Szendrei knows his role

Oklahoma big man Jozsef Szendrei has taken a long journey to get to Norman and is finally making his mark on Sooner basketball.

The article below was published in the February edition of Inside OU Sports Magazine. If you'd like to know more then just the stats on your favorite Sooners click the link at the bottom of the story to subscribe to Inside OU Sports Magazine.

NORMAN, Okla. — The words didn't mean much back then, but the deft, hip-hop beat quickly energized the wide-eyed, young basketball player. Unlike the random violence and frequent drug usage depicted in the profanity-laced songs, Jozsef Szendrei sat peacefully in his Hungarian bedroom and struggled to discern Public Enemy's politically and racially-charged rap album, "Apocalypse ‘91…The Enemy Strikes Black.

"I had no idea what the songs or words were about," says Szendrei, 22, who prides himself on an "R&B and rap" music collection with some 550 compact discs. "I just always liked the beat."

Through Public Enemy's raptivist lyrics and Snoop Dogg's rapid-fire style, American hip-hop and rap artists tutored "Yo-Yo" to an R-rated crash-course in the English language.

"I used to stay-up till midnight and watch Dr. Dre and Ed Lover on MTV," says Szendrei. "And they used to play the Snoop Doggy Dog song, ‘What's My Name.' Man, I loved that video."

Opponents target Szendrei as public enemy No. 1, especially among Big 12 post men. No doubt, the Hungarian's reputation for physical play and penchant for flailing his razor sharp elbows is well known throughout the league.

"I'm not the prettiest player," says Szendrei. "I don't like to be called pretty or soft. If you want to call me naughty, ugly or dirty that's fine with me. I take no prisoners."

Born in the hamlet of Szolnok, a flood-riddled town of nearly 80,000 people in central Hungary, Jozsef Szendrei bounced around much of Europe as a youth. His 6-foot-6 father, Jozsef IV, played professional European soccer until 1992, when he retired after a 21-year career and the family returned to Hungry.

"It's very different (there)," says Szendrei, who speaks Spanish and Hungarian fluently. "The difference is like that of the earth and the moon."

Upon his returning to his native homeland, Szendrei, already 5 feet 10 inches tall at the tender age of 12, devoted his energy to basketball, not soccer.

Szendrei's interest in hoops was first tapped in 1990, while living in Spain, when his father took him to watch San Fernando, a Spanish pro team in Cadiz, play against a Yugoslavian team.

"The next day we saw them at the airport and my father seemed so tiny compared to them," says Szendrei. "I liked the fact they were big.

"Since they were big and played basketball, that's what I wanted to do. It was simple."

That experience prompted Szendrei to join a club basketball team in Cadiz. A few years later, the soft-spoken teen entered high school in Budapest, Hungary's capital. There, he played basketball as a freshman and sophomore, but Szendrei struggled to excel academically due to the extensive travel that his club team required.

Looking for a fresh start, Szendrei envisioned becoming an U.S. exchange student in October 1995 and sought out an English tutor to learn the language.

That following spring, Szendrei was accepted into a foreign-exchange program. In June 1996, he packed his bags for a flight to Seattle and was placed with a host family in Tumwater, Wash., (population 80,000), about 70 miles south of Seattle.

"Everything was so different. There were McDonald's everywhere," says Szendrei. "We didn't have our first McDonald's till 1992 in Hungary."

Yet, Szendrei quickly learned there is more to the U.S. than Ronald McDonald's golden arches.

"It's a better place because of the opportunity given to everybody here," says Szendrei. "That was the was the one and only reason I came. People will give you a chance, as long you work hard."

Upon settling in, Szendrei focused his talents on basketball. He would have played on Tumwater's varsity team during his junior campaign, but his foreign-exchange status relegated him to the junior varsity squad.

"He had really good hands and a nice shooting touch," says Robert Hinkle, a 16-year varsity basketball assistant, who coached Szendrei at Tumwater. "He brought with him European experience, but it was fun watching him learn to play American-style basketball."

However, Hinkle indicated that Szendrei wasn't quite ready for American-style conditioning then.

"We had a few chuckles watching him run lines," says Hinkle. "He'd always tell us that he felt ‘queasy.'"

The next season, Szendrei's senior year, he posted 17 points and 11 rebounds per game en route to Tumwater's 27-4 record and a fifth-place state-tournament finish. Szendrei could score and rebound, but he didn't always remember his uniform.

Prior to Tumwater's first state tournament game at the now-defunct Kingdome in Seattle that year, Szendrei realized that he'd inadvertently left his uniform at home.

Faced by the possibility that he might not play, Szendrei was granted a reprieve by one of his teammates, who volunteered to sacrifice his jersey and sit the entire game on the bench.

"It was a very humbling experience for Jozsef," says Hinkle. "I'm sure he hasn't forgotten it."

Even as a JV player, Hinkle said Szendrei frequently mentioned that he'd play major college basketball and possibly beyond that level.

"He wanted to be the first Hungarian in the NBA," says Hinkle. "When he left here, I had no idea he'd end up at the University of Oklahoma. He was big and strong, but undersized for a post. I didn't know if he had the speed and quickness to be a wing, but he always had that desire to play."

