State of the Hogs: Dr. Pookie excelling in corporate, just as he did on the court

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, March 2, 2018
Arkansas senior guard Jonathon Modica brings the ball up the floor during the Hogs' 85-81 overtime win over Florida on Feb. 18, 2006, in Bud Walton Arena.
( Andy Shupe)
Arkansas senior guard Jonathon Modica brings the ball up the floor during the Hogs' 85-81 overtime win over Florida on Feb. 18, 2006, in Bud Walton Arena.

— There are always impressive “legends” when the SEC introduces a former star from every school at the SEC Tournament. No offense to anyone else, but Arkansas will bring in the legend of legends next week in St. Louis.

I'm talking about ability and academics. The SEC will honor Dr. Pookie.

That's what journalism professor Gerald Jordan calls Jonathon Modica. Never mind that the Smackover native hasn't really been Pookie for the last decade. He's moved on to the corporate world, now at Adobe's corporate office in San Jose, Calif., the senior human resources business partner for the massive Silicon Valley software company.

A phone call to Modica didn't disappoint. He feels blessed to have landed so high in the corporate world after earning three degrees at Arkansas. He completed his playing days as No. 2 on the school's all-time SEC scoring list, just 11 points behind Corliss Williamson.

Modica is 12th on the all-time UA scoring list with 1,589 points. For perspective, remember he played in the methodical system of Stan Heath, sometimes coming off the bench to replace Heath signees that had less ability.

It was always strange to see Olu Famutimi in the lineup ahead of Modica most of the 2004-05 season. Famutimi was Heath's guy, a McDonald All-American who wasn't the same after knee surgery. Modica deserved that spot.

I remember Modica as Nolan Richardson's last recruit, signed in the early signing period before the coach with the national championship was fired in March. Andre Iguodala was also in that early signing class, but he opted out after Richardson was fired and landed at Arizona.

Not Modica. He was going to be a Razorback from the start, no matter the coach. He does like to think of himself as a Richardson recruit. He was offered by Mike Anderson on the phone and committed in the next breath.

“It happened all of a sudden,” Modica said. “I didn't think I was on their radar, and maybe I wasn't until I went to a show case that summer. I started to get some calls and the next thing I knew, Coach Anderson called. He said they were going to offer.”

Well, what did that mean, an offer then or an offer at some point later? Modica didn't wait for an interpretation.

“I just told him, 'I commit,'” he said. “I wasn't sure he was serious, but I didn't want to wait. It was all I ever wanted.”

There were hints of other offers. Buzz Peterson at Tennessee was calling after the trip to the Bob Gibbons showcase in Atlanta. Peterson said he was going to offer based on a Gibbons recommendation.

It never got serious with anyone else.

“I wanted to play for Coach Richardson,” Modica said. “I was really pleased that after I committed on the phone Coach Richardson still flew to El Dorado and came to see me play (in Smackover). He came to my home, a real home visit.

“I still look at it as I was in a unique position, his last player. There were some others on campus who came in before me, but I made it all the way to the end. I wanted to represent him and of course our state. I wanted to help move our team forward.

“I tried not to think about some of the things that were going on with Coach Richardson, just focus on what I could do for the Razorbacks and our state.”

Modica did so much. He had that great power jump shot that produced three-pointers in streaks, such as the day before the Super Bowl in 2006 when he hit six 3-pointers and scored 37 points in a big win over South Carolina.

He could go get his misses, too, with a great first step to the rim. He had his share of thundering dunks, too.

It was on from almost the start of his career. I recognized it and asked for an interview. Engaging, bright and articulate is what I found. Instantly, he was one of my favorites. Apparently, he was the same in the journalism department where he bonded with both Jordan and Jan Wicks, an advertising specialist.

Jordan and Wicks would become Modica's mentors. He leaned on both when he decided professional basketball in Turkey wasn't his thing.

“I remember running into Pookie at the airport on his way to Turkey,” Jordan said. “We talked a little. I think he was already with an understanding that it wasn't going to advance his career.”

Modica was back in one month, enrolled to finish his degree. He would add a masters in journalism and a doctorate in education.

“I recall the thinking in Turkey, vividly,” Modica said. “I had decided that academics was going to maximize my potential, not basketball. Did I think I could go there and play and be noticed by the NBA? Yes, everyone has that dream.

“But I had other things on my mind and I felt very good about returning to school, about what I might accomplish and prove that I was more than an athlete. I thought the academic piece would become more valuable than basketball.”

That's vision beyond his age.

“It really was,” Jordan said. “I found Jonathon to be extremely bright from the first time I had him in class. That might have been in his sophomore year. I think it was reporting and editing.”

