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Guardian Angel

Times Staff Writer

This is how Elias Ayuso knew he’d made it:

Driving to the basket, a move he’d made countless times before, he felt a twinge in his hamstring.

If this were Italy or Puerto Rico, if he were still playing in cramped gyms, in basketball’s minor leagues, it might have taken hours or even days before he saw a doctor to treat his injury. But this was the big time, training camp for the San Antonio Spurs.

Maybe he should have panicked. Given a chance to make an NBA roster -- a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless -- the last thing he needed was a bum leg.

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Instead, Ayuso felt a sense of astonishment as trainers whisked him off the floor and wrapped his leg in ice. Within half an hour, they had him at a doctor’s office.

“First class,” he says. “Unbelievable.”

*

This was how Diane Taylor knew he’d made it.

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A week before the Spurs’ camp began, Ayuso came home to New Mexico to see her, this woman he calls his guardian or, in quieter moments, his second mom. The one who saved him from the streets by sheer force of her nagging. The one he fought tooth-and-nail all those years.

Usually when Ayuso visited, he’d be out the door by sunset, eager to meet with friends. Not this time.

“He was home every night to have dinner,” she says. “He stayed and watched movies with us on the couch.”

Taylor speaks of the way Ayuso has grown up, minding his money, careful not to let nightlife detract from his game. And something more. “He has become a caring person,” she says.

Her voice is tinged with the kind of emotion only a mother -- a guardian, a second mom, whatever you call it -- can feel.

*

When the Spurs’ training camp opened last month, Coach Gregg Popovich did not sugarcoat Ayuso’s chances. “He might have a shot at making our team,” Popovich said.

Care to put a number on it? Five percent? Ten percent?

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Those odds are better than anyone would have given Ayuso 10 years ago when he ran the streets of the South Bronx, getting in fights and robbing people. Back then he called himself Larry because it sounded more American. (These days, he answers to either name.) It took the death of friends and an older brother to make him look elsewhere.

A local organization had a program that sent troubled kids to volunteer families in the West, and Ayuso landed in Roswell, N.M.

You could take the kid off the streets but, well, in his new high school the 16-year-old gambled in the hallways, beating classmates out of lunch money. His grades were bad and his volunteer family could not handle him. That was how he ended up with Taylor.

The woman is as feisty as her red hair. She grew up poor but made something of herself, married a successful accountant and raised two boys. Then she turned her sights on giving back by getting involved with the Boys Club.

Ayuso might have been the toughest kid she ever took in, but he wasn’t the first, so she hit him with her standard rules. No baggy street clothes. No phone calls after 8 p.m. Every night they sat at the kitchen table for two hours while he did homework.

What choice did he have? One misstep and she would send him back to the Bronx. It made him so angry he wrote rap songs about his hatred for her.

But there was another part to the deal: If he followed the rules, he would be rewarded. Basketball was his reward.

Taylor got hold of the key to a local gym and took him there after evening schoolwork, this short woman rebounding and waving a broom in his face, pretending to be a defender while he launched shot after shot.

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When he excelled as a high school player, raw but talented, she sent letters and videotapes to college coaches. She called too, at one point phoning North Carolina State and mistakenly asking for former North Carolina coach Dean Smith.

After Ayuso graduated from high school -- a feat in itself -- he spent a year at junior college before earning an athletic scholarship to USC in 1996.

Taylor traveled seven hours by car and plane from Roswell for every home game. She stood behind the bench, rattling a stick covered with bells and bangles, her “boombah,” so he would know she was still there.

She kept after Ayuso, checking regularly with his school counselors. When he cursed his coach, she made him apologize to the entire team. When he accumulated $1,000 in parking tickets, she flew to Los Angeles and took back the car she and her husband had given him.

Even now, the memory makes him wince. “That’s just her nature,” he says.

*

You want numbers?

In his first season with the Trojans, Ayuso was named to the Pacific 10 Conference’s all-newcomer team.

By the end of his college career in 1999, he had made 163 three-point baskets and 79% of his free throws, both of which put him among the top 10 on the school’s all-time list. Just enough to nurture a pipe dream of playing in the NBA.

Then came the surprise. After all those years of Taylor hounding him about schoolwork, he earned a degree in social science and history. This achievement meant more to him than he could have imagined.

“I graduated,” he says. “First one in my family.”

It was the proudest day of his life. Taylor paid for his mother, Socorro Carrillo, to fly from New York for the ceremony. Soon after, however, his second mom sat him down.

“You graduated ... great,” she said. “So what are you going to do now?”

To him, the next step meant taking back roads toward a dream. Having already played a summer in his native Puerto Rico, he signed with a pro team called the Quebradillas Pirates. He got paid for basketball and put up decent numbers.

But that wasn’t what Taylor meant -- not entirely -- when she challenged him. She was talking about maturing “as the man, the adult, the citizen.” When Ayuso returned to New Mexico after his first season abroad, the numbers she cared most about were on his credit card bills.

“Blowing all his money on girls and clothes,” she says. “And you know how young people love their cellphones.”

It was time for another bargain, a new set of rules. Ayuso was broke -- what choice did he have?

Taylor acted as his agent, getting him a contract with the Humacao Grays in the Puerto Rican winter league. Then she worked an even better deal with another island team the next summer.

