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7 Feet 1 Times 2? A Stretch

Times Staff Writer

It happened every game. Brook and Robin Lopez loomed head and shoulders above the competition in claustrophobic high school gyms across the Central Valley.

Win or lose, opposing basketball players and even coaches cornered the towering 18-year-old twins for snapshots and autographs. Giggling girls who barely reached their waistlines compared hand sizes. Everyone wanted a piece of them.

There’s a lot to go around.

At 7 feet 1, the Lopez twins are celebrities. In an era of high-flying giants showboating on sports TV, even hyper-tall schoolboy athletes are now hero-cool.

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And the brothers are still growing.

Wherever they go, the twins draw a crowd -- and not just on the basketball court, where they block shots without jumping and hunch down to high-five ordinary-size teammates.

At a volleyball game in nearby Madera, one woman ogled the boys’ size-20 shoes: “Look at the size of their feet!”

“Oh my God,” another stammered. “There’s two of them!”

At San Joaquin Memorial High School, where pressures to fit in are fierce, they’re the big kids on campus. Students follow in their wake as the twins make their way through a miniature world. They stoop to avoid banging their heads while entering classrooms, contorting themselves into Lilliputian desks -- legs outstretched like felled trees.

While one 7-footer can command awe, twin teen skyscrapers weighing 250 pounds apiece are attention squared.

Strangers approach them at fast-food restaurants with questions about their insatiable appetites, which can lead each to consume an extra-large pizza or four Big Macs at a sitting.

The twins take the attention in stride. “If things work out,” Brook said in a soft baritone, “this could be even bigger.”

Brook and Robin -- who averaged 17 and 12 points per game, respectively -- helped lead their hoops team to a 33-4 record before the Panthers lost in the state semifinals. The twins were among 24 high school seniors named to the McDonald’s All-American Basketball Team, an elite talent showcase. This fall, the brothers will play at Stanford University on full scholarships. After that, most people here expect them to graduate to the National Basketball Assn.

Twin phenoms like the Lopez boys have few peers. The 7-foot Collins twins, Jarron and Jason, played for Stanford before joining the NBA in 2001. Jim and Mike Lanier, listed as the tallest twins in the world at 7 feet 6, also played college basketball in the 1990s.

Experts say the odds of being 7 feet tall in America are incredibly small. “If you walked into a pediatrician’s office, they couldn’t tell you what percentile a 7-footer would be in,” said Richard Steckel, an Ohio State University professor who has studied height. “It would be 99.99999. The nines would go on forever. To have twin 7-footers, well, that’s off the charts.”

Steckel said such height now brings star status: “Public perception of the incredibly tall has gone from freaky and gawky to admiration and even envy.”

Deborah Ledford insists her sons are average kids. And the 56-year-old single parent, who also raised two other sons, works tirelessly to provide them with typical small-town childhoods.

Ledford, who teaches high school math and German, hounds the twins about doing homework, taking out the garbage and reading books outside class. She monitors whom they talk to and where they go. Recently, she phoned another parent to make sure adults would be present at a school party that night.

“Mom, don’t,” Brook bellowed, hanging his head.

The twins are honor students with near 4.0 averages. They like classical music and draw their own cartoon characters, as well as still-lifes that crowd the walls of their home. They say they don’t smoke or drink or have romances that would cloud their focus -- just a wide social network.

“What’s important is that my boys are good people,” Ledford said. “That’s bigger than their accomplishments. They’re normal boys who happen to be tall.”

The boys are comic book fanatics, and their breakfast talk more often revolves around Batman, Flash or the Teen Titans than school or sports. Their cramped bedroom is full of childhood mementos: 3-D glasses, superhero dolls, Disney figurines, plastic light sabers and children’s books such as “Cinderella” and “101 Dalmatians.”

On each twin bed sits a mangled stuffed animal the boys have had since infancy. Brook’s is a tiger, Robin’s a crocodile. “Losing any of this would be like losing a part of myself,” Brook said. “I guess I’m still just a big kid.”

The fraternal twins have their differences. Brook wears his hair short while Robin prefers a wilder frizzy look. In basketball, Brook is more of a scorer and natural center; Robin is the shot-blocker.

Outgoing Brook is more likely to hassle referees over calls. He recently played a police officer in a class production of “West Side Story.” His friends call him Mini-Me. Quiet Robin would often rather sketch than carry on a conversation.

Even the boys laugh at their size. On one basketball road trip, they turned heads when they used the slide in a McDonald’s play area. They say they worry they’ll get stuck inside rides like Disneyland’s Space Mountain. There are many cars they won’t even try to climb into.

Friends accept them just as they are. “At first I was afraid of them -- they’re huge,” said San Joaquin sophomore Zach Bennett. “They’re regular kids. The more you know them, the smaller they get.”

Best friends, the twins plan to room together at Stanford. “Brook is my sounding board about everything,” Robin said, “including being tall.”

