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Hoops still close to Granderson’s heart

TIGERS STAR ALMOST PLAYED 2 SPORTS AT UIC

February 8, 2008

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UIC graduate and current Detroit Tigers outfielder Curtis Granderson acknowledges the crowd at the Pavilion on Jan. 19.

One day after being inducted into the UIC Athletics Hall of Fame, Curtis Granderson was having a ball, blending in with the crowd at a Flames’ basketball game.

Just weeks away from becoming a multi-millionaire, Granderson had not forgotten his roots. The Detroit Tigers’ rising star was making an appearance at the UIC-Detroit basketball game at the Pavilion on Saturday, Jan. 19.

During halftime, the down-to-earth Granderson was playing with a young boy dribbling a basketball, and perhaps, remembering what could have been.

The former Flames’ baseball star had hoped to become a rare two-sport athlete at UIC. The deal between baseball coach Mike Dee and men’s basketball coach Jimmy Collins was all worked out.

“That was the main reason why I ended up coming here,” Granderson said. Coach [Mike] Dee had an agreement with Jimmy Collins to give me a shot to walk on to the team.”

At first, Granderson wanted to play hoops as a freshman in 1999-2000, but instead he decided to focus completely on class before playing baseball that spring.

After being named to the Midwestern Collegiate Conference All-Newcomer Team, the time for Granderson to try basketball had arrived.

“Jimmy Collins got me into a summer league,” Granderson said. “I played pretty well and was ready to go for my sophomore year, but I broke my thumb before the season.”

Granderson would have played with Aaron Carr, Jordan Kardos, Joe Scott, Jonathan Schneiderman and Thor Solverson that season and then would have been joined by Cedrick Banks, Martell Bailey and Armond Williams.

“That was a good team,” Granderson said. “They made it to the Dance in 2002.”

Granderson was three-sport athlete (baseball, basketball, cross country) at Thornton Fractional South High School in South suburban Lansing. He was an all-conference caliber basketball player in the SICA and qualified for the state three-point shooting contest at the IHSA Class AA championship as a senior (he was listed as C.J. Granderson on the IHSA Web site).

“I like to think I was better than I actually was,” Granderson said. “I really love the game and I miss playing it.”

The thumb injury sidetracked Granderson’s personal hoop dreams, but his baseball stock was about to rise exponentially.

In his junior season in 2002, Granderson was named Horizon League Player of the Year after batting a UIC-record .483, which was second in the nation behind Southern University star and current Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks. He also set Flames’ single-season marks in hits (100) and runs (78).

Photo: uicflames.com

Curtis Granderson hit .483 for the Flames in 2002 and batted .350 in his three-year UIC career.

Granderson hit .350 in his three-year UIC career, tied for 8th place all-time with Jim Ryan (1981-85), who is a long-standing courtside season-ticket holder at the basketball games. His 178 career runs is first on the Flames’ career list. His 51 doubles and 25 home runs are second.

Granderson was selected in the third round by the Tigers in the Major League Baseball draft after being named a Second Team All-American by Baseball America.

He made a meteoric rise through the Tigers’ farm system and made it to the big-leagues briefly in 2004. He hit a walk-off homer against the White Sox in September of 2005, just days before his hometown team clinched the AL Central. In 2006, Granderson beat out Nook Logan for the starting job in center and has been sensational ever since.

In 2007, Granderson hit .302 with 23 homers, 38 doubles, 23 triples and 74 RBIs to go with 26 stolen bases. He was sixth in the American League in slugging percentage at .552.

On Sept. 9, Granderson stole his 20th base of the season to join Willie Mays and Frank Schulte as the only players in major-league history to have 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in season. Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins joined the group a few weeks later. Former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg was one triple and one homer short in 1984 of being in the elite group.

Granderson’s 23 triples led all of MLB last season and credits hustling out of the batter’s box.

“The big thing is you’ve got to be looking out of the box, you can’t be looking and admiring your hit,” he said. “Your job, as soon as you hit it, is to hustle out of the box. Once I do that, it’s a race between me and the outfielder to see if I can get to third base.”

Granderson had the opportunity to play in the 2006 World Series as his Tigers defeated the Yankees and A’s. Though Detroit fell to St. Louis in five games, Granderson enjoyed his chance to partake in one of sport’s biggest events.

“It was an amazing,” Granderson said. “It was what you grow up watching as a kid. Even though we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, it was definitely a great experience.”

The Tigers loaded up during the off-season and are the favorites to win the AL Central division. Detroit traded for Marlins All-Stars Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis and shortstop Edgar Renteria. They also re-signed pitchers Kenny Rogers, Todd Jones and Nate Robertson after exercising their option on catcher Ivan Rodriguez’s contract.

