The Strange, Tangled Journey of Tito Horford, Basketball Star
On the front porch of her four-room brick house in La Romana, a sugar-mill town on the south coast of the Dominican Republic, Ana Graciela Baltazar sat in her favorite wooden rocking chair, pondering the confused life of the most celebrated of her seven children: 7-foot-1, 250-pound Alfredo William (Tito) Horford.
Normally, Baltazar is an agreeable woman, quick to smile, easy to please. But on this recent afternoon, as she considered the recruitment of her son by American college basketball coaches, Baltazar frowned, her eyes narrowed, and her voice rose in anger, as she said in Spanish: “Lies! Lies! Lies!”
The words came without hesitation, as Baltazar reflected on the four-year-long odyssey that has taken her now-20-year-old son from the Dominican Republic to Texas to Louisiana to Washington, D.C., to New Jersey to Florida--all in the name of basketball.
“We were promised so many things for Tito,” Baltazar said, eyes ablaze. “But we received nothing for Tito, absolutely nothing.”
As his mother spoke, Tony Baltazar--Horford’s 28-year-old half-brother--emerged from the house, bare-chested except for a knot of gold chains around his neck.
“I have told the NCAA that we were offered a supply of beef, food, medicine and money if Tito went to Louisiana State,” Tony Baltazar said. “I was offered a job in Houston if Tito went to Houston. But, as you can see . . . “
He gestured toward his mother’s house, where a framed picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus dominates the sparsely furnished living room. “As you can see, we got nothing for Tito,” Tony Baltazar said.
Horford’s mother leaned forward in her rocking chair, nodding. “Why did it have to be this way?” she said, her voice softening. “Why were we treated like this? Por que? Por que? Por que? “
Tito Horford hasn’t laced up his size 17D sneakers to play one game of college basketball, but already he has created quite a stir.
Consider: In the 16 months since he graduated from Marian Christian High School in Houston, Horford has enrolled in three universities, accepted advice from eight lawyers, considered the possibility of turning pro and become a key witness in an investigation that has taken an NCAA enforcement representative to the Dominican Republic--twice. And the investigation isn’t over yet.
Today, he is a University of Miami Hurricane--fitting, because in his whirlwind movements from campus to campus, Horford has whipped up a storm unlike any other in the history of college basketball.
Already, the University of Houston has been punished for violating two NCAA rules in recruiting Horford. Now the storm has moved to Baton Rouge, La. According to a source familiar with the investigation, Baltazar and her son Tony told the NCAA that Eduardo Gomez, a friend of LSU Coach Dale Brown, offered their family an unspecified amount of beef, food, medicine and money if Tito signed with the Tigers. Gomez, a former Dominican basketball star, was Horford’s first coach.
Brown said he told Gomez not to recruit Horford for LSU and that the university did not violate any NCAA rules. In a deposition taken at LSU’s request, Horford said he knew of no offers to his family. Contacted last week, Gomez said of the Baltazars’ allegation: “Don’t believe it, don’t believe it, don’t believe it. You know how the NCAA operates. The NCAA probably made all that up.”
Hurricane Horford has refused repeated requests in recent weeks to be interviewed. However, from earlier interviews with Horford and from recent conversations in the United States and the Dominican Republic with the coaches, lawyers and family members who played a role in his recruitment, a picture emerges of the unholy war that was fought to sign this unpredictable athlete.
“It’s the worst recruiting story in the history of the NCAA,” said American University Coach Ed Tapscott, one of dozens of participants in the chase for Horford.
“Tito Horford? Don’t even mention his name,” said UCLA assistant coach Jack Hirsch. “Tito Horford to us is a bad dream.”
“I doubt anyone’s ever been the route that Tito Horford has been,” Miami Coach Bill Foster said. “I don’t know who is right, wrong or whatever. But, after all he’s been through, Tito’s got to be a little nervous about believing anybody. About anything.”
He grew up in San Pedro de Macoris, a town of 78,562 on the south coast of the Dominican Republic that is famous for its smooth dark rum and for having produced more present-day major league baseball players--14, at latest count--than any other city its size.
In the summer of 1981, Horford was a highly promising pitcher who decided he had grown too tall to play baseball. “I was 15 years old, 6 feet 10 and I thought to myself, ‘Gee, I think I’m going to be too tall to be a pitcher,’ ” Horford said in an interview in 1985. “And that’s when I met Eduardo Gomez.”
