By Mark Janssen
MANHATTAN, Kan. - Not too long ago, Kansas State basketball coach Frank Martin said that the Wildcats' missing leadership and swagger was located in Israel, Puerto Rico and Bartlesville.
He was referring to graduated seniors Denis Clemente, who is playing professionally overseas; Luis Colon, who is playing in the pro leagues in his native country; and, Chris Merriewether, who is working for Phillips Conoco in Oklahoma.
Shortly before the Christmas holidays, Colon returned to the K-State campus because, well, in his own words, "I miss my home, I miss the people, I miss my teammates, I miss my coach. Frank, he's my father, he's my coach, he's my everything. No matter what, I know he's there to answer any question I have, or to give me direction."
What Martin would like is for Colon to give his current basketball team some direction.
The stories are well documented from last season that when the team started to waver, it was either Clemente or Colon, who took ownership of the locker room lecturing whatever teammate that had decided to take the day off.
"Ever since I came here, I don't like to lose," said Colon. "I learned that the only way you can learn and get better is by pushing yourself and your teammates. If they decide not to work hard, it's up to me to remind them why they're here."
Rough talk, Luis?
Giving a small smirk, "Whatever it took. Sometimes you did have to get a little rough. I think they listened to me because they saw me working hard every day. Not a guy with great talent, but someone with a great work-ethic. When you see that, it's hard to question what I say."
Pausing, Colon said, "The only way to win a national championship is to work hard every day. I was very sad with how last year ended without winning a championship. This team (the current K-State team) has the talent to win it, but it's not going to be given to them."
Colon says he sees "a lot" of talent when he watches K-State on TV, but he adds, "They're young and they need players to be hungry."
Few had an appetite for winning more than Colon, whose value in leadership far exceeded his three points and three rebounds per game that showed up in the box score.
"Luis was all about leadership. He's as loyal of a human being that I've ever been around," said K-State coach Frank Martin. "He's about his people, and if you cross his people, you're going to have a long night ahead of you."
Returning to the K-State campus prior to the Christmas break, Martin put Colon to good use.
"We put him in drills and all of a sudden our young guys started to understand the physical nature of how the game is supposed to be played," said Martin. "Freddy (Asprilla) got beat up there for a couple of days. The way Luis approached practice made his teammates better. We haven't had that consistently this year."
Shortly after K-State's 29-victory season ended last year with a loss to Butler in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament, Colon started his professional career in his native country of Puerto Rico.
Between mid-April to the end of May, Colon estimates he made four or five trips back and forth from Puerto Rico to Manhattan so he could start his professional career on weekends, but be back on campus for Tuesday-Thursday classes to complete his degree.
"That diploma makes me very proud," said Colon. "It's something that secures my future if anything happens that I can't play basketball. But it was tough to play in a new league, come back to do a paper, go back and play games, and then come back for a test. Those were long trips, but I'm very proud to be a K-State graduate."
Especially in his native country.
"It's very important back home where jobs are a big issue in a country where the economy is going down with the new government," said Colon. "If I have a diploma from a great school like Kansas State, I will be in better shape than most people."
For now, basketball is Colon's future. Along with playing in Puerto Rico, the Venezuela National team picked up Colon for a postseason tournament, plus he played in Uruguay.
"Good teams," he says of each professional opportunity, "but there's not the unity that we had at K-State."
His next season will begin in March in Puerto Rico where Colon says mid-range players can make "a little over $110,000," plus be given a car, apartment and money for meals.
"I make way more during the three-four month season than if I had a regular job," said Colon.
But if Colon really had his wish, it would be having a second four-year career at Kansas State.
"Wonderful," he softly said. "That would be wonderful. This is my home. After moving from Puerto Rico to Florida, I moved around every year, so this was the first place I could really call home and I miss it. Starting over would be wonderful, but life goes on."