February 9, 2006

Cozad Sibling Share Passion For Basketball

Feb. 9, 2006

By Mark Emmons
San Jose Mercury News

Michelle and Jared Cozad sit side by side in the apartment they share, just across the street from the San Jose State campus. The sister and brother take turns describing each other's basketball game, using almost the same words.

Hard-working. Determined. Tough.

But when asked who is the better player, a brief silence descends as they glance at each other uncomfortably.

``She is,'' Jared finally says. ``Seriously, she has more talent than me. The numbers speak for themselves.''

A senior guard at Santa Clara, Michelle is having a breakout season -- averaging 18.0 points and 9.4 rebounds -- and is the favorite to earn the West Coast Conference's player of the year honor.

Michelle, listening to this, shakes her head. Statistics, she counters, don't tell the whole story. She notes that Jared, a junior walk-on guard at SJSU, has impressed the coaches enough to earn a scholarship.

``He's a really good player who is working just as hard as I am,'' she said of Jared, who averages 2.2 points in 10.5 minutes per game.

There is no sibling rivalry here. One Cozad is often in the stands rooting for the other, although that won't be possible tonight because both teams are playing -- SJSU (5-16, 1-7) plays Idaho and surging SCU (13-9, 7-2) takes on St. Mary's.

Family ties even proved stronger than school spirit earlier this season when the SCU and SJSU teams played against each other. When the Broncos women defeated SJSU in December, Jared was pulling for Michelle. He was only returning the favor for what Michelle did for him a few weeks earlier when the SJSU men lost to SCU.

``I love my school, but I want him to do well,'' Michelle said. ``I was wearing a Santa Clara shirt, but loudly cheering for Jared and San Jose.''

And both say they wouldn't be playing Division I basketball had they not pushed each other so hard in backyard games. Yet the Cozads share a bond forged not only by their mutual love of basketball, but also by a family tragedy that occurred when they were teenagers and ultimately brought them even closer.

``That we're both here, playing basketball and getting to room together, I wouldn't have it any other way,'' said Jared, 23.

They are not the Bay Area's best-known brother-sister college basketball act. That honor goes to Stanford star Candice Wiggins and her brother, Alan Jr., a starter at USF. But it's hard to imagine a more civil pair than the Cozads.

``We haven't even been in one argument this entire year,'' said Michelle, 22.

That wasn't always the case. There were five children in the Cozad family, and when 5-year-old Jared started bouncing a basketball, his younger sister wanted to play, too. Their parents put a basketball court in the back yard of their Stockton home -- resulting in some family battles.

Michelle: ``We would definitely talk some trash. There were some fights back there.''

Jared: ``Yeah, people walking away crying.''

Michelle: ``Neither one of us wanted to lose.''

Yet they didn't play much one-on-one. Instead they would team up to play against their older brother, Jimmy, who also excelled in basketball. But those games ended in the summer of 1997, when 16-year-old Jimmy was killed in a car accident. It already was a difficult time for the family because parents David and Pat had just divorced.

``That's the worst thing that can happen to a parent,'' David Cozad said. ``But it was a huge impact on the whole family, and I'm sure it was especially tough on them.''

Everyone dealt with the tragedy differently. For Michelle, that meant throwing herself completely into basketball, becoming a standout at Stockton's St. Mary's High School.

``I think basketball helped Michelle get through her bad times -- having to get up, go to practice and keeping involved in the game,'' Pat Cozad said. ``She knew it helped her, and I know she always felt that it would help Jared, too.''

But it took some time.

``I started getting in trouble in high school, and it had a lot to do with that,'' Jared said of his brother's death. ``So in my last two years, I only played in about 12 games.''

Initially, he didn't play basketball after high school, either, as he embarked on what his father jokingly calls his ``seven-year college program.'' But after Michelle, a 5-foot-10 guard, became a star at San Joaquin Delta College, Jared followed her there. Both credit their junior college coaches -- Gina Johnson for Michelle and Brian Katz for Jared -- in helping them focus their lives. More important, that's where brother and sister rediscovered their close friendship.

``The past few years, it's gone right back to the way it used to be between us,'' Michelle said.

She redshirted her first season at SCU after injuring her left foot just six games into her Broncos tenure. But after averaging 13.1 points per game last season, Michelle has been the WCC's player of the week six times this season and is the league's top scorer. She has made the most three-pointers in the league and is also among the leaders in rebounds, assists, steals and free-throw percentage.

``She's really determined,'' Jared said. ``She finds a way to get the job done for her team. She does it all.''

Meanwhile, Jared played well enough in junior college to be an invited walk-on at several Division I programs. But when it was learned he probably had only one year left to play -- because he previously attended another junior college, starting his five-year eligibility clock -- everyone backed off except new SJSU coach George Nessman.

``His talent doesn't necessarily warrant being an effective player at this level, but he is because he works so hard,'' Nessman said. ``That's a great example to the rest of the guys. One of the things we've had to build is it takes work to be successful. He never lets down for one moment.''

The bonus of Jared coming to SJSU was that his sister already was in the area.

``They're a pretty good match as far as getting along,'' their father said. ``Those are the only two of our kids who probably could live together. She keeps Jared straight.''

In fact, Michelle has a mature-beyond-her-years quality. She's the reason they have maybe the world's cleanest college apartment. (``I know he won't do the dishes,'' she said.) On a more serious note, Michelle has been a source of support for a former high school and junior college teammate, Jocelyn Mancebo, who has been battling brain cancer. Michelle tries to be with her at as many doctor's appointments as possible.

``She's not only a good athlete, but she's also a great person,'' Pat Cozad said.

Their parents now have the unusual problem, like tonight, of trying to figure out which game to attend when Michelle and Jared are playing at the same time. And their mother believes they could have had three kids playing in college simultaneously.

``Jimmy probably would have been playing right along with them,'' Pat Cozad said. ``We missed out on that part of it. But I know he would have been really proud of both of them.