For players, coaches and even one ref, the championship weekend settled by Michigan and Seton Hall a quarter century ago was a cause for joy or heartbreak—much like the years that followed
This is an article from the April 7, 2014 issue
A FEW HUNDRED steps from paradise, a roadside sign reads PRECAUCIÓN NI√ëOS JUGANDO. Careful—children playing. The town is Loíza, P.R., and the road leads to a beach along the Atlantic Ocean. Ramón Ramos lives here now. Well, he always said that after his basketball career ended, he would go home.
His coach at Seton Hall, P.J. Carlesimo, thought the 6'8", 230-pound Ramos would return as a politician. "I likened him to Bill Bradley," Carlesimo says. "People in Puerto Rico likened him to Roberto Clemente." He befriended cafeteria workers and security guards. "[He] made everybody comfortable around him," says Mark Bryant, his college and Trail Blazers teammate. "He could talk to somebody in the 'hood. He could go to the White House and talk to somebody there."
Ramos, an accounting major, sat in study hall with a pile of books beside him and a pencil behind his ear. His work ethic made him the Big East basketball scholar-athlete of the year in 1989. He urged young teammates to avoid professors who gave easy grades.
He had an NBA future but didn't seem to care if he scored. He was happy setting screens and grabbing rebounds.
That was the man they knew, sitting in the driver's seat of a borrowed red Nissan 300ZX on Dec. 16, 1989, when the car hit a patch of ice, slid off the highway and flew 40 feet into the Oregon night.
EVERYBODY AT Seton Hall knew what doctors would soon confirm: Ramos had not been drinking. He never drank. His only vice was speeding. His father had warned him to lay off the gas pedal. Police said Ramos, a rookie for Portland, was driving between 84 and 102 mph when he hit the ice.
When the Nissan landed, it rolled over eight times and ejected a very different Ramón Ramos. Bryant walked into Ramos's hospital room, saw the tubes and wires and a face he barely recognized, and walked right back out to gather himself. Doctors wondered if Ramos would survive.
Part of him did.
Ramos suffered brain damage that has rendered him childlike in some ways. He speaks slowly, in simple sentences. Even more chilling, especially for those who knew him before the accident: He has been unable to form new long-term memories. Ask Ramos who the President of the U.S. is, and he pauses before offering, uncertainly, "Ronald Reagan?" He thinks of former Trail Blazers teammate Drazen Petrovic as "from Portland ... he is a very, very good shooter," instead of as a Nets star who was killed in a car accident in 1993.
But Ramos remembers life before his crash. Give him jersey numbers of his Seton Hall teammates, and he giddily rattles off names. Twenty-three? "John Morton!" Twenty-four? "Daryll Walker!" Ramos remembers the Pirates' academic adviser ("Robin Cunningham!") and the nickname of assistant coach Bruce Hamburger ("Bruce McDonald's!"). And, of course, Ramos remembers Seton Hall's magical run through the 1989 NCAA tournament and its heartbreak in the championship game, which it lost to Michigan 80--79 in overtime.
Ramos remembers beating Duke in the Final Four. He remembers Michigan point guard Rumeal Robinson sinking the winning free throws in the final after referee John Clougherty called one of the most second-guessed fouls in college basketball history. He does not remember much about the 25 years since.
Other pivotal (and not so pivotal) figures from that Final Four have prospered or faltered in the ensuing quarter century, many of them still in the sports world. They worked and planned, making choices with enormous unforeseeable consequences. They learned that the difference between glory and a lost dream can be as ethereal as the breath blown through a referee's whistle.
Ramos has missed their lives, and in a way, he has missed his own. As his friend Félix Romàn says, "It is like time stopped."
WHEN HIS phone rang that morning with the news of Ramos's accident, P.J. Carlesimo was one of the most admired coaches in America. He had shown the country how to win, then how to lose.
