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November 7, 2006

Lawrence's Nunez cherished his days as a walk-on

Lawrence's Rigo Nunez walked on to the UMass men's basketball team in 1992 with hopes of smoothing out his hard edges

"At the time, I internalized every emotion," he said last week. "When I got to UMass I vowed to celebrate every single thing in life. Every time I dove on the floor or blocked somebody's shot, I was celebrating."

The 33-year-old Nunez - who works as an administrator at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. - still has reason to celebrate these days. Nunez and his wife Melinda are expecting twins in April.

As the former Lancer (1987 to 1991) prepares to become a father, he still wonders how his Division 1 college basketball came to be.

"You look at those guys your whole life when you're dreaming of playing big-time ball," said the 1991 Eagle-Tribune MVP. "I knew I could play at U-Lowell or maybe Merrimack. But how about a place like (UMass)? Can I really be part of this?

"You question yourself a lot your first year. As you continue to practice and play, you realize you belong. You somehow figure out how to raise your level to wherever it needs to be. And that empowers you."

Before the 6-foot-7 swingman became a reserve on coach John Calipari's "Refuse to Lose" UMass clubs, Nunez was a nervous freshman. Even after making the team, he was hesitant to tell his friends.

"I don't want anyone to celebrate until I'm actually out there in uniform," he remembers telling himself. "My whole freshman year I was still nervous that some day the coach was going to come and axe me off the team. That never happened obviously."

He still laughs about beating star forward Lou Roe in a game of knockout, and takes pride in the fact that he once dunked on Marcus Camby in practice.

Basketball, he said, helped him grow up.

"I learned how to balance life," he said. "I had to commit to academics as well as being part of my basketball family. It was definitely a juggle."

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