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Finding Release With Clippers : After Serving Time in Prison, Free Agent Orlando Vega Tries to Revive Basketball Career

October 17, 1994|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ron Harper, former shooting guard on the Clippers' chain gang, couldn't wait to get out.

"Just doing my jail time," inmate Harper complained in February as he marked off calendar dates until he was "freed" this season to sign a $19-million contract with the Chicago Bulls.

Orlando Vega, former shooting guard for Sandstone Federal Correctional, couldn't wait to get in. Last week, he signed a free-agent contract with the Clippers.

During three years spent in federal penitentiaries, sweating out a sentence for cocaine possession, Vega never tipped a limo driver, cashed a million-dollar check or made a bounce pass to Danny Manning.

Vega's prison was different from the one Harper knew.

Vega cried a lot in his. Ached for his wife and young son. Beat himself up for derailing one of the most promising and self-destructive basketball careers this side of Lloyd Daniels.

Vega stared at walls, talked to himself, got in scrapes. The worst was in Colorado, when he belted and bloodied an inmate who picked a fight with him on--where else?--a basketball court.

That earned Vega a transfer to Sandstone in Minnesota.

Behind walls, Vega played solitaire as contemporaries signed on the dotted line for NBA fortunes: Alonzo Mourning, Chris Jackson, Billy Owens, Shawn Kemp.

From prison, Vega watched via satellite the Puerto Rican national team win the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana without him. Vega, whose father is Puerto Rican, would have been on that team. "I sat inside and watched those guys win the gold medal and it almost broke me down," Vega said, sitting sprawled on a folding chair in UC Irvine's Bren Center, during Clipper training camp.

Vega, 6 feet 2, 190 pounds, is a long shot to make the Clippers, yet outside shooting happens to be Vega's forte.

Shooting guard is not exactly a Clipper strength. Terry Dehere, who averaged 5.3 points in 64 games last season, inherits Harper's position.

"The odds are against him making it," Clipper Coach Bill Fitch says of Vega. "The odds are against anyone coming in undrafted and unheard of making it. But he's got some skills that make him a legitimate NBA candidate."

You don't think Vega wants to make good? He was tired of getting his news from jail-house rats.

It was an inmate, not a teammate, who broke the news to Vega that his idol, Laker Magic Johnson, had announced he was HIV positive.

"Everyone knew Magic was my man," Vega says. "That's all I talked about. Some guy came over and told me that, I said 'Get away from me, quit playing with me.' "

Orlando Vega?

"This guy was one of the top high school players in the country at one time," Clipper assistant coach Barry Hecker says.

You could look it up.

At the 1988 Dapper Dan Classic, one of the nation's premier showcases for high school basketball talent, Vega walked off with the most valuable player trophy, beating out teammates Jackson, Owens, Mourning and Kemp. The opposing squad featured LaPhonso Ellis and Anthony Peeler.

Then came the nose dive. It would be easy to blame it all on Vega's past.

He grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York. His mother was a drug addict, his father a vague recollection.

"I remember going to his house when I was 5 or something," Vega says, "but I can't remember actually being with him. I can't actually picture me looking at his face."

Vega hasn't seen Dad since. Orlando's mother had her own problems, so young Orlando moved in with his grandmother. When he was 12, Vega's mother re-entered his life and took him to Washington, D.C.

Vega had misgivings: "It was like, 'Where you been all this time? And you're trying to take care of me?' "

She couldn't, so she sent Orlando off to a group home, where he was educated, so to speak.

"I was around older guys, who would go out and rob, do all that type of stuff," he says. "I wasn't no goody-goody. I was right there with them, doing those things. Somehow, the ball, though--the basketball--seemed to take me."

Vega said the street thugs encouraged him to pursue basketball at Washington's McKinley High.

To get him away from the city in his senior season, a coach had Vega placed at Oak Hill Academy, a prep boarding school in Virginia.

A solid year earned Vega a scholarship to the University of Arizona, but he soon became a Proposition 48 academic casualty.

He transferred to Providence but never played. Instead, he returned to Puerto Rico and became a star on the country's professional circuit.

In June 1990, he returned to Washington to renew old acquaintances. Vega was in the apartment of a reputed drug dealer when the police raided.

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