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  • COLLEGE BASKETBALL

    Special Bond

    Oregon State basketball star Nelson, team manager will soon be separated after years together
  • CORVALLIS — Roberto Nelson stands near midcourt at Gill Coliseum, posing for photos and signing autographs.
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  • CORVALLIS — Roberto Nelson stands near midcourt at Gill Coliseum, posing for photos and signing autographs.
    Oregon State fans shake the senior's hand. They thank him for a half-decade of service to their success-starved program. Nelson, a reluctant star, smiles with each kind word.
    After a few minutes, one of Nelson's biggest supporters limps over to the scrum. Johnathon Hoover, a Beavers student manager, settles steps behind the fray.
    In the coming weeks, Roberto will move out of the house he shares with Johnathon to prepare for June's NBA draft. It will mark the end of their four-and-a-half-year journey in Corvallis, one filled with 3 a.m. shootarounds and life-affirming conversations.
    Roberto and Johnathon are not brothers, but a decade of unconditional support has forged a relationship that makes them more than mere friends.
    As Johnathon watches Roberto on senior day, he ponders a life apart from the most important person in his own. He wipes a tear.
    "I'm OK," he says, composing himself when asked how he's doing. "I'll be OK."
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    Johnathon Hoover was born Johnathon Green. He had cerebral palsy, a condition affecting muscle coordination. He had no Achilles tendons. His mother was a Santa Barbara heroin addict. His father wasn't around, Johnathon would later learn, because he felt ashamed his eldest son was "a cripple."
    Johnathon's maternal grandmother, who raised him from infancy, died when he was 4. A family friend and widower, James Hoover, kept him out of foster care. He embraced Johnathon as his own, gave him chores and put him in physical therapy three days a week.
    Johnathon grew to dread the clinic's painful walking exercises. One morning, the preschooler begged Hoover not to send him to therapy.
    "I'm never going to walk, anyway," he cried.
    The retired construction worker told Johnathon to never give up on himself. Hoover upped the treatment to five days a week and coached him through each session. They often stayed at the clinic hours late, perfecting each assigned task.
    Johnathon soon went from not walking, to using a walker. At 6, he crumpled to the ground when his walker caught a jagged rock outside the elementary school. Classmates laughed and called him "stupid."
    "From then on," Johnathon said, "I started walking on my own."
    Yet complications arose. By sixth grade, he had undergone six surgeries. Four straight summers were spent in a wheelchair as James Hoover steered Johnathon through each procedure's aftermath. He helped him into bed each night and out each morning.
    Johnathon began to view Hoover, who legally adopted him at 6, as his father. He called him "Dad." He took Hoover's last name as his own.
    He saw his mother only before her court-ordered drug tests on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays. She would stop by James Hoover's house and hand Johnathon a plastic cup.
    "I knew why I was peeing in there," Johnathon said.
    On Johnathon's second day of junior high, Hoover was diagnosed with lung cancer. Doctors told him they had caught it early, that he'd be home in 10 days. Yet there he was 10 days later, using a ventilator to breathe.
    Johnathon watched bedside as Hoover slowly lost his ability to communicate. In their final moments, Johnathon leaned on James' original guidance to never give up on himself. He promised to honor the man who gave him his name by graduating from college.
    u
    The day after James Hoover died, classmate Roberto Nelson delivered Johnathon's homework. After handing him books and assignments, Roberto idled for a moment. He told Johnathon he was always welcome at his home.
    "He was the last person I was expecting to be there for me during the worst time in my life," Johnathon said. "He didn't even really know me like that."
    Their relationship had largely consisted of the occasional conversation after Johnathon watched one of Roberto's basketball or football games. Soon, Johnathon began retreating to Roberto's house.
    Most days, they escaped to a local playground. Johnathon rebounded while Roberto worked through shooting drills.
    The get-togethers offered a reprieve from heartbreak. Johnathon, who missed three months of school after his adopted dad's death, could escape the parade of family friends checking on him while he stayed with Hoover's adult daughter.
    At times, Johnathon felt like a burden. Roberto often had to wait for Johnathon to catch up whenever they walked somewhere. Johnathon, hardened by years of taunts, told Roberto that he understood if he wanted to hang with "normal kids."
    Roberto bristled.
    "You're helping me," he said.
    By high school, the duo was inseparable. Johnathon traveled with Roberto's Santa Barbara Dons football and basketball teams as a student manager. Players welcomed him as one of their own.
    Still, he couldn't stop feeling that he was getting more out of the friendship. As Johnathon ping-ponged between foster homes, Roberto's family was stable. His mother cooked him dinner. Roberto, unwilling to let Johnathon sleep on the floor, shared a bed with him many nights.
    Roberto also gave him a front-row seat to his athletic dreams. Whenever he broke a Dons receiving or scoring record, Johnathon reveled in the moment. Sometimes, when reporters interviewed Roberto, Johnathon ended up fielding questions.
    "That's why I was happy I was there to return the favor," he said.
