Julius English works as a behavior therapist for children with special needs and, over the years, has developed a magical touch. The 39-year-old has a learning disability, but basketball has helped him push his limits. That’s one reason English uses the game in his work: He teaches basketball to his new students and spends his weekends playing with former ones as a way to reconnect. The game means a lot to English because his life hasn’t always been this fulfilling.
Eric Calhoun doesn’t play baseball, but he’s the biggest fan at college and minor league parks across the Southland. The 37-year-old has been going to games for almost 15 years, but it’s not easy for him to get there. He’s blind and not well off financially, which makes almost every task a challenge. But Calhoun gets by because baseball fills a void. At home, life is lonely and full of frustration. At the ballpark,he says, everything is “different.”
Nixon Toledo is a suburban kid who is the captain of his Canoga Park High football team. He’s a decent student and a decent athlete, but he’s probably not getting a scholarship for either. He’s just a teenager who needed football to help him grow up. And now that he’s older, he loves the game because of what it has done for him.
These three people live dissimilar lives, but they share a common conviction: They each believe deeply in the power of sports. Their stories show us why.
English credits his learning disability to his mother’s drug addiction. He credits basketball for just about everything else.
He couldn’t read until he turned 10, and he knew that “wasn’t normal.” His father was gone, and his family moved constantly, but English picked up basketball at age 5. And there were courts to play on no matter where he went.
"[Basketball] was the one thing I could do to get away from the house, and I didn’t want to be there,” English said. “I had so much anxiety. … Basketball was the one thing I was able to do where I didn’t have to write, and I didn’t have to read.”
English was cut from his seventh-grade team because he was undersized and overweight. But in a year’s time, he sprouted past 6 feet, cut his hair and grew into his body. He changed so much that the coach who cut him didn’t recognize English the next year. Given a chance, he dunked his way to middle-school fame.
But just as he was gaining traction, English had to move again from Sacramento to Bakersfield. He’d end up transferring to six high schools during his freshman year, and one day, after practice, his mother moved and did not take him with her.
Though English had just been bumped up to varsity basketball as an underclassman, grades were out and his GPA was terrible. So English transferred schools again and stayed in places like the top level of a bus station. Eventually he settled in at an abandoned house next door to his best friend, Wade Tavorn. After he grew tired of getting his electricity from an extension cord thrown to him through the window, he went to the Tavorns’ home for dinner and popped the question: Could he stay with their family?
“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” English said. “Actually ask someone for something.”
Soon English was living a different life. His foster father refused to let English make excuses for bad grades — learning disability or not. So simply through improved work ethic, English managed to raise his marks. Any time the old anxiety would well up, his “pops” would command him to go outside and shoot hoops — just like old times.
English, who has been divorced for more than a decade, has five children of his own and gives them similar advice about sports and life. He has shared a lot about himself but has yet to tell his children about his learning disability.
“They wonder why I’m so hard on them,” English said.
English stopped coaching in the NBA Development League in 2009, but he still plays on weekends. Meanwhile his doctor helps him learn the material he needs for his associate’s degree by turning history lessons into sports stories. When he returns to his job in the public school system, he will play basketball with whichever kid he’s working with because he knows that other children will join in.
When time permits, English even checks in on former students. That’s why he’s spending one Friday evening at Balboa Park playing H-O-R-S-E with 19-year-old Xavier Alfonzo — a special-needs student he worked with for four years who some said had no shot to graduate from high school.
Alfonzo couldn’t verbalize words until he turned 13 but now has a college-level vocabulary. Alfonzo acknowledges that school was “a little impossible,” and before meeting English, he would try to “coerce” people into doing things for him.
But English introduced Alfonzo to basketball, and with a backward hook shot, Alfonzo won five championships in small local leagues.
Alfonzo graduated in June and was asked to the prom along the way.
He calls it “history in the making,” and one expert agrees.
UCLA education professor Jeffrey Wood said that children with social disorders tend to become increasingly isolated as they age. But aided by English and basketball, Alfonzo bucked the trend.
“Sport is fun, it’s a wonderful socializer, and it’s a thing I think in many ways helps people mature,” said Richard Crepeau, a sports history professor at the University of Central Florida. “And I think it tends to have that effect on people much more at the ordinary sport level.”
