Even with help, Sutton's battle continues

LITHONIA, Ga. -- The phone calls come in the middle of the day and in the middle of the night. He's out of gas or out of food. He needs a pizza, needs a tooth fixed.

Every time Lorenzo Sutton calls, Ed Rubin answers.

For eight months, Rubin has paid Sutton's rent and utilities and wired him money for groceries, forking over more than $4,500 out of his own pocket. He has found a Social Security attorney to help Sutton and a surgeon who could repair his disfigured face. He has put him in touch with a nearby health clinic, a church, former friends and fraternity brothers. He has reached out to the University of Massachusetts, their alma mater, and hosted a benefit in his honor.

This otherwise ordinary man has back-burnered his job, put aside his family and taxed his wife's understanding to help Sutton, a former Minutemen basketball player whose life has spiraled into an abyss.

And until a warm day this past May when Rubin pulled his rental minivan into Sutton's driveway, the two had never met. Sutton was waiting in the yard when Rubin drove up, closing the few feet between them easily with the stride of the 6-foot-4 swingman he was. Face-to-face for the first time, the two stopped.

There was an awkward handshake and a casual hug, and that was it.

"I didn't know what to say," Rubin said. "Neither of us did."

What do you say to the man whose life you're trying to salvage?

How do you greet the former stranger who has become your savior?

There is a basketball painted to reflect his days as the UMass team MVP, more memorabilia to tell you that he was the school's 3-point champion and all-time leading scorer, eclipsing even Julius Erving, by the time he played his last game in 1988.

Folded neatly on a shelf sits a Detroit Pistons jersey, a relic from his drink of water in the NBA.

Without prompting, Lorenzo Sutton brings out a tattered photo album. There are pictures of him and articles about him. The three-time team captain explains each with vivid detail, recalling what he shot and how many points he scored. Later he pops in a video -- an old-school VHS tape, not a DVD -- that includes fuzzy highlights from a news clip after he sunk eight 3-pointers in a game, a record that still stands at UMass today.

It is all meant to legitimize his basketball talent, but when you witness this biographical walk-through, you aren't impressed by who Lorenzo Sutton was; you are saddened by who he has become. The man sitting in the nice-sized ranch house has the body of a basketball player. Chiseled arms burst from his sleeveless T-shirt, and strong legs dangle from his gym shorts.

But Sutton hasn't played basketball since those decaying articles were snipped from their pages. He spent the 1988-89 season in the Continental Basketball Association and played in five exhibition games the following year with the Detroit Pistons, but ultimately was let go.

Shortly after being released by the Pistons, he returned to Massachusetts. On Oct. 23, 1990, as he was leaving a party, chasing a guy he claims stole his necklace, Sutton was hit by a car. In a coma for 16 days and hospitalized an additional three weeks, Sutton emerged physically intact -- but his life would never be the same.

That hit-and-run was the beginning of a devastating spiral that would render Sutton disfigured, unemployed, with a criminal record and, until eight months ago, about ready to give up.

"I remember going to [the restaurant] Delano's and then I saw some football players I knew, and we went to a fraternity house," said Sutton, now 44. "It got rowdy, and I said it was time to go. The next thing I know, I woke up from a coma. They told me I could do anything I wanted. But I couldn't play basketball. My equilibrium was too thrown off."

What happened next is subject to whom you ask. Sutton is convinced that an undetected blood clot formed from that car accident. Rubin thinks there was undiagnosed head trauma. Others might tell you Sutton simply grew depressed and despondent.

Whatever the case, everyone who knew Sutton before that accident agrees that the man who emerged was different.

"A lot, he's really changed a lot," said Polly Cherry, his aunt. "He's just not the same. When we left the hospital in Massachusetts, one of the doctors said whatever state he's in, he'll be three times that. If he's happy, he's three times happier. If he's angry, three times angrier than he would normally would be, and that's what we've seen. He gets agitated so easily."

Not surprisingly, that agitation tends to rear its ugly head when Sutton mixes the volatile cocktail of women and alcohol.

In 1992, he was twice arrested for assaulting a woman while he lived in Massachusetts, arrests he said were misunderstandings involving women he dated.

Sutton pleaded guilty to both assaults and was sentenced to two years in the Hampshire County House of Corrections in Northampton, Mass. While there, he was diagnosed with what doctors thought was a cyst.

Instead, it was cancer of the jaw. By the time Sutton had the tumor removed, it had grown so large that doctors initially thought he might lose his right eye.

What damage the cancer didn't do to the bones in his face, the surgery did. He no longer has any upper teeth, and his lower jaw juts predominantly in front of his upper jaw. Ultimately, surgeons resorted to removing part of his abdominal muscles so he could have some kind of palate. Four tracheotomies followed.

Without proper insurance, he couldn't afford reconstructive surgery.

