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TALL ON TALENT : L. A. Breakers Pursue Third Consecutive Dwarf Athletic Assn. Basketball Championship

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Los Angeles basketball fans, take heart! Three-peat is alive and still possible.

OK, so it’s not the Los Angeles Lakers who remain in contention for a third consecutive title. It’s the Los Angeles Breakers.

It’s not the NBA, but the DAAA.

It’s not a league for 7-footers, but an under-5-feet league.

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Don’t sell these guys short. The games of the Dwarf Athletic Assn. of America can be just as intense, exciting and inspiring as anything seen at a higher level.

The Breakers, winners of the gold medal in the past two DAAA National Dwarf Games, have spent 14 weeks preparing to defend their title this weekend in Baltimore.

“The Lakers couldn’t do it,” said Joseph Griffo of Burbank, the team’s 4-foot-4 swingman, “but we will. We are just like an NCAA team or any other team competing at its own level. We get so psyched.”

The co-ed dwarf league makes few allowances for size. The games are played on a regular court with a basket set at regulation height. There’s even a three-point line. The only difference is the basketball. It’s the slightly smaller one used for women’s games at the collegiate level.

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“Basketball is basketball,” said Lou Black, the Breakers’ coach. “With their stature, people wonder if they can play on a regulation court. But they are very talented. It’s just that they’ve been kept under wraps for a long time.”

Black, 31, knows good basketball. He played the game at Central State in Ohio. Now an area salesman of electronic equipment, Black came to a Breaker practice four years ago.

And never left.

“It’s really something,” he said. “I have learned as much from them as they have learned from me. They know all the fundamentals. They can rebound. They can shoot the three-pointers. They can run the fast break. They have awed people. But you really have to see it to believe it.

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“When I tell people I coach a basketball team of dwarfs, they look at me strange and scratch their heads,” he continued. “It hasn’t sunk in yet what these people can do, but they’re on the horizon. People have been calling me from all across the country this week asking, can we do it?”

Team members (nine men and three women) range in height from 3-foot-6 to 4-foot-9.

No, the center on this squad is not known as The Little Fella, but the Breakers do have a pair they refer to as their Twin Towers--Eric Heslington and Scott Danberg, each 4-foot-5.

“Eric is one of the best point guards I’ve ever seen,” Black said, “other than Magic Johnson. Eric sees everybody on the court. He sets them up and he can score.”

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Basketball is not the only sport at the fourth edition of Dwarf Games. Competition also is held in track and field, power lifting, swimming, table tennis and golf. There is also competition for juniors (15 and under) and masters (40 and over). About 100 athletes participated in the last Dwarf Games.

Griffo not only played for the gold medal winners in basketball last year but also was part of the unit that won the 400-meter relay in a time of 1 minute, 6.4 seconds.

For Griffo, 37, such national competition is a big step up from his younger days when his biggest struggles came from just trying to get on a field. Any field.

Born into a family where everyone else was of normal size (his twin sister Janice is 5-foot-1), Griffo determined at an early age that he was going to take part in the normal activities of his peers. He played Little League but found the obstacles growing bigger when he didn’t.

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In high school, in the San Gabriel Valley, he made the B football team as a middle guard.

“At first, the other players thought, ‘Let’s take it easy on this guy,’ ” Griffo said. “But once they saw me go through the line, saw that I could cause havoc, they realized I was for real. I used my quickness and my strength to get me in there.

“Sure the other guys were taller and stronger, but I was going to go in and try my best even if I got kicked on my butt. Which I often did.”

Griffo also made the high school baseball team.

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“They never let me play,” he said. “They just used me as a pinch-hitter. I was told, ‘Don’t swing the bat. Just go up there and walk.’ ”

It was in soccer that Griffo had his greatest success.

“The coach didn’t care what size I was,” he said. “I was able to play on the wing because I was quicker than the other players.”

And now he has the Breakers.

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“We feel like we are really breaking ground,” Griffo said. “Considering our difficulties, we feel we have come a long way. But we wish we could go further.”

There are plans to do just that. Griffo would like to compete in the World Games in the Netherlands in 1990.

He hopes to compete in the Paralympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992, the athletic event for the disabled that follows the regular Olympics. Dwarfs took part for the first time in last year’s Paralympics in Seoul.

“Eventually, we hope to have our own Olympics, a Dwarf Olympics,” Griffo said, “like the Special Olympics.”

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None of this is cheap. In order to meet the expense of traveling and competing, Griffo has set up a fund through the United States Organization for Disabled Athletes.

He also has a full-time job as an actor and stunt man. He has done commercials, appeared on television shows such as “9 to 5" and “Hardcastle & McCormick,” and recently completed a role as one of the Mario Brothers on a new kids’ show.

Griffo’s wife Cindy, 3-foot-11, is also a member of the Breakers and also makes her living in front of the cameras.

“We would like to sometime play ourselves,” Joseph said of acting, “rather than what we usually play, which is a puppet, an alien or a chipmunk.

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“We would like to show people our family, show them that we are equal to them, that we can have babies, work or be athletes.”

The Griffos have been married for three years and hope to eventually have children.

“There is a 50-50 chance,” Joseph said, “that our kids would be dwarfs.”

But first there is this matter of the three-peat. Black has no doubt his team will be successful.

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“We are building a dynasty,” he declared.


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