SAN FRANCISCO – A call to the coach could change Terence Lee’s life.
Lee is the one with the unkempt cornrows, the one wearing thong sandals with socks. He’s the only person standing near the blacktop basketball court on Thursday morning in the panhandle of Golden Gate Park.
He dribbles a racquetball between his legs while lunging forward to build muscle in his calves, an exercise he calls a kung-fu imitation of basketball. He found the racquetball resting in the curb on his way to church two months ago.
“I was going to get some church grub,” Lee, 31, says.
He’s lived homeless for about the last four years.
“I’m not that surprised,” admits the coach, Mike Legarza, when he hears the story.
Legarza lives in the Bay Area. He played ball at Menlo College, gaining small college All-American status before turning to a career in coaching. He’s training kids - 70,000 and counting at his own basketball clinics - but before then he coached at Cañada College in Redwood City.
About 10 years ago, at Cañada, he got a request from another coach, Lamonte Jackson, at Los Altos High School in Mountain View. He had a troubled kid who needed some guidance. That kid was Lee.
Lee grew up without a stable family life. He loves his three younger sisters and his mother too. But Legarza and Lee said his father, Terence Lee Sr., was often absent.
“The biggest crisis in America right now is kids without dads,” Legarza said.
Lee remembers when his father did show up. One of those times was at high school graduation. He complimented him, hugged him and even took a picture.
“It was embarrassing,” Lee says.
After graduation, he went to Cañada College. Lee got the scholarship because of Jackson’s suggestion. It was a rocky experience for Legarza and Lee.
“He was a pain in the ass,” Legarza said.
That first year, Legarza kicked Lee off the team but let him back on after six weeks, after Lee worked his way back. Legarza had quite the team back then. Justin Love, who moved on to NCAA Tournament glory at Saint Louis University, starred, but Legarza says Lee never gave into the team concept.
After two years, Lee did finish his associate’s degree. He says he got it so he could finish his career at a four-year school. And after Legarza helped scour the country for a college that would take him, Lee moved to Oklahoma and played at Northeastern State.
He didn’t graduate. He feuded with the coach. But he does have one memory.
Late in a game against John Brown, Lee made two crossover moves, freeing up a path toward the hoop. He leaped and barely pushed the ball above the rim. But it was still a dunk.
“That was the pinnacle,” Lee says.
Though his biceps still bulge with definition, and the remnants of a six-pack dot his abdomen, Lee says he doesn’t have the necessary athleticism to play above the rim anymore.
As his game faded after college, so did his motivation. He worked a few waiting jobs near Mountain View at Chevy’s, Chili’s and other restaurants. He got fired or quit, and about four years ago, he stopped working and started living the homeless lifestyle.
Now in San Francisco, Lee splits time between the street and MSC Shelter, bums food from local churches and kitchens and says he often smokes marijuana.
Lee talks about moving to Arkansas with his sister, whom he calls Rose. They’re close. He remembers her phone number by heart. That tattoo below his shoulder? It’s a rose, for her. He’d like to help her raise her son. Maybe wait tables again.
“I’m not in any hurry,” Lee says.
Legarza found out about Lee on Friday afternoon. He hadn’t heard about him in years and wanted to know more. He wanted the number for the MSC Shelter so he could try and contact his former player.
He says he wants to do something.
Ten years ago, Legarza brought Lee on his team because a kid was in trouble, and he wanted to help.
Lee is in trouble again, and the coach isn’t ready to give up yet.