Carlesimo was only 40, but he had been expecting to win big for years. "You are silly optimistic when you are young," he says. His optimism was reinforced by that of his ambitious peers. Picture them in 1980, friends and competitors in a Northeast coaching nest: Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Northeastern's Jim Calhoun, Wagner's Carlesimo, Army's Mike Krzyzewski, Boston University's Rick Pitino and Iona's Jim Valvano ... all angling for a piece of the sport, all sure they would get it.
Boeheim, Calhoun, Krzyzewski, Pitino and Valvano would combine to win 11 national titles. Only Carlesimo would not get one. In 1989 he came achingly close: Seton Hall led 79--78 in the final seconds of overtime when Clougherty blew his whistle. The Pirates looked at one another, confused. Foul on Gerald Greene? Seriously? Even Robinson, who had taken an outlet pass and was dribbling into the paint when Greene stepped in and bumped him slightly on the hip, couldn't believe it. "Honestly," he said afterward, "I thought it was kind of weak to make that call at that time."
Some coaches might hold a grudge against Clougherty for 25 years. Carlesimo couldn't hold one for 25 minutes. "John Clougherty is one of the best—if not the best—officials in the country," he said immediately after the game. "We couldn't have asked for anyone else we'd rather have make the call when the game is on the line."
That was how to lose. It made Carlesimo seem an antidote to all the con men and hucksters in college basketball. He was suddenly in demand. In late April the Associated Press sent this across the wire:
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—P.J. Carlesimo, head coach at national runner-up Seton Hall, will be the new head basketball coach at Kentucky....
Wildcats athletic director C.M. Newton had indeed offered him the job. Contract terms were set. Carlesimo consulted mentors, including Indiana's Bob Knight and Big East founder Dave Gavitt. "Virtually everyone I talked to said, 'Are you kidding me?' " Carlesimo recalls. Nothing against Seton Hall, P.J., but you don't turn down Kentucky.
He turned down Kentucky. The AP story had been premature. Carlesimo says he simply couldn't have left South Orange, N.J., at that time. In 1988 the student government had organized a campaign to fire him, but the administration had stood by him. How could he bolt a year later? Krzyzewski, who has been his friend forever, says, "The thing about P.J. is, P.J. loved Seton Hall. He loved the people there, not just the students. That's how he grew up. That was his neighborhood: Catholic, Jersey.... He was proud of that."
With Carlesimo out, Kentucky hired Pitino, who stocked the Wildcats with talent, won the national championship in 1996 and is now in the Hall of Fame.
Carlesimo could have gone to Lexington and competed for more championships. He could have stayed at Seton Hall and become New Jersey's Boeheim: a wildly successful coach who stayed put for so long, the public decided his quirks were charming. His former players would say he had mellowed and his current players would roll their eyes. The Pirates would play on P.J. Carlesimo Court. Instead, he stayed at Seton Hall for five more years, made four more NCAA tournaments and left in the summer of 1994 for the Trail Blazers, Ramos's old team, who offered big money and a job that was pure basketball: no recruiting, no academics, no alumni.
Carlesimo lasted three seasons in Portland. He earned enough respect to land three more head coaching jobs (including an interim stint with the Nets), but the general feeling in basketball circles was that Carlesimo is better suited to college.
Today casual fans know Carlesimo primarily for one incident, in 1997, when his Warriors shooting guard, Latrell Sprewell, assaulted him twice at a practice. "That trumps it," Carlesimo says. "Way more people outside of basketball know me for that."
He says he doesn't regret going to the NBA. He loved coaching at the highest level. He does not think about Kentucky much, and anyway, he admits, "it's not like they regret not getting me. Rick was the perfect choice for Kentucky."
But sometimes Carlesimo thinks about 1989. A national title would have stamped his career in a way that losing by one point did not. He doesn't have to walk far to be reminded of how close he came. He lives with his wife, Carolyn, and their sons, Kyle and Casey, in Seattle, site of that Final Four.
"That surprises me," Ramos says.
DO YOU remember the Michigan coach, Ramón? Steve ...
