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The Kunigel Rules: ‘Basketball is all about math’ 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

November 19, 2005

One hour of hoops.

A solid 60 minutes.

Shooting. Passing.

Defense. Footwork.

“It all comes from the feet,” says basketball teacher Art Kunigel to 15 boys aged 10-13.

But first things first.

At 6 p.m., Kunigel’s first steps around the gym are behind a mop: there will be plenty of running and cutting on the Hood River Middle School floor tonight.

The boys shoot around, and assistant Jeff Flory gives one player a little one-on-one. Flory, a 2000 Hood River Valley High School graduate, is a friend of Kunigel’s son, Cody, and fondly recalls frequent nights at the Kunigel house “talking shop” – hoops.

Then Kunigel sets aside the mop and all 6-foot-5 of him strides toward center court.

“Let’s go, guys.”

Class – fun, yet intense – has begun.

“Do you remember the shot form checklist we talked about Tuesday?” Kunigel asks.

Kids each have a ball. As Kunigel starts to talk, no one idly dribbles or talks. In hoops history this must be a first.

They pay attention as the coach revisits the checklist and shows them the drill.

“Grip. Make a peace sign with your fingers. Follow through.”

The drill is to stand in place and toss the ball 6-8 feet in the air, flicking the wrist so the ball spins backwards, lands two or three feet ahead, and bounces right back to you.

“Don’t shot-put the ball or use your whole arm. It’s from the elbow up,” Kunigel counsels.

“If the ball goes right your elbow is too far out. If it goes left, your elbow is in too tight.”

Kunigel, who came within an elbow’s-width from making it into the NBA 20 years ago, puts precise instructions into clear terms for young hoopsters in this, his sixth year teaching week-long, twice-yearly basketball clinics to boys and girls.

His son, Cody, 22, and daughter, Jody, 12, grew up with the sport, as did Art’s wife, Rose. Art also coaches Jody’s youth league team.

Art tried out with the Philadelphia 76ers, and played professionally with the Scranton Apollos of the Eastern Basketball League (now the Continental Basketball Association) and played in the Air Force while stationed in Turkey and Japan. He guided a first-time high school boys’ team in Japan to an 18-1 record and district championship – all through an interpreter.

“I have a great love for this game. It is the greatest game, and I am passionate about passing along what others gave me along the way,” said Kunigel, who works at The Dalles Dam as structural crew supervisor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

His high school coach was Gene Gurilia, who played on four Boston Celtics’ NBA teams in the early 1960s.

He was reunited with Gurilia a few years later and the mentor asked Kunigel, “What are you doing to teach others about basketball?” Kunigel admitted that he wasn’t coaching.

“He told me I had benefited from others who taught me what they knew, and that I should be doing the same for others. I felt bad because I was not sharing what I knew. He helped me understand my value was in what I could do for others.”

Kunigel’s knowledge of the game is complex, but his approach is simple: learn the fundamentals, practice your game, never stop learning.

“Move-move-move!” he calls out in a demanding “circle pass” drill: two balls, eight players in a circle, and the guy in the middle passes one ball and immediately catches another, quickly catching and releasing, clockwise.

“Pass the ball as soon as you catch the pass. Don’t wait for it,” Kunigel says.

In a shooting drill, he urges patience. He demonstrates setting the feet and positioning the arms – grip, peace sign, follow-through – rather than rushing the shot.

In a one-on-one drill where the offensive player must shoot the ball by the count of three, one boy tosses up a long shot that he knows immediately is an air ball.

“Ah!” the boy grunts.

Kunigel stops the action.

“Ah? Ah doesn’t get it done. Is that `Ah’ as in `teammates, go get my shot for me’? You want the ball, then go after your own shot.”

It’s a gentle reprimand, delivered with a smile. Kunigel uses a gracious gruffness in his teaching.

A player mildly tosses the ball during a drill.

“Come back,” Kunigel chides him. “Pass the ball like you mean it.”

He shares a laugh with Kyle Colwell when the eighth-grader is guinea pig as Kunigel demonstrates “the Wilson burger.”

That’s when you don’t protect the ball and your opponent swats it right back in your face.

To another player who can’t quite grasp a spin move, Kunigel says,“We all fail. I fail every day. You come back tomorrow and try again. You lose one day, you always have tomorrow.”

Kunigel weaves philosophy and practical tips while working with young hoopsters.

In coaching offensive skills, he returns repeatedly to the “triple threat” position: crouch with hands up and feet apart, ready to catch the ball and quickly pass, shoot, or dribble.

In a defensive drill, teaching the importance of a vertical stance, Kunigel issues one of his best aphorisms: “Sixty-five percent of basketball is not scoring.”

It’s 6:45 p.m., and the boys may have some algebra or geometry to work on when they get home, but Kunigel expresses another of his studious approaches to the game.

“Basketball,” he tells them, “is all about math.”

“It’s about efficiency,” he explains in demonstrating an offensive move that gives the player three options: straight-up jump shot, head fake to lay-up, or spin move.

“You’re not stepping away (from the basket) on the spin move,” Kunigel shows as Flory defends. He shows them one step aside, setting up the reverse move to the hoop.

“That way I only need two or three steps to get to the basket. Otherwise, it’s four or five. Not as efficient.”

The drill over, the boys – and Jody, who has joined in – are ready for more, but Kunigel issues a new instruction:

“Get some water.”

It is 7 p.m. Camp goes on for another half hour. What’s left is a scrimmage. Then home, to that math homework.

*****

Around the Clock now enters the third of four six-hour shifts. The series chronicles life in Hood River County, one hour at a time, and will conclude on Dec. 24.

To recap, Around the Clock started at midnight at 9-1-1 dispatch center, moving to Relay For Life, then an all-night gas station, an elder care facility, the post office, a wholesale hat business, pear harvest near Odell, breakfast prepared by a Cascade Locks short-order cook, a family’s wait for a baby’s birth, a Parkdale music class, a train ride, Meals on Wheels, noon at Rotary Club, fish counting at the dam, sorting pears in Parkdale, a bus ride home from school, theater rehearsal at the high school, and a Columbia Gorge Press printing run.

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