at BHS. He asked if I played ball - obviously making small talk to pass the time. When I told him that I was not a player, Bob Feeney told me he was looking for a student manager.

To make a long story short, that’s what I became. I spent three years as manager/trainer for coach Feeney, who once guided Cando to 30 wins in a row before taking over the program at Dickinson Trinity before ending his hall of fame career at BHS. I also worked with the basketball team and track teams at Bismarck.

After high school I enrolled at NDSU where I began studying sports medicine, which I thought would become my profession. After my freshman year I was selected to work as a student trainer at the NCAA Division I track championship at the University of Illinois. It was a memorable weekend on a number of fronts.

Included in those memories was being front and center, literally, when University of Maryland great Renaldo Nehemiah established a new standard in the 110 hurdles. When the announcer calmly announced ‘Ladies and gentleman, you have just witnessed the fastest hurdles race in the history of track and field,’ you could have heard a pin drop in cavernous Memorial Stadium. It was mind-boggling for a youngster from North Dakota to have been a part of that.

A few years later I withdrew from the athletic training program and began working in the sports information office at the school - and I think I found my calling. I enjoy writing about sports, about the games, but even more enjoyable is writing about the athletes and coaches involved in the games, both past and present.

Rio also coached perhaps the greatest athlete in state history in Cliff Cushman. The high school athlete of the year in 1956, Cushman went on to a brilliant career in track at the University of Kansas and won a silver medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. A fall during the Olympic Trials of 1964 ended his

hopes of an even greater finish.

Cushman’s letter to the Grand Forks Herald after that fall has long been an inspiration to me and

others. I consider his letter to be THE greatest thing I have ever read this side of the Bible. Cushman's

absence from the Roughrider Hall of Fame in the Capital building in Bismarck is a gross travesty.

Or, let’s take a look at the watershed moment in NCAA basketball when Michigan State got past Indiana State in the 1979 national championship game one year before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird

 set out to make themselves legends in the NBA.

Did you know that the final poll of that 1979 had Michigan State ranked No. 3 - coached by Jud Heathcote, who was born and raised in Harvey, N.D.? More impressive is that LSU, coached by Dale Brown, from Minot, was ranked No. 9, and Iowa, coached by Mayville native Lute Olson, was No. 20.

Grasp that, if you can - three schools in the Top 20, coached by North Dakotans - what a tribute to the talent and character out state produces.

And you want to talk about character?

In my long association with high school and college athletics, an association that has brought me in contact with the likes of John Wooden and Dan Gable, Dean Smith, Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, Eddie Sutton and Bucky Maughan, and countless others, perhaps the most genuine athlete I have ever found has come in the tiny form of former Leeds running great Krista Anderson. Her exploits on the track and cross country courses around North Dakota captivated everyone.

Anyone who has had the privilege of sitting down with Anderson quickly realized that her athleticism was surpassed only by the genuine character she possesses. A character that is the end result of the work ethic of all North Dakotans, including her sister, Lindsay, who followed in her footsteps. Another sister, Alyssa, is continuing the build on the legacy of which George and Karen Anderson ought to be mighty proud.

Another North Dakota coach who has received far less recognition than he deserves and has earned a spot alongside Cushman in the Roughrider Hall of Fame, is Jim Simle. While many may not recognize the name, Simle created the famed Fargo-Moorhead Acro Team.

For more than four decades, the Acro Team has served our state in ways unimaginable. The only halftime group ever to perform at more than one NBA All-Star game - they have performed at nine such contests - the young athletes who have made up that group over the years have brought tremendous notoriety to our state while thrilling crowds.

We now embark on another year of high school and college sports in North Dakota. Only time will tell who will begin to leave their mark on the rich legacy of sports in North Dakota. All I know is that I am going to enjoy the ride.

Let’s have some fun!

(For a copy of this sports story see Monday, August 24, 2009 issue of the Devils Lake Journal) 8/24/09