Yes. No, wait. Even now, 25 years later, it is hard to say who coached Michigan to the national title. Steve Fisher led the Wolverines during the tournament, but Bill Frieder had coached them in the regular season, and Frieder had recruited or hired everybody in the program. Frieder accepted the Arizona State job in early March but planned to coach the Wolverines in the tournament. Athletic director Bo Schembechler told him to leave immediately and branded him as disloyal. Schembechler handed the team to Fisher, Frieder's lead assistant.
Before Michigan even played a tournament game, the coaches' roles were cast: Frieder as the selfish opportunist who abandoned his team, Fisher as the homespun Midwesterner who deserved support. Six games later the Wolverines won the national championship. Frieder and Fisher didn't fully understand it then, but neither of them would get due credit for the achievement.
As the championship glow wore off, fans said Fisher was lucky. He agrees, to a point: "You've gotta get lucky. We could have lost the first game, [to] Xavier." For the rest of Fisher's tenure as Michigan coach, eight years, some would see him as a guy who inherited a fortune. Yeah, sure, he helped it grow a little. So what?
First people said Fisher had won with Frieder's players; he could coach but couldn't recruit. Then he brought in the Fab Five (Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson), but after they lost the 1993 NCAA final to North Carolina, people said Fisher could recruit but couldn't coach. Then Michigan got busted for a booster scandal, Fisher got fired and he was maligned in a third way: He won only because Michigan cheated.
He became an NBA assistant for a year, and then he landed hard, at San Diego State. The Aztecs had won four games the year before. Fisher's first team won five. But in year three he took the Aztecs to the NCAA tournament, and now he has had nine straight 20-win seasons in San Diego. Fisher has had a Hall of Fame career backward: He started with a national championship, then went to two Final Fours, then built a mid-major power. This season was his masterpiece: The Aztecs, unranked in the preseason, went 29--4 in the regular season, were seeded fourth in the NCAA West and made it as far as the Sweet 16.
The 69-year-old Fisher acknowledges that he's earned more respect at San Diego State than he did at Michigan. He also says that winning at SDSU has been more fulfilling for him than winning at a program such as Kansas or North Carolina would be. "If one of those opportunities would present itself—and it won't, because they're not going to hire somebody my age—I don't think I would go," says Fisher. "There is something to be said about being content with who you are and where you are."
That outlook helps explain his success. Stay positive, Fisher tells younger coaches. Listen to your players. "You have to feel [you have] the best job in the world," he says. "Don't be chasing that next job."
A cynic would say he should have given that speech to Bill Frieder in 1989. Frieder's legacy is set: He is the guy who put himself before his team and got his comeuppance. He can't change that story now, but he can dispute it. Disloyal? He talked to the Wolverines every day during the '89 tournament, with Fisher's blessing. Even now he calls them regularly. "There is no coach in America who has the relationship with their players that I do," says Frieder, now a radio analyst for Westwood One. He would coach at Arizona State for eight seasons and lead the Sun Devils to the Sweet 16 in 1995.
If Frieder wants a character witness, he can always call Fisher. The good guy and the bad guy from '89 are best friends. They live one mile from each other, talk almost every day and own real estate together. "I'm his counselor, his psychiatrist, his financial planner," Frieder says of Fisher.
They both coached Michigan to the national title, which is why, when Michigan ordered championship rings 25 years ago, Fisher put Frieder on the list of recipients. Somebody else crossed Frieder off. "Vindictiveness," Fisher says.
That summer Frieder finally got his ring. It sits in a box in his house. Fisher bought it for him.
IT WAS an amazing family, even if it was his second. Rumeal Robinson was born in Jamaica. His mother moved to Massachusetts when he was a toddler, leaving him behind to be raised by a grandmother. When Rumeal was seven, his mother sent for him, and he joined her in the Boston area, but they were virtual strangers. They fought over her strictness. He ended up sleeping in the hallway of an apartment complex and surviving on school lunches.
