Myra Kremen, dean of students at South Gate High, starts to tell a story about the school's most notable athlete when she begins to cry. The name "Lorenzo" is spoken and tears flow.
It isn't because Lorenzo Mata-Real is a basketball star at UCLA. The 6-foot-9, 237-pound senior is only the backup center. He averages 3.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in 14.3 minutes a game for the Bruins, who play Western Kentucky tonight in an NCAA West Regional semifinal.
But Mata-Real has made a lasting impact at his largely Latino high school for his intrepid progress as a student, for his allegiance to his former coaches and teachers and for his acceptance of whatever role he has been given by Bruins Coach Ben Howland.
Mata-Real was the starting center for last year's UCLA Final Four team and then stepped aside as freshman star Kevin Love took over his spot. Love leads the Bruins with averages of 17.3 points and 10.6 rebounds. Mata-Real leads in gracious role changing, which doesn't surprise anyone at South Gate.
"Lorenzo was the tallest kid in school from the time he was in ninth grade," Kremen said. "But he never expected special treatment. He did detention just like everybody. Never for anything bad. The only bad thing he did was be tardy sometimes. Oh, and once he lost a geography book. I told him, 'Lorenzo, I know you play basketball but you have to pay for the lost book like everybody else.' And he did."
Kremen is also the timekeeper at most sporting events at South Gate and she was touched earlier this basketball season when she noticed Mata-Real arrive at a game.
"He came in the back door with his sweat shirt hood pulled over his head," she recalled. "He didn't want everyone to make a big deal or stop and look at him. He just snuck in the back and sat in the stands."
And that's what makes Mata-Real both admired and respected at South Gate. It isn't that he plays for one of the best college basketball teams in the country. It's that he comes back to high school to say hi to his history teacher, Ron Davis, to speak to players on Coach Lester Sanchez's basketball team and to help Kremen operate the clock. "He did that this year," Kremen said. "There was a problem, I asked him to help and he did."
The big reaction he gets to the little things he does surprises Mata-Real, but he also understands.
"Every time I go back, people want to talk to me and ask me questions, and every time I look at them and wonder why," he said. "But I guess they just think about me as a success story, so that's cool."
Raymond Villalba and Joshua Suarez were both seniors on this season's South Gate team. They know Mata-Real mostly by reputation because they were freshmen when Mata-Real led the Rams to an 18-8 record and an unprecedented unbeaten Eastern League season by averaging 25 points and 18 rebounds.
Villalba and Suarez are going to Long Beach State in the fall, not for basketball but for education. That Mata-Real is playing in the Sweet 16 tonight will make for some rowdy rooting, Villalba said. The knowledge that Mata-Real will probably leave UCLA with his degree in history has made a deeper impression.
"Lorenzo is a Mexican American like most of us here and it has been so great to see him go to a Division I school and play basketball," Villalba said. "There haven't been many Hispanics who do great at basketball. But he's also getting a degree from UCLA and that doesn't happen for many of us either. He's a great role model."
Mata-Real recalls that when he was a South Gate student, "I always thought . . . it would be cool if other guys had come back. Now I can tell guys that no matter what you can make it.
"I wasn't always the greatest student or the greatest player that there ever was, but if you have people to tell you not to quit, that really helps."
Davis was Mata-Real's 11th-grade history teacher. Davis wore a UCLA polo shirt to school Monday, partly in honor of Mata-Real but mostly because he is a UCLA graduate. Davis first noticed Mata-Real because of his height.
"He was a 6-7 ninth grader," Davis said. "We just don't see that much at this school. I'm a tall guy myself so I introduced myself by walking up to him and saying, 'It's nice to see someone here taller than I am.' He just gave me a sheepish smile and lowered his head.
"When I had him for U.S. history as an 11th grader, at first I noticed he wasn't doing all the work. I spoke to his mother [Reyna Real] and his coach and pretty soon Lorenzo was buckling down. He was no dummy at all. What shocked me, though, was when I found out he was majoring in history in college. He never told me, but he told others it was because of me."
It was. "I didn't always like history until Mr. Davis," Mata-Real said. "Then he made me laugh in history. Now I love it."
Said Davis: "I see him now, how he comports himself at UCLA, how he has handled success and adversity with class. I love the kid."