Growing into the game

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
That Micah Ratzlaff arguably is the No. 1 player in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference speaks volumes about his growth as a basketball player through the years.

That he will tell you that basketball is not the No. 1 thing in his life these days speaks volumes about his growth as a person over the same period.

“It’s kind of nice not having basketball be No. 1-it really is,” says the Tabor College standout who combines grace, intensity and smarts on a basketball court in a way rarely seen at this level of collegiate competition.

Now entering his senior season, Ratzlaff can put in perspective his passion for a sport that has taken him a long way-from the driveway of his boyhood home, to stardom at Hillsboro High School, to a two-year stint at the NCAA Division I level, and then back to Hillsboro again.

“I think it’s been huge for me because it’s something that I wanted to do-and I could put goals out there and see if I could achieve those goals,” Ratzlaff said. “And I’ve done pretty much everything I wanted to do.”

Along the way, Ratzlaff also encountered his share of victories and defeats, achievements and frustrations, detours and even disillusionment.

Through it all, he’s grown-well beyond his muscular 6-foot 6-inch frame.

What is No. 1 if not hoops?

“Definitely family, God, my wife,” he said. Then added with a smile: “Don’t make me say which order.”

* * *

“I’m surprised our family turned out as close as it did,” said Ratzlaff, the second of five siblings in a family a that for many years pretty much defined the notion that, “A family that plays together, stays together.”

“Growing up, I was fighting with everybody,” Ratzlaff said. “I was the kids who was getting into everything. If someone was grounded, it was me. I think I was grounded for 18 weeks straight one time.”

Sports has been a key part of his family environment for as long as Ratzlaff can remember.

“You don’t realize it until you get older,” he said. “You just feel it’s something you’re supposed to know. I never looked at sports as something I didn’t want to do.”

Ratzlaff said he didn’t know he would specialize in basketball until later in high school, but the game was always a passion.

“I do know we went through about 10 of those indoor goals-mostly me, Tyson and my dad,” he said. “Damian was a little older already. “And we always had an outdoor goal at every house we lived in.”

* * *

Ratzlaff’s interest in basketball reached a new height when his body did. Suddenly in high school he was pushing 6-5-and to this day has no idea where the growth gene came from.

Combining his stature with considerable athletic ability, Ratzlaff was suddenly making a name for himself at Hillsboro High School. The team soared to new heights as he did. His sophomore season, the Trojans finished third at state, then climbed to second his junior year before finally winning the coveted title in his senior season.

Ratzlaff said he didn’t realize his potential until the summer after his junior season, when coach Darrel Knoll encouraged him to attend a camp known to draw coaches from the NCAA Division I level.

When it was over, Ratzlaff had graded out among the top five players in a field of 300 hopefuls.

“Before I got home, my mom said, ‘I’ve had 12 Division I calls, and I’m like ‘What?'” he remembered. “That was pretty cool.”

* * *

Ratzlaff fulfilled his Division I dream when he signed on at Oral Roberts University in 1998.

“I liked everything there,” he said about the decision. “I didn’t really want to go far away from home because I haven’t been far from home my whole life.”

The attractiveness of the campus and the city of Tulsa sealed the deal, and made him tolerant even of a strict dress code that demanded he wear a tie every day to class.

“You could wear any shirt with it that would button up, and then you could tuck (the tie) into the shirt below the first button,” he said with a smile. “So I had one tie that never came untied for two years. I put it on every single day. It’s probably still tied, and I haven’t worn it since.”

* * *

Ratzlaff saw only limited action that first season, and by the end of the season wasn’t playing at all. He stuck with it because coaches told him he would be fighting for a starting position the next season.

That didn’t happen either-until the last part of the year when a couple of teammates were suspended and he got a chance to prove himself.

“I got to the point where I just started working my butt off pretty much, trying to prove to these coaches that they should give me more than five minutes a game,” Ratzlaff said.

He made good on the opportunity, becoming the team’s leading scorer the rest of the season and leading ORU to within two games of a berth in the NCAA national tournament.

* * *

Ratzlaff’s world took a turn when he heard the news that his parents would be getting a divorce.

“I was just trying to stay at school for as long as I could because I didn’t want to come back (home),: he said about his response. “I figured they could deal with it. But I think it just finally hit me…and it gave me an excuse to leave (ORU).”

Then he got another phone call that sealed the deal. It was from his brother Tyson, who had just graduated from Hillsboro High School with state accolades in football and basketball.