When Rumeal was 12, working-class foster parents named Helen and Louis Ford invited him to live in their house in Cambridge, Mass. Besides the Fords' two biological children, Rumeal would eventually share the place with as many as 12 foster kids at a time, who called the house the Ford Hotel. As a high school student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, Rumeal would run along the Charles River in a 40-pound vest before 5 a.m. In 1985, by then adopted by the Fords, he earned a basketball scholarship to Michigan, but it was controversial; he was academically ineligible as a freshman, and some wondered whether he belonged at the school. He became the story we tell ourselves when we want to believe in college sports: He worked on his writing with tutors and studied art and intended to open a gallery someday. He graduated in four years.
In January 1989, during his junior season, Robinson missed two crucial free throws against Wisconsin. He responded by shooting extra free throws at every practice. In April he sank two for the national title. He gave his championship ring to Louis, who watched from the stands in his postal worker's uniform. The following November, before a game at BU, Robinson and his Michigan teammates dined on ribs, ham, Caribbean rice and potato salad at the Ford Hotel, on a street that had recently been renamed Rumeal Robinson Way.
Today Robinson is in the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, La., for defrauding investors in a series of business scams. Court documents and testimony tell a story of strippers and expensive cars, false promises and bank fraud. Most heartbreaking: Robinson tricked Helen Ford into selling her house to a friend of his—she said she thought she was taking out a mortgage—and the two friends then sold it again at a higher price.
In an interview with ESPN in 2010, Robinson sounded like a man who didn't believe his own life story. "This ain't about Helen!" he said, and he looked into the camera and said, "Mom, it's not about you. I love you. I love you, but it's not about you. It's not! Never was."
And: "A house don't make a man or woman, but if that's the only thing you think you have, maybe you should have went to college and learned to study seven subjects or five subjects, you should have took five subjects and not just done one thing in your life."
How did the Rumeal Robinson of 1989 end up in prison? The trip was shorter than you might think. Robinson appeared to be genuinely interested in real estate, at least in the beginning. The logical move would have been to work for a seasoned developer, but in business, as on the court, Robinson wanted to run the show.
His own teammates often reminded him that forward Glen Rice, a future NBA All-Star, was their best player. At one practice a coach told Robinson, "I'm just trying to make you a great player," and Robinson snapped, "I'm already a great player!" So when he told teammates at a 2009 reunion about his various business ventures, some did not believe he could pull them off.
As his businesses collapsed, Robinson could have admitted to failure, but as teammate Mark Hughes says, "He's never been wrong in his life. That's who he is." Robinson appeared to ask almost everybody he knew for money, from former Seton Hall guard Pookey Wigington to Fisher. ("I said, 'Rumeal, I'm sorry, but I just can't do that,' " Fisher says.) After Robinson was found guilty, he didn't express contrition; he blamed his lawyer and demanded a new trial.
"I read something, the judge saying [Rumeal] would have got off a lot easier if he had shown some remorse," his Michigan teammate Terry Mills said. "Probably so. But understand, that's not Rumeal. He is a stubborn kid. If he had his mind [made] up that it was supposed to be a bounce pass when it was supposed to be a chest pass, it was like pulling teeth. It would always be a debate of some kind."
Stephen Locher, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Robinson, says, "Even after sitting through all the evidence at trial and hearing the jury's verdict, he was very clear that he believed he had done nothing wrong."
Robinson is scheduled to be released from jail in September 2016. Friends hope he will do the one thing he never did during—or after—his remarkable rise to fame: admit mistakes. In the meantime, Fisher says what Robinson has not said: "Helen Ford is a dear, dear woman. I feel bad for what happened."
IN THE summer of 1989, Fisher and Carlesimo sat at a Nike camp in Princeton, N.J., at which Clougherty was working. Fisher stuck his championship ring in his pocket. When Clougherty walked over, Fisher pulled the ring out and said, "John, I forgot to give you this."
They all laughed, but a man can only take a joke for so long. As Clougherty says, "I've had to answer for that call for 25 years."
One decision, made in a fraction of a second, a quarter century ago. Clougherty was in the toughest spot for a ref, because fast breaks are fluid, and deciding whether to call a foul is like trying to grab a fish swimming downstream.
