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In Trying Times, Vallely Family a Team : Basketball: After death of daughter, John and his son Eric are still focused on game, but they have wider perspective on life.

December 25, 1991|MARK SPINN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Under different circumstances, this might have been a simple story about endless hours of basketball on a driveway and a love for a game shared by father and son.

An easy, familiar story about a boy shooting a ball into a hoop again and again, marking a trail of his father's famous footsteps on asphalt and hardwood. A traditional story of competition and closeness between two generations of gifted athletes.

But basketball is only part of this story about former UCLA basketball star John Vallely and his son, Eric, a sharpshooting sophomore guard at Newport Harbor High in Newport Beach.

The friendly elements, such as those about long games of H-O-R-S-E between father and son filled with impossible shots made over and around garage walls and trees, are here. The sense of companionship and the good-natured teasing and taunting between John and Eric, father and son, coach and player, friends, are here.

And elements of sadness and loss are also here, as important a part as the NCAA tournament and the thrill of drilling a key three-pointer in a high school game last week.

Tragedy doesn't belong in this story, but it is here. But tragedy isn't the prevalent theme in the Vallely story.

John, Eric and basketball have seen to that.

"This is hard to talk about," John Vallely said, looking out a window briefly, then looking back. "But it's good to talk about."

Vallely and his wife, Karen, are talking about their daughter, Erin, who died Sept. 20 after a three-year fight against pediatric cancer. Erin was 12.

"She was in remission early, and she was three months from finishing her therapy when the cancer came back," Vallely said. "We thought we had it licked, but the cancer cells were hiding from us. . . . They hid and they came back."

When that recurrence was discovered in late spring, Erin was hospitalized. She remained in the hospital all summer.

Little remained the same for Eric or his parents during that time. John and Karen spent as much time with Erin as possible, which limited the shooting games and surfing expeditions that John and Eric were accustomed to.

"It was hard, because I was alone a lot, but I understood," said Eric, 16. "Mom and Dad both checked on me a lot, and one of them was always at my summer league games or home for dinner.

"Things were a lot different without having Dad around to surf and shoot with as much, but in some ways it was good for me. They showed they trusted me to be by myself and be responsible, and it was nice to know that."

John and Karen believe that Eric's maturity over the difficult summer has helped him in many ways, including on the basketball court.

"As a player, Eric's made a lot of progress in the last year, and I think one of the reasons for that is because he's gotten stronger and tougher mentally," John said. "Even though he's a 6-foot sophomore playing against a lot of bigger, physically stronger guys, he's not afraid of anybody out there. He's tenacious.

"I know some of that comes from his own competitive nature, but I think what we've been through as a family has also contributed to his improvement."

John, 43, went to Corona del Mar High and played two years at Orange Coast College before transferring to UCLA. With the Bruins, Vallely started for two NCAA championship teams--1969 and 1970--under John Wooden.

Vallely was a first-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks, later was traded to the Houston Rockets and played five seasons in the NBA.

Although his teammates at UCLA included Lew Alcindor, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known then, Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, many of Vallely's fondest recollections about the Bruins have to do with what he learned about life--not basketball--from Wooden.

"Coach Wooden's 'Pyramid of Success' is one of the most inspiring things I've come across in my life," Vallely said. "Coach Wooden taught me that the values and disciplines in the pyramid of success apply to every part of life, not just sports."

During Erin's illness, the Vallelys found Wooden's teachings especially relevant.

"At the top of the pyramid, success is defined as peace of mind, knowing that you've done your best to win or succeed in whatever you're doing," Vallely said. "With Erin, my heart is broken and it always will be, but I know we did everything we could and she did everything she could to beat it. Now that God's taken her, life has to go on."

At Newport Harbor, Eric averages 13 points a game. He moved up to start for the varsity after playing freshman basketball last season. Like his father, Eric is an excellent long-range shooter, and twice this season has made four three-point baskets in one game.

"Like his dad, Eric is a shooter and a tremendous competitor," Newport Harbor Coach Bob Serven said. "He's earned everything he's gotten here, including the green light to shoot whenever it's a good shot.

"He's had a great attitude all along and never expected any favoritism. He's proved he belongs at this level."

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