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THE DREAM : For Aguirre, It Was the Way to Fame; For His Two Close Friends, It Was a Lie

Times Staff Writer

The dream had such humble beginnings. Ziggy--that was Mark Aguirre’s nickname back on the West Side--would borrow his grandfather’s pickup truck.

Then he’d find Skip Dillard, his without-a-doubt, positively best friend of all time. Then they’d dig up the Dolph, short for Bernard Randolph, another teammate from Westinghouse High School. Then they’d cruise, looking for the purest game of basketball the streets could offer.

They were something, those three. Discriminating, too. Sometimes they’d drive for hours and not find a game worth their trouble. Everything had to be just right: The competition (the taller the better), the pace (frantic), the attitude (cooool--no use getting your brains blown out because you fouled a guy).

They looked for telltale court signs. If someone called charging, they got out of there quick. No game worth its weight in asphalt allowed charging fouls to be called, at least not on the West Side. Same went for carrying the ball and double dribble. A traveling call occasionally was approved, but only after passionate argument and absolute proof that the guy took seven steps with the ball.

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But when Aguirre and company did find what they were looking for, it was sweet, as sweet as one of those homemade pies Aguirre’s mom used to bake.

Maybe they’d park the pickup at a playground and find Isiah Thomas from St. Joseph High; or Eddie Johnson, another Westinghouse man; or Darrell Walker, from Corliss High, already playing. Then, for the rest of the afternoon, and most likely into the night, they’d run up and down that court.

Aguirre, the power forward, would post low. Dillard, the guard, would shoot that jumper of his. Randolph, also a forward, would hit a baseline shot or two. On it would go until stomachs growled and blisters ached.

“Those were incredible games,” Aguirre said recently. “It was just so much fun, just to play on a playground. It had no tag on it, no price on it, no pressure on it. It was just all natural basketball.

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“Those were the best times that I could dream of in basketball. Everything was still just so new, so uplifting. I don’t know really how to put it. It was a lot more of an innocent time.”

Then the dream went back to work, wearing away the innocence from Aguirre’s, Dillard’s and Randolph’s lives as easily as sandpaper on balsa wood. What had once been a game, grew into an obsession. To simply play well wasn’t enough.

Nor were three full scholarships, one for each of them, to DePaul--a basketball power in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Only the National Basketball Assn. and all that came with it--the money, the status, the adulation--would satisfy them.

One dream. Three friends. Two nightmares.

Dillard broke first. When the NBA and, later, the minor league Continental Basketball Assn., wouldn’t have him, he turned to cocaine for solace. Last September, Dillard was charged with committing 15 armed robberies, mostly of gas stations. According to police, Dillard confessed to the robberies shortly after his arrest, saying he needed the money to support his cocaine habit.

Now he undergoes treatment at Gateway Foundation, a Chicago drug rehabilitation center, and awaits word on a court date. If convicted, Dillard, who pleaded innocent to the charges, faces a mandatory 6- to 30-year prison sentence for each alleged robbery.

Randolph was next to crumble. Just a few days before the NBA’s finest players--including boyhood friends such as Aguirre and Thomas--were to assemble in Chicago for the 1988 All-Star game, Randolph was arrested for stealing a taxicab and trying to elude police.

When asked why he took the cab, Randolph told authorities that the Rockford Lightning of the CBA had just released him and he was on his way to an NBA team.

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When he was arrested, Randolph was jobless, penniless and hadn’t eaten in several days. He is now a patient at Tinley Park Mental Health Center in suburban Chicago.

Aguirre, of course, didn’t falter. He made it, becoming a star with the Dallas Mavericks, just as everyone had said he would.

But there was a price to pay. The dream swallowed up his two closest friends and turned them into something else. The dream tends to do that, though, twisting and tainting judgment, causing, in a way, grown men to cling desperately to childhood.

“I used to tell them all the time that there’s only one Magic Johnson, only one Michael Jordan,” said Frank Lollino, who coached Aguirre, Dillard and Randolph at Westinghouse. “But they all think that they can be like that.”

They can’t, which is why Dillard is facing jail time, Randolph is in a mental hospital and Aguirre is left wondering how all this could have happened. “I think the NBA glamour kind of blinded them,” Aguirre said.

