True lies

No one believed the god of basketball could fall so fast. Matthew Bandsuch

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Jan. 31, 2005, issue. Subscribe today!

HE CALLED HIMSELF the god of basketball, and they believed. He shouted and stomped on the sideline, then smiled when his team's lead hit 40, 50, 60 points. His girls weaved like Ferraris on a road course and bit back smirks as boys on opposing teams cried or stewed or simply sighed. He drew plays in the air with his fingers, and the girls learned them so well they could win games without any coach at all. His sport's biggest icons -- Geno Auriemma, Tara VanDerveer-lined up to praise his players and raise their hopes for college scholarships.

He tracked 80 girls at once and knew instantly if anyone in his hardwood domain had cracked a smile or shifted a pivot foot. He preached good things -- respect, schoolwork, hard work, clean living -- and molded his players into a giggly family only the very special could join. He promised that if they remained devoted, he'd deliver them to the finest campuses. Parents circled around him to bestow their deepest thanks and most generous Christmas bonuses.

For 12 magical years, hundreds of men and women in Denver and throughout Colorado worshiped the god of basketball and his legions of dribble-driving disciples. They believed in him, and each other, and in everything they built together.

BARBARA WALTERS believed. She believed right from the beginning. And this is no bubbly soccer mom here, no dreamy Oprahphile. Walters is a 58-year-old Broncos die-hard who nurtured four sports-fiend sons and one pit bull of a daughter. Keirsten Walters was playing football with her older brothers by age 5. She had a cannon for a softball arm, pistons for legs and enough moxie to make Mom tread lightly. Barbara never could put Keirsten in her place. Nobody could.

Except a brown-eyed coach in a cap.

Rick Lopez had dreamed of coaching his own team ever since he drew up imaginary plays for the Nuggets as he sat in class at his West Denver elementary school. One of four kids from a working-class family -- Dad was a salesman, Mom was a homemaker -- he got some floorburns as a guard for his high school team in the mid-1980s. But he didn't get a shot at his dream until 1992, at age 24, when a parent needed a coach for the new Colorado Hoopsters girls club team. Soon after, Lopez spotted a 12-year-old blond dervish on the court and thought, I've never seen a girl so quick. It wasn't long before Keirsten was running over to Barbara to ask, "Mom, can I play for the Hoopsters?" Sure, Keirsten. Sure you can.

Rick coached girls like boys -- yelling, tweaking, challenging -- in ways no one else dared. No excuses, no boo-boos, no crybabies. Keirsten ate it up. Within a year she and the Hoopsters, in ratty T-shirts and black shorts, ran all the crazy plays Rick had waited his whole life to try, even going 15-1 in a boys league. The program blew up as girls ages 12 to 18 joined in droves. In the summer of 1993, players sold concessions out of the trunk of Rick's car to raise money to get to a tournament in Arizona. Two of the three Hoopsters entries won titles, including the 14-and-under squad led by the feisty point guard.

The Hoopsters roster ballooned to 80 in a little more than three years, as Rick continued to preach backscreens and floor spacing. At one tourney in Washington, DC, Stanford head coach VanDerveer even asked to borrow an inbounds play. Keirsten dropped softball and practiced with the Hoopsters every night, staying late before catching a ride home with the coach. Finally she'd found someone to push her. Barbara wondered aloud if maybe her daughter had gone overboard. Mom, Keirsten shot back, do you love your job? Well, I love my job too, and it's basketball.

Barbara eased off. Keirsten had enough trouble with the catty girls at school who razzed her for having no life. And then there were those jealous parents who dished about the blonde and the young, cute coach. Even Keirsten's former coach warned Barbara, saying she'd heard Rick had a past. But when Barbara asked an investigator at the law firm where she worked to run a search on Rick Lopez, he came back with a report detailing a single traffic ticket. Some past.