"At his mother's funeral, one of his sisters didn't recognize him," Cherry said. "She walked in and said, 'Who is that man?' I said, 'That's your brother, Lorenzo.' She had no idea."

"Well he doesn't look that bad at all," was Rubin's thought the first time he met him. And it's true. Sutton is hardly the monster he makes himself out to be.

"I love my brother and know who he is from within, but he just can't get over it," said Hilda Green, Sutton's sister. "The basketball, the surgery, his face, all of it. It's left his face a little different, and he just can't get past it."

But it is easy for outsiders to judge what is.

It's another thing altogether for the man himself to remember what was. Those grainy videos show Sutton as a handsome young man with soft eyes and an easy smile.

That face torments Sutton.

He is consumed by his appearance, not just how he looks but how he thinks others are looking at him.

Tucked in that photo album, behind the basketball articles, is a collection of 8-by-10 pictures of women he dated in college. He remembers their names, how he met them and how they adored him because he was something special, because he was tall and handsome.

He doesn't say they would never look at him now, but as he shakes his head, the message is clear.

When he eats at Applebee's, he flirts endlessly with the waitress. She's a good sport about it, enjoying the banter, but it is clear that Sutton is trying to overcompensate for his face with his charm. Yet ultimately, he asks to leave before he finishes his lunch. He explains that he can't feel if there is food on his mouth or if he is slobbering, so eating in front of people embarrasses him.

"The thing that gets me is when people say, 'Don't worry about it, don't worry,'" Sutton said. "Well you tell me, would you worry about it if you looked like this?"

His face, he says, is what stops him from working.

He had a job at Sam's Club but lost it. He said something spilled. He apologized but claims that management, uncomfortable with how he looked, used the spill as a reason to fire him.

Is he right, or is he making excuses?

"Yes" seems to be the right answer. Plenty of people have overcome disabilities far worse than Sutton's to lead fulfilling lives, standing on their own two feet with jobs to pay the bills and friends to keep them company.

But what is it like to be the person people try so hard not to look at? Would it be easier to stand proud and be yourself or to remove yourself from the prying eyes and lick your wounds?

"The big part of it for me is seeing people," he said. "I know they're watching me, staring at me. They wonder what happened to that guy, what's wrong with his grille? Or little kids walk by like this [his head turns, his eyes bulge]. I'm used to being watched. I was a basketball player. But this is different. Now it's like I'm a threat."

And so he stopped working and retreated into himself. Eligible for Social Security benefits because of his disability, the payments hit a snag after he lost his job, and for a time, Sutton lived in his car.

His sister said she offers to help, but knows that her brother doesn't like to be a burden. So she feeds him dinner when he comes by but doesn't push.

"There were days when I was just thinking, 'What's the point?'" Sutton said. "You have a standard in your life, and it gets shaken. You start to wonder, why was everybody there then and where are they now? Would they still be here if I was playing in the NBA or if I didn't look like this? And then out of nowhere comes Ed."

Ed Rubin does not look like a savior.

He looks like the financial planner he is, small and bookish, dressed in the middle-aged uniform of neatly pressed khakis and a golf shirt. A Northeasterner through and through, he speaks with the hard R's that mark him immediately as a Massachusetts man.

Rubin graduated from UMass in 1969, serving as the men's basketball team manager while he was there. He and his wife and daughter live in Harvard, Mass., and he has remained an avid Minutemen fan. Until his unofficial retirement last year, he was Sign Man, known for the clever and quirky messages he held up at the Mullins Center.

Like most ardent fans, Rubin is also a faithful message board reader.

In December 2008, a post from four years earlier caught his eye. A fan attached a link to a 2003 story about Sutton's hard times.

Tons of people read the Albany (Ga.) Herald story on UMassHoops.com, even posting comments about it. But then they moved on; went back to work, back to class, back to their lives.

That's what message boards are meant to be -- drive-by homes for rumors, rants, gossip and news.

Rubin read the story and stopped. Compelled by something even he can't explain, he put his old-fashioned shoe-leather skills to work, digging through online records that led him first to Cherry, Sutton's aunt, then to his sister, and ultimately to Sutton.

Finally, one day he dialed the 11 digits that would change his life.

"I just read it and went, 'Oh my God,'" Rubin said. "Why am I doing this? Because I can, that's the simplest way to explain it. I come from a humble background. I don't have a never-ending bank account, but sometimes you do things because you want to, because it's the right thing to do. When I grew up, everybody watched out for one another. The dads worked, and we all took care of each other. That's just how I was raised."

And so through countless phone calls, Rubin learned what he could about Sutton.

Then he started to help.

When Rubin first contacted him, Sutton was living in a rental home with no water. The city of Albany had turned it off because Sutton hadn't paid the bill. Eviction wasn't far away. So Rubin found Sutton another rental home, paid the deposit, the first five months of utilities and rent and got him moved.

Through contacts in Massachusetts, he found a lawyer in Georgia to help Sutton battle the piles of red tape to restore his Social Security benefits.

