- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DURHAM, N.C. -- You're the firstborn in your family, and you've got plans percolating in your head. You are tall, lanky, athletic and competitive -- just like your father. But you are also maternal, caring, always looking out for everyone else -- just like your mother.
You dream, but you don't "daydream." There's a difference. The latter suggests flights of fancy that probably won't ever happen. The former suggests big things that you have every intention of doing.
There's something you've been thinking about, and one day, you just say it out loud to your parents: "I'm going to be a doctor."
Your mother doesn't skip a beat: "Then why don't you go to Duke?"
Your name is Krystal Thomas, and you've just nailed down two of the biggest choices of your life: what you're going to do for your career and where you'll go to college.
You will be a doctor, and you will go to Duke University. It's all settled.
Oh, one more thing we should mention here you're only 5 years old.
From foes to friends, teammates to sisters
You're the firstborn in your family, and you started walking at 6 months. Then it isn't that long before you're picking up whatever ball is nearby -- a basketball, a soccer ball, a baseball, a football, a tennis ball, a golf ball -- and playing with it.
You have the athletic instincts of your father, a former collegiate football player. You're so much alike that sometimes you clash: two strong-willed, determined competitors.
But you also are quiet and somewhat reserved like your mother. So when you speak, your words carry weight. Sometimes, you go into your shell, but you gravitate toward certain people who can bring you out.
Your name is Alexa Deluzio, and you've recently met such a person in Krystal Thomas. She is 12; you are 11. You will be first foes, then teammates, then friends and then sisters.
An ACC family reunion
It's a snowy night in Durham, a place where even a little of the white stuff on the roads panics the population. There is a women's basketball game to be played, though, between Duke and Florida State, and so the "brave" ones still show up at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
In the stands -- right in the middle, between the Duke and FSU benches -- sit the members of two families that became one. They are cheering for both teams, although on this night, one team will come out resoundingly on top.
Thomas, a 6-foot-4 junior center for Duke, gets a little breather on the bench and is about to check back into the game. She sees Deluzio, a 5-9 redshirt freshman guard for Florida State, pull the trigger on a 3-pointer. "Yes!" she thinks, followed in a split second by "No!"
Then Thomas will make a free throw, and Deluzio will instinctively move to slap her hand, then remember, "Wait! She's on the other team."
They'll both laugh about it later.
"When we are between the lines, we both want to win," Deluzio said. "But outside of that, we're family."
Basketball brought them together as friends, then some painful adversities made them sisters. Now, here they are playing for the teams that are currently first and second in the ACC standings. Thomas is averaging 8.3 points and 7.3 rebounds for the 19-4 Blue Devils. Deluzio is averaging 9.0 points and 2.4 rebounds for the 20-4 Seminoles.
"It's such an awesome experience to be able to watch two girls who have grown up together," said Deluzio's father, Don, "and they're playing basketball at the highest collegiate level, going to two great universities, playing for two great programs. I don't know that it could get much better."
Which is especially wondrous because in Thomas' life not that long ago, things couldn't have seemed much worse.
Growing up fast
In 2001, when Krystal was 11 years old, her father was arrested on charges of drug trafficking and counterfeiting. Victor Thomas had been an 18-year veteran of the Orange County, Fla., sheriff's department, a captain who'd worked undercover in narcotics. But he fell in with the very people he was supposed to be stopping. He had been under surveillance, was caught and convicted, then sentenced to seven years in prison.
That left his wife, Natalie, with five children ranging from the oldest, Krystal, to a 6-month-old girl. But there was even more hardship in store for the family. Natalie soon was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Krystal, extremely close to her mother, took on as much of the maternal role as she could, caring for her younger siblings.
"I did still feel like I was a kid, because I did kid things," Krystal said. "But I also had to grow up fast. I had a lot more responsibility. I had maybe a couple hours here and there for kid things."
And she made time for basketball.
"It was like an outlet where I could invest my emotions," she said, "and put my energy out there and give it all I could."
When Victor went to prison, he wrote letters telling his children the mistakes made were solely his, and they should not feel any embarrassment about his situation. But not everyone they knew treated them that way.
"I had gone to a different school that year, so I had a new set of friends," Krystal said. "And after my dad was arrested, half of them still were my friends and half of them weren't.
"I ended up going back to my old school and the people who'd known me for so long. My mom always told me that your true friends are the ones who stick with you through the toughest times."
Alexa would be that kind of friend.
