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Making a Comeback

How a former Cardinal basketball star battled his toughest opponent: cocaine.

Photo: Thad Russell

ON THE REBOUND: Ward raises funds to assist the homeless on L.A.'s Skid Row.

By Joshua Davis

By day, it is Los Angeles’s toy district, five square blocks where wholesalers peddle Power Rangers, Pokémon characters and other imports from the Pacific Rim. By night, it is Skid Row, where impoverished families, drug addicts and schizophrenics fashion cardboard shelters from the merchants’ discarded boxes.

“This was my spot,” says Orlando Ward, indicating a blackened section of sidewalk on St. Julian Street. “I didn’t even have the ambition to build an entire dwelling,” he adds. “I just laid the cardboard on the sidewalk and slept on top of it.”

Skid Row knew Ward, ’82, as a cocaine addict. What it did not know was that in 1978, as a high school senior growing up in a middle-class home in Santa Ana, Calif., he was named Orange County’s basketball player of the year. Ward chose Stanford from the 375 schools courting him, and he ranks among the top 25 Cardinal players in rebounds per game and career blocks.

“He was all legs and arms but he had a lot of talent,” says Kim Belton, ’80, Ward’s mentor on the team and a second-round NBA draft pick. “He would do things that were phenomenal, and we’d go, ‘Whoa, this dude’s good.’ Still, I don’t know if he ever realized how talented he could be.”

Ward never got the chance to find out. Sophomore year, he tore cartilage in his right knee. He hobbled back onto the court for a portion of his senior season, but his pro prospects were dashed. “My self-esteem was tied up in basketball,” Ward says. “Without it, I lost my direction.” It would be more than 15 years before he found it again—this time as an employee of a homeless-assistance organization, helping people who live on the same sidewalks he once did.

After he left Stanford, Ward found a job as a senior marketing representative for Xerox. “That was a whole ‘work hard, play hard’ kind of world,” he says. He had tried cocaine once, at a campus party sophomore year. Now he began to use it more frequently. His attendance at work became spotty, and he lost his job within 18 months.

For the next several years, Ward battled his addictions to cocaine and alcohol. With the support of his mother, stepfather, brother and a large network of cousins, he entered rehabilitation at least 10 times, but couldn’t stay clean. He bounced through jobs, working in construction, at Los Angeles’s central library and as a fund-raiser for the United Way. Finally, in 1997, he lost his technical support position at Epson. His family, who had often provided financial assistance, refused to give him any more money.

Ward came to Skid Row seeking a cheap source of cocaine. “In the nicer parts of town, they don’t deal in nickels,” he says. He lived on the streets for the next two years and was jailed six times—for drug possession, for shoplifting and on outstanding warrants for infractions like jaywalking.

Sometimes, Ward walked over to the Midnight Mission, on the edge of Skid Row, for meals. “I chose the Midnight because the other missions that served hot meals required you to sit through a sermon,” he explains. “But the Midnight, it will meet you wherever you are. Physically, emotionally and spiritually.” (The mission has no religious affiliation and does not seek federal or state funding, preferring to remain independent.) In April 1999, Ward entered the mission’s 12-step residential drug-treatment program.

Mission managers quickly realized that Ward needed to find something that would give him a sense of worth. His kitchen-duty assignment soon provided that. “Serving hundreds and hundreds of people a day gave me a sense of accomplishment that I hadn’t felt for a long time,” he says. “That sense of service became the bond that held me together.”

As Ward made progress, managers gave him more responsibility. He got a paying job in the stockroom, where he designed an Excel-based inventory system to smooth operations. In October 2000, Ward became the mission’s associate director for program development.

Today, he spends most of his time running special events—yearly golf tournaments, benefit dinners, celebrity appearances—that bring in money for the mission. He also serves as a community liaison to city and police officials and deals with frequent emergencies unrelated to fund raising. On a recent afternoon, for example, an employee informed him that a recovering addict in the mission’s family-housing unit had disappeared, leaving behind her three children, ages 6, 10 and 15. Fearing she had relapsed, he asked a staffer to contact Child Protective Services. (His instincts proved correct: the woman did not resurface for four days.)

“Orlando is an incredible asset,” says the mission’s president, Larry Adamson. “He’s the highest-ranking manager who has come out of recovery. He has achieved more so far than anybody in my tenure.”

Earlier this year, Ward moved out of the Midnight and into his own apartment in North Hollywood. But a few times a week, he visits his old home on Skid Row. “When I walk down St. Julian and tell people it’s possible to get out, they may shake their heads,” he says. “But they know, deep down in their hearts, that I did it, and that gives them hope.”

Joshua Davis, ’96, is a filmmaker and writer in San Francisco.

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