Minium: A Year After We Found Ronnie Valentine, ODU Basketball Community and Others Have Rallied to his Aid
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
As the American Airlines jet descended into the greater Miami area, I marveled at just how vast South Florida has become.
Nearly seven million souls live there and I was looking for a proverbial needle in a haystack. Virginian-Pilot sports editor Tom White approved what seemed like a crazy idea to fly me to the Sunshine State to find former Old Dominion University basketball star Ronnie Valentine, who had been homeless for decades.
It was the longest of long shots, but Tom always trusted my instincts.
Some of Valentine's former classmates had found him in the 1990s. Former ODU teammate Reese Neyland ventured to Florida three times and with the help of University alumnus Wes Lockard, made contact with him. Former ODU women’s basketball star Nancy Lieberman also met with him. They all offered to find him housing and drug treatment.
There were tears and hugs. But in the end, each time Ronnie said no.
Lockard last saw Ronnie in 2000. Lockard was then the mascot for the Miami Heat. Ronnie would meet him after games in a parking lot and Lockard would give food and a soft drink and they would reminisce about their days together at ODU.
But after the Heat moved into a new arena, they lost contact. For 18 years, no one from ODU heard from him.
Ronnie Valentine playing professional basketball overseas in the late 1980s.
When I contacted Lockard last year, he didn’t know whether Ronnie was alive and said we'd likely be unable to find him. Nonetheless, he agreed to spend a few days helping me.
We searched for 13 hours the first day with no luck. That night, a Miami policeman quietly gave Lockard a lead -- he heard Valentine was in supportive housing. We called the Camillus House, the largest and most prominent homeless charity in Miami. The next morning, Sam Gil from the Catholic charity called. Valentine was in one of their residential housing units. He had contacted Ronnie who agreed to meet us.
When I called Lockard and told him, we were both euphoric.
We met Valentine the next morning in an apartment in one of Miami's most downtrodden neighborhoods. He’d been off the streets for six months. He looked good but seemed frail.
The story on Ronnie, published a year ago this week, ended with him saying he wanted to come home, and hoped to do so soon.
A year later he hasn’t come home. And I've learned that’s not a bad thing. His expectations of making a quick return transition back to Norfolk were unrealistic. He’s doing pretty well for a guy who spent 28 years on the streets.
Some homeless experts I talked to over the last year said he will adjust to living off the streets slowly and at his own pace. He will know when he's ready to come home and that may not be anytime soon.
I saw where Ronnie spent half his life, underneath interstate highway underpasses where Cubans were once caged when they came to Florida in droves. Thousands of homeless people live on cardboard, dirty blankets or the sidewalk. People relieve themselves in public.
Their faces reflect a sense of desperation and fear. In the distance are dozens of high-rise condominium and office buildings populated by one-percenters.
“Can you imagine what 30 years on the streets will do to you?” said Karlton Hilton, a former Maury High star who befriended Valentine shortly after the story ran.
“He's taken me to where he used to stay and I wouldn’t have survived. It’s going to take Ronnie time to heal.”
Even so, his life has changed dramatically in the last year.
“My life has gotten a whole lot better,” Valentine said this past weekend. “So many people have reached out to me. So many people have done good things for me.
“I didn’t know people remembered me. I didn't know people still cared about me."
Valentine may be the greatest basketball player in ODU history. A Norfolk Catholic graduate, he scored 2,204 points in four seasons, still ODU’s all-time record.
Over his four years, ODU claimed it first Division I NCAA tournament bid, twice went to the NIT and upset Clemson, Syracuse, Georgetown and Virginia.
He was drafted by the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, but quickly got involved in the drug culture that permeated the NBA. He left after one season and played overseas for years, but when he returned to Miami in 1990, he was in bad shape.
He had lost his passport and all other forms of identification. He had nothing but a bag of clothes and tattered newspaper clippings from his days at ODU and Denver.
So he began living in shelters and working day jobs, and got treated as poorly as illegal immigrants seeking work because he had no proof of citizenship. Eventually, he stopped working, picked up a shopping cart from a grocery store and began living on the streets.
Police told Lockard they knew him as a gentle guy who carried a basketball while pushing a cart and always talked about the good old days at ODU. They looked out for him as best they could.
Good for them.
Wes Lockard and Ronnie Valentine with former ODU basketball star Nancy Lieberman.
Shortly after the story ran, Ronnie was deluged with phone calls from former ODU fans, cheerleaders, players, classmates, Norfolk Catholic teammates and people from his old neighborhood. Too many to remember them all, he said.
