Oregon State and Roberto Nelson host Arizona State on Thursday and it will be the first Pac-10 game of Roberto’s career. In his most recent action against Illinois-Chicago, Roberto finally looked like the special player that I wrote about in Play Their Hearts Out. He scored 14 points on six of eight shooting, and his conditioning and accuracy looked improved after his more than a year on the sidelines.
“You guys now can see what the hoopla has been about,” Beavers coach Craig Robinson said: “After [Roberto] made that drive to the baseline . . . and just jumped over everybody and just made the shot. Coach [Doug] Stewart who was next to me on the bench said it was like watching somebody else’s player. Because we’ve never had that.”
Those who have read PTHO know that Roberto is one of my favorite players. I grew close to him and his father, Bruce, and Roberto and I still talk regularly, and I hope that we will remain close forever. Astute readers might also have noted that at the end of the book, in the epilogue, I wrote that Bruce was sent to prison during Roberto’s senior year. Beyond that one sentence, this major development in Roberto’s life was not covered in the book.
I didn’t intend to ignore that storyline. I wrote a lengthy chapter about Bruce’s trial and sentencing and the impact that had on Roberto, but that chapter was cut when my editor at Random House wisely suggested that I pare down the manuscript. On one hand, it was an easy cut; the chapter took readers away from the story of Demetrius Walker, which rightfully dominates the last chapters. As a journalist, however, I found it hard to omit such a huge storyline and worried that I would be accused of showing favoritism toward Bruce while being very critical of other parents.
The broad stokes of what Bruce did and its impact on Roberto are detailed in this article by Paul Buker of The Oregonian (http://blog.oregonlive.com/behindbeaversbeat/2010/12/oregon_state_basketball_for_ro.html). I’m relieved that someone has finally written about Bruce’ s crimes and how it hurt Roberto. (And kudos to Buker for arranging to speak to Bruce. It is not like you can just call the state prison in Chino, Calif. and ask for him.) It is important that people understand what Roberto went through and why his grades slipped his senior year and why he subsequently had to miss his first season as a partial academic qualifier.
I considered posting the entire “lost” chapter that I cut from the book, but instead I decided to go with two scenes that I think speak to what Roberto endured
One day shortly after Bruce was arrested, Roberto was walking with his girlfriend at school when a male teacher approached them.
“Are you alright?” he said.
“We’re fine,” Roberto responded.
“No, I wasn’t talking to you,” the teacher said in a lecturing tone. “I was talking to her.” He pointed to Roberto’s girlfriend, a slender Latino girl. “Are you alright?”
Roberto cried as he told his mother about the exchange later and threatened to punch the teacher the next time he saw him. “Please, baby, you have to be strong,” she counseled.
Interviewers from the local newspaper and television stations would ask to speak with Roberto about an upcoming football game or the start of basketball season and then ambush him with questions about Bruce.
“My dad keeps me out of all that,” he would say, which was true; Bruce never discussed his case with his son. Some reporters would press him and Roberto would shift his weight and bite at his lower lip, refusing to say another word about it.
After a particularly tough week, when reports about Bruce filled the news cycle and he learned that one of his former teammates called Bruce a “rapist,” Roberto sent a text message to his mom in which he wrote: “Mom, do you think people look at me like they look at dad?”
“I don’t think so, baby,” she responded.
A short time later, he sent Roberta another text message, which read, “I wanna get out of this place.”
On the night before the verdict was handed down, Bruce lied on the couch in his living room. He had been unable to sleep for most of the trial and Roberta, who was now living with them, had taken to giving him Xanax, but even that didn’t work. At around 4 a.m., less than 12 hours before he heard the verdict, Bruce paced the apartment, ultimately ending up in the doorway to Roberto’s room. He often peered into Roberto’s room on the nights he couldn’t sleep. He would stand and watch his son’s body rise and fall with each breath as a clock in the room ticked, as if counting down the time he had left with his son. He was in the doorway for only a moment before Roberto stirred and said, “Hey dad, I see you.”
“Sorry, son,” Bruce answered. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s okay. I’ve been awake.”
Bruce walked to Roberto’s bed as Roberto slid over and Bruce lied down next to him. He wrapped his left arm over Roberto and told him how much he loved him and then Bruce sobbed. “It will be okay, dad,” Roberto said over and over. “It will all be okay.”
So, in closing, cheer for Roberto this Thursday against Arizona State (7:30 PST on FSN NW) and in every game. He’s worth rooting for.