Afterward, whenever Clougherty worked the same game as ESPN's Dick Vitale, he knew Vitale would mention that call—either to his face or on the air. Vitale, after all, graduated from Seton Hall, in 1962. "If I saw him today, he'd bring it up to me," Clougherty says. "I want to say, 'Dick, it's 25 years ago. Give me a break.' "
Clougherty was on top of his profession when he blew his whistle in Seattle. He had been chosen to work his fifth straight Final Four. The next year, 1990, he was left home. That stung. Did his bosses think he'd blown the call? They never told him. "I just said to myself, This is not going to be my last Final Four—I'm not going out with a controversy," Clougherty says.
He made it back to seven more Final Fours, which nobody remembers, because that is the ref's lot. We don't notice excellence in refereeing, and Carlesimo spoke the truth that night: Clougherty was the best. Being the best also means being able to assess your own work honestly. So he is asked, Did he get it right in 1989?
"It's a 50-50," says Clougherty, now 70 years old. "Nobody can argue that there isn't contact there. Is it enough contact to put a kid at the line? It's too easy to second-guess. Damn, there is contact, but is there enough contact to put Robinson at the line? I didn't have all that time to think about it. You blow the whistle and do the best you can."
He always told young refs, "If you don't think [this job] is worth it, you don't need to be doing it." Was it worth it for him? His three sons would know. Clougherty took them to games, handed them towels and let them be ball boys, and he warned them: "You might hear bad words being yelled at me." If he was bitter, they would have seen it.
Two of them chose the same profession: Conor is a mid-major football official, and Tim is a D-I basketball ref. Tim says of his dad, who is now the ACC coordinator of officials, "I don't know what he'd be doing if he didn't still have officiating in his life."
John Clougherty looks back and says, "I'd have refereed those national championships for nothing."
DO YOU remember the Duke coach, Ramón? Mike ...
In 1989 there was a lot we didn't know about Mike Krzyzewski, including how to pronounce his name. Were his Blue Devils athletic enough and tough enough to win a national title? (In the Final Four they led Seton Hall by 18 in the first half and still lost by 17.) Would Coach K ever step out of the shadow of his mentor, Bob Knight? "Sometimes I feel like people think I can't make a move without consulting Coach Knight," he once said.
In 1990, Krzyzewski led Duke back to the Final Four, but that only solidified his reputation as a coach who couldn't win the biggest game. UNLV crushed the Blue Devils 103--73 in the most lopsided title game ever.
That summer Gavitt, by then the Celtics' president, tried to hire Krzyzewski to coach the team. Krzyzewski says now that he "was close" to leaving Duke. He considered Gavitt "a visionary, one of the great men in our sport," he says, "and during my time growing up, the Lakers and Celtics were the two franchises that stood above everyone in basketball. The appeal of the Celtics was strong."
He stayed at Duke, of course. The next year the Blue Devils won their first NCAA title. Krzyzewski stayed again in 2004 when the Lakers tried to hire him. He has won four national championships and been head coach of two Olympic gold medal teams. In '11 he passed Knight for coach with the most wins in college basketball history.
What if Krzyzewski had taken that Celtics job? By 1990 Boston had won 16 NBA titles in 34 years, so he would have inherited championship expectations. But Larry Bird was 33. Kevin McHale was 32. Robert Parish was 36. The only young All-Star then on the Celtics' roster, shooting guard Reggie Lewis, would collapse on a court in '93 and die, at 27. The Celtics would not win another championship until 2008.
Maybe Krzyzewski and Gavitt would have built another dynasty. NBA history says it is far more likely Coach K would have been fired.
"I don't replay games, and I don't replay decisions," Krzyzewski says. "It would have to be pretty good to beat what has happened for me in my life. I'd be an idiot to be doing what-ifs."
Krzyzewski saw Pitino take the Celtics job and fail, then revive his career at Louisville. He saw what happened when Sprewell attacked Carlesimo. "One thing like that can happen to anybody," Krzyzewski says. "It happened to him. That hurt him, and probably people's perception of him. As much as everyone knows he is an outstanding coach, I don't believe he has ever gotten the credit."
