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Before & After : Things Didn't Work Out as Expected for Former Santa Ana Stars

November 21, 1995|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Tuioti sat down to write a letter last August. His wedding was approaching and thoughts drifted back. There was a lot to remember.

Had it been seven years already? Those days with Scootie, Bobby, Robert and all the guys he had grown up with, played sports with, from the Jerome Center until they graduated from Santa Ana High School in 1988. They had been winners. More importantly, they had been friends.

Most were coming to the wedding.

Scootie Lynwood was coming. He wouldn't miss it. He had always been their leader, their voice and, of course, their point guard. When they wanted to do something, anything, they cleared it with Scootie. He had been an author of the pact. They would always attend the weddings. Yeah, Scootie would be there.

Others would not.

Bobby Joyce would be missing. Man, no one played basketball like Bobby Joyce, with those long arms and that big grin. At one time, you said Adam Keefe, Don MacLean and Bobby Joyce in the same breath. Two are now in the NBA. Bobby is now a rumor. People have seen him here or there. He has done this or that.

Robert Lee, the best friend a guy ever had, also would not be there. He was the greatest running back in the world--so Tuioti thought at one time. Didn't he outplay Glyn Milburn one night? Milburn is now in the NFL. Robert stopped running after high school, at least with the football.

"We've been through so much, all of us," Tuioti said. "There was never a nickel between us. We ate at each other's houses. We slept at the houses. I had to let Robert know I still loved him."

Tuioti, who provides security at a juvenile halfway house, wrote to Lee, who is serving a five-year sentence for armed robbery at Ironwood State Penitentiary in Blythe. The Himalaya-like crevice that separated their lives didn't matter. They were still best friends. The memories were there. Good memories.

They didn't lose a football or basketball game as freshmen in 1984-85. They won a Southern Section football championship as sophomores, reached a second title game as juniors and the semifinals as seniors. In basketball, they won three Century League titles and reached the section semifinals as seniors.

On graduation day, they huddled under a tree, crying.

"This is it, this is it," Lynwood kept repeating.

Joyce stopped him and said, "No, we'll never be apart."

Athletics would take them far, that had always been the plan. But they would stay together. That, too, was the plan.

Tuioti finished the letter. . . . If you were here, Robert, you'd be my best man . . .

Tuioti got married that week. But there were gaps in the wedding party. No Robert. No Bobby.

Jerome Center All-Americans

It's rough at Jerome Center.

The first time Rick Bentley took that fifth-grade basketball team there, he also took the police. The court was cleared for two hours while his youth team practiced. The routine lasted for a week and the message got through. For two hours each day, the Sixers had the court in the older residential area, north of Santa Ana Valley High.

It made the Sixers special.

Lynwood, Lee and Willie Lane were the first to join. They had been in diapers together. Then Lynwood brought in Joyce, a lanky kid who spoke Spanish. Tuioti and the others followed. They were the Bills when they played football in the fall. They were the Sixers the rest of the year.

"There were guys I knew who had been in and out of jail," Tuioti said. "They would just hang out on the street and the cops would hassle them. They always told me, 'You got the sports and you got the grades. This is not for you.' They pushed us all away."

Tuioti would walk to Lee's house, then they would pick up Lynwood, then Joyce and the others. Gang turf changed with each block--Bloods, Crips, F-Troop. But no one shot at them, no one even hassled them. Sometimes they would run, but not out of fear. It was training.

Even before high school, they were local legends. They did not lose a football game from the sixth grade through junior high. The Sixers went 180-2 during that time. They swore they would go to the same high school.

"You heard these kids were coming," said Century basketball Coach Greg Coombs, then at Santa Ana. "When they were freshmen, we would walk into gyms and people would be talking about this freshman class at Santa Ana."

As freshmen, they were 10-0 in football and won their first basketball game, 128-37, and didn't come close to losing all season. It was heady stuff.

Said former Santa Ana assistant Greg Katz: "We always told them, 'Don't be a Jerome Center All-American.' "

The Long Fall

Dale Jordan, who works at Valley Liquor in Santa Ana, has known Lee for years. As kids, Lee, Lynwood and Lane would come into the store to buy candy. So Jordan knew the face that night in 1992. He just didn't recognize the man.

Lee stumbled in, shot in the leg and side.

"He was dripping blood and I said, 'Robert, what happened?' " Jordan said. "He didn't say a word. He grabbed three half-gallons of liquor off the shelf and walked out."

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