Anyway, how could anyone dislike this shy, kind man? Rick did so much for the girls, and for almost no pay. Though he had money troubles -- he filed for bankruptcy in 1993 -- he still bought the poorer players shoes and took them to McDonald's. On one stormy night in the fall of 1995, Keirsten asked Mom if the coach could crash at their house, because he still had a long drive home. Of course, Barbara said, it's the least we can do. Soon Rick came by every now and then, watching tube with the family, taking out the trash and threatening to bench Keirsten when she mouthed off to her parents. When the Walters moved south from Arvada to Littleton later that year, Rick got a couch in the basement. He became Barbara's fifth son.

If only the gossips knew the guy the way Barbara did. How about that woman who came up to her after a tournament game to accuse Keirsten -- and Barbara herself! -- of fooling around with Rick? The nerve. It wasn't hard to see through that one: Keirsten's new high school team had throttled the squad from Arvada, and this woman just couldn't deal. Then there were the fans seated behind Barbara at a game in Boulder. "There's No. 23!" they said. "She sleeps with the coach, and her mother knows about it!"

Barbara burned. How could they possibly know better than she did? The man lived in her house! He was embarrassed to take off his shirt around the pool, and he never set foot on the floor where Keirsten slept. As for Keirsten ... well, she'd put him in his place real fast if he ever tried anything.

Oh, and by the way, Barbara had never seen her daughter happier. She was playing in almost 100 games a year and signing autographs for little girls in the stands. She piled up more A's than a carton of batteries, and spent her free time sorting through the dozens of recruiting letters that flooded the mailbox.

Rick hung with his star throughout the recruiting process, including that night late in 1997 when he joined the Walters as they met Auriemma at a fancy restaurant in nearby Golden. Two years off his 1995 undefeated season, the UConn coach poured wine for Barbara and cracked jokes with Rick. Mom had her heart set on Vanderbilt, but she couldn't deny Ms. Colorado Basketball the chance to join Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and Asjha Jones in the best recruiting class women's college basketball had ever seen. Keirsten left for Storrs the next fall.

Meanwhile, Rick moved in with another Hoopsters family. He had a Nike sponsorship, Geno on speed dial and a growing list of Division I alumnae. The god of basketball had arrived.

TARAH LAPAR believed. Why wouldn't she? By the time she joined Rick's crew as an eighth-grader in 1998, he had two teams good enough to fast break through prestigious tournaments and meet in an all-Hoopsters final -- one team playing without a coach. One California couple rented an apartment in Denver for the summer just so their daughter could get a chance to play for the master. Each family paid Rick $25 per month per kid, an endearingly small fee for a wealthier class of people than the college dropout ever dreamed of running with. He had no time to spend money anyway, not with more than 100 girls chasing a dream. Tarah happily grabbed her ticket to ride.

She liked Rick. Whenever a new hip-hop song blared, he challenged her to name the artist faster than he could. One time, Tarah bragged at a party that she had serious rhythm. This pasty redhead? No way. Then she busted a move and nodded righteously. All the girls roared. When Rick heard about it, he proclaimed Tarah one-eighth black. Belly laughs all around. From then on, she became his "little one-eighth." Wherever hip-hop played-in hotel lobbies, restaurants, at amusement parks-Rick shouted, "I love Tarah LaPar!" Tarah loved him right back.

All the girls did. Rick made funny faces and dressed up for Halloween and dived fully clothed onto Slip'n Slides at backyard barbecues. He was a regular Peter Pan, secure enough to get manicures and profess his love for Notting Hill. Who wants to pass notes to boys when this cool guy wants to spend his time with you?

Tarah's teenage body and moods roiled. She hated her parents sometimes and hated herself sometimes and wanted so badly to be sure of herself. Rick was sure. After practices, he had the girls sit down at center court, take off their shoes and look him in the eye. Act like ladies and respect your folks, he said. Keep your noses in the books. Avoid smoking and drinking and boys. There are no captains here. We're all sisters.

