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For love of the games: Examples of why sports matters

A behavior therapist with a learning disability, a blind baseball fan and a high school football player all have something in common: a love for the game.

September 04, 2011|By Matt Stevens
  • Julius English, working with Paloma Hernandez on a playground at the L.A. Speech and Language Therapy Center, says that "you can teach a kid with special needs anything. You just have to figure out how." Which is where sports can come into play.
Julius English, working with Paloma Hernandez on a playground at the L.A.… (Arkasha Stevenson/Los…)

Julius English works as a behavior therapist for children with special needs and, over the years, has developed a magical touch. The 39-year-old has a learning disability, but basketball has helped him push his limits. That's one reason English uses the game in his work: He teaches basketball to his new students and spends his weekends playing with former ones as a way to reconnect. The game means a lot to English because his life hasn't always been this fulfilling.

Eric Calhoun doesn't play baseball, but he's the biggest fan at college and minor league parks across the Southland. The 37-year-old has been going to games for almost 15 years, but it's not easy for him to get there. He's blind and not well off financially, which makes almost every task a challenge. But Calhoun gets by because baseball fills a void. At home, life is lonely and full of frustration. At the ballpark,he says, everything is "different."

Nixon Toledo is a suburban kid who is the captain of his Canoga Park High football team. He's a decent student and a decent athlete, but he's probably not getting a scholarship for either. He's just a teenager who needed football to help him grow up. And now that he's older, he loves the game because of what it has done for him.

These three people live dissimilar lives, but they share a common conviction: They each believe deeply in the power of sports. Their stories show us why.

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English credits his learning disability to his mother's drug addiction. He credits basketball for just about everything else.

He couldn't read until he turned 10, and he knew that "wasn't normal." His father was gone, and his family moved constantly, but English picked up basketball at age 5. And there were courts to play on no matter where he went.

"[Basketball] was the one thing I could do to get away from the house, and I didn't want to be there," English said. "I had so much anxiety. … Basketball was the one thing I was able to do where I didn't have to write, and I didn't have to read."

English was cut from his seventh-grade team because he was undersized and overweight. But in a year's time, he sprouted past 6 feet, cut his hair and grew into his body. He changed so much that the coach who cut him didn't recognize English the next year. Given a chance, he dunked his way to middle-school fame.

But just as he was gaining traction, English had to move again from Sacramento to Bakersfield. He'd end up transferring to six high schools during his freshman year, and one day, after practice, his mother moved and did not take him with her.

Though English had just been bumped up to varsity basketball as an underclassman, grades were out and his GPA was terrible. So English transferred schools again and stayed in places like the top level of a bus station. Eventually he settled in at an abandoned house next door to his best friend, Wade Tavorn. After he grew tired of getting his electricity from an extension cord thrown to him through the window, he went to the Tavorns' home for dinner and popped the question: Could he stay with their family?

"That was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," English said. "Actually ask someone for something."

Soon English was living a different life. His foster father refused to let English make excuses for bad grades — learning disability or not. So simply through improved work ethic, English managed to raise his marks. Any time the old anxiety would well up, his "pops" would command him to go outside and shoot hoops — just like old times.

English, who has been divorced for more than a decade, has five children of his own and gives them similar advice about sports and life. He has shared a lot about himself but has yet to tell his children about his learning disability.

"They wonder why I'm so hard on them," English said.

English stopped coaching in the NBA Development League in 2009, but he still plays on weekends. Meanwhile his doctor helps him learn the material he needs for his associate's degree by turning history lessons into sports stories. When he returns to his job in the public school system, he will play basketball with whichever kid he's working with because he knows that other children will join in.

When time permits, English even checks in on former students. That's why he's spending one Friday evening at Balboa Park playing H-O-R-S-E with 19-year-old Xavier Alfonzo — a special-needs student he worked with for four years who some said had no shot to graduate from high school.

Alfonzo couldn't verbalize words until he turned 13 but now has a college-level vocabulary. Alfonzo acknowledges that school was "a little impossible," and before meeting English, he would try to "coerce" people into doing things for him.

But English introduced Alfonzo to basketball, and with a backward hook shot, Alfonzo won five championships in small local leagues.

Alfonzo graduated in June and was asked to the prom along the way.

He calls it "history in the making," and one expert agrees.

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