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Ode to Eduardo Najera

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Flying like an eagle!
Flying like an eagle!
For those of you who don't know, Eduardo Najera announced yesterday that he would be retiring from the NBA in order to become head coach of the Texas Legends, the D-League Affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks.

While the name Eduardo Najera might mean nothing to the average Thunder fan, long-time Oklahomans will remember him for the days he played under Kelvin Sampson at Oklahoma. While they weren't especially notable, as the best result they achieved during that era was a trip to the Sweet 16, he was a legitimate leader of the team for four years, and they regularly challenged nationally renowned squads.

But Najera was most notable for being the first Oklahoma player with a successful NBA career since the Billy Tubbs era, and he was the last NBA player to come out of Oklahoma until the rise of someone called Blake Griffin. He was also the first Mexican to be drafted into the NBA, and starred for the Mexican national basketball team on multiple occasions.

Looking at the facts above might not make it look like Eduardo Najera was somebody worth heralding. But even before I was introduced to the NBA, some of my first basketball memories are watching Eduardo Najera play down in Lloyd Noble. I couldn't tell you how he played, how he fit into Oklahoma's system, or what his strengths and weaknesses were. I can't tell you what his best moment was, or how he lost his last NCAA tournament game against Purdue. In fact, the only clear memory of Eduardo Najera I have is watching him hit a reverse slam when OU was getting destroyed by Cincinnati. During that game, I distinctly remember throwing my jersey down in anger. But after that dunk, I put it back on.

But none of that is really important. At least, not to a kid of my age at the time. What I'll remember the most was the roar of the crowd, getting to spend time with my Dad, eating personal pan pizza, and hoping OU would crush all opposing teams. And at the center of it all was OU's best player, Eduardo Najera. I could go back and analyze it, but what would be the point? The dream can never be squandered, the memories never crushed. To my child self, Eduardo Najera was a god of basketball, someone to be revered.

Read on....

Anyway, Eduardo Najera eventually went on to the NBA, and had a successful career. He was known as a hustle guy, rebounding extremely well for his size and providing the intangibles that teams needed. Najera also maintained a high basketball IQ, making smart plays in clutch situations. His scoring never quite got up to the level that he needed it to be at, but he definitely had his nights on the floor. As a result, he would pass hands between teams occasionally, as he was never really valuable enough to keep if somebody else thought they could use him.

During his career, he spent time with Don Nelson's run 'n gun Mavericks during his early years, playing a part in deep playoff runs, including a trip to the 2003 Western Conference Finals. After a brief run with the Warriors, he was traded to the Carmelo Anthony-era Nuggets, where he repeatedly flirted with the starting power forward spot, and was, again, part of some playoff runs. But his luck began to change when he went to the lowly Nets in 2008. With his body starting to go, his value as a player began to decline, and he spent years either buried on the bench or playing for bad teams. Last year, he was a part of the worst team of all time (the Charlotte Bobcats), and was hit by a brutal elbow injury. What a way to go out.

But, as with all things in life, nothing is absolute. Eduardo Najera was a joy of a player to watch in the NBA. There was never any question about his motivation to play the game, and he always did his utmost to help his team win. But, most importantly, I'll always remember the legend that Najera was to me as a kid. And the huge part he played in making me fall in love with this fantastic sport.

Anyway, I'll leave you guys on a positive note. Here's one of Najera's last great moments, as he hit a late game three pointer on a mismatch against Kevin Garnett to send the Bobcats to victory over the Boston Celtics.

Best of luck to you in your new career, Eddie.