Every time Krzyzewski won a championship, he says, "it was like P.J. winning. He could not [have been] happier.... I'd take a bullet for him, and he would take a bullet for me." But people stopped comparing them long ago. Krzyzewski has accomplished more than all of his contemporaries, even the ones he admires. The question is: Why?
"I think so much of it is just fate," he says. "Some things just happen. One year  I had serious health issues, but it didn't last beyond that. You have to be healthy. You have to have a stable personal life. I've been lucky with that. There haven't been incredibly bad things happening: a child dying, an accident, that type of thing.
"And I've been at two incredible schools [Duke and Army]. I haven't been in positions where the people who were in charge of me—my AD, my president—have been envious of attention, or want a change. I never had to fight those demons that sometimes people have to fight. It's a combination of all those things. But luck has something to do with it."
AS THE 1989 Seton Hall team celebrated its win over Duke, Michigan beat favored Illinois 83--81, ending the brief and unremarkable basketball career of an Illini walk-on guard named Mark Steinberg.
Steinberg knew he wanted a career in sports, but he didn't know what kind of career. After attending Illinois Law School, he turned down a lucrative offer from a law firm for a position on the bottom rung at a mammoth talent agency, International Management Group. "I was going to take anything they had to offer," he says, "but if you had told me I would be an agent representing professional golfers, I would have said, 'No chance.' " But he did it, and he did it extremely well.
Steinberg never imagined that the most marketable athlete of this generation would turn out to be a golfer, that in 1998 that golfer would have a falling-out with his IMG agent, Hughes Norton, and that Steinberg would fly to Scotland to be interviewed for Norton's job. Steinberg remembers thinking that it felt "a bit like an arranged marriage, or a freshman high school dance, where boys are on one side and girls are on the other."
Steinberg and the golfer hit it off, and that is how the former Illinois walk-on came to represent Tiger Woods.
IN LO√çZA we watch a video about Seton Hall's tournament run. For a while Ramos really enjoys it. By the end he is asleep in his living-room chair, which means he misses the footage of Michigan players running to their locker room and the brief shot of a face that Ramos would not recognize but is well-known to every general manager in the NBA. It belonged to Wolverines freshman Rob Pelinka.
Michigan made three Final Fours in Pelinka's time, but he was a role player and he knew it. After a shootaround at the 1993 Final Four in the Louisiana Super Dome, Pelinka sat on a bus and looked out at all the agents trying to slip business cards to his more talented teammates. The Wolverines' star forward, Chris Webber, congratulated Pelinka on winning the Walter Byers Award as the NCAA's scholar-athlete of the year and asked him what he planned to do after business and law school. Pelinka remembers looking at the agents and saying, "Definitely not going to be one of those guys!"
But he is. He represents Kobe Bryant, which makes Pelinka, like Steinberg, one of the most successful and powerful people in sports.
Do you know who Kobe Bryant is, Ramón?
Ramos gives a concentrated stare. He seems to realize he is supposed to know. But he does not.
"I'm sorry," he says.
Kobe Bryant plays for the Lakers, he is told.
THE LAST moments of a tight NCAA final are a riveting game of hero roulette. When the wheel stopped spinning in 1982, the ball was in the hands of North Carolina freshman Michael Jordan; in '83 it found little-known North Carolina State forward Lorenzo Charles.
Before overtime in 1989, Fisher told his players a story. A western Michigan man was having startlingly accurate dreams about the Wolverines. He told Fisher that center Mark Hughes would be the hero. The story was true. Fisher had not planned to tell it. It just felt right. Another coach might have tweaked it to substitute Rice (the tournament's Most Outstanding Player) for Hughes, who scored two points that night. But Fisher stuck with Hughes, and there they were in the final seconds, Robinson driving down the court, getting ready to pass to Hughes when Clougherty called a foul. Hughes and Fisher still say Hughes could have hit the game-winner. Instead, Robinson made his free throws.
Michigan led, 80--79. But Seton Hall had one last chance.
