By Mike Wise
Friday, March 31, 2006
Sammy Hernandez was only 7 and living in Puerto Rico when he ran from his mother's bedroom -- the far back bedroom -- where he slept to summon his older brother, Frankie Sanchez. It was early July, 4:30 a.m., almost 12 years ago, and the little boy looked so scared and sad.
"He said: 'Look, Mommy won't get up. She won't get up,' " Frankie remembered.
The vibrant woman, who once danced salsa on Puerto Rican television -- who opened her door to anyone in her native Toa Baja -- had suddenly stopped breathing at 41. Her three children, Sammy, Frankie and Cecilia, gathered around and sobbed.
"We couldn't get her up," Frankie said, composing himself in a telephone interview Wednesday. "She was just cold."
Sammy Hernandez will represent George Mason's stirring college basketball team on Saturday evening in Indianapolis. As a member of the NCAA tournament's unlikeliest Final Four participant in four decades, he is like many of the Patriots' players this week: loose, smiling, full of so much more wonder than worry.
But beneath that veneer is an orphan who lost his mother in 1994 and his father in 1987 when he was 4 months old. Gloria DeJesus left three grieving children that morning to grow up on their own and try to understand, as Cecilia said, "What happened to Mommy?"
Twelve years later, they still don't want to know everything.
"Maybe one day, but not right now," Sammy said. "I never ask my grandmother why. I don't want to touch that subject. I just want to leave it there that she was my mother, you know?"
He spoke as his teammates trudged into George Mason's tiny locker room on campus earlier this week before a team meeting. One handed him a sandwich. Another, sophomore Folarin Campbell, made a joke across the room that made Sammy laugh.
"I look up in the stands and I see my mother and father," guard Lamar Butler said. "He looks up and he just sees friends, maybe a little family. I really feel for him because I have parents. . . .
"We take him out to party, we take him to our families' house for Thanksgiving. When he's here with us, this is Sammy's home."
Hernandez is a roundish young man. He often hears people refer to him as "Sammy the Bull," though he is more of a bear cub -- a big, curious and jovial 6-foot-5, 230-pound freshman. At 19, he smiles as wide as his braces will let him. The mood of the Mason locker room could border on morose until Sammy walks in. Then it's salsa time.
"Everybody that's around him wants to get to know him better," said George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga, who recruited Hernandez off a traveling AAU all-star team in Florida with the knowledge that Fairfax would be quite an adjustment from Miami and Puerto Rico.
"The first three weeks he was here he kept saying to me, 'Coach, is it always this cold?' " Larranaga recalled. "I said, 'Sammy, it's 70.' He said, 'I know. It's freezing.' "
Larranaga has tried to make Hernandez feel more at home by asking a member of the Hispanic Club on campus to help him with his novice English. Hernandez also has found an English vocabulary teacher to help him with pronunciations and grammar.
Two weekends ago, the Patriots beat Michigan State and North Carolina in less than 48 hours. Hernandez was asked by a local television crew what he thought of this historic moment. " No hablo English," he said.
"Before I was nervous," he said. "I'm translating what you told me in Spanish in my head. I know I've got a really bad accent, but I'm trying to learn more English."
There are still dank, cold days in Fairfax when nothing seems familiar or familial, times when he would rather be in Puerto Rico with the woman who raised him after his mother died.
"I feel that way sometimes now, tell you the truth," he said. "It's not easy to be here without parents and do all these things by myself. Somebody to tell you, 'Hey, you have to do this.' I don't have this person. But I'm sacrificing my life since my parents passed way. It's hard, but I gotta do it."
Gloria DeJesus was involved in a car accident about a week before she died, said Frankie, who thinks hospital negligence may have led to internal bleeding. Cecilia said her mother merely had health problems and died of natural causes.
Sammy was born in South Florida, but the family moved back to DeJesus's native Puerto Rico in 1987 after Sammy's father and Gloria's boyfriend, Miguel Hernandez, was killed. How and why Miguel Hernandez, a construction worker in West Palm Beach, died remains unclear.
"We don't know what happened, we heard so many stories," Cecilia said in a telephone interview from Puerto Rico on Thursday. "We heard they had confused him for another man, or he had an argument with someone, or he went out looking for an argument. We don't know which one was the truth."
