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Louis Johnson Muses About Jason Kapono--(Dec. 2, 1998)

Yesterday's Long Beach Press-Telegram had a great article on Jason Kapono by Louis Johnson, the P-T's new answer to Frank Burlison now that Frank is at the Orange County Register.  At least Louis and the paper have deferred to Frank on the "Fab 15" by not putting out a pre-season "Best in the West" (we're told the P-T owns the rights to the name, and that's why Frank changed it).  In any event, Louis is a true basketball fiend who for the last few months has been chained to his desk, only spoon fed miniscule amounts of gruel and forced to write about 22 guys running around on a field chasing an oblong spheroid, a game they call "football" even though the foot is rarely employed.  But Monday, Louis got a chance to remind us of what he can do when he's writing about his first love, hoops.   Here's his piece on Jason Kapono.  It's not Pulizter prize stuff, but it's still nice.  We're republishing it because the P-T doesn't have an archive, and by now most of you who are in the subscription area of the paper have read it anyway.   Louis' columns come out regularly during the season, and it's well worth the 25cent cost of the paper.  Here's his Monday column:

Rich Artesia Has Its Best Player Yet

Wayne Merino has coached more than his fair share of talented players during his tenure at Artesia High. Former star Ed O'Bannon was a McDonald's All-American, the acknowledged No. 1 player in the country when he graduated from the Pioneers' program in 1990.

Charles O'Bannon was rated nearly as high as his big brother and was also a McDonald's All- American, along with then teammate Avondre Jones in 1993. The O'Bannons are considered among the best high school players ever in Southern California, and all three of the former stars had their jerseys retired by Artesia.

Merino's latest prodigy is senior Jason Kapono, and according to the longtime coach, he is the best player that's ever suited up for the Pioneers.

"Jason is the best basketball player I've ever coached, and he's probably the best player in the country from what I've seen and from what a lot of people tell me," Merino said.

"Wow, I'm pretty shocked that he would say something like that," said Kapono, who is obviously aware of the numerous accomplishments of  the aforementioned. "But coming from him . . . that really means a lot to me, and it makes me want to work even harder this season."

Kapono is not considered one of the best athletes in the sport. Nor is he considered the best shooter or rebounder or the best at any of the other facets of the game. But when it comes to putting all of those things together, no one does a better job, according to Merino.

"He's not the best at any one thing, but he's the best at doing everything," Merino said. "Jason's just a basketball player . . . he knows how to play the game, and coaches appreciate that because it's a lost art. Knowing how to play the game is what makes him unique."

Joe Kapono, Jason's father, knew that his son was a "natural" when it came to sports. But those qualities weren't exhibited on the basketball court when Jason was a youngster. "He was in love with baseball, and he was an excellent baseball player," Joe said. "But then he started playing basketball and he fell in love with that. He has had to work very hard to become the player that he is today."

As he got serious about the basketball, Jason would spend hours with his father shooting on the self-made court in the Kapono's driveway and at the local parks. He'd also engage in shooting contests like the game H-O-R-S-E with Joe. "He would challenge me and I used to beat him up until the time he turned 14. Now, I can't touch him," Joe said.

Before entering high school, Jason played on traveling teams for Pat Barrett that included such former prep stars as Schea Cotton, Kenny Brunner, Chris Burgess, Jason Thomas, Tayshaun Prince and Olujimi Mann.

The success he had playing with players of that caliber and against other top-flight competition gave Kapono the confidence needed to excel at the game.

"There were so many good players out there that, at first, I was a little timid," Kapono said. "But as I started to play more and more against those guys, I saw I had a chance to be good. That's when I settled down and realized that I would be fine."

Jason's mother, Joni, thinks that the time spent on the traveling teams has been invaluable for her son. "He learned so much playing AAU ball, and
that really helped him become a better player," Joni said.

Both parents attend all of their son's games, though they don't sit together all the time. "His mother is his No. 1 cheerleader . . . she's very vocal, and sometimes we can't sit together because she gets too vocal," Joe said.

Joni blamed it on the excitement of the games. "I get nervous, and I tend to say too much," she said. "But (the games) are really fun, and I never get tired of watching Jason play."

Kapono has been in the starting lineup for the Pioneers since he first stepped foot on the campus. As a freshman, he averaged 11 points and four rebounds per game. He increased those numbers to 17 and eight as a sophomore and had a breakout season as a junior last year, averaging 23 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

Kapono has recorded several triple-doubles - double figures in points, rebounding and assists - during his first three seasons. His versatility and competitiveness make the All-American "point forward," - as Merino calls him - difficult to defend. Kapono's competitiveness is not just limited to the basketball court. "I hate to lose, and it doesn't matter what it is. I'm always trying to be the best, whether its in the classroom, on the court or anything else."

Speaking of the classroom, Kapono has maintained a 3.9 grade point average since he was a freshman and scored 1,120 on the SAT.  Those numbers, along with his basketball skills, have made the senior one of the most highly recruited players in the country. Kapono narrowed the list of schools he's considering to UNLV, Utah, Missouri, North Carolina State, Rhode Island and Syracuse, and will make his college decision after the season.

"I don't want that to be a distraction for me or my teammates. I want to be able to focus totally on the season ahead," Kapono said.

It will be a different role for Kapono and the Pioneers this season. Artesia, with four returning starters from a team that finished 32-2 and came within one point of playing for the Division I state title, enters the season ranked No. 1 in the area and the state for the first time since 1993.

"The only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself," Kapono said. "We should have had a state championship last year, and I'll be disappointed if we don't win it this year. I feel like everything's going to be on me, and as one of the leaders on this team, I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure we achieve our goals."

The Swish Award
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