Created:Thursday, November 12, 2009 2:45 a.m.CDT
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Pregame Rituals: Mike DiNunno - 'Feel my pain'

By JOHN SAHLY - jsahly@daily-chronicle.com
Mike DiNunno enters his sophomore season with his grandparents on his mind. Three of his grandparents passed away in the six weeks leading up to the start of the season. (Beck Diefenbach and Rob Winner)

Written on the leather of Mike DiNunno's right adidas shoe are two messages. One at the end of the toes reads, "Show no love." The other, enveloped around his ankle, says, "Feel my pain and you'll feel theirs too."

Every time DiNunno laces up his shoes, ever since high school, he writes messages like those on them, available for him to read anytime during a practice or game. But over the past six weeks, the pain part of that message has taken on new meaning.

Three of DiNunno's grandparents, including both on his dad's side, died from various causes in the past month and a half, just as practice began for his sophomore season at Northern Illinois.

The most recent of his grandparents to pass away was Albert Ellek, a U.S. Army and Marine Corps and Korean War veteran, on Oct. 29, leaving Felicia Malatesta as DiNunno's only living grandparent.

"Most grandparents are old-fashioned, stern. My grandparents were goofballs," DiNunno said. "Every day [Albert] always had a smile on his face. My dad's parents were the same way."

Technically, Felicia isn't related to DiNunno, though all of Albert's grandchildren call her grandma. She was Albert's partner of more than 30 years but they never married after he separated from his first wife. "That scarred him," DiNunno said.

That all was about to change.

Albert had a plan to take Felicia to Florida two months from now and, after more than 30 years together, propose to her.

"She knew it, too," DiNunno said. "I think she knew it. You're not with someone for 30 years and not know their tricks. I think that was the hardest thing for her. I think that was the hardest thing for me, knowing my grandfather was going to propose to her."

The day after Albert's funeral, DiNunno was back at practice. He was running up and down the floor, taking jumpers and working on his form while junior guard Xavier Silas and student managers fed him passes.

DiNunno already has dedicated this season to the memories of his grandparents. The "feel my pain" message will serve as a reminder of that throughout the year while his family attempts to get back on track.

"I think you have to be sensitive to where they are emotionally," NIU coach Ricardo Patton said. "He's a young man that's dealing with what I call grown-up problems. And that can be tough sometimes.

"But I can say that after having coached for 20 years or so at the collegiate level, you've had a chance to see a lot of different issues that kids deal with, whether it's a parent being ill, stricken with cancer or in his case, death. Those are some real issues that young people have to learn to work through."

To say the basketball court has become DiNunno's sanctuary is an overstatement. It already has been that way for years.

"The last really good day I had altogether, man, it had to be freshman or sophomore year of high school," DiNunno said. "Once all the transfers started (pause) ... wow, that's kind of depressing thinking about it. With my family, there's always something going on. ... A day without anything bad is a good day for me.

"Any day I get to lace up my shoes and play is a good day for me, too."

The left shoe

DiNunno made a much-publicized transfer from Lake Park High School to Chicago power Von Steuben after his sophomore year. The move raised his recruiting profile and DiNunno found a higher level of competition in Chicago's public league.

At 16 years old, he moved to a new place at the corner of Austin and Foster avenues on the north side of Chicago, just a few miles from his new high school.

Although his dad, Michele DiNunno, paid the rent and was there sometimes when he wasn't working at McCormick Place or with the rest of his family, Mike lived alone.

"There were definitely some lonely nights," he said. "But I guess that's what made me the person I am today. The way I look at things and why I care so much about my family."

He tried to help pay the rent by cutting his friends' hair at a local barbershop. He even had his own station, although he didn't officially have a job and didn't receive a paycheck. But those who worked alongside him tried to help DiNunno when they could.

DiNunno still does an occasional haircut for one of his teammates.

"It wasn't much but it was something to help my dad out a little bit," DiNunno said. "I appreciated the fact that he was making those sacrifices to be away from his other [five] kids to help me out in the city."

That's why on the left side of his shoe, DiNunno writes, "Sacrifices" and "Never forget what it took to get here."

Those messages serve as a reminder of his parents and grandparents driving him 9 to 10 hours to tournaments among the many things they forfeited to help DiNunno, a member of last season's Mid-American Conference All-Freshman team because of his lightning-quick jumper and long-range shooting ability, get to where he is today.

"Everything they've done that has given me the opportunity to play at the highest level and play with the best players in the country," he said, "I have a responsibility to respect their sacrifices."

Left foot, right foot

One of the reasons DiNunno chose NIU was because of its proximity to home, giving him the chance to go home for reasons like what's gone on the past six weeks.

But with the season about to start, and NIU's early-season schedule as tough as it ever has been with road trips to Northwestern and Illinois to start the campaign, basketball seems like a welcome challenge compared to everything else.

He has the support of his teammates and coaches while he tries to recover and move on from his losses.

"Mike's a strong guy. He'll be able to bounce back from it, I'm sure," Silas said. "My condolences out to his family, that's a hard month."

"What we've talked more about with him is not trying to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders and there are certain things that come up that he's just not in a position to do anything about right now in his life," Patton said. "We want him as best he can to get through it and we want to be there for him as a team, as a staff and give him whatever support he needs."

It hasn't been lost on DiNunno, and those memories of his grandparents and their upbringing won't stray from him in those little messages on his shoes.

"It's definitely hard but I still have responsibilities out here to the team, to the coaches and to myself," DiNunno said. "I know my grandfather would want me to respect that."

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