Of course, some sisters had more potential than others. Like that one lanky blonde Rick would point to and say, "This is what coaches want." When Tarah heard that, she started to do crunches every night so the coaches would want her, too. And when Rick said, "Who's gonna make me dinner? All I got is Top Ramen," Tarah asked her folks to invite him over for lasagna.

Lots of families had the coach over for dinner. Moms adored him, all but elbowing each other aside to offer a piece of gum or some medical advice. Some went out with him for drinks after curfew at tournaments and picked up the tab, laughing as Rick regaled them with stories from the recruiting trail.

Dads couldn't help but admire Rick's success, even as some cringed at his methods. They sure couldn't call girls "dumbass" or "idiot" or tell them to lay off the cheeseburgers and still get them to fall in line.

Yes, Rick could be a wrathful god. He'd chuck a ball at a girl's head and know he'd get no lip from her mom or dad. Rick drew plays on girls' legs, for chrissakes, and then they'd run out there and execute them perfectly. He broke clipboards and smashed a trophy and bragged about making every girl cry at least once. But college practices would be much rougher, right?

Tarah once passed the ball to the wrong spot, and Rick took her by the jersey at halftime. "If you don't listen to me," he yelled, "you're never going to play again!" She sure as hell believed that.

Some parents did think Rick went too far. Tarah's mom, for one. She stopped coming to practice after a while. But nobody quit the Hoopsters except babies and benchwarmers, right? Those who did ended up in recruiting purgatory. Tarah actually found herself wishing Rick would yell at her more. After all, gods test the strongest most. The best players got to stay late and learn more about him. They got rides to practice in his car.

Tarah spent the spring and summer of 2000 begging Rick to spend extra time with her. Instead, he blew her off, benching her for the first three games of the End of the Oregon Trail tournament in July, the NFL combine of girls' basketball. Tarah, sick of the yelling and mind games -- Rick once subbed her out for her 7-year-old sister -- quit in the hotel lobby on the way to the fourth game. You're a jerk, she shouted. I'm done! Then she dialed home from a pay phone. Mom? I quit.

Rick grabbed the phone and hung up. Get in the van, Tarah. Now! When she did, he didn't yell. He took her hand, said he was sorry, said he would play her, even said she was good. This is the real Rick, Tarah thought. So what if he has a temper? He wants to help me. Hello, Mom? It's me. I'm not quitting.

Take the good with the bad, Tarah figured. That's life with Rick. Even the girls were gossiping now: Rick's with so-and-so. They giggled about following him home to find out the truth. Their whispers hit high school hallways -- Slick Rick! -- becoming constant background noise.

Still, Tarah wondered, should she confront the current favorite? But what if the girl tells Rick? Besides, who's going to admit to messing around with the coach? And it wasn't like this girl seemed to be in trouble. She never even skipped practice. Mind your own business, Tarah decided.

In the summer of 2001, Rick took Tarah and six other Hoopsters to a shootout in Tulsa. After the last game, he told them to meet up in his hotel room. When Tarah knocked on the door, Rick answered fully dressed, his hair damp. Behind him, one of her teammates, the one in the rumors, walked out of the bathroom, dripping wet and wrapped in a towel.

Tarah's mind spun, but neither Rick nor the girl paused or blushed. In fact, later on when the team gathered in Rick's room for a movie, the coach and the girl watched in the same bed, under the covers. But then again, nobody actually saw anything.

Tarah's parents fumed when their daughter told them what happened in Tulsa, but they'd invested too much, stuck it out too long. They asked Tarah over and over if anything inappropriate had ever happened to her. No, she insisted, of course not. And that was good enough. No other parents complained -- not even the parents of the girl in the towel -- so why should they? Tarah had a second family and a sport she loved, and anyway, they knew whose number the recruiters had.

Tarah landed safely at Wyoming in 2003. Rick had delivered. When The Denver Post called about the coach during Tarah's first semester, she didn't rat out her friends or her mentor. Yes, she told them about the time Rick threw a tantrum in the wee hours during a trip to Las Vegas. But she didn't say the episode came after a rumor spread at dinner about Rick and one of Tarah's roommates. Nor did she tell the reporter that the same girl disappeared for three hours that night. Asked if she'd let a daughter of her own play for Rick, Tarah said, "In a heartbeat."