As part of their arrangement, his paychecks came directly to her. Twenty-five percent went back to him, the rest to paying bills and establishing an investment fund. With less money in his pocket, he says, “I learned to be smarter.”

The lesson carried over to his game. He caroused less, worked harder. His jump shot already polished, Ayuso focused on defense and ballhandling. By 2001, he had earned a spot on the Puerto Rican national team, which got him into the Goodwill Games and other international competitions.

As he soon found out, NBA scouts and agents watch those games.

*

Ayuso explains his change in attitude: “Before, it was like, yeah, I’ll take today off and hang out with the guys. I’ll work out tomorrow. Now, it’s more like I’ll go to the gym and take care of business.”

Taylor describes it this way: “As a college athlete he was given so much. Now he had to earn it, become responsible.”

Just as in high school, Ayuso took care of basketball and Taylor took care of the rest.

The next two years, his career zigzagged from Montegranaro in Italy to Atleticos de San German in Puerto Rico, from Ionikos in Greece to the Grand Rapids Hoops of the Continental Basketball Assn. At every stop, he proved to be a reliable scorer and tenacious on defense.

It wasn’t easy. He got homesick. Taylor often flew to see him and she did more than only visit.

First, get this straight: The woman is no basketball expert.

Back when she was pestering college coaches, she developed a shtick: “They all have a fear about NCAA violations. So you call and say you have information about a player. They assume it’s one of their players. That’s how you get them on the line.”

No such ploy worked with the pros, so she settled on a blunt approach. She learned to spot NBA scouts and agents in the crowd at international games, figured out how they dressed, how they sat in groups. At the World Championship in Indianapolis a year ago, she accosted them with resumes, videotapes and business cards that read: “Elias ‘Larry’ Ayuso, combo guard and three-point shooter.”

“They’d see me coming and shake their heads,” she recalls. “I kept going up to Popovich and giving him my card and he’d say, ‘I already have one.’ ”

In New York last summer, at an exhibition game involving the U.S. and Puerto Rico, more than a dozen of Ayuso’s family and friends wore T-shirts with his picture. The boombah was gone -- couldn’t get it on planes and into arenas after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- so Taylor banged a metal spoon on a frying pan.

Truth be told, some people around the league came to think of her as a joke or a pain or worse, though no one said it to her face. Who could ridicule somebody’s guardian or second mom or whatever you call it?

“You can tell she really cares about Larry,” agent Bill McCandless says. “She just doesn’t take no for an answer.”

Somewhere along the way, as she helped Ayuso closer to his dream, it seems the young man forgot to look back. He forgot about the long road, “all the work I put in to get this far,” he says.

So, at the exhibition game in Madison Square Garden last August, Taylor took him for a walk through the Bronx and told him: “Look around.”

Familiar faces haunted those streets where he once fought and stole, old friends still going nowhere. “People looked up to me,” he says. “It was like, Larry’s made it. He’s doing good.”

By that time, Taylor had persuaded McCandless to represent Ayuso. The agent agreed if only to get her off his back. But the harassment would increase. Telephone calls. E-mails.

“Diane has done an incredible job of keeping the pressure on me,” McCandless says in a painstakingly diplomatic tone. “I work hard for all my players, but the bottom line is, if she got me to work a little harder for Larry, more power to her.”

Ayuso can shoot better than 95% of the players in the NBA, McCandless says. The problem is his size. At 6-foot-3, he plays a position -- shooting guard -- where most guys in the league average three or four inches taller.

San Antonio agreed to give him a look for two reasons. The Spurs lost their three-point specialist, Steve Kerr, to retirement over the summer. And Popovich had seen Ayuso in those international games.

“He can shoot. Period,” the coach says. “We don’t expect him to be Steve Kerr, but when somebody has a skill that exceptional, it really makes you look twice.”

The deal was signed during a recent Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico. No guarantee, only an invitation. Taylor asked McCandless if she could be the one to tell Larry.

She called him to her hotel room, wouldn’t say why, so he suspected the worst. “What did I do wrong?” he asked.

She told him and his eyes welled with tears.

*

The Spurs invited half a dozen new players to camp with the intention of keeping two or so. Going in, Ayuso knew he had to do something special. He also had to adjust.

“We’ve got a lot of [shooting] guards,” Popovich says. “I want to see if he can handle the ball and play the point position.”

So when Ayuso scored 10 points against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago, Popovich still questioned his ability to run the offense. Shortly before the season began, the team waived him.

Ayuso had been prepared for the worst, saying “this is a business

And here’s a twist.

Taylor was already dealing with a Turkish team called Besiktas that quickly signed Ayuso. She had already contacted other NBA teams about getting him into camp next summer.

“I’m the eternal optimist,” she says. “Just give the kid a chance.”

Ayuso is ready and willing. But at 26, he has begun to ponder life beyond the game.

“There are lots of things more important than basketball,” he says. “To be good to people. Be polite. Always have a positive attitude.”

During that visit home before training camp, he showed a degree of love and appreciation the family had never seen. The way he joked with the Taylor sons. The way he played golf with Dick Taylor and thanked him for being a surrogate father. “I’ve grown a lot,” he says.

You can hear it in the way he talks about Diane. “Our relationship is different than before ... but I know as long as she’s alive, she’s going to be worried, always there for me.”

His voice is marked by the kind of gratitude only a son can feel for a mom.


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