Height runs in the family. Ledford is a lanky 6-footer who wears men’s size-13 sneakers. She was a world-ranked child swimmer who later attended Stanford and tried out unsuccessfully for the 1968 Olympic team. Her father was 6 feet 7 and her three brothers range from 6-8 to 6-11. Ledford was once married to Heriberto Lopez, Brook and Robin’s father, a onetime baseball star in Cuba who stands 6 feet 5.

Her oldest son, Alexander, 30, is a 6-foot-11 former college hoopster who coaches at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. At 6 feet 7, brother Chris, a 24-year-old aspiring screenwriter, is the runt.

Brook has sensed his awkward height since the first grade. He’d see Robin there, just as tall, just as confused about his beanstalk body. After their parents divorced when Brook and Robin were 5, the older brothers stepped in as father figures.

The twins recall few instances of being mocked for their height. But Chris recalls having to step in when people wanted to fight them merely because they were tall. He always reminded them to stand up straight -- that it wasn’t just OK to be tall, it was a badge of honor.

“You’re our mom’s sons,” he told them. “You have to show people that being tall is the smallest part of who you are.”

After eking out a living in Los Angeles and Washington state, the family settled a decade ago in Fresno, where the cost of living was lower.

Ledford sacrifices weekends and vacations running the twins to sports practice and basketball camps in the family’s van. The middle seat has been removed to give the twins more legroom as they ride in the back like suburban rock stars. The boys never drive themselves -- Ledford can’t afford the insurance.

For a while, the twins grew 3 inches each year. Ledford couldn’t buy clothes fast enough. She scoured big-and-tall shops and ordered supersize prom tuxedos from Atlanta. When she found something that fit, months later it would already be too small.

Like most mothers of teens, Ledford struggles to clean up after her sons. A dozen giant-size pairs of basketball shoes clutter the home’s foyer. Two basketball jerseys that appear to be the size of single-bed sheets are draped from hangers.

To afford to send both boys to private Catholic school, Ledford often forgoes home fix-ups such as carpet or curtains.

Friends have seen her travails firsthand. “She walked around with holes in her tennis shoes and then got mad when I got her a new pair,” said Ade Furukido, who has known the family for years. “She eats salads while she feeds the boys meat and vitamins so they can grow. She’s sacrificed a lot in her life -- more than she’ll admit.”

Feeding her sons is a challenge on a teacher’s salary. With stomachs like furnaces that constantly demand fuel, the twins are always eating. Many months, Ledford’s food bill comes to $1,000.

On top of the refrigerator are a dozen boxes of sugary cereal such as Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms. The twins can each polish off an entire box and half a gallon of orange juice at one sitting. After dinner, they’ll eat a half-gallon of ice cream.

Before away games, Ledford delivers boxes of Chinese takeout with three entrees each, which the boys devour on the team bus -- their backs against the window, legs stretched across the aisle into the opposite seat.

Sometimes, coaches spring for pregame pizza. And the twins are still hungry. “The kids will say, ‘Hurry, get some pizza, here come Brook and Robin,’ ” said Ciro Ortiz, a former assistant coach. “The twins can grab two slices each, fold them up, and they’re gone in a second.”

One afternoon, at a local restaurant, Brook ordered an appetizer called a Steamer Trunk, which consisted of several pounds of deep-fried shrimp, chicken tenders and potato skins. Then came a Philly cheese-steak sandwich with fries. Brook guzzled so many 16-ounce Cokes that the waitress brought them two at a time. For dessert: a chocolate sundae.

Chris told Brook to take the last bites home: “Don’t waste. We weren’t raised that way.”

For years, the protective Ledford kept unwanted attention away from the twins, to allow the size of their personalities to catch up with their bodies. But reporters have now descended. The twins have been interviewed on ESPN, and Hollywood producers want to include them in a reality TV project.

“Both twins have something that goes beyond height, an intangible quality,” said Chris. “People can see there’s no pretension, and they’re drawn to that. Even the kids can see it.”

This summer they’ll be off to Stanford, where they’ll be on their own for the first time. But they feel a debt to their mother and plan to pay her back -- either as NBA players or professional animators. “We want to build her a house overlooking Puget Sound,” Brook said. “It’s got to be on a cliff. She’d like that.”

For now, the twins remain boys trapped in men’s bodies.

At a recent game, Robin jumped center against an opponent almost a foot shorter.

At midcourt, Eric McNey of Calvary Chapel Downey High School peered up at Robin and then shot a glance at his bench.

He laughed.

“Why didn’t they just give him the ball?” he said after Robin won the tip without jumping. “What was I supposed to do?”

In the postgame autograph crunch, as Ledford tried to corral her twins and take them home to their waiting homework, a small boy reached up to hand Robin a piece of paper to sign.

The big boy smiled.


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