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Larry Ayuso: Coming Of Age In New Mexico, Mentor Leads Basketball Player Away From South Bronx


August 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Larry Ayuso, who plays basketball for the Puerto Rican national team, moved to New Mexico and to a new life as a teenager.

Larry Ayuso thinks he has finally outsmarted her. She left her huge, deafening cowbell in Greece, and now he has it. He knows she will ask for it before he faces a team of N.B.A. stars tonight at Madison Square Garden, but he will hand it over only on one condition: that she doesn't embarrass him by ringing it with all her might every time he scores a point.

``She goes crazy with that thing,'' Ayuso said. ``It's so loud you can hear it all over the building.''

But Ayuso could never outsmart Diane Taylor. ``I got another one,'' Taylor said with a laugh.

Taylor, who stands less than five feet, is one of the toughest people Ayuso knows. She began putting him in his place 10 years ago, which is a large part of the reason he will be representing the Puerto Rican national team tonight, rather than hanging out on a street corner in the South Bronx.

``I don't know where I'd be if I hadn't gone to live with them,'' Ayuso, 26, said of Taylor and her husband, Dick. ``I could be locked up, dead or maybe still making money hustling on the streets.

``A lot of the friends I grew up with are locked up, so I'm grateful that I was able to escape. I thank God for that every day because, you know, why me?'' ``Why me?'' - in the negative sense - could have been Ayuso's motto for the first 16 years of his life. Born in Puerto Rico, he saw his father die at home when he was 7. A year later, his mother moved him and his three older siblings to an apartment in the South Bronx. Soon after that, half of their building was burned down during a drug war.

His family, none of whom spoke more than a bit of English, was shuttled through shelters, and Ayuso was shuttled through various schools - nine in six years. One school promoted him from the seventh grade to the ninth grade, even though he could barely read.

Ayuso did not care. He had given up on school and was intent on emulating his older brother, Jose, a drug dealer. Then Jose died, and three of Ayuso's friends, also drug dealers, were murdered.

``That's what made me want to get out of there,'' he said. ``The vibe just wasn't good. My mom was very stressed, so I thought it was time for me to go and do something positive. ``I couldn't see my mom suffer like that. She would suffer every day because every time I went out on the streets, she didn't know if I'd come home that day.

``So I started playing a little ball and I liked it. And then some cat took me to a tryout at the Riverside Church. I made the team and that's when basketball came into my life. That was my salvation.''

Ayuso met Jeff Bryant, who ran a nonprofit organization called Student Athletes for Education (SAFE). Each year, SAFE sent two troubled Bronx teenagers to live with a middle-class family in the West.

Ayuso was relocated to Roswell, N.M., where he lived with a family named Kelly.

When that did not work out, he moved in with the Taylors.

``He was not a cute little kid,'' Diane Taylor said. ``He was a street kid, your typical tough ghetto kid. When he first came, what he really wanted was to get away. Not necessarily to change, just to get away.''

Ayuso hated the Taylors' dress code (no baggy hip-hop gear), their curfew (11 p.m. on weekends) and their two-hour study hall every weeknight.

``We had a lot of fights at first,'' Ayuso said. ``I was very selfish, very immature.

There were a couple of times when I wanted to leave, but then I'd talk to my mom and she would be like: `Don't come back here. There's nothing over here for you. Everybody that you left is still doing the same thing they were doing when you were here. So why do you want to come back here?' ''

The major turning point came after Taylor compelled Dave Bliss and Tony Benford, former coaches at New Mexico, to meet with Ayuso in the college's famous arena, known as the Pit.

When the lights in the arena came on and the coaches asked him to start shooting, Ayuso realized that Taylor was not all talk. He began hitting the books, and curfew was no longer an issue.

``Once we got him straight and he saw something was within his reach, he never drank, never touched drugs and never was a problem in school,'' Taylor said. ``There were weekends when he didn't go out. He was studying.''

His senior year, Ayuso raised his grade-point average to 3.6.

