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The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ

To His Family, Ramos' Presence The Greatest Gift


December 23, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Star-Ledger Newark, NJ. All rights reserved. 

Ramon Ramos Jr., the center of the 1988-89 Seton Hall team that lost the NCAA championship game to Michigan in overtime, signed with the Portland Trail Blazers but never played. An automobile crash sent him into a three-month coma and left him with irreversible brain damage. Last week, Star-Ledger columnist Jerry Izenberg went to Puerto Rico to visit him.

This is a Christmas story - one in which the value of survival is sured in small miracles and awkward steps. One in which the parents believe their faith has been repaid a thousandfold. This is a story about a family and a place where the meaning of Christmas is reflected by the love in their eyes each time they look at their son.

There will be 12 for Christmas dinner at the little house in Santillana del Mar, Solar Numero 55 on Wednesday. At 8 a.m., Ramon Ramos Sr., will double-check the metal wires attached to the spit, and begin to roast his pig.

"I do this once each year," he explains. "I used to do this on my birthday, now I do it on Christmas. This day now has become even more special than all the others for us.

"We have Ramon Jr. back."

There will be all things traditional - the roast pork they call lechon, arroz con gandules, pasteles and for dessert, caramel custard. There will be all of that ... the sound of happy-time conversation of the aunt and nieces and nephews of Ramon Jr., as well as his mother, Luz, his father, his sisters, Mercedes and Jossie, and their husbands.

"We have always been a tight family," Ramon Sr. says, "but now more than ever because our son is here. He missed four Christmases because of basketball. He was finally coming home to us and then there was the awful accident."

At 3:15 on the morning of Dec. 16, 1989, in the teeth of an Oregon fog and rain, Ramon Jr. lost control of his car on Interstate 5 just south of Portland, Ore. The car crossed the center median, turned sideways, skidded 60 feet and then went 40 feet through the air and rolled over eight times.

Ramos underwent more than three hours of brain surgery and was placed on a ventilator to drain his lungs. Doctors gave him a 50-50 chance to survive.

He was in a coma for three months. His short-term memory was destroyed as well as any knowledge of much of what occurred from the accident on. His motor skills have been affected, as has his speech. Physically one of the strongest of all the basketball players this island has produced, he now must rely on others to get through each day.

The physical leader of a great college basketball team has become an emotional prisoner, locked in a man's body.

Now, along with Felix Roman, one of the student managers in Ramon's senior year, I was coming to see him, bringing a videotape of the Michigan game, the last one he ever played.

We had driven east along the Atlantic from San Juan on a narrow ribbon of road called Highway 187 that bends toward Loiza. Just south of that turnoff lies Canovanas, the town where, 19 years ago, P.J. Carlesimo coached a 15-year old kid in the island's summer league.

The kid was bigger, stronger and on his way to being wider than anyone else on the court.

His name was Ramon Ramos Jr.

Within six years, he would become the heart and soul of the Seton Hall team that lost the NCAA title on a single did-they-didn't-they foul call but won America's basketball heart and soul in the process. Ramon was often the point man for that conquest of America's root-for-the-underdog psyche.

Here was a young man who barely spoke English when he arrived at Seton Hall, and four years later left it as the Big East Scholar-Athlete of the Year. A single vignette tells it all. His team is to play its first NCAA Tournament game in Tucson, Ariz. The day before, the players are poolside, heads bopping to individual headphone beats, bodies sprawled in total relaxation on the hotel chaise lounges.

Except for Ramon Ramos.

He sits in a straight-backed chair at a small table, taking notes from a textbook. It is not surprising that the night before his horrendous crash that year, he calls Robin Cunningham, the chief academic support officer for student-athletes. He was then just a semester short of graduation. He asks her to send along textbooks so he can get started on what he needs to graduate.

A day later, there will be no place ever again in his life for such books.