Guided by Gomez, who supervised a sports program in La Romana, Horford developed his basketball skills quickly. The next summer, he moved to Santo Domingo to play for the Naco Athletic Club’s entry in the Dominican Basketball Federation.
Horford averaged only 2.1 points in seven games, but a Naco teammate, former Houston player Darryl Brown, was so impressed with his ability that he phoned Terry Kirkpatrick, then a Houston assistant coach. Kirkpatrick relayed word about Horford to Bob Gallagher, a steel-industry executive who coached at Marian Christian High School and who often played pickup basketball on the Houston campus. The strategy seemed obvious: Bring Horford to Houston to play high school ball, then keep him there to play college ball.
In September 1982, Horford enrolled at Marian Christian, determined to relearn the English that his father, a Bahamian immigrant, had taught him as a child. His father died a month later, and shortly thereafter, Ana Baltazar gave Gallagher permission to act as her son’s legal guardian. “Tito needed a guardian in case there was an emergency,” she explained.
Although Houston had the inside track on signing Horford, it wasn’t taking any chances. In the summer of 1984, after Horford’s junior year, Houston assistant Donnie Schverak flew to Santo Domingo, met with Horford, then hired a car to take him to his mother’s house in La Romana, two hours away. The NCAA later ruled that Schverak had violated its rules forbidding coaches from meeting prospective players during the summer months and providing them with transportation.
Tony Baltazar also has alleged to the NCAA that Schverak offered to arrange a scholarship to Houston for Horford’s girlfriend, Arelis Reynoso; a job in Houston for himself, and a trip to Houston for his mother to witness Tito’s signing. Schverak has denied making any of these offers, and Houston has not provided Horford’s family with any of these benefits. The NCAA has not found that Houston committed any of these alleged violations.
Horford wasn’t sold on Houston. That fall, he visited LSU, Kentucky and UCLA. He particularly enjoyed the visit to UCLA, where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar taught him the sky hook. “Tito expressed a tremendous desire to come to UCLA,” Hirsch recalled. “Unfortunately, he had other people pulling his strings.”
That became clear to Hirsch during a visit to Houston with his boss, Walt Hazzard. “The people at his high school kept Tito away from us,” Hirsch said. “It was like we had to follow him around to talk to him for just a minute. Then, when we returned to our hotel room, I received a call from a man who said, ‘Get out of Houston or else.’ We left town immediately. When someone tells you to get out of Dodge, you get out of Dodge.”
Baltazar said she also had difficulty contacting her son, who was living with Albert Mills, a barbeque restaurant owner whose son also attended Marian Christian. Mills said he didn’t interfere with Baltazar’s attempts to contact her son.
Unlike other coaches, LSU’s Dale Brown already had made inroads in the Dominican Republic. His Dominican friends included Eduardo Gomez, who had moved to Baton Rouge after Brown signed one of his proteges, 6-foot-9 Jose Vargas; and Carlos Morales Troncoso, an LSU-educated engineer who is now vice president of the Dominican Republic.
Gomez made several pitches for Tito, Ana and Tony Baltazar later told an NCAA investigator, promising to deliver money, beef, food and medicine to the family if Tito went to LSU. (Gomez said of the Baltazars’ allegation: “They’ve been put through so much they don’t know where their mind is at anymore.”) Morales Troncoso scored points with Horford’s family at a party, attended by Brown and Gomez, at a beachfront resort in La Romana. (Morales Troncoso did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Horford said he decided not to make any commitment until his mother arrived in Houston, where she would cosign the letter of intent. But on Nov. 14, the first day athletes were eligible to sign during the 1984-85 school year, Baltazar was still in La Romana. “The people at Houston didn’t send me an airline ticket,” Baltazar said.
The following day, relenting under what he later called “extreme pressure” by Gallagher and others, Horford signed with Houston. Gallagher, who provided the required cosignature, said he did not pressure Horford to sign.
That evening, Horford phoned his family.
“I asked Tito, ‘Why didn’t you wait for my mother to go there?’ ” said Horford’s half-sister, Elena Baltazar. “He said, ‘Because they pressured me. I was tired. I was nervous. My head was spinning. I signed to be left alone.’ Tito sounded so bad, I started to cry on the phone.”
Five days later, Ana Baltazar was on her way to Houston, with a ticket bought by Mills. She was met at the Miami airport by Mills’ wife Marion, who accompanied her on to Houston. She was a guest at Mills’ house for two weeks. Mills’ generosity didn’t end there: He assumed full responsibility for the support of Reynoso so she could join her boyfriend at Houston. (Horford and Reynoso would later be married.)
