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Intrepid Voyager : Juan Florez Chased Basketball Dreams on a Dauntless Trip to American Soccer

Times Staff Writer

Juan Florez removed a shopping bag from his closet and dumped his life story onto his bed.

Family pictures, newspaper clippings about his father and letters from his friends back home in Bogota, Colombia, spilled across the mattress. A passport, a bus ticket, a marriage certificate and correspondence from college basketball coaches all over the United States were among the contents.

“All of these things are important to me in some way,” Florez said as he sifted through the memorabilia. “Sometimes, I can’t believe I went through all that I did to get here. But when you have a dream, well, you have to try.”

Florez longed to play big-time college basketball in the United States. It was an idea kindled by Mormon missionaries who not only brought the Gospel to Bogota in the late 1970s but also packed videotapes of BYU basketball games. “Danny Ainge and all those guys,” Florez said.

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The dream died in Glendale during the summer of 1983 after a two-year journey through three countries and 10 times as many coaches’ offices. Florez, who is a slender six feet tall, played in a national tournament in Colombia at age 15, but his skill-level and lack of size and experience were impassable obstacles on his road to the Final Four.

Along the way, Florez said he learned a lot about people, survival and relying upon one’s natural instincts. He called on those experiences when he decided to redirect his efforts toward another sport.

Today, at 24, Florez has attained his goal of competing for an NCAA championship--as a starting midfielder for the Cal State Northridge soccer team, which is top-ranked in Division II.

“He’s a big-game player and if he develops consistency, he could become a great player,” CSUN Coach Marwan Ass’ad said. “He learns fast and works hard. He’s also is very opinionated and daring.”

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Florez, a junior, demonstrated that he was a major risk-taker, if not a major college basketball player, when he ignored his father’s advice and said adios to his parents, two sisters and a “safe future” in Colombia at age 18.

“My father was very realistic, which was one extreme, and I was a dreamer, which is another extreme,” Florez said. “There was no middle point in our relationship.”

Alberto Florez, Juan’s father, knew some of the travails that awaited his son. Alberto studied public administration at the University of Tennessee and constitutional law in Manchester, England. He worked 10 years for Coldeportes--the Colombian Sports Institute--and was the assistant to the president of the Colombian Senate upon his death in 1985.

Adriana Florez, Juan’s older sister, was allowed to spend a year as a high school exchange student in Pennsylvania to facilitate a future career in international relations. To Alberto, that was realistic.

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But he told Juan, his only son, that he could afford to pay for his college education only if he stayed in Colombia. If Juan left, he was on his own.

“His arguments were, ‘You don’t speak English, you won’t have any financial support and basketball is much better in the U. S. than it is in Colombia,’ ” Florez said. “That wasn’t enough to stop my dreams.”

Neither was the American consulate, which put a full-court press on Florez’s request for a visa and rejected his application when it was discovered that he lacked finances, a grasp of the English language and a scholarship.

Florez, however, was obsessed. He looked for student exchange programs with the U. S. that wouldn’t cost him any money but found none. He considered taking the illegal route through Mexico. “I was so crazy, I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I was going to get there,” he said. Finally, Florez stumbled upon and was accepted for a cultural exchange program with Canada.

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Canada, of course, is a great place to go if you want to learn the proper way to execute a slap shot. But the Great White North produces big-time college basketball players about as often as the U. S. qualifies for the World Cup. Still, Florez reasoned that he was only a hop, skip and jump shot away from fulfilling his dream.

For three months, Florez was one of 21 Colombians who lived with and helped teach Spanish to 21 visiting Canadians while traveling through the country’s towns and villages. At the end of the three months, he left with the group for Canada where they would switch roles.

Florez set foot on U. S. soil for the first time Oct. 20, 1982, during a stopover in Miami for the group’s flight to Ontario, Canada. Customs officials, wary that some members of the contingent might be exchanging more than culture during the border crossing, pulled Florez out of line and strip-searched him for drugs.

Welcome to the U. S. A., amigo .

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Florez spent the next four months traveling with the group through Ontario, learning English and playing basketball whenever he could. The night before the tour ended, he called home and talked to his father for the first time since leaving Colombia.

Florez recalls the conversation:

Alberto: “OK, I’ll be waiting for you tomorrow at the airport. You’ve seen how tough it is. You’ve learned. Now you understand my point.”

Juan: “Please go to the airport and pick up my luggage because I’m going to stay here with just a few things.”

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As the exchange group laughed, danced and toasted the good times at a farewell party, Florez packed some clothes and belongings into a green duffel bag that served as his suitcase, safe and pillow for the duration of his trip.

Florez obtained a visa extension and traveled for a few months throughout Ontario and Quebec, trying to find work to earn enough money to get to the United States. Life became a day-to-day existence. He often spent nights sleeping on a park bench. He worked on a farm, in a slaughterhouse, in restaurants as a dishwasher and for a maintenance company. It was a departure for Florez, who grew up in a comfortable upper-middle class environment in Bogota. He missed his family, his friends, the Spanish language and salsa music.

“I had thought of my life as a story up to then,” Florez said. “But during that time, it became realistic. I forgot about being a hero.

