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Bouncing Back From Tragedy : Basketball: Eric Vallely recovers from loss of his sister to cancer.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Under different circumstances, this might have been a simple story about endless hours of basketball on a driveway and a love for a game shared by father and son.

An easy, familiar story about a boy shooting a ball into a hoop again and again, marking a trail of his father’s famous footsteps on asphalt and hardwood. A traditional story of competition and closeness between two generations of gifted athletes.

But basketball is only part of the story about former UCLA basketball standout John Vallely and his son, Eric, a sharp-shooting sophomore guard at Newport Harbor High School.

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The friendly elements, such as those about long games of H-O-R-S-E between father and son, filled with impossible shots made over and around garage walls and trees, are there. The sense of companionship and the good-natured teasing and taunting between John and Eric, father and son, coach and player, friends, are there.

And elements of sadness and loss are also there, as important a part as the NCAA championships and the thrill of drilling a key three-pointer in a high school game.

Tragedy doesn’t belong in this or any story, but it’s there. But tragedy isn’t the prevalent theme in the Vallely story.

John, Eric and basketball have seen to that.

“This is hard to talk about,” John Vallely said, looking out a window briefly, then looking back. “But it’s good to talk about.”

Vallely and his wife, Karen, are talking about their daughter, Erin, who died Sept. 20 after a three-year fight against pediatric cancer. Erin was 12 years old.

“She was in remission early, and she was three months from finishing her therapy when the cancer came back,” Vallely said. “We thought we had it licked, but the cancer cells were hiding from us . . . they hid and they came back.”

When the reoccurrence of the cancer cells was discovered in late spring, Erin was hospitalized. She remained in the hospital throughout the summer.

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Little remained the same for Eric or his parents during that time. John and Karen spent as much time with Erin as possible, which limited the shooting games and surfing expeditions that John and Eric were accustomed to doing together.

“It was hard because I was alone a lot, but I understood,” said Eric, 16. “Mom and Dad both checked on me a lot, and one of them was always at my summer league games or home for dinner.

“Things were a lot different without having Dad around to surf and shoot with as much, but in some ways it was good for me. They showed they trusted me to be by myself and be responsible, and it was nice to know that.”

John and Karen believe Eric’s maturity over the difficult summer has helped him in many ways, including on the basketball court.

“As a player, Eric’s made a lot of progress in the last year, and I think one of the reasons for that is because he’s gotten stronger and tougher mentally,” John said. “Even though he’s a 6-foot sophomore playing against a lot of bigger, physically stronger guys, he’s not afraid of anybody out there. He’s tenacious.

“I know some of that comes from his own competitive nature, but I think what we’ve been through as a family has also contributed to his improvement.”

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John, 43, played at Corona del Mar High School and two years at Orange Coast College before transferring to UCLA. With the Bruins, Vallely started for two NCAA championship teams (1969 and 1970) under John Wooden.

A tremendous shooter, Vallely was a first-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks and played five years in the NBA. Vallely was traded to the Houston Rockets during his second year at Atlanta.

Although his teammates at UCLA included Lew Alcindor, Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, many of Vallely’s fondest recollections of his career with the Bruins involve what he learned about life--not basketball--from Wooden.

“Coach Wooden’s ‘Pyramid of Success’ is one of the most inspiring things I’ve come across in my life,” Vallely said. “Coach Wooden taught me that the values and disciplines in the Pyramid of Success apply to every part of life, not just sports.”

During Erin’s illness, the Vallelys found Wooden’s teachings especially relevant.

“At the top of the pyramid, success is defined as peace of mind--knowing that you’ve done your best to win or succeed in whatever you’re doing,” Vallely said. “With Erin, my heart is broken and it always will be, but I know we did everything we could and she did everything she could to beat it. Now that God’s taken her, life has to go on.”

At Newport Harbor, Eric currently averages 13 points. He was promoted to a starter on the varsity after playing freshman basketball last year. Like his father, Eric is a top long-range shooter, and twice this season has had four three-pointers in a game.

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“Like his dad, Eric is a shooter and a tremendous competitor,” Newport Harbor Coach Bob Serven said. “He’s earned everything he’s gotten here, including the green light to shoot whenever it’s a good shot.

“He’s had a great attitude all along and never expected any favoritism. He’s proved he belongs at this level.”

It’s not surprising Eric shoots well, considering his father has been coaching him since Eric took an interest in the game in the third grade. Since then, John has coached Eric at almost every level, including last year’s Newport Harbor freshman team.

As an assistant coach with the freshmen, John helps the young players with their techniques and fundamentals, and also keeps his own shooting skills sharp for his H-O-R-S-E games with Eric.

“He won’t play me one-on-one anymore,” Eric said, smiling. “He hasn’t played me in a year because he’s scared of getting beat. Now all he does is play H-O-R-S-E and complain about not having the three-point shot when he played.”

Of course, John sees the situation a little differently.

“I just decided to retire undefeated against Eric in one-on-one,” he said. “It hurts too much now, anyway. The last time I played him, I couldn’t move for three days. But I did beat him.”

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Basketball has helped the Vallelys continue with their lives, enough so that there are no open signs of grief during this holiday season. Their home is well-decorated for Christmas, and thus far, Eric has yet to break any of the lights that loop above and around the backboard mounted on the garage.

“Usually, I break at least a couple before Christmas,” Eric said. “I think we’re going to be all right this year.”

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