Dale Brown was disheartened by the course of events--”I sincerely feel that Tito forgot where he came from,” he wrote Morales Troncoso--but he wasn’t ready to surrender. With the help of Houston lawyers, he said he concluded that Gallagher was not Horford’s legal guardian because he had never filed the appropriate court papers.
Brown sent word to Baltazar that he believed her son’s letter of intent was invalid because it had been cosigned by Gallagher. At Gomez’s suggestion, Baltazar said she sought the advice of Ken Denzel, a Chicago-area lawyer specializing in sports- and consumer-related cases.
On Feb. 6, 1985, Denzel suggested in a letter to Baltazar that one option for Horford was to move to suburban Chicago, where “I could provide Tito with at least three alternative housing and school arrangements.” He advised Baltazar that “one of the best trial lawyers in the country” was willing to challenge the validity of Horford’s letter of intent.
And he informed her that any lawyers who worked on the case would ask for compensation “if in the next 10 years you, Tito or a member of your family does have the means or the ability to pay such legal fees and services.”
Horford wanted out of his commitment to Houston, quickly. Late in his senior season, he even expressed an interest in attending American University, where a Dominican friend, Manual Nadal, was playing basketball. Horford had met Tapscott the previous summer in Santo Domingo, in the presence of a mutual friend, Julio Castillo, a Federal Trade Commission lawyer who was born in La Romana.
Intrigued by Horford’s interest, Tapscott flew to Houston in March to watch him play in an all-star game. (Later, after Horford had visited American’s campus, Tapscott said, “I got the impression that Tito thought our program was too small for him.”)
Denzel also made the scene at the all-star game, hoping to have his first meeting with Horford.
“I was staying in the hotel where the players were staying,” Denzel recalled. “Mills would not let Tito out of his sight. Mills didn’t know who I was, so I told him I just wanted to take some pictures of Tito. Mills ended up taking some of us. I put a telephoto lens on and asked him if he’d step further back. While Mills was taking the pictures, I said, ‘Tito, I’m Ken Denzel’ . . . and I gave him my room number.”
Mills said he didn’t learn Denzel’s identity until later. “I wasn’t keeping a close watch on Tito,” he said, “but I was wondering who this guy with the camera was.”
Denzel said he had a “lengthy” meeting with Horford to discuss “Tito’s options.” Several days later, Horford met with another lawyer who, like Denzel, was willing to challenge the validity of the letter of intent. When Houston coaches learned of Horford’s meeting, they summoned him their offices, where he reaffirmed his intention to play for the Cougars.
On June 13, after graduating from Marian Christian, Horford returned to his country to play for Naco. A week later, Brown flew to Santo Domingo, phoned Horford and made an appointment to see him, even though such a meeting would be prohibited by NCAA rules.
Horford never showed for the meeting. Brown was furious. Weeks later, he would vow: “If Tito crawled up the front steps of the (LSU) Assembly Center, I wouldn’t take him.”
That summer, reacting to a story in Sports Illustrated that disclosed assistant coach Schverak’s improper visit to the Dominican Republic, Houston officials announced they would withhold two scholarships from their basketball program and forbid Schverak from recruiting off-campus for a year.
The NCAA imposed an additional sanction: The Cougars could not keep Horford. Houston appealed. The appeal was denied. Houston would try again.
Sports Illustrated also reported that Horford had lived that summer in a $40-a-night casino hotel, compliments of Naco, which also paid for his meals and incidental expenses. The NCAA, which allows student-athletes only to accept “actual and necessary expenses for practice and game competition,” opened an investigation of Horford’s arrangement with Naco.
At summer’s end, Horford returned to Houston, where he planned to be represented in the second NCAA appeal by Pat Ellis, a basketball agent. Ellis advised Horford that, if all else failed, he could play pro basketball in Europe.
Horford had other ideas. On Aug. 25, the day before the NCAA hearing, he asked a Dominican friend living in Houston to drive him to Gomez’s apartment in Baton Rouge, where Reynoso was now living.
The following morning, Horford met with Brown-and he didn’t have to crawl up the steps of the Assembly Center to win the coach’s favor. However, at Brown’s insistence, Horford had to do something just as unusual: Answer a series of questions under oath that, Brown hoped, would show that LSU had acted properly in its recruitment of Horford.
