Ron Agostini

Pirates doing it for Mo

The Modesto Junior College schedule says the Pirates will be at home Tuesday night against Sacramento City.

On the surface, it sounds routine -- a Big 8 Conference game in January, a basketball team stepping into the prime time of its season.

But for fans who follow such affairs, nothing is routine for this team and this season. The Pirates, their hearts heavy and their will challenged, have been handed a task more difficult than a close game with 30 seconds to go.

One of their teammates, Mauricio "Mo" Alaniz, lies in a coma in a Sacramento hospital. Forty-six days ago, he was a popular and improving point guard fighting for minutes. Today, he fights for consciousness.

From now on, whenever a coach prods his team about grinding through "adversity," he should first check in with the 2007-08 MJC Pirates and, especially, the stricken young man.

He battles "adversity." The real thing.

"Sometimes, you think, 'I don't want to get up today, but then you think about Mo. I have the opportunity to go to school. He doesn't have that opportunity. Mo would love to be out there," sophomore guard Eleazar Jones said. "So you say, 'Don't be selfish. Get up and do what you need to do.' "

Life is known to defy conventional rhythms. Not everyone lives long or happily or in good health. Tragedies occur to both old and young. It is sad, unfair and, yes, a part of the human condition. Jones lost both his father when he was 15 (cancer) and his grandfather the same week as Alaniz's auto accident. No need to inform him about grieving.

Still, imagine the shock and sorrow that consumed the team after one of its own -- following a morning class at MJC -- was gravely injured only a few days shy of his 20th birthday. The Pirates visited Alaniz en masse a few days later, their eyes widened as they studied his motionless body. Tears flowed.

"I didn't understand why it happened to him," said sophomore forward Brian Bergerson, a longtime friend who attends the same church as Alaniz. "He shared the word of God and was a man of faith. Some people go to church once and then they act completely different. Mo always was talking to us about God."

Brothers Juan and Miguel Alaniz, Mo's uncles, both starred on valley basketball teams. Juan, a minister, coached Bergerson's older brother. To them, hoops and faith are a group entry.

MJC coach Paul Brogan often hands out basketballs to his players for the off-season. When they're returned, they're usually still in good shape. Not Mo's.

"His composite ball came back smooth, almost completely worn," Brogan said. "You could say that Mo used his ball pretty good. He loved basketball."

Alaniz's last game, the Pirates' win at Contra Costa on Nov. 20, proved to be his best. His trademark good passes whistled to open teammates for important baskets.

"I remember on the bus that night, I told him how proud I was for how he was playing," Brogan said.

Brogan and the Pirates tread carefully as they nurse their feelings about Alaniz. Exploiting their teammate as a motivational prop would not honor him, and they know it. A better path is to keep alive his virtues and carry them forward. If inspiration on the court is a result, all the better.

Regardless how it's approached, the MJC season now is about Alaniz and his vacant locker stall, and how the Pirates respond. It is a difficult burden, yet profound.

Simply, Alaniz surrounds this team during all games and at all times. Since he fell, the Pirates (11-7, 0-2) are 7-4 despite two disappointing losses to open the Big 8. After Tuesday night's loss to Sierra, an angry Brogan reminded them how lucky they were to be healthy young men playing the game they love.

Message received, and for all the right reasons.

"Mo made me a better player each day. I don't remember a time when Mo didn't play hard," said Chris Teevan, the point guard Alaniz pushed for the starting job. "I think we got our passion for basketball because of him because of what he represented. It reiterated in our minds how precious life is."

No team deserves your attention or your support more than the MJC Pirates. Their plight is provocative, unforgettable and, of course, miles removed from the routine.

They play for their hero lying in a hospital bed far away.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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