Former Bruin Hollyfield still winning
Every day Larry Hollyfield takes a walk.
Cane in his right hand, he steps outside of his home in Chino, Calif., walks to the end of the block and walks back. Each day, that walk, which may not seem like much, is symbolic of what he’s done his entire life: Win.
There’s winning and then there’s Larry Hollyfield. To say he’s taken winning to another level would be an understatement. The former UCLA Bruin probably is the winningest player in college basketball history.
He was a member of “The Walton Gang,” starting alongside Greg Lee, Larry Farmer, Keith Wilkes and Bill Walton for legendary head coach John Wooden at UCLA when they won the 1973 title — his third of three NCAA titles — as the Bruins wrapped up consecutive 30-0 seasons.
However, if you ask him what his most memorable win is, he’ll tell you unequivocally it came in high school.
As a 6-foot-5 junior at Compton High, he led the team to a 32-0 season and a 64-52 win over Huntington Beach in the CIF championship game. It meant a great deal to him then and still does today.
“Growing up you always talked about CIF, CIF, CIF, winning that, and when we won that one, that was thrilling,” said Hollyfield, 60. “(We were) playing in the Long Beach Sports Arena because that was the goal. ‘Let’s get to the Sports Arena and play in the championship,’ and we did.”
He liked it so much, he did it again. The next season Compton went 30-0, winning a CIF title at the Los Angeles Sports Arena as Hollyfield earned unanimous Player of the Year honors.
He then went to Compton College, where he played for famed coach Jim Newman for one season, going 33-0 and winning a state title. Recruited by Wooden, he moved on to UCLA and finally lost a game when the Bruins paid a visit to South Bend.
They had a hard time defending Austin Carr. The Notre Dame guard was on his way to a 46-point effort when Hollyfield was summoned by Wooden.
“I was buried on the bench my sophomore year,” Hollyfield recalled. “Coach called me. I go ‘All right,’ so I’m going in. I’m real happy, but I got up to (Wooden) and he says ‘Go get Austin.’
“I said ‘Coach, Austin got 38, what do you mean go get him? It’s a little too late for that. Austin’s already rolling.’ But it was national TV. (I) got to get in the game. That was exciting as can be.”
The 89-82 loss was the only one Hollyfield suffered during his college career, and the last for the Bruins before winning 88 in a row, a record streak that, coincidentally, was ended by Notre Dame.
From the ninth grade through his days at UCLA, Hollyfield was 214-4. Three of those losses came as a reserve during his sophomore year in high school. He never lost a game that he started.
“I don’t think Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James — I don’t think none of them can say that but Larry Hollyfield,” said Hollyfield’s former Compton College teammate, Ron Richardson.
It’s a mark that even impresses the man who was a part of it.
“It’s remarkable. Now that it’s over, you look back at it and say wow, I’m impressed,” Hollyfield said. “Who wants to lose? I’m a bad loser. I don’t mind saying that. I’m a bad loser. I know I hate to lose and I went out there and played like I hated to lose.”
That attitude has helped him handle his greatest challenge, a debilitating blow that struck in April 2009. His wife Sharon remembers it like it was yesterday.
She had just walked through the door after coming home from work when she heard Larry calling her. She dropped the food she brought home and hurried upstairs to their bedroom.
“I could hear him say ‘Call 911,'” she said. “I could make that out, but I was wondering what he was talking about.”
She didn’t see her husband, but following the voice, she found him lying on the floor on the other side of the bed.
“It was a shocking thing to see,” she said. “He’s telling me to call 911 and I kind of froze. It was something to go through to try to realize that this is happening.”
Home alone, Larry had suffered a massive stroke and been on the floor unable to move for at least five hours before his wife came home.
“It had to be about 85 to 90 percent of his brain was damaged on the right side,” said Larry’s daughter Myla. “The fact that he’s still here is a blessing in itself.”
The left hand he used to score all those baskets suddenly was without feeling, as was his entire left side.
“I can’t believe I’m partially paralyzed,” Hollyfield said, his voice raspy, another effect of the stroke. “I can’t believe that.”
The man Wooden once called “probably the greatest physical talent on the team” needed his family to take care of him, unable to sit up straight on his own. He was unable to get in and out of the bed. He needed a sliding board placed in his wheelchair, because he was unable to walk.
Myla quit her job to care for her father in the daytime while Sharon continued her work at a hospital.
For Larry, the biggest obstacle was more mental than physical.
“It’s not physical. It’s mental,” he said. “You take for granted how much of your body your brain runs. A little spot on the brain (and) I can’t move my left arm. I can’t walk. Well, wait a minute, before I had (the stroke) I was walking. I went to bed the night (before) walking.
“Mental. I don’t care how hard you try, it won’t move. I don’t understand that part. Why can’t I move it?”
As he deals with living partially paralyzed, his will to win is still there, and he’s finding his wins in becoming functional in his everyday life. He went through a two-month physical therapy session that helped him learn how to walk again and brush his own teeth, among other things.
“He’s come a long way,” Sharon said. “It’s a miracle.”
Winning now comes in the form of learning to write right-handed, taking his daily walk to the corner and back, going to the bathroom unassisted, and even dressing himself at times.
Because of a prosthetic left leg he’s had since he became an amputee at age 32 because of a lack of circulation in his foot, the doctors didn’t think he’d be able to walk again after suffering the stroke.
The competitor in him wouldn’t allow the doctors to be right.
“The doctor didn’t know who Larry Hollyfield was,” Richardson said. “Larry don’t let nothing defeat him.”
The mantra that made him so successful on the court is now leading him in his everyday battles.
“That’s what has me fighting through it,” Hollyfield said. “This will pass. You can hold onto that. This will pass because I’m going to help it pass. I’m not going to say ‘Woe is me.’ I’m going to keep fighting. Keep fighting as much as I can.
“I’m a stroke survivor,” he said, “but I’m a survivor.”