    The summer before Roberto's senior year, his father, Bruce, was sentenced to seven years in prison for committing "lewd sexual acts" against patients at the brain rehabilitation center where he worked.
    Now it was the top-100 basketball recruit who felt his life unraveling.
    Roberto, unable to face the journalists waiting for him at Santa Barbara High, missed his first month of class. Each afternoon, Johnathon delivered Roberto's assignments before the two headed to the Boys & Girls Club. They shot for hours, the bounce of the ball serving as therapy.
    When Roberto needed to talk, Johnathon listened. He did for Roberto what Roberto had once done for him.
    "God," Roberta Cordero-Nelson, Roberto's mother, said. "I don't know that he would've gotten through it without J-Hoov."
    u
    "Promise to follow me to college."
    Johnathon, sitting in a bathroom chair while Roberto cut his hair, dismissed the notion. Roberto was only a freshman, but he already seemed destined for a big-conference basketball career. Why did he need him there?
    Roberto stopped, the electric clippers in hand.
    "I'm serious, man. I talked to my parents about it. They agree that it'd be good for us to be together."
    Outsiders scoffed when word of the plan permeated Johnathon's neighborhood. They told Johnathon that Roberto just wanted him along for publicity, that having a "disabled kid" around makes for a good story.
    "Only the people close to us know how deep the friendship goes," Roberto later said. "You can't really expect the people on the outside to understand."
    Roberto committed to OSU before his senior season, spurning UCLA and Ohio State to help first-year coach Craig Robinson rebuild a once-proud program. As graduation neared, Johnathon said, the warnings became more frequent. Administrators called him to the school office and told him Roberto couldn't provide the support he needed.
    "Nobody knew how independent I was," Johnathon said.
    Summer came and went. Since Johnathon wasn't an OSU student, he couldn't move into the dormitory with Roberto. So he stayed in Santa Barbara, living with James Hoover's mother and working at Albertsons while he hoped for the call telling him to pack his bags.
    In Corvallis, Roberto toiled through a nightmarish freshman year. His dad was in prison. His playing career was on hold while the NCAA clearinghouse investigated online classes he had taken.
    Guilt gnawed at him. He felt like a liar, like he had let Johnathon down. One night, he called his mother and said he had failed his top responsibility as a man. He had broken his word.
    "His worst thing was that he had made a promise to Johnathon," Roberta Cordero-Nelson recalled.
    u
    Timeliness isn't one of Roberto's virtues. If he tells someone he's just around the corner, Johnathon jokes, he'll arrive an hour later.
    So Johnathon didn't take Roberto too seriously when he got a call in July 2010 telling him he had 30 minutes to pack. Still, Johnathon tossed his modest wardrobe into a couple suitcases and parked on the couch.
    A TV episode later, Roberto arrived with Beavers center Joe Burton. Johnathon gave his adopted grandmother his new address and hopped on a flight to Portland.
    When he arrived at the Corvallis house Roberto shared with Joe, Johnathon apologized: He couldn't afford much. It was no worry, Roberto and Joe assured him. He should pay what rent he could.
    They directed him to the first bedroom he'd never have to share. Extra shirts and jackets hung in the closet. The next day, Roberto snuck three pairs of Air Jordans into the room when Johnathon wasn't looking. Anything to make him feel comfortable.
    "Just the joy on his face," Burton, now playing in Denmark, wrote in a recent email, "it was a great sight to see."
    That fall, Johnathon enrolled at Linn-Benton Community College and carved out enough time to become a mainstay at Beavers practices. Robinson didn't mind when he shagged rebounds and chatted up players.
    Last school year, Johnathon became a full-time OSU business major. He settled in as a student manager and took charge of stats during workouts. This season, he moved up to direct new managers, run the game clock in practice and travel on select road trips.
    "We all love him," center Angus Brandt said. "He's just been a huge inspiration with everything he's overcome in his own life."
    Last month, Robinson and more than half of his players trekked 40 minutes north for Johnathon's Special Olympics basketball tournament. He won his first gold medal.
    "J-Hoov is more popular than Roberto," Roberta recalled Robinson telling her earlier this season.
    u
    Johnathon sits on a black stool, head down as players mill around a MGM Grand Garden Arena locker room.
    About a half-hour has passed since the final buzzer mercifully sounded on OSU's 14-point loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament's first round Wednesday. With just 16 wins and a sub-.500 conference record, the Beavers are headed for their fourth College Basketball Invitational in six years.
    "It's tough when it doesn't go the way you want it to," Johnathon says, eyes fixed on the ground. "You feel like you don't have as much heart, you know?"
    Johnathon, who wasn't scheduled to work the Las Vegas trip, paid $300 to get there. He needed to be at what could have been his brother's college finale. It was an easy choice, he said.
    Later this month, Roberto will graduate and move to train with other NBA hopefuls. Johnathon will stay in Corvallis, intent on fulfilling the promise to his father to graduate college.
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