From afar, fans at a Rancho Cucamonga Quakes game will see (and hear) a jovial Eric Calhoun.
“You gotta hit your way outta here!” he yells on a Monday night. “Don’t you wanna go to double-A ball?”
But that’s because the ballpark is Calhoun’s sanctuary — the place he feels most appreciated. The rest of his life is rather empty.
Calhoun has been sightless since birth, having several conditions including irreversible glaucoma. He lives with his mother in a less-than-modest house off Crenshaw. She makes jewelry to scrape together what she can to support the family. So Calhoun has to engage in a balancing act: He needs help but never wants it.
The problem plays out in his living room, where Calhoun’s mother, Lorine, wonders aloud if media attention might bring Eric some Lakers tickets. She also bursts into laughter when Eric recalls phoning the UCLA and USC baseball coaches at 2 a.m. to ask for tickets the day before a game.
But a minute later, Calhoun reasserts his self-sufficiency.
“If anyone would say anything about me, they would say don’t drop the word, ‘can’t’ on Eric,” said Calhoun, speaking in the third person. “He’s never going to accept the word ‘can’t’ no matter what you do.”
However, Calhoun is told he can’t do things all the time. He’s been kicked out of everything from clubs to karaoke bars, simply because he’s there without supervision. Calhoun sometimes snaps at people and even acknowledged yelling, “Why are you lying to me?” to a woman on the bus earlier in this day.
Baseball games are different, though. Calhoun never is kicked out of a ballpark. Instead, most regulars embrace his fandom, making these lesser-known stadiums the one place he feels included.
It all makes sense to Crepeau, the sports historian.
“Just a sense of belonging … is important for a lot of people,” Crepeau said. “There’s a certain amount of self-respect and self-image that takes place in sports, and the fact that you can go out and participate is really important.”
Of course, Calhoun is still engaged in the balancing act at a game, asking for a hot dog, a soda or some help up the stairs. But at the ballgame, he has knowledge, enthusiasm and clever cheers to give in return.
“I came because I wanted some camaraderie,” Calhoun said. “I don’t like the lifestyle that the people in this neighborhood give me. … And I think, well, sports gets me out of that, because no one pushes me around.
“Sports is completely different.”
Like so many eighth-grade boys, Nixon Toledo relished the opportunity to legally play rough with people. His father forbid him to play Pop Warner football because his weight would have forced him into a division with older kids. But when high school arrived, there was no stopping the “punk kid” from playing. He thought he could cruise through high school and talk back to teachers just as he did in eighth grade.
“I wish I could go back and slap some sense into myself,” Toledo said.
Toledo’s story is not all that uncommon. He was an immature teenager who hung out with the wrong crowd. Nothing in his life had gripped him, so there was really no reason to expend any effort on anything.
But he gave an effort to football practice. It was even enough to make him ditch his troublemaker friends. Toledo had finally found something he was passionate about.
His first-semester GPA took his passion away, and for a while, Toledo’s only incentive to raise grades was the prospect of playing football again. But when he found himself failing during summer school too, it finally hit him.
“I just didn’t want to be a failure, you know?” he recalls thinking.
So three summers later, as Toledo enters his senior season, he finds himself as a starting defensive tackle. He still has work to do on his technique. But he has gained discipline, something he’ll need to be successful.
Sports focused Toledo’s life; he doesn’t have time for anything besides practice and school. It’ll take a year or two of community college to make up for the year he “messed up,” but Toledo has USC engineering in his sights.
“I want to do something,” he said. “I want to be remembered, and I want to be known.”
Richard Lapchick, also a professor at the University of Central Florida, researches the impact of sports and calls it “the broadest cultural common denominator we have in our society.” Perhaps that’s why sports can affect the lives of such different people in equally powerful ways.
English plays on the street courts at Balboa Park; Calhoun shows up at the Epicenter in Rancho Cucamonga; and Toledo lifts in a dusty high school weight room previously lined with asbestos. They’re not superstars, but sports matters to them as much as any major leaguer.
“Sport just has the power to lift us up,” Lapchick said. “And I think it’s at all levels, all ages.”
“You’d be hard-pressed to find another part of our society where that’s true.”
The Times’ Arkasha Stevenson contributed to this report.