Illustration by Hallie Bateman || halliebateman.com
Daniel LaRusso. Daniel-san. The scrawny little scrapper who taught generations of kids to stand up to bullies, to believe in themselves, to seek out teachers in the most unlikely places. It's hard to think of him as anything else. That's why I'm here.
He sees me coming as I walk toward the front door of his house, only half a mile away from his childhood home in Reseda, California, and greets me outside like we're old college roommates. And really, save for the wrinkles around his eyes, he still appears to be about college age. For a man who was once California’s premier under-18 karate champion—someone who achieved more in his teens than most people can hope to achieve in a lifetime—he looks pretty good. Pretty pretty good.
As we approach his comfortable but understated house, he sees me notice the slight limp in his step.
“Yeah, people in the neighborhood would always come up to me and yell, ‘sweep the leg!’” he recalls, flashing his trademark boyish smile. It quickly fades. “Then they would actually do it. They would actually sweep my leg. My knee is pretty shot now.”
Once inside we walk to the kitchen, where I take a seat on a stool at his island and accept his offer of a bottled water. While he grabs a pair from the fridge, I comment on the proliferation of bonsai trees throughout the house. There are hundreds of them—on every shelf, on all the tables, and even lining the staircase.
“After the karate thing died down a bit, it turned out that bonsai trees were in surprisingly high demand," he says. "So Mr. Miyagi and I went into business together. We called ourselves ‘Miyagi & San.’ His idea. Funny, right?"
And then, somewhat quietly, he adds, “We were the largest distributer of bonsai trees in the States for a while there.”
He quickly changes the subject, and that’s the extent to which he’ll even mention his post-teen success for the rest of the day. I learn later from Johnny Lawrence, a close friend of LaRusso’s since the fateful tournament changed both their lives, that Miyagi & San is actually a multi-million dollar business that employs over three hundred people, all of whom share in the profits equally. “He really took Miyagi’s ‘be humble’ thing to heart. He’s a good kid,” Lawrence says. “He’s gotta get that knee checked out though.”
Since Miyagi died of natural causes in 2002, LaRusso has for the most part been managing the business on his own. But the 18-hour days left little time for much of anything else, let alone two kids and a marriage. LaRusso grows somber when discussing his former marriage to Ali Mills, the girl who stole his heart back during his days as a karate champ, but he seems unable to stop himself—waxing poetic about what a cute couple they were; how for so long it was so good. “I definitely take responsibility for what happened," LaRusso admits. "I mean, bottom line is that I spent too much time paying attention to these little potted trees and not enough time on my family.”
When Miyagi’s health began failing in 1999, it was Mills who stepped up and helped with the business. But after two kids and three years of doing triple duty as wife, mother, and horticulturalist, she needed something else. She decided to go back to school, and it was there, in her intro to documentary filmmaking class, that she met her current husband, a documentarian who rode the world’s fascination with wheatgrass smoothies to an Academy Award.
“It was supposed to be a few classes, something to keep her mind active between driving the boys to soccer practice and orthodontist appointments,” LaRusso explains. “Things unraveled so quickly. It seemed like overnight we were over and she was living in Beverly Hills. We share custody, but you know, they’ve got a lot more stuff than I do. Kids like stuff.”
He shows me pictures of the family when we walk through the living room, Mills still in all of them. He heads back into the kitchen to throw our empty bottles in the recycling bin, shouting over his shoulder, “You should really meet them though! They’re great kids!”
As if on cue, I hear a distant car door slam shut. The front door opens to the two boys from the pictures—the older one a dead ringer for LaRusso. They run into the foyer, head straight for the coat rack, and start compulsively taking their jackets on and off, on and off.
“Dad! We just saw the sickest movie at mom’s house,” the older one calls out.
LaRusso comes back from the kitchen and instantly recognizes the move, his shoulders sagging.
“The Karate Kid!” the other one shouts over his brother, before adding, “Jaden Smith is so cool!”
“Well, that jacket thing doesn’t really work,” LaRusso offers softly. “But you know, guys, if you want a lesson or two, I can show you a few tricks I picked up when I was young. I can teach you how to wax a car, which actually helps a lot when you’re trying to –”
His 11-year-old interrupts. “Why would someone wax their own car? Aren’t there people to do that for you?”
LaRusso swallows hard. It’s clear he’s troubled by the idea of losing his boys to the Beverly Hills way of life, though as the boys’ attention quickly turns from karate to their iPads, I can’t help but think the fight has already been lost.
“Kids are different now,” LaRusso says once the boys have gone upstairs. “If they have a question, they Skype me from their room even when I’m just down the hall. When I had a question, I’d walk the twenty yards to Mr. Miyagi’s house.” He takes a beat. “But I guess I’m just old fashion that way.”
After a few more minutes, he shows me out and thanks me for coming. I assure him it was my pleasure, but as I leave, I slow up and watch him walk through his garage and into a side door we didn’t cover on the tour. Curious, I look through a window and see him pull back a sheet to reveal the yellow convertible Miyagi gave him more than 30 years ago. LaRusso limps around to the other side of the car, rolls up his sleeves, and begins to wax. On and off, on and off, back to the place that brought him his confidence, his place in the world, and his peace of mind.
In a world filled with leg sweeps, it’s good to know there is always a way to get back up.
Robert Mark Kamen is in the process of writing the third part of the Taken trilogy. Tory Kamen, his daughter, is studying Writing and Literature at New York University.
While the SI magazine editors were busy catching up with for-real former players, we turned our attention to those athletes of yesteryear who actually made an impact on the world: the fictional ones. Extra Mustard will be posting the whereabouts of six iconic sports-movie protagonists, as described by those characters' creators. Here's who's coming soon.
Wednesday, July 3: Adam McKay on Ricky Bobby, from Talladega Nights (2006)
Friday, July 5: Sam Harper on Henry Rowengartner, from Rookie of the Year (1993)
Wednesday, July 10: Aaron Mendelsohn on Buddy, from Air Bud 1-5 (1997-2003)
Thursday, July 11: Tim Herlihy on Bobby Boucher, from The Waterboy (1998)
Friday, July 12