Man on a Mission

Times Staff Writer

Dunovan Wallace is the 19-year-old coach of the Mission Viejo High boys' basketball team.

When several players started playfully tussling during a preseason conditioning drill, the no-nonsense leader snapped everyone back to attention by yelling, "You can't fight! This is too important!"

Wallace is also the team's leading scorer and its most popular player.

When the Diablos make a basket, he feels as if the ball has left his fingertips.

Wallace also just happens to be the team's most fervent supporter.

Everyone is his favorite player, and everyone reaps the rewards of his enthusiasm. Last season, the players received water bottles from Wallace. This season, it was Diablo-red terrycloth hand towels with their names and numbers printed on them.

It's quite an array of endeavors for a young man too weak to lift a bag of basketballs and too developmentally disabled to carry his own driver's license.

Officially, Wallace, a Mission Viejo senior, is the team manager, a post he has held for four years.

But then, how many team managers concern themselves only with their team's success even while being hospitalized because of kidney failure?

"He's in the room with all these tubes hooked up to him," recalled Don Wallace, Dunovan's father, "and he's on the cell phone trying to find out the halftime score of a game against Trabuco Hills."

This much is certain about Wallace: He is the team's inspiration.

"He's the guy that pumps you up when you don't want to be at practice," said Joe Fleskoski, a former Diablo player who is a freshman at Texas El Paso.

"You see him there and realize what he's going through, it makes you want to be there."

Wallace suffers from polycystic kidney disease, a disorder in which cysts form in the organ and multiply over time, contributing to the deterioration of normal function.

Wallace was diagnosed with the condition as a baby but didn't require dialysis until about a year ago, when his strength and energy levels began to plummet. He is now in need of a new kidney, which one of his parents hopes to provide within the next two months if he or she is determined to be a compatible donor.

Wallace's developmental disorders, which affect his cognitive skills, surfaced years after his kidney disease. With the exception of a few elective courses, Wallace attends special education classes and is learning at about a sixth- or seventh-grade level.

That hasn't stopped Mission Viejo players from embracing him as one of their own. They take Wallace along with them to meals and events such as a recent pro wrestling match at Arrowhead Pond. They even tried to teach him to surf a few years ago during a tournament in Hawaii.

"He's an equal part of the team," senior forward Jake Collins said. No matter how much love the Diablos shower upon "The Big D," as they call him, they realize that they will never be able to repay Wallace for everything he has given them.

Start with the hand towels, which Wallace paid for by cleaning classrooms and assisting equipment managers last summer. Though the work was voluntary, Wallace's father paid him a salary.

Last season, after several players had become ill, Wallace bought the team individualized water bottles because he wanted to be sure the sickness didn't spread through the entire roster.

"He puts everyone in front of himself," Collins said. "He's the most caring person I've met in my life."

At daily practice sessions, Wallace distributes water, accompanies injured players to the trainer's room and fetches rebounds. Sometimes, Mission Viejo Coach Troy Roelen puts Wallace in the spotlight: If he can make a three-point basket, the players don't have to run sprints.

Wallace has kept the Diablos' legs fresh on many occasions.

When Wallace misses practice or a game because of his thrice-weekly dialysis sessions, each of which lasts 3 hours 15 minutes, he calls the players beforehand to remind them to play hard.

Last season, when Mission Viejo won its first South Coast League title in more than a decade, Wallace was crushed to learn he couldn't accompany the top-seeded Diablos to play at Canyon Country Canyon in the Southern Section quarterfinals. His condition had recently worsened, and his parents feared the long drive might be too taxing.

Without their most versatile role player, the Diablos lost.

"We definitely missed him," Fleskoski said. "I wish we could take that game back."

Wallace still keeps up with Fleskoski and many former players, calling them at their colleges to report football and basketball scores. So far this season, Wallace has called with mostly good news. The football team went 14-0 and the basketball team was 18-1 overall and 3-0 in South Coast League play before a game against Mission Viejo Trabuco Hills on Friday night.

Perhaps that's one reason Wallace's father recently received a $400 cell phone bill ... and shrugged.

"This team is the best thing that's ever happened to him," Don Wallace said. "It's the friendships that keep him going."

Said Dunovan: "I like knowing I'm a part of a team."

Wallace also enjoys the winning. And there has been plenty to go around at Mission Viejo in recent years.

"He comes back every year because he's driven to win as many games as he can," said junior forward Jed Collins, Jake's brother.

"When you see all the stuff he's going through, you want to do something for him, like winning a [section] title. We want to get him a ring because he would wear it every day with pride."

Before his condition took a downturn, Wallace played shooting guard in a youth league for developmentally disabled boys in San Juan Capistrano. One day, a Diablo player got the idea to turn the tables, to bring the water to him at one of his games.

So a group of about 30 players and parents showed up at a game. Players rotated coaching the team, refereeing the game and taking care of their teammate.

"We kind of spoiled him that day -- like he does us," Fleskoski said. "When he made a basket, it was the happiest I've ever seen him."

Wallace never seems to get down, even when discussing his impending transplant. Jerald Sigala, the nephrologist who is caring for Wallace, said there is a 90% success rate in cases such as Wallace's, where the donor is a relative and the recipient is otherwise healthy.

Wallace might need another transplant in the future, perhaps in 20-25 years, Sigala said. His two sisters, both healthy and athletic, are ideal candidates to provide the next kidney

For now, Wallace has more important things to ponder. Like college. He might attend a two-year transitional program at Saddleback College that would prepare him to move into the workforce.

Wallace said he would like to apply for a position as men's basketball manager at Saddleback. He is also considering a dual role by staying on as an alumni manager at Mission Viejo.

Still, he knows it can never be the same.

Recently, Wallace turned to his father and said, "Dad, I'll miss it."

"Yeah," his father replied, "but we know where it's at. We don't have to miss any games."

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