Blinded and mesmerized, actually. It was enough to keep Dillard from getting a degree from DePaul, or holding a job, or going a week without a cocaine high. It was enough to cause Randolph to go hungry, in fear that someone might recognize him as a former DePaul player if he wandered into a mission for the homeless.

The dream had done it again, making everyone conveniently forget that according to data released by the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University, only 1 of every 12,500 high school basketball players will ever become an NBA starter; that of the 12,759 players who participate in the different divisions of college basketball, fewer than 175 of those will be drafted; that the average NBA career span is a scant four years.

Blinded? Like bats, they were.

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THE NEIGHBORHOOD

The West Side was no place for the meek. It was tough. It was often unforgiving.

“One of the worst sections at the time,” Lollino said.

Nothing came easy on the West Side, except maybe crime. Gangs such as the Vice Lords, the Disciples, the Four Corner Hustlers tried to rule the streets. They wore their own colors, followed their own laws, controlled certain blocks.

“It’s like they divided it up in different countries,” said Eddie Johnson, a starter with the Phoenix Suns.

Johnson should know. More than once, he said he found himself staring at a pointed pistol. Only his being a neighborhood star, he said, kept him from being robbed.

“In a way (the gangs) do respect you because you play basketball,” Johnson said.

And in a way they do not. The story goes that Mary Thomas, Isiah’s mother, once stood in the doorway of their house with a shotgun when gang members tried to recruit one of her sons.

And Thomas himself witnessed a playground game erupt into violence. He dived under a car just in time to see someone fall hard against the ground, blood oozing from a bullet wound.

The West Side wasn’t so much a place to live as it was a place to survive. Compared to the plush suburbs, say, Lake Forest, the West Side was a war zone.

But that is where Aguirre, Dillard and Randolph grew up, in a place that made you look over your shoulder more than once. You had two options on the West Side: You could stay, maybe join a gang and learn the way of the streets. Or you could try to break out, which was easier said than done.

“It’s tough when you’re a teen-ager,” Johnson said. “You have to contend with so many things other than basketball. You have to contend with your peers wanting to bring you down. They want a piece of you or they don’t want to see you succeed. There’s a lot of guys walking the streets who should be in the NBA, but they aren’t because they gave in to the pressures.”

Basketball was a way out. An education was, too, but who made more money: A chemical engineer or Magic? Case closed.

That is where Lollino came in. He sold basketball as a means to an end. Play for Westinghouse and just maybe you get a college scholarship. And just maybe, if the stars are aligned and all that, you get drafted by an NBA team. And just maybe you make it, but don’t count on it.

Not that Lollino didn’t dangle the dream in front them. He did, but within reason. After all, what’s the use of wishing if the wish isn’t worth the trouble?

Aguirre spent two years at Austin High before transferring to Westinghouse for the 1977 season. Dillard, also a junior, was happily waiting. Randolph was a sophomore.

It was a good team. Lollino saw to that. They finished as runners-up for the Chicago Public League championship that year. The next season, with Aguirre averaging 33 points and 16 rebounds a game, Westinghouse claimed the championship as its own. “That was the best basketball I ever played,” Aguirre said.

Each game had its moments, especially when Lollino reached for one of his large white cards, the ones with plays drawn on them. Several of the cards carried special messages.

If, say, Aguirre grabbed a rebound, dribbled the length of the court, sliced through three lunging defenders for a layup--all the while ignoring an open Westinghouse teammate--Lollino would hold up a card for everyone to see: “Not Impressed,” it said.

But if Aguirre threw down a windmill dunk over four outstretched hands and arms, Lollino would reach for another card: “10.”

Lollino, who left Westinghouse after the 1986 season, treated his players as if they were his own sons. It was the only way he knew.

“We were all kind of like a family when we were in high school,” Lollino said. “I called them my Mr. Munches. A lot of them were poor, had nothing going for them. It was like coaching ragweed and making them flourish like a rose garden.

“It was hard for them. But hey, my father died when I was 4. These kids, half of them grew up not knowing who their fathers or mothers were.”

Said Ray Meyer, who coached the same three players at DePaul: "(Lollino) was very good to his kids. His only fault is that he treated them too well. He wanted them to love him.”

