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Finding Release With Clippers : After Serving Time in Prison, Free Agent Orlando Vega Tries to Revive Basketball Career

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ron Harper, former shooting guard on the Clippers’ chain gang, couldn’t wait to get out.

“Just doing my jail time,” inmate Harper complained in February as he marked off calendar dates until he was “freed” this season to sign a $19-million contract with the Chicago Bulls.

Orlando Vega, former shooting guard for Sandstone Federal Correctional, couldn’t wait to get in. Last week, he signed a free-agent contract with the Clippers.

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During three years spent in federal penitentiaries, sweating out a sentence for cocaine possession, Vega never tipped a limo driver, cashed a million-dollar check or made a bounce pass to Danny Manning.

Vega’s prison was different from the one Harper knew.

Vega cried a lot in his. Ached for his wife and young son. Beat himself up for derailing one of the most promising and self-destructive basketball careers this side of Lloyd Daniels.

Vega stared at walls, talked to himself, got in scrapes. The worst was in Colorado, when he belted and bloodied an inmate who picked a fight with him on--where else?--a basketball court.

That earned Vega a transfer to Sandstone in Minnesota.

Behind walls, Vega played solitaire as contemporaries signed on the dotted line for NBA fortunes: Alonzo Mourning, Chris Jackson, Billy Owens, Shawn Kemp.

From prison, Vega watched via satellite the Puerto Rican national team win the 1991 Pan American Games in Havana without him. Vega, whose father is Puerto Rican, would have been on that team. “I sat inside and watched those guys win the gold medal and it almost broke me down,” Vega said, sitting sprawled on a folding chair in UC Irvine’s Bren Center, during Clipper training camp.

Vega, 6 feet 2, 190 pounds, is a long shot to make the Clippers, yet outside shooting happens to be Vega’s forte.

Shooting guard is not exactly a Clipper strength. Terry Dehere, who averaged 5.3 points in 64 games last season, inherits Harper’s position.

“The odds are against him making it,” Clipper Coach Bill Fitch says of Vega. “The odds are against anyone coming in undrafted and unheard of making it. But he’s got some skills that make him a legitimate NBA candidate.”

You don’t think Vega wants to make good? He was tired of getting his news from jail-house rats.

It was an inmate, not a teammate, who broke the news to Vega that his idol, Laker Magic Johnson, had announced he was HIV positive.

“Everyone knew Magic was my man,” Vega says. “That’s all I talked about. Some guy came over and told me that, I said ‘Get away from me, quit playing with me.’ ”

Orlando Vega?

“This guy was one of the top high school players in the country at one time,” Clipper assistant coach Barry Hecker says.

You could look it up.

At the 1988 Dapper Dan Classic, one of the nation’s premier showcases for high school basketball talent, Vega walked off with the most valuable player trophy, beating out teammates Jackson, Owens, Mourning and Kemp. The opposing squad featured LaPhonso Ellis and Anthony Peeler.

Then came the nose dive. It would be easy to blame it all on Vega’s past.

He grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York. His mother was a drug addict, his father a vague recollection.

“I remember going to his house when I was 5 or something,” Vega says, “but I can’t remember actually being with him. I can’t actually picture me looking at his face.”

Vega hasn’t seen Dad since. Orlando’s mother had her own problems, so young Orlando moved in with his grandmother. When he was 12, Vega’s mother re-entered his life and took him to Washington, D.C.

Vega had misgivings: “It was like, ‘Where you been all this time? And you’re trying to take care of me?’ ”

She couldn’t, so she sent Orlando off to a group home, where he was educated, so to speak.

“I was around older guys, who would go out and rob, do all that type of stuff,” he says. “I wasn’t no goody-goody. I was right there with them, doing those things. Somehow, the ball, though--the basketball--seemed to take me.”

Vega said the street thugs encouraged him to pursue basketball at Washington’s McKinley High.

To get him away from the city in his senior season, a coach had Vega placed at Oak Hill Academy, a prep boarding school in Virginia.

A solid year earned Vega a scholarship to the University of Arizona, but he soon became a Proposition 48 academic casualty.

He transferred to Providence but never played. Instead, he returned to Puerto Rico and became a star on the country’s professional circuit.

In June 1990, he returned to Washington to renew old acquaintances. Vega was in the apartment of a reputed drug dealer when the police raided.

“I never used any drugs, anything like that,” he explains, “but I did sell. It was a thing, I had to. I had no money and I didn’t have no family with me. My mother wasn’t around. My father, I didn’t know where he was and I was in a group home. Basically, I got myself through high school. Mom didn’t take care of me at the time. Me and Mom are cool now. Like brother and sister. Back then, it was a different thing. She was doing her thing. She had a little drug problem. I had to take care of myself. I had to make the decisions. I didn’t have no father figure telling me no, or looking out for me, or getting me clothes. So I turned to the streets a little bit. I take responsibility for that.”

Vega said he was not in possession of drugs the night of the raid.

“I was innocent that time, but I was there,” he says. “I have to blame myself for that. In the law, if you’re there, you’re just as guilty. I take responsibility.”