The street on which he lives is country-road paved. You pass beneath a concrete arch. Number 55 is perhaps four or five buildings on the right. Ramon wears dungarees and a cream-colored sports shirt. He is, as he was, an imposing figure at 6-9 and 250 pounds - 25 over his playing weight.

But he walks with a halting off-center gait, occasionally listing toward one side or the other, both his arms pointing straight down. You cannot help but ask yourself: Is this the same tower of power and grace who could soar and muscle his way to the boards, sweep the ball off with one powerful motion and dominate all around him?

But as he gets near to his visitors and opens the gate, one thing has not changed.

The smile of Ramon Ramos is a positive aurora borealis. Considering what he has been through, it melts the heart. It forms an emotional link, a kind of common denominator between the Ramon you once knew and the Ramon you have come to visit.

He recognizes us, and the smile broadens. It is one of those mysteries of the mind. He cannot recall yesterdays, but he can slip further back and remember a face from the happiest time of his life.

"I am very fine," he says. "I feel fine that you have come, I really feel fine."

He will repeat these words again and again through the morning ... when he shoots baskets in very slow motion - paralleling a tape recording taped at the fastest speed and played at the slowest ... when he walks down the street with an old friend ... when he stands on the beach at the end of his street and says:

"I ... I ... run ... here ... I ... I ... run until the watch says 15 ... uh ... minutes ... I ... uh ... work my body ... I feel very fine to see you."

Ramos did not recognize his mother when he awakened from the coma. Whatever happened while he survived in that gray area left its mark on him forever. But through sheer determination he speaks, and he wants very much for people to understand that he is trying.

"The first time I visited him at the hospital was five months after the crash. He was so thin," Roman said as we went inside the house. "He was down to 160 pounds. I brought him milkshakes. When he finally got home, we took him to games here and the people gave him standing ovations and he responded. Sometime we go to a basketball court and, of course, he is so slow. But there are times where he goes out and shoots and he makes 10 of 10."

We go inside and Felix Roman, who sees Ramon often, holds up the videocassette and says:

"Look, Ramon. Here is the game. Here is Seton Hall-Michigan. Do your remember?"

Ramon smiles and says:

"I ... I ... uh ... remember that. It's in my memory ... we ... ha-ha ... played it good ... we ... uh ... played very hard ... very hard ... P.J., he was my coach ... he ... uh ... he coached very, very hard. In the ... uh ... Big ... Big ... East we played very hard."

He gets off the sofa and throws punches and laughs and says, "That ... uh ... was ... how ... hard we play Syracuse ... we ... uh ... play hard in the Meadowlands."

"Do you remember the numbers, Ramon?"

"Yes ... yes ... uh ... I ... remember Daryll Walker, he was number 30 ... and ... and Andrew Gaze (and here he sits up and makes a hook-shot motion) ... oooh ... oooh, yes, Andrew ... Andrew Gaze ... he was number 10."

Luz Ramos stands perhaps 20 feet away and listens, and if looks could tell a story, hers would say, "He tries so hard ... we love him so much. ... Back in Portland, God truly heard our prayers."

Then Roman starts the tape, and Ramon leans forward and he says, "Uh ... uh ... thank you for this."

And then he is lost in the game. Each time the Ramos on the screen gets a rebound, the Ramos on the couch applauds and laughs and says:

"Yes, uh, I feel fine that you have come."

On Wednesday, Christmas will come to Santillana del Mar, Solar Numero 55, as it will everywhere else on this island. Ramon will have forgotten and Luz Ramos will patiently explain to him what the day means and who is coming for dinner.

Will he ever get beyond the form of recovery he has achieved?

"Who knows?" she says. Then she shrugs and smiles and adds:

"It takes faith, and if not, then how much more do we have a right to ask of God? He has already blessed us. He has given us back Ramon."

The people in Santillana del Mar, Solar Numero 55, do not have to wait for Christmas.

The Ramos family celebrates it every day.

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