Rubin wired him money for groceries and gas, even worked out a deal with a nearby Papa John's such that Sutton would go in to order and hand the phone over to the cashier, and Rubin would provide his credit card to pay for the pizza.

Eventually, Rubin enlisted a fellow UMass alumnus, Tom Byrd, and together the two have sifted through Sutton's mess of a life as best they can. Byrd has reached deep into his own pocket as well and has fielded his share of phone calls from Sutton.

Thanks to consistent updates on the message board, Rubin and Byrd found plenty of support. Inundated with donations small and large, they set up an account for Sutton and, in May, hosted a benefit at the Wonder Bar in Worcester, Mass., where they raised about $2,600.

Rubin has worked the phones and the Internet, reconnecting with some of Sutton's fraternity brothers, teammates and friends. Sometimes they find him out of the blue -- Dave Hastings, a former UMass police officer who is now the chief of police in Gill, Mass., called to offer help, as did a former girlfriend.

Rubin went to the basketball booster club and, of course, the university for help.

"We have to be careful because we don't want other people who may be down on their luck saying, 'Why not us?'" said associate athletic director Tim Kenney. "But it's definitely a worthwhile cause, and what Ed has done is amazing."

Rubin did all of that before ever meeting Sutton.

Then finally in May he flew to Atlanta, hopped into his rental car and drove the 40 or so minutes to Lithonia.

"I'm not a crier, but I cried a lot of tears before I came down here," Rubin said. "But it was strange. I got a few miles from his house and I was fine. I wasn't nervous. I was ready."

If this were a fairy tale, Sutton would be smiling with his face repaired, his life restored.

But this isn't a fairy tale. It's a life -- a real life -- complete with all its warts and boils.

That account that Rubin started? Sutton can't access it. He is known for asking for $20 for gas and then spending it on something else, so Rubin has decided to mete out the cash as needed and pay the bills himself.

Sutton thinks nothing of contacting Rubin for every little thing, every perceived crisis. Last week it was a quick text in the morning saying he had to get somewhere to pick up medical records, had to leave in five minutes but had no gas. Twenty minutes and three texts later, Sutton reported he had arrived without incident.

Once it was a legitimate need for a tooth extraction, a surgery that set Rubin and Byrd back more than $2,000. When they wired Sutton the money for his prescriptions, he used it elsewhere and hit them for the prescription money again.

Rubin set Sutton up for a free gym membership only to learn that Sutton tried to hustle the owners for money and declined their offer to help find him a job.

And in the spring, Sutton was arrested for DUI in a Walmart parking lot, this despite the criminal evidence that alcohol is his worst enemy.

In the span of one conversation, Rubin waffles between optimism and exasperation.

Sutton will do that to you. This man who can't work can wax eloquent on the various architectural styles in the tonier neighborhoods surrounding his house.

He shows you a painting, an unfinished portrait of "The Little Rascals" he says he's been working on. And then, doing research, you learn the same unfinished painting was referenced in the Albany Herald article six years ago.

"I think some of it really is the head trauma," Rubin said. "You ask him things, and he doesn't remember or he gets it mixed up."

The biggest concern, of course, is that Rubin's Good Samaritan heart is being taken for a ride.

Early on, when message board posters suggested that, Rubin was indignant.

Now he is at least cautious.

"It needs to get to the point where I can say, 'I can't help you right now. I can't do that, Lorenzo,'" Rubin said. "I'm not sure he always fully grasps what we're doing. He appreciates it, but I don't think he gets it. I have college tuition coming up, a job and a daughter who thinks I pay more attention to Lorenzo than her."

The easy thing would be to walk away. Rubin has done more for a complete stranger than most people might do for a good friend, hanging on to help long after others quit. On the message board, as the months pass, the posts from others willing to help dwindles, leaving only Rubin's updates to continue the thread.

Rubin admits there are days he wishes he could stop, thinks maybe he ought to.


But he won't or can't.

For every frustration, there is a sign of hope. During his visit with Sutton in May, Rubin also met with a minister from a nearby church. Connected to Sutton through a web of UMass contacts, the minister agreed to help Sutton locally, get him involved in the church and more in the community.

Just recently, the Social Security lawyer made progress in the case to have Sutton's benefits restored, retroactive to 2007. If it pans out, he'll be eligible for Medicare, which would help pay the bills if Rubin's ultimate wish -- Sutton's face being repaired -- is ever realized.

Rubin has found a Massachusetts surgeon who specializes in maxillofacial surgery and has made countless calls collecting Sutton's various medical records.

Nothing is settled. There is no date for surgery -- not even the promise of a date for a consultation.

But there is a chance. And that's all Rubin needs.

That's what he believes Sutton deserves.

"Too many positive things have happened for this not to be destined," Rubin said. "I really believe that. Look at all we've accomplished since January.

"How can we quit now?"

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.