In the stands Krzyzewski watched with his players. He had kept them in Seattle for the title game because, he says, "I wanted my team to see what it was like to be there when you won."
Ramón Ramos heaved an inbound pass to the other end of the court—a basketball Hail Mary. Number 24, senior forward Daryll Walker, caught it and shot.
As the ball flew toward the hoop, Fisher thought, It's going to bank in. If it had, it would be one of the most famous plays in U.S. sports. In 1992, in virtually the same situation, Duke's Grant Hill would throw a nearly identical pass to Christian Laettner, who would score to beat Kentucky in the East Regional final. The shot gets replayed 100 times every March. Ramos-to-Walker would have been bigger, because it would have clinched a championship.
Walker's shot bounced away and was quickly forgotten. Rice, Robinson and Fisher celebrated on the court. In the referees' locker room a few minutes later, national coordinator of officials Hank Nichols asked Clougherty, "How do you feel about that last call?" Clougherty felt sick. He says he knew that meant Nichols hadn't liked it.
Within an hour, Mills, the Michigan forward, would call Frieder from the locker room to tell him: Coach, you should be in here with us.
At a rally at Seton Hall the next day Carlesimo said, "We have the best student support and the best student body in the country." The coach did not care that many of those students had tried to get him fired a year earlier. Ramos stood behind his coach wearing a cowboy hat and watching the crowd, unaware that the pass to Walker would be the last meaningful play of his basketball life.
DO YOU remember Ramón Ramos?
"Very good player," Fisher says. "Tough. Quiet. Didn't bring a lot of attention to himself, but very efficient."
When Ramos's friends talk about his aborted career, they do not talk about how good he would have been. They talk about how long he would have lasted. Carlesimo: "He was a guy who would have had a 10-year career."
Félix Romàn: "Ten, 12 years."
Mark Bryant: "At least 13, 14 years."
Ramos did not have a star's talent. He just knew how to succeed. He played hurt. He showed up on time. He got along well with cocky players and hard-driving coaches. Teammate Pookey Wigington says, "If you think about the real glue to that team, it was that kid." Wigington remembers getting hit by Pitt power forward Charles Smith in a game, and Ramos promising, Don't worry, Pookey. I'll take care of it. A few possessions later Ramos knocked Smith down.
That is the Ramos they knew, but it is not the Ramos in Loíza, wearing jean shorts, a T-shirt and a Seton Hall cap. Maybe this is why Carlesimo says he does not call as often as he should. And why, when I visited Ramos with Romàn in December, Romàn admitted that he had not seen his friend in a year, even though he lives just a half hour away. Wigington visited Ramos twice, but now he says that he, too, rarely calls.
"You start getting caught up in your everyday life," Wigington says. "It's not like he can pick up the telephone and call you. You have to always keep him on your mind. There is nothing in Los Angeles that reminds me of Puerto Rico, but if I hear Puerto Rico, then I think of Ramón....
"You've got to be prepared for the emotional challenge when you get off the phone. That used to be the toughest part. Getting on and hearing him say 'Pooookeeeey!' Then when you get off the phone you realize he is never going to be the same. You are never going to have a real conversation."
Ramos is home with his family, but their Ramón is gone. His father, Ramón Jr., sits in a second-floor room in his house, surrounded by plaques and trophies and framed jerseys, and says he considers his son's life a success. He points out that his son did not play organized basketball until he was 13, but he represented Puerto Rico in the 1988 Olympics. He was one play away from winning an NCAA title. He made an NBA roster. After the accident doctors thought Ramón might die within days, but here he is, 25 years later.
Ramos does not walk to paradise often these days, but he insists on limping to the beach with me. The neighborhood is filled with barbed-wire fences, but there are no people in sight, giving it the eerie air of being both empty and dangerous. A light rain falls. A strange dog nips at Ramos's leg. He is entertained.
I search for the proper way to say goodbye. Does it matter? Ramos will not remember this moment. It will evaporate like all the others.
"Thank you so much," I say.
"You're welcome," he says.
Ramos smiles, pretends to dunk an imaginary basketball, and says, "I feel really good."