They loved him, all right. And he loved them back, maybe too much. And maybe once in a while he got caught up in the dream, too. Can you imagine, coaching these three guys, practically your flesh and blood, and they make it to the NBA?

Not everyone was so star-struck. Johnson, a year ahead of Aguirre and Dillard at Westinghouse, said he didn’t begin thinking about the pros until his junior season at the University of Illinois. And Aguirre, for all his natural talent, said he never considered himself a sure thing.

“I was a realist,” he said.

Dillard and Randolph were not.

DILLARD

His real name was Norman, but everyone called him Skip. If you have to ask why, you have no idea how poorly the name Norman goes over on the West Side.

Dillard’s parents, Charles and Jewell, were hard-working people. Charles, a former cop, became supervisor of security for the Chicago Board of Education. Jewell was a teacher’s aide. Together they tried to teach their five children the difference between right and wrong in a place where right usually took an awful beating.

Skip, by virtue of being the oldest, heard the lectures time and time again. Get an education, they said. Stay away from drugs. Stay out of jail.

And for a while, they thought he had listened. Dillard arrived at Westinghouse with a reputation as a nice guy. He was polite, courteous, thoughtful.

And he could play basketball. By his senior season, his teammates were calling him Money, mostly because of his knack for sinking free throws. Lollino said that Dillard made 97% of his free throws while at Westinghouse. And when the game was on the line, Lollino almost always wanted Dillard, not the heralded Aguirre, to have the ball.

Dillard, 6-foot-2 and almost 200 pounds, was a strong, physical player. His jump shot, said Joey Meyer, formerly DePaul’s chief recruiter and now the coach, was excellent. “He was a very good stand-still shooter,” Meyer said. “Not a great penetrator or ballhandler, but a great stand-still shooter.”

Didn’t matter. DePaul wanted him and was willing to wait a year while Dillard went to junior college in Casper, Wyo., to raise his grade-point average.

When he returned to Chicago, someone from the DePaul sports information department asked him to complete a questionnaire. Where it read, Favorite player? Dillard scribbled Jerry West’s name. “We have the same game,” he wrote.

And there on a single sheet of paper may have been the first sign of the dream’s work. West and Dillard may have had the same game, but one played his like a master violinist, the other like a country fiddler.

Dillard was talented, to be sure. At times, he could even push Aguirre, the acknowledged DePaul superstar-to-be.

“Me and Skip were running real tight,” Aguirre said. “But we never did care, really. I just knew you could play and I could play and let’s just go. We’d play that one-on-one and somedays you’d get whupped, because Skip sometimes wouldn’t miss.”

From 1979, Dillard’s first season at DePaul, until 1981, his last, the Blue Demons won 79 of 85 games. Dillard took part in the memorable victories, as well as infrequent but painful defeats.

In 1981, it was Dillard who sank a 17-foot jump shot with three seconds remaining to give DePaul a 61-59 win over Lamar and preserve the Blue Demons’ first No. 1 ranking in the news service polls.

But it was also Dillard, the famed Money, who missed a crucial free throw in the waning moments of DePaul’s unthinkable 49-48 loss to St. Joseph’s in the first round of the 1981 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament. DePaul went into the tournament ranked first in the country.

But it was 1982 that changed Dillard’s life--some say ruined it. First came the heartache of finishing the regular season with a 26-1 record and a No. 2 ranking, only to be eliminated once again in the first round of the NCAA tournament, this time by Boston College.

Next came the NBA draft, an unexpected exercise in humility as Dillard saw player after player chosen ahead of him. Finally, in the ninth round, the Chicago Bulls mercifully selected Dillard. He was the 191st player taken, which is another way of saying that he had only the tiniest hope of success.

Dillard had quit going to classes as soon as his eligibility expired. His thinking, said Lollino, was this: He’d get drafted in maybe the second, probably the third round, play lights out in rookie camp and be driving something nice by the end of fall.

Others weren’t so sure.

“I told Skip that he couldn’t make it, that we had kids who were better than he was . . . and they couldn’t make it,” Ray Meyer said. “He’d say, ‘I’ve got to take a shot at it. I can make it.’ He’d agree with me, but then he’d say that he had to try.”

It wasn’t much of an effort. Even though he told Chicago reporters at the time that he was “fired up to play hard because I was drafted so late,” Dillard was cut before the season began. According to Johnson, the release was predictable.