“He called me and said, ‘Let’s go to Tabor,'” Ratzlaff recalled. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ I could see me going there because basketball is good there, but he was all ahead for football. I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, man. I’ll go if you go.’

“I said, ‘All right, let’s do it.'”

* * *

“There’s no doubt that when someone who is as well-known as Micah joins your program, it brings some credibility to it,” said Don Brubacher, Tabor head coach.

“For Micah to choose to leave Division I basketball, where he was playing successfully, and come to Tabor was just huge. He is truly an exceptional player, but he also helps us in the recruiting process.”

On the court, Ratzlaff’s first season was everything local fans hoped for-double-digit scoring, spectacular playmaking, thunderous dunks- and a conference championship to boot.

But it was so much more, too.

“I think everybody was probably a bit surprised by Micah’s complete team attitude,” Brubacher said. “Micah cares about nothing but the team winning. That’s obvious in everything he does-the way he supports his teammates, and then the way he plays on the court. He is truly a consummate team player.”

Ratzlaff’s unselfishness was no late-career fluke. Trojan fans might remember the 22.7-point scoring average and the impressive dunks that state-championship season, but his old coach likes to talks about Ratzlaff’s “hidden” achievement.

“What most people don’t know is that Micah holds the career record for assists,” Knoll said. “He also holds the single-game record of 15. He’s an incredibly unselfish player for someone with his scoring abilities.”

Ratzlaff takes a certain pride in that characterization.

“Being able to dunk and stuff like that makes it look like you’re a hotshot-which is nice sometimes,” he said. “But it isn’t about that for me. It’s totally about getting everybody involved-finding the person who has the open shot.

“I love passing the ball,” he added. “It’s one of my favorite things to do. I don’t think anybody can stop me from making a certain pass.

Asked to critique his game, Ratzlaff mentioned court vision as one of his strengths.

“I can pretty much see all 10 people on the court-not at all times, but pretty consistently.

“I think it must come naturally, to tell you the truth,” he added. “Playing a lot, I’m sure, helps, too.”

* * *

When a prolonged battle with bone spurs in his ankle wiped out what was to be his crowning year at Tabor a year ago, the impact fell heavily upon the team-and on its injured star.

But it wasn’t devastating.

“It was tough,” he said. “But at the same time, I knew I was going to be here for another year of school. By the end of the season, I was practicing every day and felt like part of the team even though I wasn’t playing.

“And I knew we’d have a good team this year.”

Added Brubacher: “I think the only reason last season was not just devastating to Micah is that he felt he had a good group returning this year, including his brother.

“He wanted to play with Tyson.”

Micah is quick to agree. The communication between the two brothers is almost telepathic on the court.

“It feels like we know exactly what each other is going to do,” Micah said. “It has changed a little bit because he’s gotten more aggressive-which I’m not used to. But it’s only changed for the better.”

* * *

And now the long wait is over. Healing has come and a new “final season” has begun. And even observers can tell Ratzlaff is ready for it.

“Missing last season has shown up this year with his enthusiasm,” Brubacher said. “He’s always been a very enthusiastic player, but his enthusiasm for the game moved to a bit higher level yet this year.

“Before the alumni game he literally could not hold still (in the locker room),” he added with a smile. “He just hopped. He was just so excited to go out and play a game again.”

The team has opened with a 3-4 record through a brutal schedule of road games against NAIA Division I schools.

The competition has been tough, but Ratzlaff accepts no excuse.

“It’s really important to me,” Ratzlaff said of winning. “I get real frustrated with myself and pretty hard on myself after a loss. I definitely go back and wonder what I could have done.

“It’s probably really important to me this year just because I know it’s my last year, and I also know the talent that we have. If we really play we can be a really good team.”

* * *

Whatever the results, Ratzlaff already has an eye toward the future. If he gets a chance to play overseas, he said he’ll give it a shot.

“I’ll regret it if I don’t,” he said.

But his horizon is much broader. This summer he was married to Amanda-one of the great benefits of his stay at ORU. He’s enjoying his growing number of nieces and nephews and pioneering a new relationship with his father. He wants a family like the one in which he grew up-someday. And he’s thinking about his life beyond college.

Basketball is not No. 1 anymore.

“I’m married, I want to coach, I want to get my master’s,” Ratzlaff said.

The game is in perspective these days, but he’ll always be grateful for it.

“It’s really been good for me,” Ratzlaff said. “It’s helped me just through the experiences I’ve had-the people I’ve met, the teams I’ve played against, meeting coaches that you’ve watched on TV and then playing against them. It’s pretty fun.

“Basketball has taken me to a lot of good places that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

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