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OUTDOORS PETE THOMAS

With Lakers' Help, Kids Quick Reads in Fishing

January 17, 2003|PETE THOMAS

There was the excitement of visiting the ocean for the first time with so many of his friends, of taking his first deep-sea fishing trip and of holding, also for the first time, a fishing pole with something lively at the end of his line.

For Mario Quiroz, 7, a third-grader at Miles Avenue Elementary School, all this was great and at times even a bit overwhelming. But making this wonderful trip even better was that it was with members of his favorite basketball team, the Lakers.

"I think that's the coolest part," he said from the stern of the Sea Spray as it rocked gently under the afternoon sun, about a mile beyond the Redondo Beach breakwater. "It would be a real honor to get their autographs."

The honor was all theirs.

Brian Shaw, Jannero Pargo, Stanislav Medvedenko and Kareem Rush were nice enough to make an appearance -- and sign autographs -- on behalf of the Lakers, who are connected to the school in Huntington Park through the NBA's "Read to Achieve" program and the team's "Be a Champion ... and Read" program, which challenges students to read six chapter books in six weeks and rewards them accordingly.

The third- and fourth-graders were chosen for Monday's trip largely on merit and given the run of a boat donated by Redondo Sportfishing. They were given hands-on instruction by 12 volunteers of the 976-tuna.com youth fishing program.

And they were given a chance to mingle with people they really look up to. Very big people whose hearts seemed to be in the right place, even if not all of their stomachs were.

"It's nice for them to be able to see the other side of the players, rather than just out on the basketball court," said Shaw, the only real fisherman of the group. "And it's nice for us to be able to see the smiles on their faces. None of the talk is about basketball. We're all just out here, trying to fish."

They saw another side of Rush, all right. The rookie from Missouri, who confessed early on that he was "terrified of water" and prone to seasickness, benched himself after about 10 minutes -- his usual playing time -- and spent the afternoon with his head buried in his arms on a table in the galley.

He had some company, young and old, but for the most part it was smooth sailing for the 40 or so children, the news crews, the school staff and various Laker representatives, among them Emily Harper, the lone Laker Girl who dabbled in bass fishing while growing up in St. Louis but spent most of Monday afternoon interviewing the kids and making them feel more at ease.

Some had never been to the beach and most had never been on a boat, but they took to their new surroundings like fish to water. They soaked up the sunshine, breathed in the salt air, marveled at sea lions perched atop buoys and gawked at gulls soaring so effortlessly over a soft-blue ocean that seemed to span forever.

Theirs was an appreciation that ran as deep as the ocean itself -- and that alone made this field trip an enormous success.

"I'm really nervous," said Loren Pedraza, 8, while dropping a line to the bottom. Anxiety turned to excitement as soon as the first fish bit. Then came a shriek when a mackerel came over the rail and started wiggling before her large brown eyes. Then came a smile and a boat-load of laughter as she tried to grab the slippery little critter and throw it back.

No longer nervous, Pedraza dropped another bait to the bottom and watched the tip of her pole, anticipating another strike she was sure would come.

Not everybody displayed such patience.

"I don't like it because you have to stay by your pole all the time," said Karla Vasquez, 9, who found running around and taking pictures much more satisfying.

"I fished for a long time, but I had no luck," classmate Wendy Beltran chimed in. "I'm happy just being out here with all my friends, seeing the Lakers and all of the pretty sights."

Jessica Dominguez nodded, making it unanimous.

And so went a lazy afternoon, which seemed lacking in only one respect. Nobody summed that up better than Quiroz, who asked, "Where's Kobe?"

*

Rush knew before stepping onto the boat what might be in store and did so anyway. And despite his condition, he was one of the last to disembark, taking the time to sign autographs for all of the kids who hit him with their version of a full-court press the minute he stepped out of the galley.

Once on the pier, however, Rush made it clear he would not be boarding another boat anytime soon. To quote him directly: "Never again."

*

Shaw's closest companion was his 3-year-old son, Brian Jr., who figures to do a lot of fishing in the future. Dad is an avid angler who travels to Alaska every summer to fish for salmon and halibut.

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