On the court, he was just as good. Benefiting from late-night shooting drills at the local Boys Club - where Taylor had the key to the gymnasium and the energy to rebound his shots - Ayuso averaged nearly 30 points a game.

Ayuso did his thing, and Taylor did hers, contacting dozens of Division I coaches and telling them that Ayuso was their man. She even mistakenly called North Carolina State and asked for Dean Smith, the former coach at rival University of North Carolina.

Taylor's persistence broke down Ayuso's resistance even more, and what had been dislike became admiration.

``She could be the best agent in the world,'' said Ayuso, a 6-2 shooting guard.

``She's a hard-nosed negotiator and whatever she wants, she gets it. And when she says she's going to do something, she's on top of it. And she's a female. A lot of times, men look at it like we dominate. We say, `I'm not going to let no woman come in here and try to run things.' But she runs things.''

After a year at New Mexico Junior College, Ayuso transferred to the University of Southern California, where he was heavily recruited by Coach Henry Bibby.

But Taylor wanted more than a uniform for Ayuso. Before she allowed him to sign with the Trojans, she made the school agree to provide him with adult male tutors for every class.

``I told them no students and no females,'' said Taylor, who also met with counselors to help work out Ayuso's class schedule. ``I said, `Larry's a good-looking kid, and he's got moves.' I told them, `This kid's not going to get an idiot degree or a basketball degree. He's going to graduate on time or he's not going to be on your basketball team.' ''

Taylor did not miss a game in three years, traveling as far as North Carolina to see Ayuso play.

She always sat behind the Trojans' bench, waving a racket-making stick laden with symbols and bells after each Ayuso basket.

``I called that my boombah,'' she said. In 1999, four years after leaving Roswell, Ayuso, a three-year starter at U.S.C., graduated with a degree in history.

Taylor, who became Ayuso's legal guardian, flew out Ayuso's mother, Soccoro Carrillo, who still does not speak much English, for both his high school and college graduations.

``That was the happiest day of my life,'' Ayuso said of his graduation from U.S.C. ``I never ever, ever pictured even graduating from high school, let alone college. None of my brothers or sisters graduated from high school. They all dropped out. It was big, especially having my biological mom there.''

Ayuso's dream is to play in the N.B.A. He was not drafted and he has played in Italy, Greece, Puerto Rico and in the Continental Basketball Association. Taylor, who replaced her ``boombah'' with a cowbell when airport security tightened after Sept. 11, has traveled across oceans to attend his games. And just as she worked as his agent to get him to Division I, she is working to get him to the N.B.A. She has created a Web site (, made business cards and sent videos to every N.B.A. team.

At last year's World Games, she approached every N.B.A. coach she saw in the stands, imploring them to take a look at Ayuso. For tonight's game, she had 30 Larry Ayuso T-shirts made - most of which will be worn by the 15 family members and friends he has attending the game - and she will once again be on the lookout for N.B.A. coaches. ``I plan on hunting them down again,'' Taylor said.

Ayuso is amazed and inspired by Taylor's commitment, and he wants to follow her example. He is saving his money to move his mother and younger brother, Edwin, 17, from the Bronx to Tampa, Fla. Edwin was recently kicked out of high school for truancy, so Ayuso hopes to relocate his family within the next year. His oldest sister lives in Tampa. He also wants to build a recreation center someday and an early child development center for preschoolers in the South Bronx.

``I want some kids in the South Bronx to have the resources that will help them learn and be one step ahead when they start school,'' Ayuso said. ``And I want people to work there that really care about the kids, people who aren't just there for the money or the fame, but who will really be there for the kids. That's what we were missing.

``When you're young, you need a lot of attention. You need people to lead you the right way because it's so easy to fall off track. There are so many temptations and when you're young you're not strong enough to make those good decisions. You need somebody to be there constantly to tell you what the right things are to do.''

Fortunately for Ayuso, he found Taylor, cowbells and all.

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