“I would talk to bus drivers or the guy who sold doughnuts. When I went into a McDonald’s, I’d talk to people. It got lonely and I missed having a good friend, but that wasn’t really in my mind. I was more concerned about eating and where I was going to sleep.”

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A Cuban refugee who befriended Florez during his stint as maintenance worker gave him money for a bus ticket from Toronto to Los Angeles.

“I was tempted to go to Florida, but it would have been too easy to go home to Colombia if things weren’t working out,” Florez said. “In California, I was more on my own. My dream was still real. I thought, ‘Well, I’m this close and I haven’t tried for a scholarship yet. They haven’t even seen me play.’

He boarded a Greyhound for Detroit and arrived in Motown on April 2, 1983.

“After years of hearing people say, ‘You’re not going to make it,’ I was here,” said Florez, who cried when he crossed the American border. “It was one of the most emotional moments in my life.”

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Florez now felt his dream was truly within his grasp. The crossing of the border intensified his desire to succeed and erased any self-doubt that his decision to leave home was a good one.

“I am proud to be Colombian, but I don’t think you belong to a place,” he said. “You should go wherever your performance can be the best.”

Florez lived by those words as he started his quest for a basketball scholarship. On a bus trip from Detroit to Los Angeles, Florez visited as many colleges as possible, including BYU, Utah and Nevada-Las Vegas.

The routine was almost always the same. Florez would arrive on campus with his green duffel bag, ask for directions to the athletic department and request an interview with the head basketball coach, who was inevitably out of town. The exception was Utah Coach Lynn Archibald, who sat down with Florez for a 30-minute chat.

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“You could tell he had great desire,” Archibald said. “Here’s a guy who shows up unannounced, all by himself with all this enthusiasm to play basketball. I told him that given his experience, he’d probably be better off at a junior college first--but to stay in touch.

“I don’t think he had any place to go. I would have liked to put him up for the night, but it was against NCAA rules.”

Florez, encouraged by his conversation with Archibald, jumped back on the bus and continued west to Southern California, where he lived with family friends, first in Panorama City then in Glendale.

While attending adult school in San Fernando to improve his English, Florez continued the search for a scholarship. A UCLA assistant coach gave Florez the same advice Archibald had--go to a junior college where they could track his progress.

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Florez began showing up at the Glendale College gym where he played basketball during a summer class taught by Coach Brian Beauchemin.

“He had coordination and flexibility, but we were already set,” Beauchemin said. “I think he really wanted to play basketball, but at that time his skills weren’t up to what we had here. I said, ‘Maybe you should direct your energies toward soccer.’ ”

Florez was disappointed, but he agreed to speak with Cherif Zein, the Glendale soccer coach. Like almost all boys in Colombia, Florez played soccer as a youth. His father’s position with the sports institute enabled him to watch and meet the country’s best players. He told Zein he was a skilled soccer player, but he preferred getting his kicks on the basketball court.

Zein, impressed with Florez’s background, gave him one day to make a decision.

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“Every year I coached at Glendale it seemed like we got a player from God, someone who came out of nowhere,” Zein said. “In 1983, the player was Juan Florez.”

Florez decided to play soccer, reasoning that it was a way to get started in college. If he still wanted to play basketball, he could transfer the next year to another school. Life was tough, but it was also good. Florez was making strides in the classroom and also at work at a local McDonald’s, where he quickly ascended through the ranks from sweeping parking lots to giving children’s birthday parties on weekends.

“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Florez said. “No more flipping hamburgers. I’d play Simon Says with those kids and make them eat the food. I love working with kids.”

Florez also was having fun on the soccer field. He was an All-Western State Conference stopper and helped lead the Vaqueros to the state championship.

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“My father was really proud of Juan because he challenged himself and worked for a goal,” said Juan’s sister, Adriana Florez, who works as a translator in Bogota. “All of my family worried about him, but he showed that a person should try to make their dreams come true.”

Florez played for Glendale again in 1984, but Zein was no longer the coach and the team fell to fourth place in conference. Florez moved to Woodland Hills, transferred to Moorpark College for the second semester and got married in March to a woman he had been dating for several months.

He planned to transfer to UC Santa Barbara in the fall.

“Everything was going great,” Florez said. “I was ready to go.”

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Then came a phone call from Colombia on a Saturday morning in July, 1985. Alberto Florez had died in an automobile accident. “That was the end of a lot of good things,” said Juan, who returned immediately to Bogota to comfort his family. His stay in Colombia lasted eight months, during which his opportunity at Santa Barbara passed by and his marriage dissolved.

Florez flew back to California in April, 1986, and called Ass’ad at Northridge. After redshirting last season, Florez has nine assists and 10 goals, including the game-winner in CSUN’s 1-0 victory over Seattle-Pacific in the West regionals.

Florez doesn’t have definite plans for the future. He is an engineering major at CSUN, but he often thinks about playing professional soccer--in Colombia.

“I still love basketball, especially the Lakers,” Florez said. “And I still like Danny Ainge even though he plays for the Celtics. But basketball, for me, is in the past. I would like to get my degree and play professional soccer.

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“I’ve always been a dreamer. Why stop now?”


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