His own family didn’t think he’d live long enough to celebrate his 16th birthday.
He got shot at once.
He was involved with a gang affiliate.
He came close to selling drugs.
Basketball has saved 6-foot-11 Sanger High center Leopoldo ‘Leo’ León.
León and his Sanger High Apaches are off to northern Calilfornia for a Saturday (March 10) game against No. 2 seed Pleasant Valley High of Chico. Tip-off is at 6 p.m.
The Apaches defeated visiting Beyer High of Modesto team, 66-60, on March 7 to advance to the second of the state Division III NorCal regionals. Sanger improved to 22-11. Pleasant Valley is 28-2. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.
León, a 16-year-old junior, was introduced to the sport as a freshman after head coach Al Álvarado III convinced him to try out.
“I was in the streets; in and out of school,” said León, who lives in Del Rey. “I was a gang affiliate, but basketball turned it around. I fell in love with it. I got shot at once. My own family was telling me I wasn’t going to live past 16.”
He understandably didn’t share all of his family’s struggles, but did say his mother is battling cancer, and his father lives with his sisters. Amid his own struggles, León wants to pave a way to college basketball.
León said his parents were struggling making ends by working in the fields.
He nearly sold drugs.
He credits his family – and Álvarado – for pushing him in the right direction.
“The gangs were out recruiting him because he’s so big,” said Álvarado. “We just gave him a ball and opened up the gym. He’s a great kid.”
“I don’t know if basketball saved him. That’s what basketball, all sports, does. You love the sport. They can come in here, play, get off the streets, if that’s what it is.”
Álvarado, a 1991 Sanger High graduate, credits basketball for his college degrees.
“I do tell him ‘You got to push through things,’ and he can do it,” added Álvarado.
Isaiah Cuevas led the scoring against Beyer with 18 points.
In the Central Section finals just under a week ago in downtown Fresno, Sanger had a 17-point advantage, but gave up the lead to Immanuel (Fresno) and the Division III title.
“We had a big loss at the Valley championship. We let it go in that fourth quarter, and all my teammates were down,” said Cuevas. “But after today (win against Beyer), this win is not for us, it’s for our city.”
“It’s kind of disappointing, these last few games. You just want to play your hardest,” added Sanger senior Romeo Little about playing his final season of high school basketball.
“We’re not going to stop playing on Saturday. We’re not going to take it lightly,” said León.