PAT MILLER believed. Maybe most of all. What former college forward with two hoops-loving daughters wouldn't? Pat knew he couldn't talk with his teenagers about Ashton Kutcher, Usher or boys. But basketball? Basketball allowed him to be involved. Pat tried coaching, tried to pass on what he'd learned at Eastern Michigan, but he knew he could do only so much. Then, in the summer of 2000, he and his oldest, Amanda, saw the Hoopsters play in a tournament. Geez, the team ran like the Lakers. They wanted in.

Rick clicked with Pat the hoops junkie, Pat the dad, Pat the CPA. He had the sureness and spontaneity Pat always wanted for himself. Almost immediately, Pat volunteered to help the Hoopsters, creating travel itineraries, keeping the tournament calendar, making name tags for the girls' bags. When parents of prospective players asked tough questions, Pat answered them all. Rick? The guy's like a brother to me.

So Pat stewed when The Denver Post came around late in the summer of 2003. Miller suspected he knew the paper's Deep Throat -- a former Hoopsters dad-but it was too late to reason with him. He stewed some more when Rick had to call a meeting with some players. An article is going to come out tomorrow, Rick said. It's all rumors and lies from jealous people who want to take us down. Please, please don't believe. Rick's voice crumbled into a mutter. His eyes watered. The girls wondered, Will Rick quit? Some began to cry.

The story ran on Page 1 on Oct. 12, 2003: "Sex Charges Shadow Girls' Coach." Three former players accused Rick of having sexual contact with them in cars and hotel rooms -- two before they'd turned 18. A fourth said she saw an underage teammate engage in a sex act with Rick on a road trip.

But wait. Wait. The accusers had played for Rick back in the early '90s, and no one filed charges. As the Post reported, Douglas County police had investigated the coach earlier in 2003 but found no evidence.

The next day every Hoopster showed for practice. Two new girls tried out for the team, eager to play for Denver's best coach. Rick rationalized his way through each line of the newspaper story for the players. As they wiped away tears of sympathy, Rick said, "No one knows what it's like to be me!" The god was shaken. Here he was, a 35-year-old man who still lived with his parents when he wasn't staying with his third Hoopsters family in nine years. He barely made $30,000 coaching. But when the parents asked him if he needed some time away from the game, time for a real life, Rick said no.

Over the next few months he tried to keep a low profile, even letting Miller spell him on the bench. Pat rallied the supportive parents against the haters. He knew the god of basketball lived for his believers.

He had nothing else.

ON A clear July morning in 2004, Pat Miller's cell phone rings as he drives home from a morning meeting. It's another father, his voice straining and cracking. The man's daughter has just flown home from school, and when she got into his car, she came apart. "I have to be careful with what I say," the father says nervously.

Pat's face flushes. He grips the wheel tightly. "Just tell me," he whispers. "Scale of 1 to 10, how bad is it?" The answer comes quickly: "It's a 10." Miller's heart skips, but his mind races to where the other father has already gone. The girls. They're in Oregon-with Rick. "Pat, your children are not safe with that man."

Miller hangs up. His mouth goes dry. This is a father he knows. His girl is so sweet and innocent. Miller takes the next plane to Portland. That night he meets with parents and makes a plan. The next afternoon, a bright Saturday, Miller and two other parents usher Lopez to the end zone of a high school football field.

Miller steps back, making room for the others to confront the coach. In the distance, two more dads stand guard in case Rick tries to run. We know, Rick. We know everything. The coach begins to stammer: It's ... it's not what you think. It's not like that at all. We're in love.

Rick rambles on and on, but his words now bounce where they once seeped in. Miller feels a wave, a rush of blood. After four years of backing up this man, could it all be true?

