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Immigrant sports star pursues different dream far afield

Koko Kederian was a scoring power for the Lebanon national team. Today he runs a dry cleaner in Pasadena, grateful for the chance to work hard, please customers and achieve a new kind of success.

November 23, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Koko Kederian, left, who owns and operates a dry cleaning business in Pasadena, played soccer for the Lebanese national team in 1969. Both his son Joah Kederian, right, and 12-year-old nephew John Karg, center, are avid soccer players.
Koko Kederian, left, who owns and operates a dry cleaning business in Pasadena,… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

The old soccer star hobbles through the rows of plastic-covered clothes, dribbling a ball down a rocky pitch in Lebanon.

There is a dark circle of sweat forming on the collar of his gray shirt, audible cracks coming from his bowed legs, but he's moving now, racing across the fields of his past, navigating the cramped dry cleaning shop of his present.

There is a customer who has brought an American flag to the counter, and Koko Kederian needs to hustle up there and make an assist.

"Sir, sir, good news," he says. "We don't charge to clean the American flag."

Welcome to Champion Cleaners, on the corner of a weathered block of Pasadena, alive on the foot of a former star for the Lebanese national soccer team.

For 35 years now, folks have walked inside with arms full of dirty laundry, and left with pockets full of wisdom and grace.

Forced to abandon the country and game he loved because of war, Koko treats each day as if it was the World Cup. He embraces the moment, pushes the action, swarms his customers with strength and passion.

Folks leave here feeling as if he is cleaning not only their shirts, but their souls.

"This store, this is my soccer match," says Koko, 61, his eyes twinkling beneath granny glasses and a bushy beard. "I will give it every last bit of effort, I will never take my foot off the ball, and I will be grateful for every victory."

Those victories occur in a steady business from folks who drop off about 500 pieces of clothing daily, a constant stream of customers who are greeted by observations that Koko chips up like corner kicks.

"There is no stain that effort cannot remove!" … "We can easily get rid of the wrinkles in a beautiful country like America!"… "It is hot in here, but doesn't everyone feel the cool breeze of freedom?"

On one recent weekday afternoon, a customer walks in, picks up a large load of shirts, starts talking to Koko about the Lakers and education and the merits of that sandwich shop down the street, then walks out with a smile.

But without his clothes, which are still hanging by the cash register.

"Happens all the time," says Koko.

I have been that guy. As a patron of Champion Cleaners, I want to pause on this Thanksgiving to celebrate Koko, as well as many other immigrants who run their businesses with the lessons learned from playing sports in their former countries.

You know who they are. Look on the wall of the doughnut shop. Check out the door of the taco stand. You will see photos of merchants in a different uniform, from a different time, athletes who gave up the glory for solid ground.

I know gardeners who used to be boxers, mechanics who used to play baseball, and soccer players who now drive giant buses or work in mini-marts, all of them succeeding with a work ethic learned from some long-ago coach on some faraway field.

"Sometimes I watch soccer on TV, and I find myself inside that TV, on that field, wishing that was me again," says Koko. "But I needed to eat. I needed to support family. I needed to play in a different way."

Koko is a reluctant hero. There are soccer photos in the front of the store, but they are of Ronaldo, Beckham and Zidane. In the back he has one black-and-white photo of a recreation team he joined in Pasadena shortly after immigrating here 37 years ago, but it is stuck between the pages of an old calendar.

"This store is not about me, it's about how dreams can come true in America," Koko says. "I don't talk about me, I talk about those dreams."

He used to dream of being a soccer hero after joining the Lebanon national team at age 21 as a left-footed star for whom fans chanted, "Ko-ko, Ko-ko." He scored two goals in several games. He won one game with a bicycle kick.

"He had that amazing left foot," says Josef Momjian, another former Lebanon team member who owns a soccer store down the street from Koko's cleaners. "He was a scoring power."

But when the country's civil war broke out in 1975, Koko no longer felt safe and fled to the United States. He landed here with $1 in his pocket. His soccer career was finished.

"Forget sports, it was either make money or starve," he says.

He worked for a couple of years as a shoe designer, using a skill he learned in Lebanon, then borrowed some money to buy then-tiny Champion Cleaners. He had never washed a towel. He had never folded a shirt. But he saw it was a business that could be transformed by hard work, so he jumped in.

"I transferred all my soccer strength into this store, and I truly believe that only God could have stopped me," he says.

Thirty-five years later, the business is booming, Koko is an American citizen, and he and his wife, Vicki, have raised four children in a comfortable Altadena home. The brood includes son Joah, a former college soccer star who also gave up the sport to work in the dry cleaners.

"It's what my dad did for us, so I am doing it for him," Joah says. "It's family."

The old soccer star's only real souvenir from his glory days is never seen at the shop. It is a red jersey from an Armenian club team in Lebanon. Joah wore it, and now Koko's grandson John wears it, new generations carrying memories of past triumphs, the old soccer star's last thread of fame. The only problem with the shirt is that it's so old, it's falling apart, so it comes with a very specific cleaning instruction.

The most important article of clothing in the closet of a guy who owns a dry cleaners is never washed.

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