Tuesday, November 2, 1999
will fulfill his
The Lithuanian dreams of
playing big-time hoops
with the Rainbows
Married...with jump shotsBy Pat Bigold
Nerijus Puida is a long, long way from the cold climes of Lithuania, living in a place his parents once distrusted because they couldn't find it on the map.
But with his Lithuanian bride, Dainora, by his side, Puida now feels at home in Hawaii. He has come here to realize a childhood dream.
"It was my dream all my life to play Division I basketball," said the 24-year-old wing man, who was raised in a town of 4,000 called Kudirkos Naumiestis, two miles from the Russian border.
On Sunday at the Stan Sheriff center, he will make his debut with the Rainbows, possibly as a starter, when they take on the Northwest All-Stars.
"It's unbelievable," he said with a genuine excitement in his voice. "It's still amazing that I will play in gym that has 10,000 people. Nice gym, good competition. That makes my parents proud."
Puida said his hands were shaking and his heart was thumping when he was introduced at Midnight Ohana.
Puida and Dainora, a Wahine post player, were asked to engage in a 3-point shooting contest at opposite ends of the court during Midnight Ohana. He won but said, "I thought my first shot was going to be air ball."
The 6-foot-5 junior from Weatherford College (Texas), who last season won player of the year honors in the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference and Region 5, is one of the more versatile and unselfish additions to head coach Riley Wallace's new-look Rainbows.
"He brings a lot to the team," said senior point guard Johnny White. "He can play the 1, 2 and 3. He can handle the ball. He can hit open shots. He's smart and has a good feel for the game."
Wallace, who might make Puida a starter in Sunday's opener against the Northwest All-Stars, said team chemistry is enhanced by his presence.
"He's very unselfish so that really makes the other guys happy with him," said Wallace. "He gets the ball down into the post guys when he's supposed to. He'll shoot but that's secondary to him. He's happier running the club from his spot."
Wallace said Puida's role will be similar to former Rainbow Micah Kroeger.
"He's in the middle of it because we put him at the '3' spot and that's where we had Kroeger," said Wallace. "He has to orchestrate a lot of things. He has to be one of our better passers."
Wallace said he has no worries about Puida distributing the ball because, "Everything he does has team written all over it."
Weatherford coach Mark Osina agreed in a phone interview last night.
Osina, the man Puida credits for helping him assimilate to the U.S. two years ago, said, "Nerijus is so team-oriented, he will look for the pass right off the bat."
But can he shoot? Yes he can. He averaged 18.8 points for Weatherford, and has shown he can hit the trey when the need arises.
"But whether you pass, rebound or score, it's good because it makes team win," said Puida. "If you make good pass, it's two points."
Osina said he sometimes entrusted the point guard role to Puida, though small forward was his regular job in junior college.
"He'll do whatever he has to do to win games," said Osina. "He's always thinking ahead, looking ahead. From the wing position, he can pretty much run the team like a point guard. He's a poor man's Larry Bird."
Puida won't even allow such compliments to creep into his head.
"I haven't developed my game yet," he said solemnly. "I have to work on my defense."
That's humility speaking. Defense is clearly one of Puida's assets.
In two scrimmages since Midnight Ohana, he has made 11 steals.
"Defensively, he's a big play guy," said Wallace. "He knows how to anticipate, get steals and get the running game going, and he knows how to finish on the break pretty good."
Puida said he likes his teammates, who have been patient with his limited English vocabulary. And he believes this is a team that can eventually make it to the NCAA tournament - another of his dreams.
"If I didn't think we had the talent, I wouldn't have come," he said.
Ka Leo O Hawaii