The confrontation lasts 90 minutes. As the shadow of the goalposts creeps across the grass, the parents say, This is it. Enough. Rick turns to his friend. "Pat, is this what you want?" Miller holds back tears. "Rick, we can't do this anymore," he answers. "It's time to end it."

But the girls. How to tell the girls? They'll disintegrate. An agreement is reached. Rick will coach the tournament. For a little longer, Pat and the parents let their girls believe.

But the Hoopsters know something is wrong. They win a quarterfinal, dribbling with tears in their eyes. Miller tells the sobbing younger girls Rick has quit. Later, in a hotel room, Rick tells his best players it's time for him to start a new life. Amanda, Pat's daughter, thinks it's all just Dad's plan to take the Hoopsters away from poor Coach Rick.

The next day Rick takes the sideline one last time. He claps and cheers and shouts compliments. But for the first time he doesn't yell. The Hoopsters win the semifinal but lose in the final. The girls decide to head straight to another tournament, without their coach, and the parents don't say no. Miller returns to Denver to calls from frantic parents, clinging to the hope that Rick will change his mind. Meanwhile, Rick drives out of Colorado to visit another former player. She has accusations of her own.

Less than a week later, the brokenhearted girl who confessed in her dad's car calls her former coach and tapes the conversation.

THE BAILIFF opens the courtroom door, and the god of basketball waddles in, ankles shackled. It's Dec. 3, 2004, and Rick Lopez sits in the defendant's chair wearing an orange jumpsuit with "inmate" on the back. He's been in the Douglas County Jail since August, held on $500,000 bond. The judge reads from 55 felony counts filed on behalf of three former players: "unlawfully, feloniously and knowingly inflicted sexual intrusion or sexual penetration ... victim was less than 15 years of age."

Seated in the cramped courtroom, Pat Miller and Barbara Walters watch as three parents testify, one by one. Their faces are drawn, empty. The coach had eaten at their tables, celebrated their kids' birthdays, driven their kids to the mall. He stayed in their homes for nights and weekends, even years. They never imagined he was having sex with their daughters while they were at work or shopping ... or down the hall.

A father in a beige suit takes his oath and glares at the defendant. Yes, he tells the district attorney, that's Rick Lopez. Yes, my daughter joined his team to play for the best club basketball program in Colorado, and maybe to get a college scholarship. Yes, I gave him a room in my house for four years. Yes, I paid some of his bills. Yes, I trusted him completely. His lips quiver, and his head drops slowly into his left hand.

The defense lawyer approaches the lectern and mentions the Post story. Had the father read it? Yes. Had he discussed it with his daughter? Yes. Had he asked his daughter if she ever saw anything? Yes. And what did she tell you? The father answers: she said no. Never.

Later, the prosecutor puts a portable stereo on the sill of the jury box, inserts a tape and presses play. In the hushed, packed courtroom, a soft, sad voice whispers, "Rick?"

The voice breaks and doesn't come back together for the duration of the hour-long call. The other voice shakes, too. "I ... I'm not going to make it," he cries. He says he loves her more than he loves life. He says he's going to kill himself, jump off a building. He says she has to believe him.

She hardens. I gave you everything, she says, called you before breakfast and after breakfast, waited up crying until you got home. "Rick," she says, "I had sex with you. I wanted to wait until I got married. And you promised me, we already are married. You told me that, and then you go around and you are with [her] ... I was only 16 ... and then you had sex with [another girl]. How can you tell me you really care about me and you really love me and you do that to me?"

She had loved him. She wanted to be with him. She believed.

An investigating sergeant takes the stand. Speaking flatly, she bluntly recounts her interview with the girl on the tape. The player said she and the coach sometimes went on walks. One day when she was 14, they strolled to the golf course by her house. She brought her basketball along, like always. They stopped to lie on the grass, by the cart path. He leaned over and kissed her. She freaked out. But in the days and weeks to come, she let him go further.

