By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
For his first two years at Kearny High School, Joel Vivas was strictly a volleyball player.
But last year, as a junior, Vivas decided to give basketball a try.
“My friends made me want to play,” Vivas said. “I played with my friends at Gunnell Oval. I also played in gym class a little. Since I started playing basketball, my volleyball coach Mr. (Bill) Mullins told me I should try out for basketball.”
So the 6-foot-4 basketball novice Vivas gave the sport a whirl. He didn’t have instant success. In fact, Vivas spent most of the season on the junior varsity.
“I really wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go on the floor and what I was going to do,” Vivas said. “I didn’t know where to position myself.”
Bob McDonnell took over as the head coach at Kearny this fall and he saw Vivas’ potential.
“I thought he could be pretty good,” McDonnell said. “He just was a little bit too laid back. He wasn’t aggressive. He was almost timid at times.”
Vivas said that McDonnell was important to his development as a basketball player.
“He helped me a lot with my game,” Vivas said. “He told me to play defense first and then the offense will follow. He told me that all I needed was heart to play defense.”
“I knew he had only been playing for two years,” McDonnell said. “He was still feeling his way around the game. We talked at the beginning of the year and I told him that I needed him to hit the boards for us.”
For most of the season, Vivas was just an ordinary player for the Kardinals, contributing rebounds and defense, but was limited in his scoring.
That was, until the final few weeks of the season.
“With all honesty, Joel turned it on during the last 10 games,” McDonnell said. “I think he realized his ability and stepped up his game. He finally played to his level of talent and learned what he could do. He got a lot more aggressive on the offensive end of the floor.”
Vivas, a native of Ecuador who came to the United States and Kearny when he was age 7, believes that it was just a case of gaining self confidence.
“I practiced a lot,” Vivas said. “But once I gained some confidence, I felt better about myself. About half the year, I didn’t have any confidence shooting the ball. But Coach McDonnell told me that I had to be more aggressive.”
“Without a doubt, he became a lot more confident,” McDonnell said. “He got more comfortable with his teammates and realized what was expected of him.”
Vivas showed his total potential in the final four games of the season, three of which were victories for the Kardinals.
Vivas had 10 points, 15 rebounds, six steals, three assists and three blocked shots in a win over neighboring rival Harrison; had seven points, 16 rebounds, five steals, three assists and two blocks in a win over Belleville; had 11 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in a loss to Vision Academy; and had 19 points, nine rebounds, five steals, five assists and four blocked shots in the season-ending win over Roselle Park.
For his efforts, Vivas has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
McDonnell believes that Vivas’ talents as a volleyball player helps him on the hardwood.
“Without a doubt, Joel has great jumping ability and uses that ability to get rebounds and block shots,” McDonnell said. It definitely helped him. One of the things I joke with Joel about is that I told him you’re supposed to throw the basketball through the net, not try to hit it over the net. He became so much better at blocking shots. He was trying to get so much better.”
Vivas said that he was pushed to play better at the end of the season, knowing that his short basketball career was coming to a close.
“I was really motivated, because since I became a better player, I really wanted to play basketball,” Vivas said. “Once I knew I could play, I worked harder at my game. I was really determined, because I definitely didn’t want to go out on a bad note. I wanted to do better. I just had an aggressive mindset.”
Vivas now heads to volleyball practice, where he will play for the Kardinals in the spring.
“I always felt like I was a better volleyball player, but now, since I became better in basketball, I really like both,” Vivas said. “I wasn’t good at it. But Coach McDonnell made me better. I think doing well in basketball is going to help my confidence for volleyball.”
“He was never really interested in basketball, but now it’s fun for him,” McDonnell said. “You can see it. He started enjoying it.”
Now, McDonnell, a former assistant coach at Berkeley College, can see Vivas actually playing college basketball.
“Without a doubt, he can definitely play (NCAA) Division III,” McDonnell said. “He has the athletic ability to do that. I think he opened up a lot of eyes with the way he played the second half of the season. I spoke to some of our opposing coaches, who said they didn’t worry much about him the first time around, but they had to deal with him the second time. I’m happy with his overall effort.”
“I think I can do the same thing again,” Vivas said. “I don’t know what I want to do yet, but it’s good to know I can do it.”
For now, Vivas will be an outside hitter on the volleyball team. But one never knows what the future holds. At least, Vivas now knows he can play basketball as well.