“Mark (who had joined the Mavericks after his junior year at DePaul) and I would come back and after three weeks, we were running, playing every day,” Johnson said. “We told Skip, ‘Hey, we were high picks and we’re doing this. You’ve got to work, too.’

“Obviously it didn’t open his eyes. He didn’t work out until maybe two weeks before camp. It just didn’t sink in.”

Dillard later tried out with the CBA’s Detroit Spirit. He was cut. Then he tried out with the Maine Lumberjacks and earned a starting guard position.

John Ligums, a broker in the Boston area, used to own the Lumberjacks. He said that Dillard, despite a slight weight problem at the time, “had an awful lot of talent. But Skip was always trying to do the angles. He was the team clown. It was always like he thought he was better, like, ‘Here I am. I’m going to be discovered.’

“He just did enough to get by,” Ligums said. “But he was so close (to the NBA).”

The CBA career of Dillard ended 14 games after it had begun. According to Ligums, Dillard visited a motel bar after a game in Oshkosh, Wis., and began talking with two young women. Midway through the conversation, Dillard pulled his sweat pants down.

He was waived the next day.

“His side of the story is that the girls were admiring his thighs and they wanted to see how big his legs were,” Ligums said. “He said when he dropped his drawers, he forgot that he didn’t have any shorts on underneath.”

No charges were filed, Ligums said, because it turns out that the girls were under-age and shouldn’t have been in the bar in the first place. “The whole thing got squashed,” Ligums said.

Including Dillard’s basketball career, or what was left of it.

DePaul has a policy: Any former scholarship basketball player can return to complete work on his degree. Dillard, a physical education major, tried school again, but he quickly lost interest. His mind was still on the dream.

Each year, when Aguirre returned home to Chicago, DePaul’s Alumni Hall gym sprang to life. It was like playground days: Aguirre posting low. Thomas, a star with the Detroit Pistons, running the break. Terry Cummings, Dillard’s co-captain at DePaul, stuffing it through just as he did on TV with the Milwaukee Bucks. And Dillard, playing as if his life depended on it.

“Skip hangs with people who have made it,” Ray Meyer said. “But he doesn’t understand that when they’re playing around, they’re not going at top speed. But he challenges them and he looks favorable, so he figures he can play. He says, ‘I kept up with them. I held my own with them.’ But it’s different.”

In 1985, Dillard gave the CBA another shot. He missed. Then Lollino arranged for him to join a team bound for an appearance in Italy. A plane ticket was bought by Lollino. All Dillard had to do was pick up his passport. “He never showed,” Lollino said.

By now, Dillard had become a burden. Johnson said that when he saw Dillard waiting for him after a game in Chicago, “I tried pretty much to avoid (him).”

No longer did anyone step forward to offer jobs. Or lend money. Or even a sympathetic ear. Dillard had disappointed his friends once too often.

Then, a year later, Dillard came home for Christmas dinner and told Charles and Jewell that he had a cocaine problem.

Dillard, 26 at the time, enrolled at Gateway as an outpatient. After completing the month-long rehabilitation program, he worked at a local drugstore. Then at a bottling company. Then, according to police, Dillard tried a new and exciting career--armed robbery.

Robbery victims later told police that Dillard conducted his alleged crimes just as his parents had taught him: Courteously and kindly. He never hurt anyone. He also never wore a mask, said his 17 victims.

Last year, between July and September, Dillard allegedly committed the 15 robberies, some with the help of a partner. His final robbery, said police, occurred Sept. 10, at a gas station.

Turns out that Francis O’Byrne, a chief judge for the south hearing office for Social Security, happened to be driving past the station as the robber jumped into a getaway car. O’Byrne wrote down the license plate number and later gave it to police.

The local media had a nice time with the story. Two Chicago television stations thought it proper to show videotape of Dillard’s missed free throw against St. Joseph’s when they reported the arrest. Five seasons had passed since that agonizing loss and still, no one would let Dillard forget.

Dillard’s friends said that cocaine inspired the robberies. But it was the dream, they said, that led to cocaine.

“I’ve talked to Skip’s dad and he said that Skip really went down after the thing with the NBA draft,” Lollino said. “He wasn’t the same person after that.

