Month: January 2017

ATHLETE SPOTLIGHT: Mitch Wishnowsky

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When Mitch Wishnowsky was growing up, he had never seen or held an American football. Born and raised in Gosnells, a southeastern suburb of Perth, Australia, Wishnowsky was no different than any other kid in his neighborhood: he wanted to play Australian rules football.

In Australia, there are four different codes of football – soccer, rugby league, rugby union, and Australian rules football – and the most popular one in Perth is Aussie rules, or “footy.” Wishnowsky played a lot of footy as a kid, and showed promise, but never really saw himself playing at the professional level.

At the age of 17, Wishnowsky left high school a year early in order to start work; he had been offered an apprenticeship as a glass installation specialist. Several of his friends began showing him NFL games and explaining how American football was played. On the weekend, Wishnowsky and his friends would occasionally play pickup games of American football at their local park, but their style of play was very rudimentary. They only ran a few plays and just wanted to have a good time.

Wishnowsky still played Aussie rules, too, ending up on the reserves list at the Perth Demons, a local semi-pro team in the West Australian Football League. Still, he was never quite able to draw enough attention from AFL scouts.

After a couple of years, Wishnowsky eventually grew tired of his job and began to consider exploring other professional and educational opportunities. Eventually, he caught wind about ProKick Australia, a training academy for aspiring punters run by former Aussie rules footballer/NFL punter Nathan Chapman.

Chapman’s program is well-regarded around Australia; they select numerous Aussie kids – mostly from footy backgrounds – and help them to transition into American-style punters. To date, Chapman estimates that over 60 ProKick alums have been placed at various colleges in the US. Wishnowsky contacted Chapman and was instantly sold on the idea. He committed to the program and started the long, grueling process of becoming a college football punter.

As good of a track record as ProKick had, Wishnowsky was still worried that he wouldn’t get picked up by an NCAA school right away. Still, he worked hard and soon enough, scouts began inquiring about the 6’4″, 220-pound Aussie.

Wishnowsky eventually made his way from sunny Perth to equally sunny Santa Barbara, California. He got a scholarship punting for the Santa Barbara City College Vaqueros in the fall of 2014, averaging a solid 39.8 yards per punt that year.

Eventually, Wishnowsky got the attention of coach Kyle Whittingham of the University of Utah. The Utes offered Wishnowsky a scholarship and he enrolled in January 2016 with big shoes to fill: he had to replace two-time All-American and two-time Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett, a fellow ProKick alum.

However, Wishnowsky brought a different set of skills to the table than Hackett did – both on and off the field.

Hackett stands only 5’10”, 180 pounds and was highly-regarded for his quick release and kicking accuracy. However, he will admit that Wishnowsky has the superior leg and athleticism:

Mitch has an uncanny ability to hit the ball much harder than most punters. His strengths do not lie with his accuracy; instead, he chooses the most direct route, high and long. I concede defeat when asked who is the stronger and more powerful punter….we have very similar, and yet very different, punting styles.

Off the field, Hackett became a media darling with his dry Aussie one-liners and tongue-in-cheek demeanor. Wishnowsky, comparatively, is a man of few words.

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Upon accepting the 2016 Ray Guy Award for his efforts, Wishnowsky was asked about the amazing track record that Aussies have as college football punters. He simply replied,  “You can roll out, and you can hold onto it for longer. It is changing the game of college football.”

Indeed it is. Utah made history with Wishnowsky, becoming the first school ever to have multiple Ray Guy winners. That makes it four in a row for ProKick too — Hackett won the award twice and Memphis’s Tom Hornsey won it in 2013. And as if that wasn’t enough, Wishnowsky beat out two other ProKick alums to win it all in 2016 – Cameron Johnston of Ohio State and Michael Dickson from Texas. Wishnowsky expressed congrats to his fellow countrymen and runners-up in the 2016 Ray Guy competition.

“No hard feelings. We’re all good mates,” he said with a grin.

Wishnowsky finished the season ranked second in the nation in punting, averaging 48 yards per kick, and won national punter of the week honors three times this past season. He was also named a unanimous first-team All-American.

The scary part? Wishnowsky has two years of eligibility left.

“I suppose I’ll just try to better myself next year,” Wishnowsky says. “I feel like I can get strong, maybe just show a bit more versatility. I wouldn’t mind getting a fake punt on the way at some stage.”

Hey, why not?

ATHLETE SPOTLIGHT: Steven Adams

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have been pegged as legit NBA playoff contenders this season, led by the sensational Russell Westbrook, who has more triple-doubles this season than the rest of the league combined.

But as eye-popping as Westbrook has been, there’s another star who’s been a big key to the Thunder’s success: a dry-humored, tattooed, and mustachioed Kiwi named Steven Adams.

At 7 feet, 250 pounds and wearing a size 19 shoe, Adams has always been big. He comes from a very large and very athletic family – he has 17 older siblings and half siblings. His brothers average 6’9″ and his sisters average 6’6″. One of his sisters, Valerie, is an Olympic qualifying shot-putter.

