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Street Survivor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By becoming a key player on the Sylmar High boys’ basketball team, Daron Wilson has beaten the odds.

Truth be told, some might say he’s done so simply by staying alive.

Six of Wilson’s childhood friends weren’t so lucky. They became victims of the violent lifestyle they chose, all shot down within a year.

Wilson, 18, once ran with the same boys in a South-Central Los Angeles gang called “The 25th Street Posse.”

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“We jumped people, robbed people and even shot at people,” Wilson said. “I had to make the change or I’d be with the big boys [now] . . . I wasn’t ready for anything like that.”

When Wilson was 13, he says, he carried a .357 magnum to school in his backpack. Now, five years later, he carries books and dreams of becoming a law enforcement officer.

“I want to help kids out like me that don’t know no better,” he said. “Kids joining the wrong crowd, hurting other people.”

Wilson’s change of heart didn’t come easily or quickly. Bort Escoto, Sylmar’s third-year basketball coach, says guiding Wilson toward a more productive life is a daily chore. But Escoto has taken the challenge to heart.

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“I love him,” Escoto said.

The feeling is mutual. "[He’s] like the father I never had,” said Wilson, who lives with his grandmother, Johnnie Smith. “He looks out for me. Tells me things I need to do.”

Wilson has never known his biological father and hasn’t spoken to him in nearly six years. The only other father figure Wilson had was an uncle, John, who got a young Daron interested in basketball. But four years ago John went to prison for transporting drugs, according to the family.

Wilson’s mother, Sheila Holloway, 36, has been in and out of her son’s life since his birth. Holloway is a self-described cocaine addict who was often homeless and unable to provide for her son during his early years.

“My mother’s been there for him,” said Holloway, who entered the Delancey Street Rehabilitation Center in downtown Los Angeles nearly two years ago in an effort to become drug-free.

Growing up without parental guidance or an older sibling made it tough on Wilson, who joined a gang at age 12, less than a year after his mother gave birth to a baby addicted to crack cocaine in 1990. .

Wilson’s brother, Ronald Shines Jr., died at four months in a foster home, a victim of crib death, Holloway says she was told. Wilson never got to see him.

“I don’t think he’ll ever forgive us for that,” Johnnie Smith said. “But I couldn’t take [the baby in].”

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His brother’s death marked the beginning of a dark period in Wilson’s life. He began spending more time with his gangster friends and less with teammates from his traveling basketball team.

With his uncle John already in prison, Wilson seemed destined to follow him. Before long, Wilson said, he had a rap sheet that included arrests for possession of stolen money and burglary.

“It scared me the last time I was arrested,” Wilson said. “They took me to a [juvenile camp] and showed me how they do things . . . It’s not for me.”

Wilson was also finding himself surrounded by fewer friends. One by one, they began disappearing, shot down by rival gang members.

Wilson thinks at least one of those bullets was meant for him.

“Out too late, walking down the street, people know who you are, [they] stop [the car], pull a gun on you, you just freeze,” he said.

In and out of three high schools and a junior high in one year, Wilson knew he was headed in the wrong direction.

So when his grandmother suggested moving to Sylmar, where she could be closer to her job as a custodian at a school in Tujunga, Wilson went willingly.

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“Why hang out with people that are gonna hold me down?” he said. “I was happy to move.”

Adapting to a new neighborhood wasn’t easy. Wilson said twice he was “jumped” on his way to play basketball at Sylmar Park. Finally, after several tense weeks, the neighborhood began to accept Wilson.

Wilson arrived at Sylmar High two years ago as a sophomore. Since then, with the help of Escoto and teammates he considers “brothers,” he has rediscovered the game he once abandoned for his gang.

However, his personal life remained in turmoil. His mother, who had also moved to Sylmar, could not overcome her addiction.

“She was clean for awhile,” Wilson said. “But she went right back out to L.A., the old neighborhood, and was doing the same thing. Crack.”

Six months after Wilson moved to Sylmar, his mother checked herself into Delancey, an educational facility where residents get room, board and clothing in exchange for work at affiliated business schools--as long as they stay clean and sober.

Holloway’s effort to go straight was the start of something better for Wilson, who says he harbors no resentment toward his mother. “The past is the past,” he said. “We’ve got the whole future to look forward to.”

But the past still haunts Holloway, who speaks to her son by phone about twice a month and makes arrangements to see him at least once a month. She accepts responsibility for his lack of direction and previous gang ties, and remains baffled by his ability to forgive her.

“I think, ‘How could he be so loving and so caring with all the things I’ve taken him through?’ ” Holloway said by phone from Delancey.

While Wilson’s home life was becoming more manageable, Escoto began to chip away at the player’s tough and aloof exterior. Escoto benched Wilson for half of Sylmar’s 20 games last season for missing practices and a lack of commitment.

Wilson still averaged a team-leading 15.3 points.

Although Wilson improved his game and his dedication last summer, it wasn’t enough for Escoto, who kicked his star player off the team in mid-September.

“He didn’t come to the first day of practice with the right mentality,” Escoto said. Wilson, off the team for six weeks, continually begged Escoto for a second chance.

The coach declined, saying he was not convinced Wilson could change his attitude.

At least that was the official line. Escoto says he was banking on Wilson’s return all the while.

Wilson returned to the team in November. A month later, he was granted an extra semester of eligibility at a City Section appeals meeting, winning an argument that school officials failed to recognize him as a special education student until March, 1996.

Since missing Sylmar’s first three games during the appeals, Wilson hasn’t missed a beat on the court or in the classroom.

His reading proficiency has improved more than 50% since March, Escoto said. On the court, Wilson is averaging 17.1 points and 13.9 rebounds.

Wilson now yearns for a college education, a college basketball career and a job in law enforcement with a chance to come back to Sylmar and coach.

He already is setting a good example, according to the coach who once banished him.

Said Escoto: “It’s his team.”

* TONIGHT’S SLATE: Daron Wilson leads the Spartans (14-9) against Huntington Park (10-12) at 7:30 tonight in a City Section 3-A Division playoff opener at Sylmar. Complete listing of tonight’s games. C11


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