It takes a village
Don Deluzio believed in coach Bill McCartney's vision to make Colorado into a national power in football. He was a linebacker for the Buffaloes and attended Colorado from 1984 to '88.
"There's something about feeling like you're changing the course of a program," Don said. "Although I would have loved to have played on the  national championship team, I felt like those of us who came before that were a part of it."
At Colorado, Don won the Hang Tough award, given annually to the Buffaloes player who overcame the most adversity. It was an honor in the memory of Mike Simmons, a player on the 1966 CU squad who'd died of cancer.
Don's own father had died of cancer when Don was 11 years old, and this was after his father had served time in prison. Then in March 1987 on spring break in Texas, Don and a teammate were struck by a car as they were crossing a street.
Don was seriously injured, suffering a broken leg, torn ACL and fractured jaw. He had to sit out what was to be his senior season but came back and finished his career in 1988.
Don met his wife, Sheri, at Colorado. They married, and Alexa was born in September 1989.
"Then I needed a job, and I knew a guy who was in the tile business," he said. "I knew nothing about that, but I moved to St. Louis to start working at it. Sheri and Alexa came there shortly after. We stayed a couple of years, then moved to Orlando (Fla.), and I started my own company."
That was Trinity Tile Group, a very successful commercial and residential distributorship. Don and Sheri had three more children, and they befriended Natalie Thomas.
Krystal and Alexa had first met while playing on opposing club teams. Then they combined forces on the same team.
"It does take a village to raise kids, especially with all the travel in sports commitments," Sheri said. "We'd help each other with rides and going to games."
Don added, "Sheri and Natalie made a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together. We'd watch all those games, and we started to talk about life issues. We asked her about her illness, about the financial things she was facing."
As the families got closer and Natalie became more ill, Don and Sheri made a decision.
"We first mentioned it to her 18 months prior to her death," Don said. "We just told her if anything ever happened and her kids needed a place to live, they'd be welcome to stay with us.
"Maybe six months later, she said to us, 'What you said about the children living with you would you really be willing to do that?' And we said, 'Absolutely.'"
A family of 11
By that point, as fiercely as she had fought cancer, Natalie Thomas sensed her time was running out. She wrote a book, "No More Than I Can Bear." It chronicled the happiness she once had with Victor, the opposite directions their lives had gone as they both wanted different things, the shock and pain of his arrest and incarceration and her own battle with terminal illness.
At the beginning, Natalie wrote, "I dedicate this book to the most precious kids ever: Krystal, Loren, Erika, Vic and Kelli, my heart bursts with love for you guys. You make me laugh, cry, wish and wonder all at the same time. You all are the greatest blessings that God has granted to me. When He gave you all to me, He gave his absolute best. You have inspired me to live, love, fight and persevere."
In hospice care, Natalie died on Jan. 22, 2006. The Thomas children moved in with the Deluzios immediately. With that, they became a family of 11.
"It was not until the next week or two later that it hit me what really happened," said Krystal, who was then 16. "I would say, 'My mom passed away,' but somewhere in my mind I just knew I was going to wake up, go downstairs and that she'd be there, making breakfast. It didn't seem real I was never going to see her on this Earth again."
In the latter stages of her mother's illness, it really was up to Krystal to take care of her four younger siblings. She drove them to school and practices, made their meals, reminded them to brush their teeth, did the laundry. All while going to high school and advancing toward a Division I basketball career herself.
Joining the Deluzio family, Krystal had to readjust to having parents again.
"For so long, I had set my own rules and restrictions," Krystal said. "I knew my own curfew, when I had to get my work done, when my siblings had to get their stuff done. I made my own personal boundaries.
"So to have new ones was kind of an adjustment period. I had to back off my own reins and listen to what they had to say. But in the end, it truly worked out for the best."
Things weren't always smooth. The film version of this might have every problem being fixed with a group hug. Real life wasn't like that. Although they did look to some cinematic comparisons.
"Right around that time, the movie 'Cheaper by the Dozen' came out, so everyone was like, 'That's our family,'" Alexa said. "People asked how we did dinners and how we got everyone where they were supposed to be. And, honestly, I don't know how my parents did it all and organized it. But they did."
Sheri said, "When it first happened, there was chaos. You're trying to mourn Natalie, but you're worried about the kids and you're really busy. But we had so much support -- from family, friends, church, schools, even strangers. Still, we had to sit down and have family meetings. Don is very organized; he would have an agenda, and we'd talk about certain things. It was a big learning experience."