And today, Steven himself is one of the NBA’s most consistent big men – just entering the prime of his career at age 23. Alongside Westbrook, he’s become a big-time star in Oklahoma City, a metropolitan area where Thunder basketball is the highest-attended sport by far.

But Adams grew up about as far from Oklahoma City as you can imagine.

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Adams hails from Rotorua, a small lakeside city of about 58,000 in the North Island of New Zealand. Adams’s father, Sid, was a retired Royal Navy officer who drove a logging truck, and his mother was a Tongan. Growing up in a blended family was a challenge – Adams’s dad fathered 18 kids by five different women – and things changed rapidly when Sid Adams passed away of stomach cancer in 2006. Steven was 13 when he lost his dad, and like many kids in that situation, he started acting out, skipping school, and getting into trouble.

“When I lost my dad, that was a big hit for me,” Adams recalls. “I didn’t have that parental guidance, and I kind of took advantage of it. I decided not to go to school a couple of times; to go when I felt like it. I always lied to my brothers and sisters. They eventually found out.”

Concerned, Adams’s older brother, Warren, took him in and let him live in his own apartment in the New Zealand capital, Wellington. Warren encouraged his little brother to try playing basketball and got him into a good local school for that very reason.

Despite his size and athleticism, Adams hadn’t considered playing basketball up to that point. He tried track and field, following his sisters’ lead, but didn’t really see basketball as a big opportunity. (While basketball is growing in popularity among Kiwis, it still pales in comparison to the massive fanbase for sports like rugby union and cricket.)

Although he wasn’t super passionate about playing hoops originally, Adams showed some raw potential and impressed his coaches enough to get a scholarship to the lucrative Scots College, an all-boys’ school in the Wellington suburbs.

Adams did well enough on and off the court to get the attention of scouts at regional tournaments. In May 2012, he was named MVP of the New Zealand Under-21 National Tournament, and also wowed scouts at the World Youth Championships and the FIBA Oceania Under-17 Championships. He represented New Zealand’s Under-19 National team several times.

Adams caught the eye of Jamie Dixon, an assistant coach for the University of Pittsburgh. Dixon had played with several of Adams’s brothers, as well as Kenny McFadden, a New Zealand-based basketball development officer. Dixon fell in love with Adams’s physical style of play and light shooting touch. He was sold.

“He had some brothers who were substantially older than him, and that’s how I knew about him,” said Dixon. “And his coach was also a guy I played with, so yeah, it was all about the relationship, knowing him and knowing his brothers. We knew how good he was. Other people didn’t know because he obviously didn’t play much in America.”

But Adams still had some areas of his game that needed polishing. He spent a year working on his fundamentals at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Now NCAA-eligible, Adams moved to Pittsburgh to start his collegiate basketball career in 2012.

In his lone season in a Panther uniform, Adams earned a spot on the All-Big East Rookie Team, averaging a very solid 7.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2 blocks in only 23 minutes per game. NBA scouts were a fixture at Pitt practices and games, eager to get a glimpse of the Kiwi phenom.

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After his freshman season, Adams declared for the NBA draft and was picked #13 overall by the Thunder.

At first, Adams wasn’t expected to do much. Still very raw by NBA standards, he didn’t average many minutes per game – and when he did play, he was mostly relied on as a shut-down defender.

But Adams never quit and soon began clawing out more playing time in a crowded rotation, sharing time with veteran front-court players like Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, and Serge Ibaka. Eventually, Adams started becoming a major factor, outmuscling defenders for rebounds and beating them low on defense in the paint.

Adams continued to blossom in the 2015-16 season, the first under OKC coach Billy Donovan. Last season, Adams averaged a healthy eight points and 6.7 boards per game, with a .613 field goal percentage. He drew much more attention as a dangerous presence in the front-court, drawing more fouls and double teams.

The Thunder lost two major pieces from last year’s team – Kevin Durant, who left for the Golden State Warriors as a free agent in a landmark move – as well as Ibaka, who was traded to the Orlando Magic in exchange for three other players, including emerging guard Victor Oladipo. Now, OKC is a team built around the intensely competitive Westbrook, who’s having a career-defining season.

But the Thunder saw continued potential in Adams, who’s still young and hungry. Adams signed a new contract right before the season started – a four-year extension worth $100 million.

“The deal might seem outlandish to those who haven’t fully adjusted to the NBA’s new economy. Yet if Adams’ growth curve continues to trend upward, he will swiftly become one the NBA’s bargain deals,” remarked Jon Hamm of Bleacher Report.

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Adams continues to develop excellent chemistry with Oladipo and Westbrook. The trio has become a well-oiled machine and are hoping to lead OKC deep into the playoffs this season. Adams has also developed a rapport with his backup, 6’11” center Enes Kanter. Their similar facial hair and deadpan senses of humor have earned them the nickname of “the Stache Brothers” and made them both fan and media favorites.

