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Crumpacker: Hall of Honor Welcomes Gael, Tiger Hoopsters

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By John Crumpacker
#WCChoops Columnist 


From now until the start of the 2016 West Coast Conference Basketball Championships, WCC columnist John Crumpacker will be profiling the WCC Hall of Honor Class of 2016. For Tuesday, Crumpacker examines the remarkable careers of Saint Mary's David Vann and Pacific's Ron Cornelius. This is part three of five. 

Almost before David Vann’s basketball career had even started, it nearly ended. A virtually severed finger will do that.

On the last day of his junior year in high school, Vann extended his left hand to slow the impact of a swinging door shoved hard by some students running down the hall ahead of him at Tucson High. Instead, his hand crashed through the glass-and-wire window and his pinky finger was left hanging by a flap of skin.

“I went in to see the nurse and she fainted on the spot, so I had to call 911 myself,’’ Vann recalled. “She went down like a ton of bricks. There was blood everywhere. The whole school followed the blood track.’’

A doctor ended up taking a piece of ligament from Vann’s ankle and using it to save the finger from amputation. Surgery was successful and the 6-foot-5 guard went on to have a stellar career at Saint Mary’s College from 1978-82 and one year in the old Continental Basketball Assoc.

“I was actually pretty lucky,’’ Vann said. “It was a long, hard road. It definitely affected ball-handling. My finger is in a ‘C’ shape. It’s not straight. I used to tape two fingers together. It all worked out. It could have been a lot worse.’’

Vann became a starter four games into his freshman year playing in a tournament at Iona College, where he met the late Jim Valvano, and ended up starting the rest of his career as a Gael, making the WCC all-conference team three times. He ended up averaging almost 16 points per game for his career and his 1,738 points stood as a Saint Mary’s school record for 25 years.

With credentials like those, Vann was an easy choice to join nine other former student-athletes as members of the 2016 WCC Hall of Honor. Induction ceremonies will take place March 5 in Las Vegas in conjunction with the WCC Tournament.

Interestingly, it’s the second time Vann has been selected for membership in the Hall of Honor. Seems he couldn’t attend the ceremony five years ago, so he deferred his induction.

“I couldn’t do it because my youngest daughter was playing in her state championship basketball game,’’ he said. “That was my priority. It was more important for me to do that. I had coached my daughter. It was their first time being in the state championship. My priority was to watch Emily.’’ 

These days, Emily Vann is a senior forward for San Jose State, where she excels in the classroom and is a role player for the Spartans on the court. This time around, the timing is perfect for the Vann family of Martinez, Ca. David and his wife Olivia (whom he met at Saint Mary’s) and their oldest daughter Julia will be able to see Emily and San Jose State play in the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas March 7-11, preceded by the WCC tourney at the Orleans Arena March 3-8.

“It’s going to be a wild week,’’ Vann said. “I can’t wait to see the Gaels. They’re having an awesome year. It’s a lot of fun watching them. One of the really cool parts about what (coach) Randy Bennett has done is … he made a conscious effort to reach out to alums. He has an alumni function every year. It used to be you were done and gone.’’

At the Hall of Honor ceremony in Las Vegas, Vann will be joined by fellow basketball player Ron Cornelius, who played at Pacific at a time, 1978-81, when the Tigers were in the now-defunct Pacific Coast Athletic Association. Nevertheless, Pacific is in the WCC now and Cornelius is being duly honored for his status as the school’s career scoring leader (2,065), three-time All-PCAA selection and two-time All-American.

When he first learned of his inclusion in the Hall of Honor, Cornelius said, “To be honest, that was 35 years ago. Are you kidding me? After looking into it and seeing what it entailed, it’s quite an honor; pretty neat. This is bigger than I thought it would be.’’

At 6-8, Cornelius was a big man for the Tigers as he led them to a PCAA title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“It was probably the four best years of my basketball life,’’ he said. “It prepared me for what was next. I was the first person in my family to go to college. It was important to me to stay somewhat close to home (he’s from Santa Ana in Orange County) and be able to play early. I started every game. That’s the one I hold most dear to my heart.’’

Cornelius was a third-round pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981 but he never played in the NBA. Instead, he spent a decade knocking around Europe’s professional leagues, playing in England, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy and finally Switzerland, where his son was born in Geneva in 1990.

“I fulfilled my lifelong dream to play professionally,’’ Cornelius said. “I was a globetrotter. I was in nine different countries in 10 years. It was really neat to live in different cultures. I was an individual who got into the languages. I tried my best to learn the language. Being tall and an American in these small towns made me somewhat of a celebrity.''

Cornelius said Italy was his favorite, specifically Port Vangiorgio on the beach. However, driving by the Eiffel Tower in Paris on his way to work wasn’t bad, either.

“The one thing I liked about Italy was the competition was the best,’’ he said. “Ben McAdoo and Mike D’Antoni were over there at the time. The food was the best, eating fresh pasta twice a day. I was a skinny guy and it helped me maintain weight.’’

Besides their achievements on the court, another thing that Vann and Cornelius have in common is successful careers, post-basketball. Vann has worked in the petroleum industry for 25 years and is currently at Phillips 66, where he is a “loyalty coach’’ helping station owners implement the company’s rewards cards. Cornelius works in sales at Enterprise Technology Services in Phoenix, outsourcing IT solutions for clients.

Reflecting back on his playing career at Pacific, Cornelius recalled a game when he went against another 2016 Hall of Honor inductee, Bill Cartwright of San Francisco, in the old Golden Gate Invitational. So how did you fare against Big Bill, Ron?

“Not too good. Not too good.’’ 

John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.