“I think Skip took it much harder than Bernard, because he expected to be (in the NBA),” he said. “I’d tell him, ‘Keep trying, you can make it.’ Then I’d see him later and ask him how we was doing. He’d say, ‘I’m doing OK.’ But you could see that he wasn’t. He wanted to get caught. He had had enough of the world.”

RANDOLPH

Bernard Randolph’s life began to unravel the moment his mother, Laura, died of a heart attack. She was only 48, and her death had a profound effect on Bernard, a seventh grader at the time.

When she died, a piece of Randolph died with her.

Tragedy had a way of shadowing Randolph. His father was often ill. His youngest brother, Emery, died at birth. Another brother, Arnold, was killed in a 1979 fire. A third brother, Moses Jr., was killed in 1986.

Is it any wonder that Randolph became a fixture at the Lollino house? There, he could find people who loved and cared for him.

“It was probably harder on (Bernard) than (Dillard and Aguirre),” Lollino said. “Bernard didn’t really have a family.”

When he was in high school, Randolph occasionally spent the night at the Lollinos. Once, in the middle of the night, Randolph left his bed and awoke Lollino’s startled wife, saying quietly: “Momma Lo, you remind me of my own momma.”

And then he returned to bed.

Randolph was a puzzle, all right. He was a gifted player, but rarely did he use his talents for more than half a game.

“Bernard was a two-quarter player,” Lollino said.

Even so, he averaged about 25 points and 10 rebounds during his senior season at Westinghouse. He also left with the school’s single-game scoring record, 50 points. That record was previously held by Aguirre.

Aguirre was Randolph’s idol of sorts. Asked to list his favorite player for DePaul officials, Randolph put down Aguirre’s name. “I don’t know why,” he wrote.

It was the comfort of knowing that Aguirre and Dillard were already there that most likely convinced Randolph to sign with DePaul. Johnson had done what he could to argue for Northern Illinois, a school that desperately wanted Randolph’s talents, but Randolph wouldn’t be swayed.

Randolph was no less an enigma at DePaul. At times, he played brilliantly, Joey Meyer said. He was quick, an accomplished inside player and moved well without the ball. If only he tried as hard every game.

Despite a 13.7 scoring average his senior season, Randolph’s size (6-5) made it difficult for pro scouts to project his position in the NBA. He was too small for forward and not well schooled enough to play guard. He was, as they say in the business, a ‘tweener.

It also didn’t help when Randolph was suspended 13 games into the 1982-83 season for remarks he made about Ray Meyer and teammates during and immediately after a loss to city rival Loyola. The suspension cost him a game and a starting position, to say nothing of his standing with the pro scouts.

On NBA draft day, the New York Knicks selected Randolph in the 10th round. The 10th round . Randolph couldn’t believe it.

He was cut, of course. The market for 6-5 forwards who can’t handle the ball has never been strong, and the Knicks weren’t about to make an exception. So Randolph, the guy Ray Meyer swears has a 165 IQ, who could sit down at a piano and by evening’s end, without the benefit of a single lesson, play with ease, was on the streets.

As he had with Dillard, Ray Meyer invited Randolph to return to DePaul and complete his degree. But Randolph was more interested in basketball.

He played in summer leagues. He also traveled to Belgium to play. Or was it Venezuela? Friends said they never knew what to believe with Randolph.

On occasion, Randolph showed up at the Westinghouse High gym and asked to practice with Lollino’s team. It was a sad, pitiful sight. “He couldn’t even keep up with the high school kids,” Lollino said.

Still, Randolph clutched at what remained of the dream. At pickup games, you could usually find Randolph, wearing, of all things, his DePaul game jersey.

Randolph became desperate. He would phone Ray Meyer, asking him to arrange a pro tryout. When Meyer said no, Randolph would ask Aguirre or Johnson or even Lollino, the high school coach. The answer was always the same.

“Once, he wanted me to get him a tryout with the Bulls,” Lollino said. “I said, ‘Dolph, you haven’t played in three years. How do you expect to make a team in the middle of the season?’

“It was only a matter of time for Bernard.”

About a year and half ago, Randolph was playing basketball on a Chicago playground. There was an argument and then a horrible, vicious fight. Randolph was struck in the head at least three times with a tire iron. He crumpled to the ground, part of his skull crushed.

