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The Strange, Tangled Journey of Tito Horford, Basketball Star

October 12, 1986|BILL BRUBAKER | The Washington Post

On the front porch of her four-room brick house in La Romana, a sugar-mill town on the south coast of the Dominican Republic, Ana Graciela Baltazar sat in her favorite wooden rocking chair, pondering the confused life of the most celebrated of her seven children: 7-foot-1, 250-pound Alfredo William (Tito) Horford.

Normally, Baltazar is an agreeable woman, quick to smile, easy to please. But on this recent afternoon, as she considered the recruitment of her son by American college basketball coaches, Baltazar frowned, her eyes narrowed, and her voice rose in anger, as she said in Spanish: "Lies! Lies! Lies!"

The words came without hesitation, as Baltazar reflected on the four-year-long odyssey that has taken her now-20-year-old son from the Dominican Republic to Texas to Louisiana to Washington, D.C., to New Jersey to Florida--all in the name of basketball.

"We were promised so many things for Tito," Baltazar said, eyes ablaze. "But we received nothing for Tito, absolutely nothing."

As his mother spoke, Tony Baltazar--Horford's 28-year-old half-brother--emerged from the house, bare-chested except for a knot of gold chains around his neck.

"I have told the NCAA that we were offered a supply of beef, food, medicine and money if Tito went to Louisiana State," Tony Baltazar said. "I was offered a job in Houston if Tito went to Houston. But, as you can see . . . "

He gestured toward his mother's house, where a framed picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus dominates the sparsely furnished living room. "As you can see, we got nothing for Tito," Tony Baltazar said.

Horford's mother leaned forward in her rocking chair, nodding. "Why did it have to be this way?" she said, her voice softening. "Why were we treated like this? Por que? Por que? Por que? "

Tito Horford hasn't laced up his size 17D sneakers to play one game of college basketball, but already he has created quite a stir.

Consider: In the 16 months since he graduated from Marian Christian High School in Houston, Horford has enrolled in three universities, accepted advice from eight lawyers, considered the possibility of turning pro and become a key witness in an investigation that has taken an NCAA enforcement representative to the Dominican Republic--twice. And the investigation isn't over yet.

Today, he is a University of Miami Hurricane--fitting, because in his whirlwind movements from campus to campus, Horford has whipped up a storm unlike any other in the history of college basketball.

Already, the University of Houston has been punished for violating two NCAA rules in recruiting Horford. Now the storm has moved to Baton Rouge, La. According to a source familiar with the investigation, Baltazar and her son Tony told the NCAA that Eduardo Gomez, a friend of LSU Coach Dale Brown, offered their family an unspecified amount of beef, food, medicine and money if Tito signed with the Tigers. Gomez, a former Dominican basketball star, was Horford's first coach.

Brown said he told Gomez not to recruit Horford for LSU and that the university did not violate any NCAA rules. In a deposition taken at LSU's request, Horford said he knew of no offers to his family. Contacted last week, Gomez said of the Baltazars' allegation: "Don't believe it, don't believe it, don't believe it. You know how the NCAA operates. The NCAA probably made all that up."

Hurricane Horford has refused repeated requests in recent weeks to be interviewed. However, from earlier interviews with Horford and from recent conversations in the United States and the Dominican Republic with the coaches, lawyers and family members who played a role in his recruitment, a picture emerges of the unholy war that was fought to sign this unpredictable athlete.

"It's the worst recruiting story in the history of the NCAA," said American University Coach Ed Tapscott, one of dozens of participants in the chase for Horford.

"Tito Horford? Don't even mention his name," said UCLA assistant coach Jack Hirsch. "Tito Horford to us is a bad dream."

"I doubt anyone's ever been the route that Tito Horford has been," Miami Coach Bill Foster said. "I don't know who is right, wrong or whatever. But, after all he's been through, Tito's got to be a little nervous about believing anybody. About anything."

He grew up in San Pedro de Macoris, a town of 78,562 on the south coast of the Dominican Republic that is famous for its smooth dark rum and for having produced more present-day major league baseball players--14, at latest count--than any other city its size.

In the summer of 1981, Horford was a highly promising pitcher who decided he had grown too tall to play baseball. "I was 15 years old, 6 feet 10 and I thought to myself, 'Gee, I think I'm going to be too tall to be a pitcher,' " Horford said in an interview in 1985. "And that's when I met Eduardo Gomez."

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