But the linchpin of his new life has been his friends from ODU.
Neyland, the former teammate who tried to bring Ronnie back with him to California, ministers to a number of Californian and European churches he’s established.
He’s organized financial help for Ronnie, emails updates to friends and teammates and has visited Valentine several times.
Former teammates, including Tommy Conrad, the guard who at times played with the same physicality of a hockey player, have gone to visit him. Tony Ellis is visiting this summer.
Dozens more have banded together to donate money, shopping cards and Christmas and birthday gifts.
Lieberman has visited Ronnie several times and got him floor seats to the championship game of the 3-man basketball league in which she coached her team to a championship.
Lieberman, along with her mother, took Valentine on a shopping spree to Target.
“You’d thought he’d won the sweepstakes,” Lockard said.
His life is much better than it was because he has reconnected with so many people back home. But most of the heavy lifting has been done by Lockard and Hilton.
They are something of an odd couple. Lockard was a mascot for a local TV station while at ODU and later was an NBA mascot in New Jersey and Miami. He works for the Broward County recreation department. He has a quirky sense of humor. It's difficult to get a photograph of Wes without him making a silly face.
When I met him a year ago in Miami, he wore bright red hair and fake teeth. He drove up in a car with a screaming baby (also fake, thank goodness) whose fingers appeared to be caught in a rolled up car window.
Wes Lockard with Valentine, ODU radio color commentator Dave Twardzik and Stephanie Field, a Miami resident and former ODU cheerleader.
Hilton played professionally all across Latin and South America and Europe for nearly a decade after graduating from USC. He speaks fluent Spanish and bit of Portuguese, French and several other languages.
Even in casual dress, he looks like a buttoned down businessman. He worked for Volvo for 14 years, persuading people to buy cars directly from the factory rather than from dealers, and was very successful.
He's retired and a cancer survivor and loves to travel with his wife.
But both have given so much of themselves to help Valentine adjust to his new life.
I know the term “heroes” is overused, but I think it describes their work with Ronnie.
Anytime he calls, they respond. They go to see him every week or so. They’ve bought groceries, clothes and take him out to eat and to some of the best sports events in South Florida.
With an assist from Neyland and Lockard, Hilton helped Ronnie get a Florida ID and Social Security card. They have applied for his Social Security benefits, for which he will become eligible in November.
That took shearing through tons of red tape. Ronnie recently became eligible for Medicaid, but it took eight months for his application to be processed.
“He’s had psychiatric care, but hasn’t had regular health care in decades,” Lockard said. “We’ve got to get him signed up with a primary care doctor. He needs the kinds tests that most of us get over the years.”
Ronnie spent Thanksgiving Day with Lockard’s family in Davie, Fla. Both he and Hilton were there to help celebrate his 61st birthday. Hilton made sure he Ronnie had Christmas presents.
Among them was a pair of basketball shoes and ODU sweats from former coach Paul Webb, along with a handwritten note.
Valentine got emotional when he read the letter from his former coach. “I recognized his handwriting.” When we met Ronnie a year ago, he didn't know Webb was still alive.
Lockard has taken him to Miami Marlins games, on strolls along the beach and helped get him in touch with his brother, Mario, who lives in North Carolina.
Karlton Hilton helped Ronnie Valentine get his first government-issued ID in nearly three decades.
Lockard arranged to take Valentine to a Heat game and hooked him up with a meeting with Alonzo Mourning, the Norfolk native and former Indian River High, Georgetown and NBA star.
“He said he remembered me playing at Old Dominion,” Valentine said. “We talked for a long time. Anything you need, you call me,” Mourning said as he got up to leave.
Last winter, Hilton and Lockard took him to ODU basketball games at Florida Atlantic and Florida International. It was the first time since the 1980s Valentine had watched an ODU basketball game in person.
Coach Jeff Jones and athletic director Wood Selig sought him out and offered to help him come back to Norfolk if he wanted to go to a game.
Wood Selig “doesn’t know me, but he made a point of coming over to speak to me, to tell me he’d help in any way possible,” Ronnie said. “So did coach Jones. I didn't expect that and it meant a lot to me.”
ODU fans, including Shep Miller, who attended Maury with Hilton, and Stephanie Field, an ODU alumnus who lives in South Florida, came down to speak to Valentine on the court.
Former ODU star Dave Twardzik, the radio color commentator who coached Valentine at ODU basketball camps, gave him a bear hug. Norfolk attorney Bobby Howlett, an ODU booster, did the same.
“It was so great to see ODU play basketball after all these years an to see so many familiar faces,” Valentine said.