Modica will be thinking about Jordan and Wicks as he's honored in St. Louis.

“Honestly, those two played a significant role in where I'm at today,” he said. “They prepared me for graduate school when I returned from Turkey. They helped me develop a high curiosity in progressing toward more degrees and what it might provide.”

Modica said Jordan would “encourage, provide positive reinforcement and instructive criticism” throughout the process toward three degrees.

“It was a realization of all the things (three degrees) could lead to in my career, one of them perhaps dean of a college,” Modica said. “There was a clear path to so many different corporate options, too, maybe that I didn't realize were available to an African-American. I had read the stats for what was there for an African-American without degrees. I was very motivated.”

A great business career is already well down the road. He supports three of the top vice presidents at Adobe.

“Where I'm at now at 33 is far different than if I'd stayed in Turkey,” he said. “Just think, even if it had gone great, at 33 it would be on the downside of my basketball time. I look at where I'd be starting now.”

Jordan agreed.

"He's mature beyond his years and that's why I give a tip of my cap," Jordan said. "He has a great view of the world. At that age, few could have seen it and he did. He knew how he was going to fit. What I always saw in Jonathon was great character, just tremendous.”

The family side is going well, too. He and wife, Kisha, are parents of 3-year-old Berkley. There is tremendous pride in being a dad.

“You do things in the corporate world that give you pride, accomplishments,” he said. “Then, you come home and there is your daughter and that's more significant. You are grinding hard all day, but when you see her, there is new energy and there is nothing like it. You just push harder.”

It's that kind of brilliance that Jordan talks about. There is also a Mississippi game that perturbed Jordan because Modica was already talking like a mature parent if the professor would listen.

“Ole Miss had a little guard, maybe 5-4, they called Webster – his name was Jason Harrison – and they beat us with him making threes,” Jordan said. “He made one from the corner and posed. It infuriated me. I was irate.”

Jordan had both Ronnie Brewer and Modica in class the next morning.

“I'm a (UA) grad and a fan,” Jordan said. “So I sometimes see things just like that. I take it very serious. I can get worked up. I told them both, 'Why didn't you guys just go over there and smack him when he posed? You can't let him do that on our court!'

“Pookie just smiled. He told me, 'Professor Jordan, you know it's just a game. You don't smack someone on the court.' His principle was obvious and he's just so smart.”

Asked for memories of games, there were others that Modica preferred to revisit.

“I remember several, but I'll start with my first exhibition game,” Modica said. “I got a chance to start because another player was being reprimanded, a Stan Heath recruit. I got the opportunity and it went well. I established credibility as a player.”

If there was any doubt, Modica exploded later that season with a 26-point game on the road against a good Florida team. He went 7 of 12 from the field, 5 of 6 on threes and 7 of 9 from the line. He added 5 rebounds and 2 steals in 34 minutes.

“That one was big for me,” Modica said. “I felt like I belonged on the stage and it allowed me to focus on the things that would make me a better player, knowing I was going to play.”

Modica followed the Florida game with 26 points in an upset win over Alabama the next game. He led the Razorbacks with 11.5 points per game as a freshman and 16.5 points per game as a sophomore.

But things were different for his junior year. Heath brought him off the bench, a perplexing development.

“There was a lot of figuring out for me to do as a junior,” Modica said. “There was disagreement with what was taking place. Some younger guys were rotating in front of me. I wasn't happy, but I took advantage of the playing time I did get.

“What I knew was that I was a Razorback and to make the most of it. That was always the most important thing. I tried to keep my enthusiasm up and remind myself that as a young kid in Smackover all I ever wanted was to be a Razorback. I tried to just be that kid from Smackover.”

No doubt, I always recognized him as that kid, just Pookie. Is he still Pookie? No one calls him that in Silicon Valley.

“Well, maybe not, but I'm still Pookie when I get back home, or to Arkansas,” he said. “I did recognize when it was time to be Jonathon, in this world. But, I have not gotten too good for Pookie. My grandmother provided me with that nickname and it's always going to be special.”

Jordan uses both names.

“Oh, he's Dr. Pookie to me, and that is a name without parallel,” Jordan said. “I would also say that Jonathon is the same person he was all along. Not many athletes stick with it through graduate school.”

Clearly, Modica is proud of that. But he's also proud of his Razorback heritage and will enjoy watching a good team in St. Louis.

“I'm excited,” he said. “I see some of the games and I really like the energy of this team. They have played well. I particularly enjoy watching another Union County player, Daniel Gafford, represent South Arkansas. He's a fantastic player.

“St. Louis will be great. There is not a lot of Razorback talk around here. It's going to be wonderful and I look forward to seeing old friends.”


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