Steven Adams has blossomed into an outstanding and durable center in a modern-day NBA that has become more fast-paced and less reliant on the dominant big men of years past. But Adams hopes to continue to keep opponents on their toes with his quiet intensity and work ethic.

Not bad for a young Kiwi who has only played basketball for 10 years.

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Jørn Utzon

The Sydney Opera House is widely considered to be one of the greatest architectural marvels of the modern era. It’s become an instant icon of Australia, defining the city of Sydney and enthralling everyone who sees it. When you think of Sydney (and Australia as a whole), you think of the Opera House.

I recently had a chance to take a (almost) two-week trip to Sydney, during which I took a guided tour that ended at the Opera House. It truly is a magnificent site, but to my surprise, the story behind the structure is even more interesting than the building itself.

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Historians have consistently marveled at Michelangelo’s Biblical paintings atop the ceiling of the fabled Sistine Chapel. Much like the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it’s remarkable that the Sydney Opera House was ever completed.

In 1957, the government of New South Wales commissioned a worldwide design contest – over 230 designs were given for the construction of a new opera house to be located at the edge of Sydney Harbour. Some of the world’s most renowned architects submitted designs, but in the end, the winner was a dark horse – a 39-year-old Danish man by the name of Jørn Utzon.

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Utzon was born in 1918 as the son of an architect for the Danish Navy. He graduated from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1942. When the Nazis invaded and conquered Denmark, Utzon fled to Sweden, where he worked with fellow architects and developed numerous other influences, including the renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Utzon even vacationed to Mexico in 1949, where he marveled at the ancient Mayan pyramids. Upon the end of the war, Utzon returned to Denmark and built an open-plan house for himself, while also continuing to travel.

At the time of his selection for the Sydney Opera House, Utzon had designed several buildings in his native country and had won six previous architecture competitions – still, he was an unproven commodity, having never built anything outside his home country.

Utzon’s design for the Opera House was little more than a sketch drawing, but the contest judges were extremely enthusiastic about his vision, saying that it was “genius” and that they couldn’t endorse anything else. Joseph Cahill, then-Premier of New South Wales, was skeptical at first, but recognized the enormous cost of the project. Concerned that potential delays could dampen local enthusiasm for the Opera House, Cahill brought Utzon to Sydney to start the construction.

Ove Arup & Partners, a British engineering firm, didn’t have adequately detailed drawings to work with, and they encountered problems almost immediately due to Utzon’s bizarre-looking design. Columns had to be rebuilt, there were frequent delays due to inclement weather, and so the project was almost immediately behind schedule and over-budget. The situation was further complicated when Premier Cahill died of a heart attack in October 1959.

This temporarily put a damper on the project, but construction plodded along for the next few years. In 1961, Utzon brilliantly found a solution for the unique elliptical shells, replacing them with sphere-like individual shapes that would form a perfect circle if all assembled together. Utzon’s vision for the interior of the Opera House were even more ambitious, and even his construction team would occasionally be baffled by his plans. Utzon was basically relying on technology that hadn’t even been invented yet.

In 1965, the project hit a wall. Newly-elected NSW Premier Robert Askin and his Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, were shocked at how long the Opera House was taking to build and were none too keen to continue the expensive undertaking.

Hughes was constantly harassing Utzon about his design and went out of his way to question his competency. Hughes consistently complained to government officials about the project, which was nearly two years behind schedule and several million dollars over budget. The shells of the exterior were almost completely finished by this point, but the interior sets were still extremely challenging to build the way Utzon intended.

Eventually, a burned-out Utzon submitted his resignation to the NSW government in 1966. He packed up his family and moved back to Denmark, vowing never to return. The Opera House was finally completed several years later, but Utzon’s interior designs were scrapped in favor of a different layout that was deemed more visually appealing (although it ended up being far more expensive).

In 1973, the Sydney Opera House was finally opened and dedicated by Queen Elizabeth II – a decade behind schedule and 99 million Australian dollars over-budget.

Utzon was not invited to the premiere, nor was his name even mentioned during the ceremonial speeches. He never returned to see his masterpiece, despite several invitations from the (now-contrite) NSW government.

In 2003, Utzon was awarded the Pritzker Prize (architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize). One of the judges, Frank Gehry, commented:

Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology, and he persevered through extraordinarily malicious publicity and negative criticism to build a building that changed the image of an entire country.

Utzon, suffering from numerous health problems, passed away of a heart attack in his sleep on November 29, 2008. He was 90 years old. Less than 18 months before Utzon’s death, the Opera House had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Several years ago, also before his death, Utzon was finally officially recognized when the Opera House constructed the Utzon Room, a private room inside the structure overlooking Sydney Harbour. Utzon politely declined an invitation to see it, but he released a public statement emphasizing his gratitude:

The fact that I’m mentioned in such a marvelous way, it gives me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. I don’t think you can give me more joy as the architect. It supersedes any medal of any kind that I could get.