Granderson, himself, is in Detroit’s long-term plans after the team signed him to a $30.25 million, five-year contract earlier this week. The deal includes a club option for 2013 that could make the deal worth up to $43.25 million.

“The Tigers held all the chips and didn’t have to do anything,” Granderson told the Associated Press this week. “I’m very happy with the way everything happened.”

After his solid 2006 season and his breakout 2007 campaign, Granderson’s face could be seen just about everywhere. He wrote a blog for ESPN.com last season. He appeared as a guest studio analyst with TBS, ESPN and ESPNews during baseball’s postseason. He appeared on WWE.com, pledging his love for professional wrestling. He also has participated in a baseball ambassadors program in Europe.

“The opportunities are coming because of the baseball side, but the main thing is to continue to play and continue to try and win,” Granderson said. “Our team is trying to improve itself with the off-season acquisitions. We’re looking forward to this season.”

In his free time, Granderson loves to watch pro wrestling, surf the Internet and do charity work. He accomplished another one of his dreams by sitting front row at WWE’s WrestleMania 23 at Ford Field in Detroit last March, along with fellow Tigers Joel Zumaya and Sean Casey (now with Boston).

“That was one of the best events I’ve been to,” Granderson said. “I’ve also had a chance to see some TNA [Total Nonstop Action wrestling] stuff too.”

Granderson always finds time to give back to his school and community. He donated $25,000 to UIC athletics for the Curtis Granderson Video Lounge for the Flames’ baseball team. He was selected as an honorary torch bearer for the ceremonial Lighting of the Flame before UIC’s basketball game against Butler on Jan. 10, 2007.

If there’s one minor flaw with the great former Flame, it is the fact that he is a huge Kansas Jayhawks basketball fan.

“I grew up in the Jacque Vaughn, Scot Polland, Raef LaFrentz, Paul Pierce-era,” Granderson said. “I’m still a huge fan of them right now.”

Despite his love for the Jayhawks, Granderson will always be a Flame at heart.

Granderson links: The Grandy Report; Granderson’s MLB page.

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UIC’s Josh Mayo is making almost 56 percent of his three-point shots this season. Last year, he beat Loyola with a last-second shot.

UP NEXT: The Flames travel to the North side to take on Horizon League rival Loyola on Saturday night at the Gentile Center.

UIC (12-10, 6-5) currently stands in sixth place in the Horizon League, but is just 1˝ games behind second-place Wright State. The Flames have won two straight games after defeating Cleveland State and Youngstown State last week.

Flames guard Josh Mayo still ranks as the top three-point shooter in the nation, making nearly 56 percent of his tries. He also leads UIC at 18.4 points per game. Center Scott VanderMeer has averaged 9.7 rebounds per game in UIC’s last 10 contests.

Loyola (9-13, 5-7) has won its last three games. Senior swingman Tracy Robinson has been hot of late, tallying a career-best 23 points against Cleveland State last Saturday. He also hit the winning three-point shot at the buzzer against Youngstown State last Thursday. Junior guard J.R. Blount leads the Ramblers at 15.7 points per contest.

UIC has three of the last four games in the season, including a 78-68 double-overtime win at the Pavilion on Jan. 12. The Flames lead the all-time series 25-13. In the last meeting at the Gentile Center, Mayo hit a short baseline jumper in the final seconds as the Flames pulled off the 52-51 upset last February.

The game tips off at 7 p.m. on Saturday from the Gentile Center. Coverage is available with video streaming available on the Horizon League Network. TV coverage will be available on Lakeshore Public TV with Joe Arredondo and Todd Medland on the call. Audio is available with Adam Levinson and Kenny McReynolds on Flames’ radio on WIND-AM 560. Loyola’s radio duo of John Fitzgerald and Dave Klusendorf will handle the call on WYLL-AM 1160.

In other recent news:
Flames get paired with Northern Iowa for BracketBuster (2/5/08)
Another efficient game for Mayo (vs. YSU) (2/3/08)
Inside-out combo lifts Flames (vs. CSU) (2/1/08)
Freshman boosts Bulldogs past Flames (at Butler) (1/27/08)
UIC lets road win slip away at Valpo (Stewart retruns) (1/25/08)
Mayo, Flames three-mendous (Valpo preview) (1/24/08)
Balance helps Flames bounce back (vs. Detroit) (1/20/08)
Perfect home record suffers Brown-out (vs. Wright State) (1/18/08)
Finding success halfway around the world (A. Williams, Bowen, Dailey) (1/16/08)
White, Mayo help Flames secure double-OT win (vs. Loyola) (1/13/08)