(Brown had reason to be cautious: His program already was the object of an NCAA investigation that was examining, sources said, whether cars had been provided for Vargas and star forward John Williams, and whether LSU had arranged an operation for the mother of former player Steffond Johnson.)
Brown warned Horford of the consequences of lying under oath. “I told him, ‘You’ll be sitting in the crowd (with the inmates) when we play our intrasquad scrimmage this year at the Angola State Penitentiary,’ ” Brown said. With a court reporter transcribing the proceedings, Horford was questioned by Nathan Fisher, a lawyer chosen by LSU:
Fisher: We’re asking you to give a statement, make a statement under oath.
Q. Do you know what under oath means?
Q. Tell us what you understand that to mean.
A. I think my understanding is ya’ll are going to ask me questions about, you know, how to tell you my statement, you know, about what happened and you know.
During the 50-minute deposition, Fisher asked Horford why he decided to leave Houston. “Well, see, you know, I was thinking about, you know, I wanted to go someplace where I think I’m going to be happy and enjoy the place,” Horford responded.
Horford was asked whether anyone representing LSU had offered him any inducements. “Never,” he said. He also was questioned about his relationship with Gomez. “He never put pressure on me about, come to LSU,” Horford said.
Q. Has anybody threatened you with bodily harm or threatened your family in any way or your girlfriend to make this statement here today?
A. What you mean?
Q. Has anybody threatened you in any way or your family? Do you understand what that word means?
A. No, I don’t understand the word.
Q. Has anybody said, I’m going to shoot you if you don’t make this statement here today?
A. No, nobody.
After signing with LSU, Horford appeared at a news conference. “I never tried to hurt anyone, but I did make some mistakes and I’m sorry about that,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. “Coming to America was scary for me. . . . I now had to put my trust in others, and some of them gave me poor advice, but I forgive them. . . . “
Horford enrolled in four classes: Study skills, English for foreign students, speech for foreign students and sociology for foreign students. “Tito wasn’t well-prepared for college,” an academic source at LSU said later. “He wrote several papers, and his punctuation and spelling were poor. In one paper he didn’t have any paragraphs.”
Brown, for reasons he will not discuss, asked Reynoso to leave Baton Rouge last fall. Horford wasn’t happy. Neither was Reynoso. As a favor to Horford, Castillo invited Reynoso to live in his rented apartment in Northwest Washington. “I wanted to help Tito because he was a kid from my hometown,” Castillo explained.
On Oct. 7, NCAA enforcement representative Doug Johnson arrived in the Dominican Republic on the first of two visits to investigate LSU’s recruitment of Horford. “I told him about the offers Gomez made to our family,” Tony Baltazar said. Later, a source said, Johnson received corroborating testimony from Reynoso.
Under NCAA rules, LSU would be responsible for any actions Gomez may have taken if athletic department staffers were aware that Gomez was trying to recruit Horford. Brown said that he specifically asked Gomez not to recruit Horford for LSU and that Gomez was not acting as a representative of the university.
During a secret meeting at the Baton Rouge Hilton, Horford gave Johnson information that led the investigator to believe that Gomez might be an LSU representative, a source said. At the meeting, requested by Horford, Johnson told Horford that if Gomez was an LSU representative and if the allegations his family made were true, Horford would be declared ineligible to play for the Tigers.
The skies were blackening in Baton Rouge, and Horford decided to leave. Pronto .
On Nov. 1 he skipped an LSU practice, saying he had a stomach ache. Brown suspended him from game competition for one semester. The next morning, he refused to play in an intrasquad scrimmage. “He told me, ‘I fall out of bed and hit my chest,’ ” Brown recalled.
That afternoon, Horford left his dorm, found a ride to the Baton Rouge airport and flew to Washington, with a ticket reportedly bought by Castillo. Brown quickly announced he had dismissed Horford from the team--a move that promoted a flurry of letters to the coach’s office.
Typical was this note from Rep. W. Henson Moore, R-La.: “Dale--It takes courage to dismiss Tito Horford, and I respect you for it. Winning isn’t everything. There are rules or limits beyond which we should not trespass. You clearly know and live by these rules.”
In the weeks that followed, Horford lived with Reynoso in Castillo’s apartment in Washington. After Reynoso and Horford learned they were expecting a baby, they moved to northern New Jersey to live with Castillo’s family.
