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COLUMN ONE

7 Feet 1 Times 2? A Stretch

The Lopez twins, 18, tower over friends and basketball rivals alike. Their mother helps keep them down to earth, but it's a tall order.

April 25, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — It happened every game. Brook and Robin Lopez loomed head and shoulders above the competition in claustrophobic high school gyms across the Central Valley.

Win or lose, opposing basketball players and even coaches cornered the towering 18-year-old twins for snapshots and autographs. Giggling girls who barely reached their waistlines compared hand sizes. Everyone wanted a piece of them.

There's a lot to go around.

At 7 feet 1, the Lopez twins are celebrities. In an era of high-flying giants showboating on sports TV, even hyper-tall schoolboy athletes are now hero-cool.

And the brothers are still growing.

Wherever they go, the twins draw a crowd -- and not just on the basketball court, where they block shots without jumping and hunch down to high-five ordinary-size teammates.

At a volleyball game in nearby Madera, one woman ogled the boys' size-20 shoes: "Look at the size of their feet!"

"Oh my God," another stammered. "There's two of them!"

At San Joaquin Memorial High School, where pressures to fit in are fierce, they're the big kids on campus. Students follow in their wake as the twins make their way through a miniature world. They stoop to avoid banging their heads while entering classrooms, contorting themselves into Lilliputian desks -- legs outstretched like felled trees.

While one 7-footer can command awe, twin teen skyscrapers weighing 250 pounds apiece are attention squared.

Strangers approach them at fast-food restaurants with questions about their insatiable appetites, which can lead each to consume an extra-large pizza or four Big Macs at a sitting.

The twins take the attention in stride. "If things work out," Brook said in a soft baritone, "this could be even bigger."

Brook and Robin -- who averaged 17 and 12 points per game, respectively -- helped lead their hoops team to a 33-4 record before the Panthers lost in the state semifinals. The twins were among 24 high school seniors named to the McDonald's All-American Basketball Team, an elite talent showcase. This fall, the brothers will play at Stanford University on full scholarships. After that, most people here expect them to graduate to the National Basketball Assn.

Twin phenoms like the Lopez boys have few peers. The 7-foot Collins twins, Jarron and Jason, played for Stanford before joining the NBA in 2001. Jim and Mike Lanier, listed as the tallest twins in the world at 7 feet 6, also played college basketball in the 1990s.

Experts say the odds of being 7 feet tall in America are incredibly small. "If you walked into a pediatrician's office, they couldn't tell you what percentile a 7-footer would be in," said Richard Steckel, an Ohio State University professor who has studied height. "It would be 99.99999. The nines would go on forever. To have twin 7-footers, well, that's off the charts."

Steckel said such height now brings star status: "Public perception of the incredibly tall has gone from freaky and gawky to admiration and even envy."

Deborah Ledford insists her sons are average kids. And the 56-year-old single parent, who also raised two other sons, works tirelessly to provide them with typical small-town childhoods.

Ledford, who teaches high school math and German, hounds the twins about doing homework, taking out the garbage and reading books outside class. She monitors whom they talk to and where they go. Recently, she phoned another parent to make sure adults would be present at a school party that night.

"Mom, don't," Brook bellowed, hanging his head.

The twins are honor students with near 4.0 averages. They like classical music and draw their own cartoon characters, as well as still-lifes that crowd the walls of their home. They say they don't smoke or drink or have romances that would cloud their focus -- just a wide social network.

"What's important is that my boys are good people," Ledford said. "That's bigger than their accomplishments. They're normal boys who happen to be tall."

The boys are comic book fanatics, and their breakfast talk more often revolves around Batman, Flash or the Teen Titans than school or sports. Their cramped bedroom is full of childhood mementos: 3-D glasses, superhero dolls, Disney figurines, plastic light sabers and children's books such as "Cinderella" and "101 Dalmatians."

On each twin bed sits a mangled stuffed animal the boys have had since infancy. Brook's is a tiger, Robin's a crocodile. "Losing any of this would be like losing a part of myself," Brook said. "I guess I'm still just a big kid."

The fraternal twins have their differences. Brook wears his hair short while Robin prefers a wilder frizzy look. In basketball, Brook is more of a scorer and natural center; Robin is the shot-blocker.

Outgoing Brook is more likely to hassle referees over calls. He recently played a police officer in a class production of "West Side Story." His friends call him Mini-Me. Quiet Robin would often rather sketch than carry on a conversation.

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