Before every game, Cal State Fullerton infielder Sahid Valenzuela tells himself, “ponte perro,” the same words his father, Hector, whispered to him before his games growing up.
Be tough, be a grinder. Let’s go, get after it. Valenzuela, a 5-foot-9 rookie for the playoff-bound Titans, has been named to the initial watch list for the Brooks Wallace Award, awarded to the country’s best shortstop.

And this week he was named Big West Conference Freshman Field Player of the Year for 2017. He is the second Titan to earn the honor since Michael Lorenzen in 2011. Maybe it’s because he’s batting .344, ranking fourth in the Big West Conference. Maybe it’s because he’s racked up a team-leading 21 multi-hit games. Maybe it’s because he’s collected knocks in 33 of his last 39 games — 18 of those being multi-hit outings. Or maybe it’s because he scratched and clawed for most of his life just to get to this point.

“He’s got the heart of a lion, that kid,” said Alejandro Rivera, his uncle. “He’s the most humble person in the world, but he’s also going to let you know, ‘You gotta respect me.’” “You play hard,” Rivera said, “but he’s going to play harder.”



There is a hoop, tall and sturdy. A net, white-grey, with two holes stretched out. Above that, a backboard, grey-black, with trails of original white poking through. Hovering above a driveway, with a slight dip on one side, an advantage or disadvantage depending on who’s on offense and who’s on defense.

“We’ve had some good battles on this court,” said Ken Kikkawa, 52, wearing navy Air Jordans. He grew up here, in Pasadena, California, playing in local Japanese-American leagues. He now plays in a Master’s division for players over 40 years old.

“I can still outshoot him,” Ken said, pointing to his 18-year-old son Kendall, who plays in the leagues and aspires to play college ball.

“I don’t know about that,” said Kendall, who, in addition to his basketball prowess, is also a football player and once scored eight touchdowns in a game for Flintridge Prep.

The one who can out-shoot them both walks over: Robert Kikkawa, 85, a founding member of the Pasadena Bruins organization in 1972. The hoop community calls him Lefty: “I used to shoot marbles left-handed,” he said, clutching a ball next to his son and grandson.

Hoops has bound the Kikkawas and countless other SoCal Japanese-American families together. Unwelcome in mainstream leagues, Japanese Americans sustained their own through internment during World War II and discrimination faced in its aftermath.


Madison Holleran. All Lanesha Reagan could think about was Madison Holleran, the University of Pennsylvania track athlete.

Reagan, Oregon State volleyball’s 5-foot-10 starting outside hitter, known for her power and pogo-stick bounce, lay in her bed in her freshman dorm and combed through Holleran’s story. Madison seemed to be gifted, kind, competitive. A budding track star, a daughter, a friend. Even a banana-and-peanut-butter aficionado. Few knew she struggled with depression and the pressures of social media.

On Jan. 17, 2014, Holleran leaped off the ninth level of a parking garage in Philadelphia. She died at 19.

Reagan shivered. Images of her own life swirled around her head: years of masking her pain, years of blocking out her shame, years of wishing she inhabited a body other than her own.

“That honestly could have been me,” Reagan said. “If things would have been different … I have no doubt in my mind that that could have been me.”


John Gavin replayed bits of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas game in his head, combing through his pitches that night. The junior southpaw for No. 5 Cal State Fullerton (17-10, 2-1) rated himself on a scale of 1 to 10, as he does after every game, with the scrutiny of a pathologist conducting an autopsy. Except it was just Gavin, alone with his thoughts, in the lab that is his mind. 8? No way (Gavin doesn’t consider 8s, let alone 9s or 10s).
7.5? Nope (He remembered some pitches he left up. He hurried his pitches. He didn’t have as much command of his slider as he had hoped). 7? Hmm. 7.25? Alright, he thought, shrugging his shoulders. I’ll go with that.

Gavin, who pitched a then career-high 7.1 innings of scoreless baseball to help the Titans to a 5-0 win on Feb. 26, measures himself with a different yardstick from his peers. Even as he leads the Big West Conference in earned run average (1.63) in 38.2 innings of work (and, prior to giving up two runs in Sunday’s win over UC Riverside, had tossed 17 consecutive shutout innings), he expects more of himself. Gavin (3-0) doesn’t want to pitch alright. To pitch so-so. To even pitch well. He wants to be great. Nothing less. “John’s the hardest person on John,” said Jim Gavin, his father.


Mo’ne Davis calls for the ball. She drains a three, holding her follow-through for a second longer as she and a teammate battle two others for most threes made during a drill. “BOOM!” the boys on the sideline shout. Davis, wearing white and chrome Nike Kobe A.D.s, scurries around the perimeter, releasing shot after shot. “They cheatin’!” Davis hollers, waving her arms and hip-checking one of her opponents. She pops three more in a row. “Oh yeaaaaahhhh,” she says, bouncing up and down, sensing victory.

Davis has been knocking down shots at Philadelphia’s Marian Anderson Recreation Center with these same boys—her teammates on the Anderson Monarchs, a youth recreational team—for the past eight years. The center’s gym, with its four rows of brown bleachers, its cream-colored wall tile and its green and white scoreboard, has long been home to the 15-year-old—since before she became an American sensation in 2014 as the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series; before she starred in Spike Lee’s Chevrolet commercial; before she couldn’t walk anywhere without fans approaching her for pictures.


Canada was sick of the missed layups. She and her Windward School prep teammates gasped for air, unable to make seven in a minute on both sides in the full-court drill. Windward coach Vanessa Nygaard, a former Stanford and WNBA player, signaled to keep sprinting.

Canada, motioning for her teammates to clear out and rebound for her, zoomed off. “Jordin was like, ‘I’m going. I’m taking every layup,'” said Nygaard, who doubted one player could accomplish the feat alone. “She dominated it.”

It wasn’t always that way. Unable to dribble as a 6-year-old, Canada was easy prey for the taller kids. “I was always afraid. I would pick the ball up and I would just hold it. I’d panic and crunch down and they would all trap me,” Canada said. “My coach would always have to call a timeout.”

Her coach told her that she’d have to play point guard and learn to take care of the ball. “She didn’t want it,” said Joyce Canada, Jordin’s mother. “She wanted to shoot.”


J.J. Redick doesn’t wait. As DeAndre Jordan swats the opening tip to the Clippers, Redick dashes across the baseline as if gold awaits on the other side. Within seconds, he bolts past his defender to knock down a pull-up jump-shot against the Cavaliers on March 13.

“He’s a freak of nature,” said Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson, Redick’s former Magic teammate. “I can’t think of one person that’s in better shape than J.J.”

Redick soon nets nine of L.A’s first 14 points, as he squeezes into the lane for a floater, drills another shot off the dribble and then pops a three in the corner.

Ten years into his NBA career, Redick has evolved into a more dynamic shooter, matching a career-best 16.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists a night. He has a blistering 47.5 percent from three and 47.9 percent from the field as the glue of the playoff-bound Clippers. That’s because with every shot he releases and every drill he completes, Redick increases expectations for himself. He must exceed his output each time he steps on the floor.