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Intrepid Voyager : Juan Florez Chased Basketball Dreams on a Dauntless Trip to American Soccer

October 30, 1987|GARY KLEIN | Times Staff Writer

Juan Florez removed a shopping bag from his closet and dumped his life story onto his bed.

Family pictures, newspaper clippings about his father and letters from his friends back home in Bogota, Colombia, spilled across the mattress. A passport, a bus ticket, a marriage certificate and correspondence from college basketball coaches all over the United States were among the contents.

"All of these things are important to me in some way," Florez said as he sifted through the memorabilia. "Sometimes, I can't believe I went through all that I did to get here. But when you have a dream, well, you have to try."

Florez longed to play big-time college basketball in the United States. It was an idea kindled by Mormon missionaries who not only brought the Gospel to Bogota in the late 1970s but also packed videotapes of BYU basketball games. "Danny Ainge and all those guys," Florez said.

The dream died in Glendale during the summer of 1983 after a two-year journey through three countries and 10 times as many coaches' offices. Florez, who is a slender six feet tall, played in a national tournament in Colombia at age 15, but his skill-level and lack of size and experience were impassable obstacles on his road to the Final Four.

Along the way, Florez said he learned a lot about people, survival and relying upon one's natural instincts. He called on those experiences when he decided to redirect his efforts toward another sport.

Today, at 24, Florez has a possible shot at competing for an NCAA championship--as a starting midfielder for the Cal State Northridge soccer team, which is top-ranked in Division II.

"He's a big-game player and if he develops consistency, he could become a great player," CSUN Coach Marwan Ass'ad said. "He learns fast and works hard. He's also is very opinionated and daring."

Florez, a junior, demonstrated that he was a major risk-taker, if not a major college basketball player, when he ignored his father's advice and said adios to his parents, two sisters and a "safe future" in Colombia at age 18.

"My father was very realistic, which was one extreme, and I was a dreamer, which is another extreme," Florez said. "There was no middle point in our relationship."

Alberto Florez, Juan's father, knew some of the travails that awaited his son. Alberto studied public administration at the University of Tennessee and constitutional law in Manchester, England. He worked 10 years for Coldeportes--the Colombian Sports Institute--and was the assistant to the president of the Colombian Senate upon his death in 1985.

Adriana Florez, Juan's older sister, was allowed to spend a year as a high school exchange student in Pennsylvania to facilitate a future career in international relations. To Alberto, that was realistic.

But he told Juan, his only son, that he could afford to pay for his college education only if he stayed in Colombia. If Juan left, he was on his own.

"His arguments were, 'You don't speak English, you won't have any financial support and basketball is much better in the U. S. than it is in Colombia,' " Florez said. "That wasn't enough to stop my dreams."

Neither was the American consulate, which put a full-court press on Florez's request for a visa and rejected his application when it was discovered that he lacked finances, a grasp of the English language and a scholarship.

Florez, however, was obsessed. He looked for student exchange programs with the U. S. that wouldn't cost him any money but found none. He considered taking the illegal route through Mexico. "I was so crazy, I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I was going to get there," he said. Finally, Florez stumbled upon and was accepted for a cultural exchange program with Canada.

Canada, of course, is a great place to go if you want to learn the proper way to execute a slap shot. But the Great White North produces big-time college basketball players about as often as the U. S. qualifies for the World Cup. Still, Florez reasoned that he was only a hop, skip and jump shot away from fulfilling his dream.

For three months, Florez was one of 21 Colombians who lived with and helped teach Spanish to 21 visiting Canadians while traveling through the country's towns and villages. At the end of the three months, he left with the group for Canada where they would switch roles.

Florez set foot on U. S. soil for the first time Oct. 20, 1982, during a stopover in Miami for the group's flight to Ontario, Canada. Customs officials, wary that some members of the contingent might be exchanging more than culture during the border crossing, pulled Florez out of line and strip-searched him for drugs.

Welcome to the U. S. A., amigo .

Florez spent the next four months traveling with the group through Ontario, learning English and playing basketball whenever he could. The night before the tour ended, he called home and talked to his father for the first time since leaving Colombia.

Florez recalls the conversation:

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