Despite garnering all-state honors as a senior, Szendrei only received one scholarship offer and took it. He signed with Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colo., while other interested schools (Seattle Pacific, Willamette, Ore. and UC-Irvine, Calif.) passed on him.

"It's in the middle of nowhere," says Szendrei of Sterling, which houses 15,000 residents, less than two-thirds of OU's total student enrollment (24,050). "There's not much there except the basketball team and a super Wal-Mart that's open 24-7."

Upon receiving Szendrei's pledge, Lowell Roumph, who coached Szendrei at Northeastern, eagerly waited his prized recruit's arrival.

"The skills were there, I just thought he was overlooked," says the now-retired Roumph, who coached hoops at Northeastern for 34 years, including 21 years as head coach. "He's the kind of player both on and off the court that a coach looks to build his program around."

While attending Northeastern, Szendrei sprouted an additional two inches and added an additional 25 pounds to his frame, which now stands 6 feet 9, 240 pounds.

"He was the best rebounder I've ever coached and one of the best rebounders I've ever seen," says Roumph. "When he was healthy, he was really something. If he'd been able to avoid those injuries, I think he could played at the next level."

After averaging 8.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game as a freshman, which included a 26-board effort, Szendrei retreated to Budapest that summer.

When he returned, Roumph unloaded a box containing more than 200 recruiting letters addressed to his sophomore star.

That season, Szendrei racked up averages of 15.3 points and 14.5 rebounds by the end of the fall semester. However, during Christmas break, Szendrei traveled back to Budapest, where he sustained a stress fracture in his left foot while playing indoor soccer, the first of his many injuries.

Forced to sit out the remainder of the year, Szendrei became Northeastern's emotional leader, despite being sidelined.

"We took him to every game second semester," says Roumph. "He was like another coach or cheerleader. He was always so positive and so enthusiastic. He was in every huddle rallying his teammates."

When Northeastern reached the National Junior College tournament in Hutchinson, Kan. later that season, Roumph couldn't find Szendrei just before tip off.

He left the gym and walked down the tunnel to find Szendrei gazing longingly out a window. When he turned around, tears trickled down his cheek.

"He wanted to play in that game so badly," says Roumph. "I'll never forget that."

Szendrei considered Gonzaga, Louisville, Purdue, Rutgers and Xavier, but settled on OU that spring. The first-team Region 9 selection still vividly remembers a visit by OU coach Kelvin Sampson and former assistant Ray Lopes the day after the No. 3-seeded Sooners lost to No. 6 Purdue in the second round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament.

"Coach Sampson was still a little bit frustrated by the loss, but we ended up talking about basketball for an hour," says Szendrei. "His intensity, emotion and passion for the game was so great that he was sweating. He was so excited to talk about something he really loved. That really opened my eyes and sold me right there. He had me at hello."

Since arriving in Norman, Szendrei, who received a medical redshirt during the 2000-2001 season, has endured torn ACLs in both knees and other various ailments (throat hematoma, shin splints etc.), but insists he is as healthy right now as ever before.

"I'm moving real good and running the floor well," says Szendrei. "It's been a challenge, but everybody carries their own cross. I want to be a warrior out there."

Through it all, OU's coaches and teammates have continually praised Szendrei's toughness and willingness to fight back from several near career-ending injuries.

"Jozsef's an enthusiastic, passionate, physical kid," says OU coach Kelvin Sampson. "He's one of our best rebounders and he really enjoys being on this team. He's a big part of our success."

Although Szendrei only plays seven minutes per game, Sampson reiterated he's one of the team's hardest workers and most fierce competitors.

"Jozsef's always into it with somebody," says Sampson. "He makes everyone practice harder, especially the post players."

That vigor boiled over on several occasions last year during legendary verbal battles between Szendrei and departed senior Daryan Selvy.

"Selvy spoke a language, but it wasn't always English," says Sampson. "But, Jozsef always fired right back in Hungarian. I just sat back and laughed, because I really couldn't understand either one of them."

Blake Johnston, Szendrei's roommate and closest friend on the team, emphasized that his teammate's intensity fuels both OU players and fans.

"A lot of people ask me what Jozsef's drinking or what he's on," says Johnston, who has lived with Szendrei for two years. "But at the same time, all that hollering and screaming motivates a lot of people on our team."

Even though he's lived in America for nearly seven years, Szendrei still doesn't drive a car. Instead, he bums rides from teammates and his girlfriend Natasha, an athletic trainer for the OU football team.

"I don't even own a skateboard," says Szendrei, who often sports Michael Jordan apparel. "I don't have the financial background and I don't want to ask my parents for one. Hopefully, the next year will bring me a car somehow."

In May, Szendrei will graduate with a degree in international business and a minor in marketing, but he admits he's not exactly stuffing envelopes with resumes.

"I'm still planning to play basketball somewhere," says Szendrei, who indicated he will miss OU's "family atmosphere." "It'll probably be Europe, but I'm still not sure. I've still got a lot of hard work ahead of me."

Until then, Szendrei is eagerly gearing up for an early April trip to New Orleans, site of this year's NCAA Final Four.

"(Our success) depends on the standard we've set for ourselves," says Szendrei. "That's a high ceiling, so our best basketball is yet to come."

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