In hindsight, jail was the best thing that ever happened.

“A lot of my friends died,” Vega says. “I could have been right there.”

Vega was sentenced to five years. With good time, he cut the sentence to three. Inside, he decided a mind was a terrible thing to waste, so Vega became a model prisoner, read books and helped other inmates obtain their high school diplomas.

Because of his basketball skills, Vega won respect from most inmates, although there were always a few willing to take him on.

“You wake them up quick,” Vega says. “Go dunk on them, shoot a couple of treys (three pointers).”

One guy in Colorado pushed his luck when he pushed his way into a discussion that was none of his business.

“I beat the guy really bad,” Vega admits, “because he didn’t have anything to do with it. There was blood running down his face. I kept whupping him. Not because he did that. Because I was up there getting visits every day from (wife) Donna. She flew up to be with her sisters. . . . That cost me my visits. That’s why I kept hitting him so many times. I was so frustrated. I couldn’t do nothing but that.”

After the fight, Vega was relocated, away from Donna and their young son, Robert.

Yet, he says Donna stuck with him, “every step of the way.”

Staying alive wasn’t the toughest part about prison.

“It’s not so much the physical aspect of jail, the rumbling you’ll have to do,” he says. “It’s the little things. Being away from your family, that’s what kills you.”

At age 26, six years after Dapper Dan, equipped with jump shot and a plea-- guilty, with an explanation --Orlando Vega arrived on the Clippers’ doorstep.

Where else could he go, really? The Clippers signed Vega to shore up the lack of depth at shooting guard since Harper’s defection.

Vega is a novelty--someone who wants to play for the Clippers.

“Someone’s looking out for me, that’s the bottom line,” Vega says of his opportunity. “I never thought anything like this would happen when I got out.”

Vega was released Dec. 15, 1993.

“People start counting your days for you,” he says of the leaving process. “The shorter it gets, the worse it gets. You wonder what’s going to happen when you get out. I never wanted to count my days. I never even looked at the calendar.”

After discarding his prison garb, Vega walked out of Sandstone and caught the first flight to Puerto Rico.

“Got out. Didn’t look back. To the airport, bam , right there.”

The road back was surprisingly swift. Vega first sought out Hectin Reyes, head of the Puerto Rican basketball federation, and asked if he could return to the Quebradillas Pirates, the team for which he played in the Superior League.

Reyes said yes.

“I owe it all to Mr. Hectin Reyes,” Vegas says of his comeback.

Vega had a cult following in Puerto Rico, having averaged 34.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in 114 career games.

“Basically, the whole island wondered when I was coming back,” Vega says. “I never knew how many fans I had until I got back.”

Vega’s play last season--he averaged 26 points per game--earned him a spot back on the national team. There, he would cross paths with his idol when Puerto Rico faced Magic Johnson’s traveling all-star team.

“I got to tell him how much I love him, how much he meant to me over my life,” Vega remembers.

Later came the thrill of Vega’s life, when Johnson actually barked on the court, “Someone cover Orlando!”

From there it was on to the Goodwill Games, where Vega’s Puerto Rico captured the gold medal.

Hecker, the Clipper assistant who had Puerto Rican contacts, had been tracking Vega all along. He met with the player in August at the basketball World Championships in Toronto.

Though the United States trashed Puerto Rico, 134-83, Vega made his presence known when he blocked a Shaquille O'Neal shot and generally held his trash-talking own against Dream Team II.

Vega’s outside shot has made believers of his friends on the inside.

He still gets letters from pen pals.

“Dear Dog,” one began, “I didn’t believe, man, but I seen you on TV getting your money. You’re all that. I thought you were just busting everybody in here.”

Vega came to Clipper camp alone, leaving his wife and son behind in Puerto Rico.

“I hate leaving because I hate seeing her face,” Vega says of Donna. “Because it’s like the day I left (for prison). I see that same face. I see it in her eyes, and it hurts me. I don’t like leaving but she understands.”

Vega left Donna with encouraging words: “I’m coming back.”

Vega’s NBA future is hardly a lock, but Fitch seems to be offering more than a cursory look.

“He’s a DKH,” the coach says. “Doesn’t Know How. He’s got to learn it all, from the standpoint of a full game. But he’s one of those guys, there’s enough innate ability that given the right opportunity and enough chances, he might make it in this league.”

Vega can’t play a lick of defense, a cause for concern, yet Fitch believes Vega has a stronger will to succeed.

“He has a carryover from that situation that gives him a better chance,” Fitch says. “The discipline he has. He’s a very disciplined person. And the respect he has for authority. He has a great deal of that. His desire for success. All those things are probably greater for having been put in that situation.”

Vega says he’ll keep shooting until they kick him out of the gym. He contends no one will outwork him. Vega thinks there’s a reason he’s with the Clippers and not a coroner’s statistic.

“Man upstairs,” Vega says, pointing skyward. “Only thing I can say. I prayed to Him for another chance. And I was just talking in general. He gave me the whole pot back. I just asked for a chance to play basketball again. He gave a chance and more.”


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