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Basketball helps give HCC's John Long a silver lining

March 03, 2007|by BOB PARASILITI

An education always has been the most important thing in John Long's life.

He has dedicated the majority of his life to his books and his academics. They were the foundation of his future.

"Books," Long said. "I played Little League and stuff, but my dad was all about the books."

There was nothing wrong with books. They - along with his father's will - made Long a strong student who graduated from high school, complete with personal discipline and a drive to make something of himself.

And thanks to books - and his father's will - Long became intelligent enough to realize even the best education needs balance.

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Long discovered that balance during his senior year while attending Waynesboro (Pa.) Area Senior High School when he was introduced to organized basketball. And now, nearly two years since he graduated, Long is continuing his education - both in mind and body - at Hagerstown Community College and as a part of its men's basketball team.

That education continues tonight at 8 when Long and the Hawks faces top-seeded Allegany in the NJCAA Region XX Tournament semifinals at the HCC athletic complex. Sunday's championship game will be for a berth in the national tournament.

The new blend of books and fitness has redefined Long. His thirst for knowledge in basketball is only enhanced by the concentration and drive he's gained from being a strong student.

"His improvement has been immense," said HCC coach Kenny Keyes. "He does everything the coaches tell him. He soaks it up and learns from it. He's amazing. He goes to school, plays basketball, has a job and still carries a 3.8 grade point average. I don't know how he does it."

GPA isn't the only average Long thinks about now. He keeps an eye on his 7.6 and 12.6, his scoring and rebounding averages, too. With his raw talent and limited experience, Long is among the top 10 junior college rebounders in the nation.

For Long, the new passion for basketball may be rooted in something he never experienced from any book - acceptance.

"I like the attention," Long said. "To tell the truth, I like staying in shape."

In athletic terms, Long is a late bloomer. Participating in athletics never entered his mind. It took an odd twist of fate to show Long a whole new world.

"I attended South Hagerstown for two years and didn't play. I was just an academic student. I was kind of a nerd," Long said. "I played ball, but not for a team. I didn't think I was good enough."

When Long's family split, he moved with his mother to Waynesboro. Even though he didn't have the 6-foot-7 frame he sports today, he caught Indians coach Tom Hoffman's eye. He was more than 6 feet tall and had a long, lean body.

"I didn't want to play. I didn't want to do anything," Long said. "I would have never played if I wouldn't have moved to Waynesboro and talked to Coach Hoffman. Coach had confidence in me. Now I love basketball and I don't want to give it up."

Upon graduation, Long had an opportunity to go to Hood College. He lost a bout with his self confidence and didn't accept the chance.

"I messed up," he said. "I was afraid to go to school and afraid to move from home. It was a mixture of things. I ended up taking a year off. My dad wasn't happy with me. I knew I had to go somewhere. I loved basketball and didn't want to give it up."

Long turned to his new love of fitness. Now back living in Hagerstown, he worked out feverishly, hitting the weights, running and playing basketball. He was working to get a second chance.

The chance came innocently one day during a chance meeting with Keyes at the Hagerstown YMCA.

"Someone told me there was a guy there who said he was coming out for the team next year," Keyes said. "I saw him and told him to come try out. Then, when he got here, I had to talk him into coming out. He'd never come to the gym. He'd stay in the wellness center and did his own thing. He knew how to stay in shape and lift, he just wasn't in the gym."

Just like with his schoolwork, Long was a quick study. He had an aptitude for the game and soaked in instruction and knowledge to improve. As well as he has done this season, the potential is there to grade out higher.

Long has worked with Leon Nelson, HCC's other starting big man, and learned the trade from him. Nelson is in the top five in the nation for rebounding.

"Leon has drawn John out. It's the best thing that has happened to him," Keyes said. "When John started out, he was just getting his points in transition. He would get rebounds and pass the ball out. Now he's learning to take the ball and go strong with it."

"I thought I could do it, but on the court, I shied away," Long said. "Coach (Jeff) Cox kept getting on me and telling me that I was being soft. I just started doing it. I have to stop thinking too much and just play. I kind of wish I started playing in seventh grade. I wish I would have played any sport."

Keyes said Long has caught the eye of some coaches from four-year schools, but most say he needs another year of junior college to define his game. Long says he can do that and hopes it will lead to playing for a school like James Madison or George Mason.

"I have to concentrate on my books and my mid-range jumper," he said. "If I can do that, I can see myself playing somewhere else."

But for now, John Long is content with his new life - the one of study enhanced by the excitement of basketball. His progress has convinced one person that it could lead to a well-rounded life.

"My dad is still all about the books," Long said. "But now he's looking to allow my brothers to play more."

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