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Sotomayor's Spirited Comeback

Burroughs senior relied on the counsel of his priest to weather a family crisis and resurrect his basketball career.

February 09, 1996|DANA HADDAD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BURBANK — With a deadly jump shot, a winning attitude and a heart seemingly as big as a school gymnasium, Jorge Sotomayor has helped transform the Burroughs High boys' basketball team after his transfer from Burbank.

Averaging 16 points a game, Sotomayor is the top scorer as well as the spiritual leader of the Indians, who are playoff contenders at 13-10, 4-5 in Foothill League play after finishing 5-17, 1-11 last season.

Sotomayor, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, dreams of playing college basketball, and he is the talk of the league.

And when Sotomayor talks these days, he has a story to tell.

Sotomayor, 17, was attending Burbank and trying to crack the Bulldogs' starting lineup last school year when his life went haywire.

An honor student, he started skipping school. His once-sparkling 3.5 grade-point average plummeted.

A Catholic who is considering the priesthood, Sotomayor held strong to his faith but stopped believing in himself.

Previously a model citizen, Sotomayor was kicked off the Burbank basketball team for disciplinary reasons after only three games.

Sotomayor said he fell into a funk because his personal life was in an uproar. His parents were headed for a separation and he could not cope.

"I was pretty down and out," he said. "But I put up an act."

During the fall of 1994, Sotomayor would check in at school in the morning, then leave early. With both parents working and his younger brother and sister at school, he would return home and go back to bed.

"I didn't want to be [at school]," Sotomayor said. "I didn't want to be anywhere."

In the afternoon, he would return to school for basketball practice.

Burbank Coach Jeff Davis was impressed with Sotomayor's attitude, hustle and shooting ability. But he was oblivious to his player's problem, even after he was told that Sotomayor cut 47 classes that semester.

"It never entered my mind that he had a psychological problem," Davis said. "Maybe it should have."

Davis eventually suspended Sotomayor indefinitely because of the cut classes. Sotomayor, who appeared in three games, never returned to the Bulldogs.

Instead, he dropped out of Burbank and enrolled at Monterey Continuation School in Burbank.

Still, Sotomayor continued to skip school, often opting to play pickup basketball games in the park.

Sotomayor credits Father Carl Tresler, a priest formerly with St. Finbar Catholic Church in Burbank, now of Resurrection Catholic Church in Boyle Heights, with turning his life around.

Tresler comes from a divorced family, so he knew some of what Sotomayor faced.

"There's been suicides and attempted suicides," said Tresler, 30. "[Some kids turn to] drugs or sex. . . .

"That's the bad side. And then there's the Jorge side, when a kid comes out of it."

Even when the rest of Sotomayor's life was spiraling downward, he looked forward to going to church, where he relished conversations with Tresler.

"He's my best friend," Sotomayor said. "We talk about everything--about life, about choices."

At the time, Sotomayor, who was so accustomed to winning, was trying in vain to keep his parents together.

Tresler finally made Sotomayor realize he was fighting a battle he couldn't win.

"I'm pretty saddened, but there's nothing I can do," Sotomayor said. "I've learned to live with it and try to move on."

His father, Jorge Sr., and mother, Ruth, are separated. They were married in Managua, Nicaragua, nearly 20 years ago. With 8-month-old Jorge, they fled to the United States when their country fell under Communist control 17 years ago.

The Sotomayors, dreaming of wealth and happiness, started their own travel agency in Burbank. But when the business failed, so did the marriage.

"All their hopes and dreams of moving into a big house and sending their children to the good schools was just demolished," Sotomayor said. "They started out loving each other, and they just couldn't stand each other anymore."

Along with his mother, brother and sister, Sotomayor moved into the Burroughs attendance area last year after the separation.

Sotomayor completed his continuation-school courses and attended summer school to ensure he would be eligible for basketball. He is on schedule to graduate this spring.

While working hard to improve his basketball skills, Sotomayor also has become more serious about his religion. Although he plans to play basketball in college, he might also pursue studies in a seminary.

"I told him, 'You remind me of me when I was your age,' " Tresler said. "In fact, I think he'll be a better priest than me. He has a real deep sense of the sacred."

On the basketball court, Sotomayor has made a big impact this season with both players and coaches.

"I've been at Canyon 14 years, and he's on my all-opponent team," Canyon Coach Greg Hayes said. "He's a success story. He's classy in victory and classy in defeat. And he is such a clutch player."

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