Blue and Gold Illustrated

August 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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52 AUGUST 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED IRISH IN THE PROS BY TODD D. BURLAGE M u c h l i k e t h e NBA's dunk con- test each winter, the annual MLB Home Run Derby — hosted this year at Coors Field in Denver on July 12 — is typically viewed as a novelty event with no impact beyond endorsements and entertainment. The participation in this year 's home run derby of Baltimore Orioles slugger Trey Mancini changed that profile after the for- mer Irish first baseman lifted 59 total home runs and finished as runner-up to the defending champ, Mets first baseman Pete Alonso. As the No. 6 seed in the eight-man event, Mancini was a marginal invi- tee and a long shot to make the finals, a good story indeed. But beyond the on-field competi- tion and all his missiles leaving Co- ors Field, Mancini's battle with can- cer through almost all of 2020 and his inspirational return to the big leagues this season is what grabbed most of the headlines on this Derby day. The 2021 Derby fell exactly on the 16-month anniversary of when Man- cini had surgery to remove a tumor on Feb. 12, 2020, after he was diag- nosed with stage three colon cancer. Tragically, Mancini's diagnosis and subsequent procedure happened less than a month after his Notre Dame teammate Ricky Palmer was diag- nosed with brain cancer. Palmer died in October 2020 at age 29. And while living in Baltimore, Mancini also befriended and inspired Orioles' super fan Mo Gaba, a local 14-year-old boy who passed away in July 2020 after five cancer bouts. Mancini, 29, remains thankful for winning his fight but forever sad- dened that his two friends did not. Following his run- ner-up finish in the Derby, Mancini of- fered: "To do it today for Ricky, and for Mo, our fan in Baltimore, and everybody that's fighting a battle right now … you can get through it and come out on the other side and live your life." M a n c i n i ' s t r a g i c but inspirational re- covery story began during Orioles' train- ing camp in Febru- ary, 2020, when slight sluggishness led to a routine blood test, then a cancer diagnosis. His surgery was followed by an aggressive every-other-week, six- month chemotherapy regimen that kept Mancini off the field in 2020, but couldn't keep him off it in 2021. "I have to realize that being here [in the Home Run Derby] in itself is an accomplishment," Mancini told The Baltimore Sun, "and I know that's what Ricky [Palmer] would tell me." Mancini made his big-league re- turn this year during the Orioles' first exhibition game in late February where he received a standing ovation before his first at-bat, and another after he promptly singled. After missing the 2020 season while battling colon cancer and recovering from surgery, Mancini made an inspiring return to baseball in 2021. He was on pace to finish with 28 home runs and 99 RBI for the Baltimore Orioles this season. PHOTO COURTESY BALTIMORE ORIOLES Trey Mancini Delivers More Than Home Runs IRISH LEGEND EARNS WNBA ALL-STAR MVP HONORS With three Notre Dame players selected to the 2021 WNBA All-Star Game July 14 in Las Vegas, the Irish women's basketball program was well repre- sented, and first-time all-star Arike Ogunbowale was ready for the big stage. Representing the Dallas Wings, Ogunbowale — Notre Dame's all-time leading scorer and the 2018 Irish national championship hero — scored 26 points to earn game MVP honors and help her WNBA All-Stars defeat Team USA 93-85. Former Irish guards Skylar Diggins-Smith (Phoenix Mercury), a five-time all-star, scored five points, and three-time all-star Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm) had four points representing Team USA. A unique format change and some ironic motiva- tion may have helped propel Ogunbowale's MVP performance and the upset win. With the 2021 Tokyo Olympics set to begin, the WNBA switched from its traditional East versus West set-up to the WNBA All-Stars taking on the USA Olympic National Team. Less than a month before the U.S. squad needed to trim its roster down to its final 12 players, Ogun- bowale was cut from the same national team she helped beat. — Todd D. Burlage NBA FINALS FEATURE IRISH FLAVOR At press time, two former Irish greats from differ- ent eras were locked in an NBA Finals battle. In his second season as head coach of the Phoenix Suns, standout Notre Dame forward (1989-94) and nine-year NBA veteran Monty Williams led his team to a Western Conference championship and himself to NBA Coach of the Year honors. In his sixth NBA season as a versatile backup, for- mer Irish guard Pat Connaughton (2011-15) helped lead the Milwaukee Bucks to an Eastern Conference title and its place in the NBA Finals. Phoenix took a quick 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, but Connaughton's play became critical dur- ing three straight wins that allowed the Bucks to take a 3-2 series lead heading into game six July 20. Through the first five games of the series, Con- naughton was averaging 11.0 points and 5.4 re- bounds off the bench, and led all players in the Finals with 15 made three-pointers. If Connaughton and the Bucks close out the se- ries and claim the NBA title, he'd became one of only six Irish players to ever win a NBA or an ABA championship. The first five are: Billy Hassett, 1950 Minneapo- lis Lakers (NBA); Jay Miller, 1970 Indiana Pacers (ABA); Bob Arnzen, 1973 Indiana Pacers (ABA); Bill Laimbeer, 1989, 1990 Detroit Pistons (NBA); John Paxson, 1991, 1992, 1993 Chicago Bulls (NBA). Williams, meanwhile, was looking to become the first on a short list of former Notre Dame players to win an NBA title as a head coach. — Todd D. Burlage

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