"They never told us anything," said Frankie, who lives in Queens, N.Y., and works as Radio Shack store manager on Manhattan's Upper East Side "The cops came and they said he was either killed or shot down or something. We tried to keep any bad information from Sammy when he was little. . . . We tried concentrating to make sure he grew up to be a good kid."
Sammy has no photo or memento of his father and does not remember his mother speaking of him. But when he died, the family moved in with DeJesus's mother, Cecilia Maisonet, in Puerto Rico.
When DeJesus died, Maisonet raised Sammy and his sister.
"She would never let me go alone on the street, she would always scold me, she always wanted what was best for me -- like all the grandmothers, right? -- because I lived in a bad neighborhood," Sammy said. "She would always say 'I love you' after."
"One of the great stories about his grandmother is the time she attended a parent-teacher meeting at Sammy's school and found out he was goofing off," Larranaga said. "So she walks right onto the gym during practice, onto the floor and hit Sammy in the head."
The coach knew the story because Sammy let him read the very first paper he wrote for his freshman English class at George Mason. It was about the passing of his mother and father and how his grandmother became his light and inspiration. Tears welled in Larranaga's eyes, he said, as he kept reading about the orphaned teenager he recruited and how he found family in others after his parents died.
There was Art Alvarez, Sammy's father figure. Alvarez had heard of Sammy's talent and brought him at 14 to Miami to play for Miami Christian, where Sammy would help lead the team to a state title. "He was like a good father for me," Sammy said. "Education-wise, growing-up wise, he helped me. After my parents died, everybody started being my mom or my dad."
When Alvarez stepped down after Sammy's sophomore year, he recommended Sammy attend Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville, Fla., a program already receiving national exposure.
There was the growing Puerto Rican basketball community, as talented as it was tight. One of Arlington's stars was David Huertas, who will suit up for Florida on Saturday. Sammy lived with Huertas's family in Jacksonville. Hernandez is friends with Carlos Arroyo, the NBA point guard. Hernandez watched in awe as Eddie Casiano and his countrymen downed the United States in Athens in 2004 to become the first team to knock off NBA all-stars at an Olympic Games. He played on the under-21 national team with Peter John Ramos, the Washington Wizards' 7-foot-3 reserve center.
But mostly, there is Sammy's grandmother, his sister, his brother and his coaches and teammates.
"My teammates feel like a family," he said. "When I first got here, I didn't feel completely comfortable. Now I'm used to this and we support each other and I love them. They're brothers to me."
He added: "It's all like a dream. I'm living a dream and I love it and I keep going forward, because this only happens once in a lifetime."
Cecilia Sanchez cannot afford the $1,500 flight to Indianapolis from San Juan, so she will fly to New York on Friday morning to meet up with Frankie and their cousin, Bobby Williams, and drive 12 hours to watch their little brother play. They all plan to be in the stands before tip-off, and Cecilia Maisonet, spry at 74, will watch from home.
Cecilia Sanchez is asked if she has children. "Sammy is my only baby," she said.
"I was surprised when my mother told us we were going to we have a baby brother," said Frankie, who, along with Cecilia, had a different father than Sammy. "She was 34 and we were much older and we just assumed our mother was done having children. Sammy turned a lot as soon as he was born. He was big and strong. You knew he would be special. . . .
"My mother loved him very much. And we loved our mother a lot. I remember one thing now, the day before she died. She came up to me and said, 'You're the bigger brother, take care of your brother and sister. You guys fight,' she said, 'but that's just a stage. If it ever happens and I'm not around, make sure you help him out a lot.' I said: 'Ma, why are you saying things like that, You're not going nowhere. You're going to be with us for a long time.' "
Each Mother's Day when he is in Puerto Rico, Sammy Hernandez visits Gloria DeJesus's grave. Sammy and Cecilia attend Mass and then pay their respects to the woman who brought them into the world and left it much too soon for any 7-year-old to bear.
"I miss her," Sammy Hernandez said. "It hurts me. But I can't do anything about it, you know. I have to keep growing and living my life."
Staff writer Ed Guzman contributed to this report.