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COLLEGE HOOPS: Thieleke embracing, appreciating opportunity at Portland

by: COURTESY OF STEVE GIBBONS - Korey Thieleke and the Portland Pilots celebrate a victory at Chiles Center.As Korey Thieleke made his way to the scorer’s table to check into the game, he knew what Portland Pilots coach Eric Reveno was about to say before he said it.

That’s because any time Reveno calls for Thieleke, he usually wants the 6-3 senior shooting guard from Bakersfield, Calif., to do one of two things — play lock-down defense on a particular player or do something that will light a fire under the other Pilots.

Or both.

Thieleke is the Pilots’ “energy guy” off the bench. He looks to score when he has an opportunity, but his primary role is to use his athleticism to create havoc at the defensive end of the floor and to make smart plays.

“If someone gets in foul trouble or if a player on the other team goes on a run, Coach will be like, ‘Korey, go get ‘em,’ ” Thieleke said. “Coming off the bench, you’ve got to adjust to the flow of the game quickly.

“It helps to have your head in the game even before you get ‘in’ the game.”

As the Pilots (12-9, 4-5 West Coast Conference) prepare to open the second half of league play Wednesday at San Francisco (13-8, 6-3), Thieleke is averaging 2.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 13.4 minutes a game and is second only to Bobby Sharp in minutes played among the team’s reserves.

How much time Thieleke stays on the floor each game varies, depending on match-ups, game flow, foul trouble, and coaching whimsy, although Reveno has been fairly consistent with his rotation patterns through the first 20 games.

“Everyone wants to play more,” Reveno said. “The guys who are playing 34 minutes want to play more. I totally get that, and I don’t have any problem with it as long as they accept that how they’re going to play more is to just work hard and help the team win.”

In last week’s 114-110 triple overtime victory against BYU, Thieleke checked in and out of the game 10 times. Each shift lasted an average of 55 seconds, although he had one stint in the second half when was on the floor for a little more than two minutes.

His final statistical line that night read: zero points on 0-for-3 shooting from the field with one rebound, one assist, one steal and one turnover in eight minutes. He also picked up five personal fouls, getting disqualified with 1:31 to play in the third overtime.

The numbers weren’t all that impressive, but when it comes to statistics, Thieleke is interested in only two numbers — wins and losses.

“The box score stuff … I don’t really like playing for stats,” Thieleke said. “Assists, steals, all that stuff … I could care less about those things. I just want to make plays that help my teammates get better so that we can win games.”

Thieleke had a different role last season when he appeared in 30 games, including 17 as a starter, and averaged 4.2 points and 2.5 rebounds in 19.8 minutes a game.

“Some people want to turn playing time into an issue,” Thieleke said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, you play this amount or that amount.’ Whatever you do in the time you play is all that matters. I mean, you could play four minutes and that could be the most important four minutes of the game.

“Last season, we didn’t win as many games as this season. This season, everyone understands their roles. I know that I’m not a scorer, so I accept that. I’m going to be a defender and a playmaker, and I’m going to help my teammates who can score get shots.”

There was a time when Thieleke had pro basketball aspirations, but shortly after he arrived in Portland, he quickly realized that only a small percentage of Division I athletes ever make it as pros and that the pro game probably wasn’t in his future.

At the same time, Thieleke said coming to the University of Portland has been a life-changing experience for him. Maybe even a life-saving one.

“If I hadn’t gotten a college scholarship, then I’d be somewhere in the streets right now,” Thieleke said. “Like, I don’t know if I’d even be alive.”

Thieleke attended West High in Bakersfield and grew up in a neighborhood that was wrought with drugs and gang violence. Both his parents were caught up in the drug culture, so he was raised by his paternal grandparents, April and Johnny Hobson, who recognized that basketball could be a springboard to bigger and better things for their grandson.

Pilots assistant Michael Wolf first spotted Thieleke as a sophomore during a Double Pump Basketball camp in Los Angeles, and then saw him again playing for Team Superstar, the LA-based AAU team run by LeRohn Dodson.

“Korey wasn’t a dominant high school basketball player, but he was ultra-athletic and excelled at track and field,” Wolf said.

The Pilots were looking for a shooting guard to follow in the footsteps of Jared Stohl and Nemanja Mitrovic, and in pursuing Thieleke, they also were willing to sacrifice some offensive firepower for improved toughness, athleticism, and defense.

“I think the story is about the kind of character kid that Korey was when we found him,” Wolf said. “I think a part of it for us, there’s something gratifying to have an opportunity to give somebody who’s willing to work for it the chance to change his life.

“Yeah, of course, he needed to be a good enough basketball player. I’m not just going to go into the worst neighborhood I can find and offer a kid a chance to be on the team.”

Four years later, though, what’s it like to hear a player say that the Pilots not only changed his life, but might have saved it?

“As educators, we’re drawn to opportunities to help kids who want to be helped,” Wolf said. “Considering the kid’s hunger to better his life, we thought he’d come in with a chip on his shoulder with something to prove and a willingness to work that would be good for the culture of the program.

“Korey’s grandparents really are the ones that saved his life. They recognized something special about him and instilled some discipline in him early on. They made sure he understood the importance of staying in school and how he could potentially break the cycle that some in his family had fallen into and how education is the path to a better life.”

Thieleke is on course to graduate this spring with a degree in organizational communication. He isn’t sure what type of a career he hopes to pursue, but he said he might like to do something that helps underprivileged youth.

“If you ask him, Korey has a good sense of appreciation for everything the University of Portland has been for him in terms of basketball and the opportunity it has provided,” Reveno said.

“There probably have been games where he wished he could have helped us more than he had the opportunity to, and I love that, because then he comes out the next practice and tries to prove it again. No hard feelings. He just keeps battling.

“He’s doing great in the classroom and he’s maturing in all facets of being a University of Portland student-athlete. He’s got a lot to be proud of, on and off the court.”