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Finally Feeling No Pain : CSUN’s Oronoz Overcomes Ailments in Time for Senior Season

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ruben Oronoz, a Cal State Northridge senior forward, will play a basketball game tonight with no aches, pains or bruises.

That’s assuming nothing happens to him between now and tonight’s 8:05 opener at Nevada Las Vegas. He could fall down a flight of stairs or twist his neck sleeping on the plane or get food poisoning eating an undercooked cheeseburger.

The possibilities are endless. And you can bet--in Vegas, might as well--that if some sickness or injury would strike someone on the Matadors, it would be Oronoz.

(Tip of the day: Don’t stand next to Ruben in a lightning storm.)

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If Oronoz can get through tonight’s game pain- and illness-free, it will be the first time he has done so in about four years. But if he doesn’t make it, he will shrug his shoulders, smile and accept what fate hands him with no bitterness.

“There are really way too many other problems in the world [for me] to be mad about not playing basketball,” he says. “Basketball is just an extra. It’s just fun. I’m still walking, still talking. I can still eat.”

Oronoz does not look back and think what if? In fact, he needs to be prodded to even consider the possibilities.

What if he hadn’t gotten sick at Rancho Santiago College his sophomore season when the big schools were recruiting him?

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What if he had never been hurt in his college career? How good would he be?

“You know,” Oronoz says, “I never really thought about something like that.”

This season may answer a lot of questions. Oronoz provided a glimpse of his ability on Tuesday night in an exhibition against High Five America. Still a little weak with flu, he played a dominating 24 minutes--21 points, three for five from three-point range, four assists, three steals.

They look a little like guard numbers, which is why Oronoz can be so valuable as a 6-foot-7 forward. It was his versatility that made him such a hot prospect at Rancho Santiago.

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After leading the team with 12.5 points a game his freshman season (1991-92), Oronoz spent the summer lifting weights and came to school in the fall at a chiseled 220 pounds.

He had scholarship offers that fall from Washington State, Utah, New Mexico and New Mexico State.

“When I went down and saw him in the fall, [Utah Coach] Rick Majerus was in the gym,” Northridge assistant Mike Johnson says. “So I figured that was all for us.”

But Oronoz did not sign early. He kept waiting for the Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the college basketball world to come calling. And they might have at the end of the season, if Oronoz had not gotten sick.

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Oronoz had an infected, swollen gland in his neck.

“It was like I had this softball coming out of my neck,” he says.

The infection dragged on for three months. Though Oronoz played through it, it sapped him of his strength. He lost about 30 pounds.

As the infection finally cleared toward the end of his sophomore season, Oronoz suffered a herniated disk in his back.

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His scholarship options went from Pacific 10 Conference and NCAA tournament teams to Southern Utah, St. Mary’s, UC Santa Barbara and Northridge.

Oronoz signed with Northridge, but his back continued to hurt. He says he couldn’t sleep for more than a half hour, couldn’t sit for more than 10 minutes. He finally underwent surgery in October, 1993, and was forced to use a redshirt season.

The surgery was successful. His back felt great.

In the summer of 1994--still before he had played a minute at Northridge--Oronoz was on his honeymoon. He and his wife Rachel were riding a Seadoo--a high-horsepower, sit-down version of the Jet-Ski--with Rachel in front, Ruben in back.

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Just for fun, Ruben was hopping backward off the Seadoo and into the water. It was a blast, until he tried it when they were going too fast. Rather than going backward into the water, he was flung up and to the side by the speed of the Seadoo. When his legs caught the water, they flared violently outward.

“I was in huge pain,” Oronoz says. “I thought I had broken both my legs. I had tears in my eyes.”

Oronoz actually had suffered severe sprains in both knees. He was able to play by the time the 1994-95 season began, but he was in pain. Whenever he squatted in a defensive stance, his knees hurt.

The pain had mostly subsided by Jan. 12, when the Matadors played UNLV in Northridge. But with about four minutes to go in the first half, Oronoz jumped to block a shot, then came down awkwardly on his left ankle, severely spraining it.

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He missed the next six games, then came back for a few sporadic efforts.

He was able to play Feb. 15 at Fresno State, and led the Matadors with 16 points.

His secret to recovery? He had taken about 2,000 milligrams of ibuprofen, five times the normal dosage for minor pains and more than half the maximum daily dosage.

“I didn’t feel any pain in that game,” Oronoz says. “Then I talked to some people who said that’s not a very good idea.”

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As the pain in Oronoz’s knee continued, Coach Pete Cassidy benched him for the final three regular-season games and the American West Conference tournament.

Which brings us to today. His left ankle healed, Oronoz has been fine other than the flu that kept him from a week of practice earlier this month.

Starting tonight, Oronoz will get to show his teammates, coaches and Northridge fans how well he can play when he’s pain-free. So far, no one knows.

“He’s been hurt so much, I don’t have a clue what he can do,” Cassidy said, joking.

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Oronoz is in one piece now, though history seems to indicate he won’t stay that way. Still, he doesn’t step onto the court worried if he will be carried off it.

“I always pray that it doesn’t happen,” Oronoz says, “but if it happens, hey man, you’ve just got to go through it.”


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