Somogyi gets a pick-me-up as he yearns for home near holidays

Dec. 16, 2010

The Spirit of Christmas Past tugs at the heartstrings of Greg Somogyi, UCSB's Hungarian basketball center.

It's when the 7-foot-3 junior longs the most for his Budapest home.

"It is really hard, to be honest," Somogyi said. "The whole 16 years, we did the same exact routine for Christmas. We would set up the Christmas tree on Dec. 24th, have a meal, hand out presents and just hang out."

He was able to get home last summer, but even that visit filled him with melancholy.

"My grandpa is battling cancer, so it was nice to see him, but it was real emotional," Somogyi said. "It's always nice to be home, but he's not doing well. That's kind of been affecting me emotionally.

"I don't know how to deal with that."

But he got a big lift on Monday from the Spirit of Christmas Present, shopping at Kmart with two of the 49 underprivileged children who took part with the Gauchos' holiday giving program, and then got another with Wednesday's 68-62 victory at No. 22 Nevada-Las Vegas.

"Monday was phenomenal," UCSB coach Bob Williams said. "All the guys have fun with them. They were patient with them. They bonded with them. There were a lot of really cool things."

And one of the coolest was the fond memory for Somogyi that was stirred from the Christmas of 2008.

"I had the same kid that I had my first year, and it was really nice to see him grow up," he said. "He remembered me. He was one of those kids who was really shy in the beginning -- he wouldn't even look at me -- but he kind of opened up as we spent some time together."

Somogyi helped to bring him out of his shell by talking basketball.

"He's actually a pretty tall kid, and so I asked him if he plays, and he said he did," he said. "He's been to one of our summer camps. I talked to the kid's dad a little bit and he was just thankful for everything.

"They even came out to a game two years ago, and it was just nice to see them again."

Each of the children was given $100, donated by UCSB basketball boosters. Somogyi, who also shopped with a little girl, noticed how careful his young male shopper was with his money, using a good portion of it for the rest of his family.

"We talked about his little sisters," Somogyi said. "I remember him talking about buying a doll for his little sister two years ago. He said that since then, another sister was born, and so now he was going to buy presents for both.

"It was just really nice to see him because these kids are great. They only have so much but they're still looking to get some presents for their little sisters, mom and dad."

Somogyi leads the Big West Conference in blocks with 17 in seven games. He's also shooting 52.9 percent from the floor, but he'd like to contribute more than his averages of 3.7 points and 3.0 rebounds.

"I definitely feel that this is the year I need to put up some numbers and really make an impact," he said. "It's been kind of tough this year because I've been battling injuries a lot. I think I'm getting over that now."

Long road trips can be tough on his 7-foot-3 frame.

"The hotel beds kind of suck," Somogyi said. "I don't like being on the road that much. The food is different than what I'm used to back at home.

"I just like being on my own schedule, and eating my own things."

That, however, would not be Hungarian goulash -- not after rooming for two years with fellow forward Jaime Serna.

"I like Mexican food a lot," Somogyi said. "Jaime definitely can make some really good dishes. I especially like his breakfast burritos."

Wednesday's upset added some spice to a road trip that leads to No. 11 San Diego State on Saturday.

"I feel like we're on the right track," Somogyi said. "There is just so much talent on the team."

The Spirit of Christmas Future was now surging through him.

Mark Patton's column runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; e-mail: mpatton@newspress.com

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