According to Ray Meyer, Randolph experienced partial sight loss in his left eye. Doctors wanted to perform a delicate operation to try to repair the damage, but Randolph refused.

“I don’t think he’s ever been right since,” Meyer said.

Randolph would visit Meyer’s Alumni Hall office, sit in a chair and say absolutely nothing. Other times he would burst into tears. Sometimes he would be the Randolph of old, charming, bright, conversational.

Lollino saw the change, too. Randolph began calling him, Frank, instead of the customary, Coach. And once, while watching a game between the Knicks and Bulls with Lollino’s son, Randolph began shouting at the television set.

“Hubie Brown (the Knick coach at the time) wants my advice!” Randolph yelled. “He wants my advice!”

There was more:

--Employers fired Randolph because of his mood swings.

--Randolph’s girlfriend told Ray Meyer that she feared for her life.

--Friends noticed that Randolph, usually an immaculate dresser, appeared unkempt, slovenly.

--Randolph, broke and too proud to ask for a loan, walked from Chicago to Harvey, Ill.--about 40 miles--to see a friend, said Ray Meyer.

The most telling incident occurred during the recent NBA All-Star break. Convinced that a job with the Rockford Lightning awaited him, Randolph arrived at the team motel late Tuesday evening, Feb. 3.

“I’m the newest Rockford player,” he told the clerk, who gave him a room.

The next morning, in his daily check, General Manager Dave Abrams called the motel and was told about his new player.

“What new player?” Abrams asked.

Abrams said he called Randolph, explained that the Lightning wasn’t in need of his services and that unless he intended to pay for the room, he should leave immediately.

Strange thing is, a year earlier, Abrams, then the assistant general manager, offered Randolph a tryout. Arrangements were made, but Randolph never appeared. Now, here he was, asking for the Lightning to make good on their offer.

“It was like a flashback,” Abrams said.

Randolph later left the hotel. That evening, said police, he sped away in a taxicab while the driver stood inside a convenience store, checking on the winning Illinois state lottery numbers.

Randolph made it as far as nearby Belvidere. There, Belvidere Police Sgt. Max Mindar noticed the cab, which fit the description of a missing vehicle, heading the wrong direction on a one-way street. After an eight- or nine-block chase, Randolph pulled over.

Rockford authorities charged Randolph with criminal trespass to a vehicle, a misdemeanor, as opposed to grand theft, auto. Belvidere police charged him with trying to elude police, also a misdemeanor.

But no one hurried forward to pay Randolph’s bond, which required only 10%--$30 cash--of the original $300 bond amount.

Randolph eventually was released on bond, but he failed to appear for a Feb. 15 court date, said Paul Logli, state’s attorney of Winnebago County, where Rockford is located. A bench warrant is on file for the arrest of Randolph. He also didn’t show for a March 3 court date in Belvidere’s Boone County, prompting another bench warrant to be issued.

AGUIRRE

Not long ago, after a Saturday practice with the Mavericks at their facilities in north Dallas, Aguirre was approached by representatives of the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. Would Aguirre be interested in visiting area schools and speaking about the evils of drugs?

Aguirre, wearing a red NBA All-Star game warm-up suit, agreed instantly. “Put me down for all of it,” he said.

It has been hard for Aguirre, watching two friends ruin their lives. But in a way, he is partly to blame. He made basketball seem so easy and Dillard and Randolph believed that they could follow in his million-dollar footsteps.

They couldn’t, although at one point, Aguirre and Dillard and Randolph talked about the possibility of playing together in the NBA. When that fell through, Aguirre said he figured his friends would play in one of the European leagues. When that fell through, Aguirre said he didn’t know what to think.

“The thing is making them realize that there’s a lot more of a life out there,” he said.

Aguirre endured his share of difficulties growing up on the West Side. There were occasional family problems and money was scarce. Still, Aguirre said he lived in “a pretty positive situation.”

In his autobiography, Ray Meyer wrote that he was never allowed to recruit Aguirre at the family’s West Side home. Aguirre always insisted that Meyer visit him at Lollino’s house or at Westinghouse High. Meyer knew all about Westinghouse. The Bunte Brothers candy factory once occupied the same site. Meyer’s father used to buy candy from the factory for his wholesale confectionary route.