On June 29th, the first anniversary of Lockard being reunited Valentine, they went out for an evening together.
Lockard took him to a local mall to see the remake of “Shaft.” It was the first movie Ronnie had seen in decades. They ate at Boston Market, went grocery shopping, then watched some of a Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees game played in London.
Former NBA great Alonzo Mourning met with Ronnie Valentine a few months ago.
When Wes told him it was the anniversary, Ronnie grew silent and took a minute or so to process what he’d been told.
“He just thanked over and over,” Lockard said. “Ronnie couldn’t thank me enough. He’s so appreciative.”
For all the good work they’ve done, Hilton and Lockard plan to pick up the pace this year. “We’ve got to get him out more to get adjusted to being with people,” Hilton said.
Valentine is still shy, as he was when he was at Norfolk Catholic and ODU. He doesn't go out much unless it's with Lockard or Hilton.
“No one will ever know or totally understand what he’s been through,” Lockard said. “But now, he has the support of many friends that he thought he’d never see again in his lifetime.
“This is a story with a positive outcome and hopefully a brighter future."
Valentine says he loves being in an apartment. He cooks dinner and watches TV, things he hadn't done in decades. He also doesn't have to sleep essentially with one eye open, in fear that someone might steal everything owns.
But not every moment the last year has been full of joy. Valentine still plays basketball on the playgrounds. Most kids in his neighborhood know who he is.
Valentine didn't know coach Paul Webb was still around a year ago. Here, he reads a Virginian-Pilot story about his former coach.
Most have been kind and are in awe of having a former NBA player on their court. But not all.
A few months ago, a youngster told him he was once a basketball star who played in the NBA now and was a bum. You ought to go home, he said. Dejected, that’s exactly what Valentine did.
“That hurt him,” Hilton said. “It’s amazing at times how cruel kids can be.
"There will be setbacks like that along the way. But Ronnie is so much stronger, in such a better frame of mind than he was."
Neither Lockard nor Hilton say they regret a second of the time they’ve given to Ronnie.
“Wes and I stay in contact,” Hilton said. “If he goes out of town, Wes will let me know. The same goes for me. We try not to leave him in an abandoned state. We try to make sure he’s OK.”
Lockard said when he was reunited with Valentine a year ago, he knew the path he had to follow.
“When my parents were in their 40s and 50s, they began spending time with senior citizens,” Lockard said. “My parents raised me pretty well.
“Ronnie didn’t know anyone and he’s my friend. He wouldn’t have made it on his own. Karlton and I, we can’t drop the ball.
“Ronnie has been at the top and has hit rock bottom. And now he's picking up the pieces with a little help from his friends."
Ronnie Valentine chatting with former ODU star Ronnie Wade and assistant coach Bryant Stith at an ODU basketball game at FAU.
Both told me it's important that Valentine's friends in Tidewater not forget him. They hope people will continue contribute money to help Valentine with essentials. But it’s more important, they say, that Valentine continues to hear from people, to know he’s remembered, to know people care about him. Even a postcard with a couple of sentences brings him immense joy.
It amazed me last year that nobody from the national media picked up on his story a year ago. If an NBA player can end up on the streets, it can happen to anyone. His fight to get back to normalcy after so many years on the streets is a story that should be told to a broader audience.
Bob Delaney hopes to change that. The former NBA official is well known for writing a best-seller about his days as an informant on the mafia. And he has taken up Valentine’s cause. He told Lockard recently that he has approached ESPN about featuring Valentine on what of its any documentary shows.
I hope ESPN bites.
His story clearly resonated at a service earlier this year at Incarnation Lutheran Church in Shoreview, Minn. Minister Janet Karvonen-Montgomery gave a stirring oration on the hardships Valentine faced.
Janet played two seasons for the ODU women when I covered the team. I remember her as an engaging, very kind person. She hasn't changed.
”Ronnie has a new life – a life he describes as ‘being on the right track.’ And yet, he was ashamed, nervous to have people know his story – especially those who knew him as the great Ronnie Valentine from Old Dominion," she said. "He is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from people who are so happy to see him.”
She ended with words that Wes and Hilton have lived by.
“Some people may hear this story and think that Ronnie is just lucky for the recent turn of events or doesn’t deserve the good things that are happening to him.
“But I believe that the God who has called us precious and has welcomed us into his family, he also sends us out to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper in the world.”
Contact Minium: email@example.com
What to help Valentine?
Email Wes Lockard at firstname.lastname@example.org
His mailing address:
1170 SW 108 Way
Davie, Fla. 33324
Email Reese Neyland: email@example.com