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Guardian Angel

Former Trojan Ayuso gets a shot at big time, thanks in large part to a mother figure

October 31, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — This is how Elias Ayuso knew he'd made it:

Driving to the basket, a move he'd made countless times before, he felt a twinge in his hamstring.

If this were Italy or Puerto Rico, if he were still playing in cramped gyms, in basketball's minor leagues, it might have taken hours or even days before he saw a doctor to treat his injury. But this was the big time, training camp for the San Antonio Spurs.

Maybe he should have panicked. Given a chance to make an NBA roster -- a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless -- the last thing he needed was a bum leg.

Instead, Ayuso felt a sense of astonishment as trainers whisked him off the floor and wrapped his leg in ice. Within half an hour, they had him at a doctor's office.

"First class," he says. "Unbelievable."

*

This was how Diane Taylor knew he'd made it.

A week before the Spurs' camp began, Ayuso came home to New Mexico to see her, this woman he calls his guardian or, in quieter moments, his second mom. The one who saved him from the streets by sheer force of her nagging. The one he fought tooth-and-nail all those years.

Usually when Ayuso visited, he'd be out the door by sunset, eager to meet with friends. Not this time.

"He was home every night to have dinner," she says. "He stayed and watched movies with us on the couch."

Taylor speaks of the way Ayuso has grown up, minding his money, careful not to let nightlife detract from his game. And something more. "He has become a caring person," she says.

Her voice is tinged with the kind of emotion only a mother -- a guardian, a second mom, whatever you call it -- can feel.

*

When the Spurs' training camp opened last month, Coach Gregg Popovich did not sugarcoat Ayuso's chances. "He might have a shot at making our team," Popovich said.

Care to put a number on it? Five percent? Ten percent?

Those odds are better than anyone would have given Ayuso 10 years ago when he ran the streets of the South Bronx, getting in fights and robbing people. Back then he called himself Larry because it sounded more American. (These days, he answers to either name.) It took the death of friends and an older brother to make him look elsewhere.

A local organization had a program that sent troubled kids to volunteer families in the West, and Ayuso landed in Roswell, N.M.

You could take the kid off the streets but, well, in his new high school the 16-year-old gambled in the hallways, beating classmates out of lunch money. His grades were bad and his volunteer family could not handle him. That was how he ended up with Taylor.

The woman is as feisty as her red hair. She grew up poor but made something of herself, married a successful accountant and raised two boys. Then she turned her sights on giving back by getting involved with the Boys Club.

Ayuso might have been the toughest kid she ever took in, but he wasn't the first, so she hit him with her standard rules. No baggy street clothes. No phone calls after 8 p.m. Every night they sat at the kitchen table for two hours while he did homework.

What choice did he have? One misstep and she would send him back to the Bronx. It made him so angry he wrote rap songs about his hatred for her.

But there was another part to the deal: If he followed the rules, he would be rewarded. Basketball was his reward.

Taylor got hold of the key to a local gym and took him there after evening schoolwork, this short woman rebounding and waving a broom in his face, pretending to be a defender while he launched shot after shot.

When he excelled as a high school player, raw but talented, she sent letters and videotapes to college coaches. She called too, at one point phoning North Carolina State and mistakenly asking for former North Carolina coach Dean Smith.

After Ayuso graduated from high school -- a feat in itself -- he spent a year at junior college before earning an athletic scholarship to USC in 1996.

Taylor traveled seven hours by car and plane from Roswell for every home game. She stood behind the bench, rattling a stick covered with bells and bangles, her "boombah," so he would know she was still there.

She kept after Ayuso, checking regularly with his school counselors. When he cursed his coach, she made him apologize to the entire team. When he accumulated $1,000 in parking tickets, she flew to Los Angeles and took back the car she and her husband had given him.

Even now, the memory makes him wince. "That's just her nature," he says.

*

You want numbers?

In his first season with the Trojans, Ayuso was named to the Pacific 10 Conference's all-newcomer team.

By the end of his college career in 1999, he had made 163 three-point baskets and 79% of his free throws, both of which put him among the top 10 on the school's all-time list. Just enough to nurture a pipe dream of playing in the NBA.

Then came the surprise. After all those years of Taylor hounding him about schoolwork, he earned a degree in social science and history. This achievement meant more to him than he could have imagined.

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