The sergeant then offers graphic detail of sexual encounters between Rick and two of the girls. One girl said Rick had sex with her four times a week for three to four years, starting when she was 13. The judge finds probable cause on all 55 counts of felonious sexual and physical assault. If convicted, Rick Lopez will face up to 588 years in prison. The judge reminds the court that the identities of the girls and their families must be kept secret. Then Lopez is led back to his cell.

Pat Miller leaves the courtroom ashen-faced. He climbs into his SUV and heads into the frigid Denver night. There was never any oversight for Rick's teams, not from the NCAA, not from the high schools. The Hoopsters aren't even an AAU team. Only parents like himself could have stopped him. Miller thinks back to the year-old Post story, and how he didn't believe it then. He drives on and on, aimlessly. After an hour he realizes he has no idea where he is.

Barbara Walters drives from the courthouse to the home she opened to Rick for four years. The phone rings. Collect call from the Douglas County Jail. Rick cries. It's all lies. He bawls until he can't say another word. She listens. The Christian in her has compassion, but the mother fills with the dread that every Hoopsters parent now confronts. Keirsten adamantly denies the rumors, but Barbara still wonders what really happened to her daughter. She tries to comfort Rick, then hangs up not knowing what to believe.

Tarah LaPar hears about the courtroom proceedings the next day. The girl in the towel is an accuser. The girl who disappeared from her room in Vegas is an accuser. And the lanky blonde Rick pointed out in practice-the nicest girl she'd ever met-she is an accuser too. These girls will never have a normal relationship, Tarah thinks. Not just because of the sex, but because of the mind games. Why didn't I ... oh, I don't know what I would have done.

TWO DAYS before Christmas, Rick Lopez calls a friend from jail. He wants to listen to a women's college game, and asks her to put a phone up to the radio. Clutching the receiver, he listens as the girl from the tape moves on without him. The god of basketball has no more believers.

The day after Christmas, Rick calls his dad and asks about his mom, who's been struggling with diabetes. He then walks to his cell, feeds a torn bed sheet through the slits in a vent and wraps the other end around his neck. He leans his back against the wall and lets himself fall limp.

On the foggy first Monday of the new year, dozens of girls from every Hoopsters generation show up at 9 a.m. at West Denver's St. Cajetan Catholic Church. Keirsten Walters, now a young woman of 24, breaks down as she approaches the silver casket that cradles her old friend. Barbara holds a poem she wrote about the Rick she knew, and fights the urge to brush his hair as he lies there in his Michael Jordan sweatsuit. Across from the Walters sit Tarah LaPar's mom and sister, here despite Tarah's objections. Pat Miller has stayed away, saying he's not ready to say goodbye.

A pretty woman walks into the church. She draws stares and whispers as she slides into a pew and reaches into her purse for a tissue. She thinks back to the day her daughter joined the Hoopsters, and the day Rick stopped by their house so they could all watch a movie, and the day she felt weird about letting him stay home alone with her daughter. She remembers the day she questioned her daughter, and got the same answer all the other parents got.

She recalls the day in August when she phoned her daughter at college to tell her that no matter what had happened between her and Rick, she loved her very much -- and then she listened as her child finally dissolved into tears.

"We all believed," the mother says later, trying to explain it all to an outsider. "There is the Rick Lopez I dearly love. I wanted him to be that person. I was completely fooled. That's the hardest part to deal with -- not what we want to see, but what is."

The priest chants the Hail Marys and walks to the open casket as a Christian song, "I Can Only Imagine," plays over the stereo. The lyrics meet the sobs of girls in black shirts and skirts and running mascara. As the casket lid begins to close, the girls cry louder, crying for what are still the best years of their lives. They clutch each other's shoulders, squeeze parents' hands, double over and cling to the pews in front of them, wailing for the man they worshiped, loved and feared.

And then the casket shuts on the last remaining sliver of light between belief and betrayal.

Eric Adelson, who worked for The Magazine for 10 years, is now a writer for Yahoo! Sports.

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