Castillo decined to provide details about his relationship with Horford. “The whole experience was frustrating to Julio,” said Tapscott, who has known Castillo for 10 years. “Julio tried to get Tito a job, but apparently Tito wasn’t interested in working.
“Tito made a lot of calls, and Julio ended up with some sizable phone bills. Julio wished Tito had shown a little more appreciation. He said, ‘I was just trying to be a good guy. It ended up costing me money. It ended up costing me anxiety.’ ”
Horford’s search for a new school included calls to UCLA, Louisville and Kentucky. But none of these schools wanted any part of him. “Our administrators were afraid we’d be taking damaged goods,” said UCLA’s Hirsch.
In January of this year, Horford returned to Houston, hopeful of playing for the Cougars. But on Jan. 12, the NCAA denied Houston’s second appeal to restore Horford’s eligibility. “Tito still had a number of options, including playing pro basketball in Europe,” Ellis said. “Tito and I agreed to sit down and discuss his options. But then . . . “
Then he was gone. Without telling Ellis, he left Houston to visit the University of Miami, which he had contacted through a friend, former Houston guard Lyndon Rose.
“Tito figured that Miami was the right place for him,” Bill Foster said, “because of the tropical environment, the large Spanish-speaking population and this was the closest place to his home.”
On Jan. 21, Horford was enrolled at Miami, which was playing its first men’s basketball season after a 14-year hiatus. Horford signed up for four courses in the spring semester and two in the summer, before returning to the Dominican Republic, where he played in the Central American-Caribbean Games (unspectacularly) and became the father of a boy, Alfredo Jr.
But last month, when Horford returned to the Miami campus, his wife and baby stayed in Santo Domingo. “We encouraged Tito to be here on his own for as long as he can,” Foster explained. “I know that sounds unfair, but it’s too much for him this year to have to worry about the baby getting up in the middle of the night. I expect Tito to have a lot of highs and lows this season, and I want him to be a normal student, if that’s possible.”
Horford’s future cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty.
If the NCAA doesn’t rule that he accepted improper payments from Naco, or anyone else, Horford will begin his long-awaited college basketball career on Dec. 20, after he has met the NCAA’s two-semester residency requirement. (Gomez, who recently moved to Miami, expects to witness Horford’s debut.)
“Tito will be a pretty big plug in a pretty big hole for us,” Foster said. “But I’ve told him, ‘College basketball can do a lot more for you this year than you can do for college basketball.’ ”
In La Romana the other day, Ana Graciela Baltazar’s frown turned to a smile when she considered the fortunes of her youngest child, 14-year-old Kelly Horford.
“Kelly’s being taken care of by nice people,” Baltazar said. “Very nice people.”
Baltazar said her son’s good fortune began one day this summer when her family was visited by Richard Davimos, a businessman from Boca Raton, Fla.
“Mr. Davimos offered to bring Kelly to live with him in Florida, pay for all of his meals, pay for his school, pay for everything,” Baltazar recalled. “It was a wonderful offer, and we agreed to it.”
Baltazar said Davimos took her and her son to the U.S. consulate in Santo Domingo, where “we received a visa for Kelly and I signed papers giving Mr. Davimos permission to be Kelly’s legal guardian,” Baltazar said. “And then Kelly left with them on a plane to Florida. I was very happy.”
In Boca Raton last month, Kelly Horford, who is 6 foot 5, was enrolled as a ninth grader at Pope John Paul II High, where school officials have kept the details of his living arrangements confidential.
Why the secrecy?
“I don’t want to make any comment,” Davimos said. “ . . . We’re talking about a boy--not a college athlete. He doesn’t need any publicity.”
Tony Baltazar spoke freely about his brother’s new life.
“Kelly’s living with a sport agent,” he said. “Mr. Davimos’ son John is a sport agent, too. They’re really nice people. They represent a lot of top athletes. Baseball players. Boxers. And they’ve promised to take good care of Kelly. They’re crazy about Kelly.”
Richard Davimos is executive vice president of Shearson Lehman of Boca Raton. According to the Florida corporation records office, he is also president of Davimos Sports Management, although a company employee said that Davimos’ sons, Robert and John, are president and vice president, respectively, of the firm.
Free room. Free board. Free tuition. And a sport agent for a guardian. Is Kelly Horford ready to follow in his brother’s size-17 footsteps?
“Oh, no, Kelly is much smarter than Tito,” Tony Baltazar said. “Kelly won’t make the same mistakes as Tito. And Kelly will be a better basketball player than Tito, too. You just wait and see.”
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