Natural disasters can alter one’s outlook on life in a positive way, and give an individual a greater sense of purpose or focus in everything he/she does.
Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the surrounding areas in August 2005, was a life-changing ordeal for thousands of people, including Iwate Big Bulls big man Shawn Malloy.
Malloy was a University of New Orleans basketball player when the hurricane caused incomprehensible damage to the city. Looking back on his life, the 28-year-old said Hurricane Katrina helped prepare him for his journey to Japan and how to properly interact with residents of Iwate Prefecture, who are rebuilding their lives after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.
“My experience with Hurricane Katrina and seeing the debris here has taught me how not to take anything for granted because it can all be taken away from you in a split-second,” Malloy told Hoop Scoop in a recent interview. “I can’t complain or dwell on the things I don’t have, but instead appreciate what I’m blessed with now. It’s a lesson that my wife (Nichole) and I try to plant in our kids (4-year-old son Elijah and 10-year-old daughter Marche).”
Wearing jersey No. 22 for the Big Bulls (15-33), who are in ninth place in the 10-team Eastern Conference entering the bj-league regular season’s penultimate weekend, Malloy has been a productive rebounder 10.3 per game (sixth-best output in the league). On offense, he’s been a steady performer for the expansion team, making 47 starts and averaging 11.3 points.
Sure, wins and losses matter. But in the grand scheme of things in Tohoku, having a team be a part of people’s lives, and part of the rebuilding process after 3/11, is a huge first step.
“Each time I put on a Big Bulls uniform my whole mind-set changes because I’m no longer representing myself but also the people of Iwate,” Malloy said. “I don’t know any other way but to play hard and give a full effort each time I step in between those lines.
“I love this game and this game has blessed me tremendously, so the only way I can repay the game of basketball is to give it my all and not take this for granted…”
Iwate features solid Japanese players in two-time All-Star Makoto Sawaguchi and forward Hayato Kantake and guard Yoshiaki Yamamoto, among others. Versatile forward Gordon Klaiber and high-energy Jamal Boykin have been solid pickups in recent weeks, and Shinji Tomiyama has grown into his role as head coach after his former boss, Vlasios Vlaikidis’ resignation in January.
The 209-cm Malloy has brought stability and leadership to the youthful organization and much of that comes from real life experience. Furthermore, he has a clear understanding of what the Big Bulls mean to the city of Morioka — and all of Iwate Prefecture — and isn’t shy about saying so.
“It’s an honor to be a part of a first-year team, especially after March 11 because we are a part of history,” Malloy said. “People will talk about the day the Iwate Big Bulls entered the scene and the players that we had this year that helped jump-start and drive (the team) in a positive direction for years to come. I know I’ll never forget it.”
Asked to describe the typical interaction with Big Bulls fans, he summed it up this way:
“The smiling faces after every game, win or lose, the Big Bulls fans were right there cheering (us) on. I love the people here and the support they give. They have truly made it easy for us being a first-year team.”
Some pro athletes are content to lead sheltered lives, collect their paychecks and stay inside their apartments playing video games or watching movies day after day, ignoring the locals as often as possible.
Malloy, on the other hand, welcomes interaction with those around him. The language barrier doesn’t appear to be stumbling block, either.
“My overall experience here in Japan has been great,” said Malloy, who hails from Raeford, North Carolina (pop: 3,4,00), and has suited up for pro teams in the International Basketball League (Vancouver and Portland), as well as clubs in Mexico, Lebanon, Argentina and Syria, Uruguay and Bahrain, among other nations. “I really like it here and I can’t speak enough about people here. Everyone I’ve met has been very polite, and growing up in the South, those are the kind of people you see daily, so it’s like being right at home.
“Experiencing the Japanese culture is one of the things I’ve enjoyed most since being here and also being able to connect with a few good people.”
It’s understandable that many people would be reluctant to move halfway around the world and join a new team in a region that has suffered from widespread destruction and a death toll of nearly 20,000. To an outsider, it may appear riksy to relocate to Tohoku, where the economic conditions are far from ideal.
In other words, taking a job for an Iwate basketball team would not the No.1 choice for many players, especially if they had offers from other teams.
As surprising as it may seem, Malloy views his current job as a blessing in disguise.
“I didn’t have second thoughts at all about coming here,” he said. “If anything, I thought that with my past experience of being in Hurricane Katrina that I might be able to be an encouragement to those that have lost so much. I know how it feels to lose everything, including your life memories.”
Here is Malloy’s unfiltered message to the people of Tohoku: “I know it was devastating to have lost so much, but to be able to share with them that you’re still breathing was a blessing and some material things can be replaced and that you’re able to move on with your lives.”
College helps prepare young adults for what lies ahead: jobs, families, society at large. Malloy’s student-athlete experience at the University of New Orleans (2004-06 after two years at a junior college) was ordinary in its most basic description.
Hurricane Katrina changed all that. He described it as “the worst natural disaster that the U.S. has seen.” And in those extraordinarily difficult, stressful times “sports was one of the main things that gave the city hope.”
He observed how the mass exodus of residents, including New Orleans’ beloved sports teams, changed the city. The NBA’s New Orleans Hornets went to Oklahoma City; Malloy and the University of New Orleans basketball team relocated to Tyler, Texas; and the New Orleans Saints set up temporary team headquarters in San Antonio, and played 2005 NFL home games in the Texas city, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and one at Giants Stadium while the heavily damaged Super Dome was declared unusable after the hurricane.
“What we all needed was that excitement to take us away from the tragedy that surrounded us,” Malloy said, reflecting on those uncertain times, when he was a college senior.
“I remember when all three teams started returning to New Orleans and the support we got from everyone in the city, even during the time of devastation. The Hornets (with All-Star point guard Chris Paul leading the way) started to become an elite team in the NBA and the Saints won a Super Bowl a couple years later, which made the city rejoice.”
“So many people lost everything,” he added.
But university and pro sports provided an outlet for thousands as they sought to bring some semblance of normalcy back into their lives.
“(Sports) gave people a reason to smile again in the midst of a hurricane that demolished our city,” Malloy said. “Going to sporting events and being able to cheer on your team as they gave their effort was a home away from home.”
Now, 48 games into Iwate’s inaugural season, Malloy can speak with an authoritative voice about similarities he sees in New Orleans’ revived post-Hurricane Katrina sports culture and the way the Iwate Big Bulls and Sendai 89ers have had a positive impact on Tohoku’s recovery, which will be a long, slow process for decades.
“Having a team here in Iwate and Sendai helps relieve some of the stress that so many people carry because of what happened on March 11, 2011,” Malloy said. “It’s a great feeling to be able to go to the gym and see many people come out and support us when facing the problems they have at home. So it’s up to us to free them from their troubles, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.”
In Tohoku and beyond, stories about the ongoing Fukushima nuclear plant/environmental crisis and the twin natural disasters will continue to dominate the headlines for a long time. Throughout the region, there’s plenty of bad news, troubling news and painful news wherever one looks.
Therefore, sports teams do have a unique duty to bring joy to people’s lives.
“I love the fact that the effort we put forth to entertain and win games has an influence on someone’s life during a difficult time of rebuilding,” Malloy concluded.