Period of adjustment
The younger children adjusted very quickly. They would build tents in the playroom and always had someone to hang out with.
For Alexa and Krystal, whose friendship had paved the way for this to happen, it was a more complicated time. They were teammates at First Academy in Orlando, where they would win two state championships. But suddenly, they were faced with a lot of "togetherness" at a time when both were establishing themselves as individuals.
And just behind them in school was Krystal's younger sister, Loren, who also played basketball and volleyball at First Academy.
"Those are critical years for teenaged girls," Don said. "So you just have the normal issues of kids growing up and wanting to have their own space, wanting to speak their mind and have their freedom. But you also have a new household."
Sheri said, "There were a lot of dynamics we didn't realize until we faced them. Our oldest one was now not the oldest. She was not the first to drive or the first to graduate from high school."
Krystal and Alexa lived on opposite sides of the house. They had their moments when it was hard to communicate. But they worked through it.
"It took some getting used to, but we took on the responsibilities together," Alexa said. "We'd baby-sit, and she'd make half the dinner and I'd make the other half. We would carpool; she'd take the kids to soccer, I'd take them to baseball. We split everything.
"She brings me out of my shell a little bit, and I calm her down a little bit. She's the outgoing, social one. I'm more laid-back, go with the flow. So we'd always clicked really well. Living together -- there were so many emotions going on at that time, it took a toll on our relationship at first. But I would say then, it made it stronger."
There was something else for Krystal to adjust to, though, in terms of basketball. Remember her long-ago pledge to go to Duke? When she went to a summer camp at Duke after seventh grade, she couldn't understand why the Blue Devils coaches had seemed to be so interested in her.
It took a few more years for her to really grasp, "This basketball thing is getting serious. I have a future in this." She gladly committed when Duke offered a scholarship, but then at the beginning of April 2007, during her senior year of high school, coach Gail Goestenkors left Duke for Texas.
Krystal was disappointed at first, but when Joanne P. McCallie took the Blue Devils job and called her, Krystal realized her plan didn't need to change.
"I thought, 'I've always wanted to go to Duke; I can do this. Keep moving forward,'" she said.
Meanwhile, Alexa -- who is three months younger but was in the class a year back of Krystal -- then chose to go to Florida State.
Their debut as college opponents was supposed to have come last season: Jan. 29, 2009, at Tallahassee, Fla. Instead, it wasn't until exactly a year later in Durham. That's because in October 2008, before what was to be her freshman season, Alexa tore an ACL in her left knee.
She had her dad, of course, for inspiration because he'd rehabbed from that same injury that he'd suffered when he was hit by the car. And she had Krystal.
"I talked to her every day; I still do, now," Alexa said. "I never doubted that she would be there for me. To know that about someone is comforting, and I hope she feels the same way about me."
When Duke and Florida State faced off last month, all but one member of the combined family was there. Loren, who is a freshman volleyball player at Liberty in Lynchburg, Va., could not make it because of bad weather.
But Ben (age 15), Brynna (10) and Joe Deluzio (8) were there, along with Erika (15), Victor Jr. (13) and Kelli (9) Thomas. They sat with Don and Sheri plus one other important figure: Victor Sr.
After the Thomas children moved in with them, the Deluzios knew they needed to visit Victor in prison. They had never met him.
"At least he would know who we are and why we were doing what we were doing," Don said. "And it allowed us to get a gauge on where he was and how he felt. It was a feeling-out session for both of us.
"I admit we had already formed an opinion because of our relationship with Natalie and what she had gone through and what we'd heard from other people. But then we said, 'We need to give him a chance.' After I got to know him, I told Sheri, 'This is someone who really wants to make things right and is deserving of that chance to do so.'"
Thus, when Victor Thomas was released from prison in 2007 after serving six years of his sentence, he asked the Deluzios whether his four younger children -- Krystal was already at Duke -- could move back in with him. They agreed.
It was very difficult emotionally for them; they had become parents to the Thomas children and now needed to step away to roles of, as they put it, that of an aunt and uncle.
"In the long run, we knew that it was right for them to be with their father," Sheri said. "He loves them. He's absolutely demonstrated that."
The Deluzios remain legal guardians of the children until all reach the age of 18.
"In our hearts, we'll always be there for them," Sheri said. "We didn't need a piece of paper for that."