Aguirre could have gone to any university. He had hands the size of a catcher’s mitt and a body as wide as a doorway. He had a soft shooting touch and an inside game that relied on position and power.

“He could score at will in high school,” Joey Meyer said. “He could score at will in college. He could score at will in the pros.”

Said Ray Meyer: “A ready-made ballplayer.”

The achievements are familiar enough: High school and college consensus All-American, starter on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, first-round selection of the Mavericks. “The best clutch player in the country,” Al McGuire raved at the time.

Aguirre may have been best known for his squabbles with Ray Meyer and for that familiar scowl that often crossed his face. If Aguirre arrived at practice in a poor mood, Meyer readied himself for an awful workout. If Aguirre walked in smiling and joking, the practice went smoothly.

Tantrums aside, Aguirre always has had a soft spot. Meyer wrote that Aguirre once accompanied him to see Sister Mary DePaul, a nun who was dying of cancer. Aguirre lightly hugged the frail woman and made sure pictures were taken. A month later, she died.

Aguirre also quietly volunteered to help move elderly patients to the new Little Sisters of the Poor facility. And once, while driving in Dallas, Aguirre saw a lone kid shooting jump shots on an outdoor court. Aguirre stopped the car, practiced with the kid and then, noticing the boy’s worn sneakers, presented his own shoes to him.

With Dillard and Randolph it was no different. Instead of shoes, Aguirre offered money, advice, love. He hasn’t been able to reach Randolph, but he has spoken with Dillard.

“It wasn’t fun, put it that way,” Aguirre said of the talk.

Aguirre is newly married. Life is good. Now if he could only share it with Dillard and Randolph.

THE DREAM: R.I.P.

A few weeks ago, Ray Meyer spoke with Dillard at the Gateway Foundation. Meyer said he will never forget the conversation.

“He said he wasn’t ready to go on the outside, yet,” Meyer said, the happiness in his voice still apparent. “So I felt that Skip had come a long way.”

Dillard has betrayed family and friends’ hopes before. Before Dillard’s arrest, Eddie Johnson confronted him about his drug troubles.

“He cried when I talked to him,” Johnson said. “But when a guy’s on drugs, he’s going to tell you anything you want to hear. By then, Bernard had given up on (the NBA). Skip, his dream was getting his next high.”

This is different, Ray Meyer said. This time Dillard has genuinely changed. The Skip that everyone used to know is slowly returning.

“I think jail was probably the best thing for Skip,” Johnson said. “It gave him a chance to kick his drug habit. I mean, to me, jail is the worst thing that could happen--next to death.”

Which is what Dillard was flirting with when he used cocaine or tested his luck with gas station cashiers.

There are no fairy tale endings here. Dillard still faces those 15 armed robbery charges. Even if plea bargaining becomes a possibility, Ray Meyer fears that Dillard will spend time behind bars. “Skip, I think, is going to have a tough time,” Meyer said.

Randolph’s situation is equally complicated. According to Meyer, who said he has spoken several times with the physician treating Randolph at Tinley Park, Randolph may sign himself out of the center. But if he does, the physician told Meyer: “I’ll get a court order to get him right back in.”

Meyer has talked to Randolph on the phone. Almost always, Randolph asks Meyer to get him out. “I’m trying to cooperate with the doctors,” Meyer said softly.

Dillard and Randolph aren’t the first basketball players to fall victim to the dream. Sadly, they won’t be the last. They couldn’t let go of their aspirations and, in the end, it eroded their lives.

Aguirre said he’d wager a year’s salary that Dillard and Randolph “will straighten up and come clean. They have incredible hearts . . . that’s why I know they’ll be all right.”

Johnson won’t bet a year’s wages, although, he said he thinks “Skip is going to figure it out.”

Randolph? Johnson isn’t so sure.

Lollino said he is optimistic that Dillard and Randolph “learned a lesson,” and Joey Meyer called them decent people. “I just think they got in desperate straits,” he said.

That they did, desperate enough to let a game rule and perhaps ruin their futures.

Shortly after leaving DePaul, Dillard told Ron Rappaport, then of the Chicago Sun-Times, that “from kindergarten to college, it was roses.”

But roses have thorns and they pricked Dillard’s and Randolph’s lives. Time for wounds to heal.


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