Victor acknowledges his life continues to have challenges. He had a job teaching a life-skills class at Valencia Community College, but when a local television station asked the school about hiring him, officials there put him on leave. He had said he was a convicted felon on his application, but the school seemed not to have noticed until the television station inquired about it.
Victor is also dealing with a dispute with the state of Florida about getting retirement benefits for his 18 years on the police force before his conviction.
"I have to take it one day at a time, and I'm not using that as a cliché. It's a reality," he said. "Being in my circumstance and looking for full-time employment, it's a struggle. I may go to 100 interviews to get one person to return a phone call. I've realized I will have to build something of my own; I'm moving in that direction. Right now, my real full-time job is being a father.
"My bad choices put me in these circumstances. I would tell anybody who made bad choices, 'Bad things are going to happen. But because they happened doesn't mean that you have to stay down. It means you have to understand what happened, why it happened and learn from it. Each day, you have to say, 'I'm going to get better,' and it comes with believing in something more powerful than you."
Krystal, being the oldest, had the hardest time accepting her father back into her life. Her mother's book is very painful to read in some parts, as Natalie dealt with her anguish and feelings of betrayal. Victor is not portrayed in a good light. At the conclusion, Natalie acknowledged she was still working to try to forgive him.
So Krystal took that responsibility, too, upon herself.
"It was difficult, because I was older and I knew pretty much everything that went on," she said. "But our relationship has grown a lot since he's been released. It hasn't been easy, but every day, it gets better. And I'm really happy about that."
Victor watches her run down the basketball court and sees the resemblance to himself. He sees it in other ways, too.
"I was one of nine children born to two parents that may have never made more than $5 an hour in their lives," he said. "That made me want to achieve things. I see the same thing in Krystal. She just has that drive and tenacity, that won't-quit attitude, no matter what the circumstances are.
"But knowing what happened to me, the only thing I would tell her is to regulate that. Because that drive can be a motivating factor, but if you lock in on the wrong thing, it can be a detriment, also."
He knows he can't get back the years he lost being a father while in prison. Some things he can't make right. But he wants to do the best he can now.
"I feel sheer awe and joy, to be able to sit there and say, 'That's my child,'" he said. "To be able to call my friends and say, 'Did you see my daughter play on TV?' I'm extremely proud. When she was a little girl, we would take snow-skiing trips here in North Carolina. She said at that time she wanted to come here, go to Duke and be a doctor.
"Well, lo and behold, she's here. And she still wants to be an orthopedic surgeon. It's awesome, almost like destiny fulfilled."
When someone needs help, you help
Destiny is something Don thinks about, too, but it's also very intertwined with deep faith. He thinks about how it worked out this way: As a child, he had to experience a father being incarcerated and then losing that parent to cancer. So he was able to relate to the Thomas children's emotions on a very personal level.
Then he nearly lost not just the last year of his college football career but his life when he was struck by the car. So when his daughter saw her college hoops debut delayed by a knee injury, he could say, "I understand. I've been there."
But that is what life is truly about, Don says. You do everything you can to empathize. When you see someone who needs help, you help.
"What I tell people is, if there's a definition of earthly angels, then Sheri and Don would be it," Victor said.
How many people would take in five children when they already had four? And then, after they'd bonded with those children as parents, agree to allow them to go back to their father and settle into yet another role in their lives?
How many people would do that, even if they could manage it financially?
"It was a leap of faith," Sheri said. "I remember when Natalie was really ill, and Don and I looked at each other and said, 'What are we going to do?' We took a step, and the Lord just guided us. There was a need, and we needed to fill that need."
They all got together, minus Loren, after Duke's 73-43 victory over Florida State. Everyone smiled for the photo -- even Alexa, despite the margin of the defeat. She had said, with a bit of an irritated grin just after the game, "It stinks to lose. Especially to Krystal."
Krystal, of course, would laugh and say the same thing had the situation been reversed. But they're foes for just those 40 minutes and any subsequent meeting on the basketball court. They will be sisters for a lifetime.
"If she and I hadn't been friends, then none of us in our family would be where we are today," Krystal said. "When people hear about us, there are a few things I hope they take away from it.
"The first is to never, ever give up. If I had chosen at any point to say, 'I'm done with this,' I might not have been able to fulfill my biggest dream since I was a little kid.
"The second is to put others before yourself. That, in turn, will help you become a better person. And third, to value your family, your friends -- all your relationships. They mean so much."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.