- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- He was playing pickup basketball in his native Dominican Republic, the equivalent of a playground game, the first time someone suggested that Orlando Sanchez might have a future in basketball.
He shrugged it off. He had more important things to think about than a game. Namely his grandmother -- the woman who raised him when his parents couldn't, who spent essentially her husband's life savings to care for him and now was all but broke. He had to work, to save money and take his turn caring for her.
The thought of a college basketball career wasn't on his radar, the idea of the NBA laughable, an NCAA rulebook -- the four letters N-C-A-A, for that matter -- as foreign to him as the English language he would someday master.
The feeling was reciprocated in Indianapolis. They'd never heard of the 6-foot-9 Sanchez, either. He wasn't an entity, let alone a prospect.
He was just a 20-year-old carpenter living in the Dominican Republic, trying to help ease his family's overwhelming financial burden.
Now, four years later, the two parties are intimately aware of one another, locked in a tango where Sanchez, now 24 and hoping to play for St. John's, is in the 11th hour of a complicated four-month plea to get cleared to play for at least one season.
He and St. John's, now with the help of an attorney, are arguing a combination of legitimate hardship and common sense, hoping that the NCAA will see the human side of the story and simply do the right thing. The NCAA, at least so far, has denied his appeals, countering common sense and humanity with a rulebook and a demand for proof.
On Monday, St. John's submitted another round of paperwork, essentially asking the NCAA to look one more time at granting Sanchez a waiver. What's at stake? For St. John's, the possibility of adding a guy who today would be the most complete player on the Red Storm roster.
For Sanchez, a lot more.
After this semester, the junior college transfer will be 23 credits away from his degree in sports management, and the NBA teams, who have watched him practice, say he has a pro future.
"My family always asks if I can help them,'' said Sanchez, who also has three younger siblings and whose one sister has two children of her own. "I want to, but right now I can't. This could change that.''
If the NCAA were to come through for Sanchez, it would be the first time fate had been so kind as to grant him an actual break.
The NCAA appeal process is based on hardship. His entire life has been a hardship. That he is where he is -- enrolled at an American university with a 3.48 GPA (ESPN.com saw his transcripts for verification) and on track to graduate -- is as miraculous as it is a testimony to his single-minded focus.
Talking over lunch in New York, Sanchez is not angry or bitter. He speaks softly, his English remarkable if not yet fluid. He's mostly confused, unable to comprehend how and why a 24-year-old man's desire to pursue basketball and complete his education is complicated; why he has essentially been hamstrung by rules that he didn't know existed.
He has done nothing nefarious. There are no charges or allegations of illegal payments or agent involvement. Against all odds, he completed his high school coursework, despite not graduating until he was 21; he went to junior college to make sure he had the proper credits to matriculate at a four-year school.
Yet he still can't play.
"It just makes no sense,'' he said. "My age is killing me.''
That's officially the hang-up here.
The rule in play for Sanchez is 188.8.131.52, which governs an athlete's participating in Division I athletics after his or her 21st birthday.
Essentially it says that every time an athlete older than 21 participates in an organized sports competition, each appearance counts as one full year of varsity competition. (The NCAA makes an exception for people who serve in the military or those who take a Mormon mission).
By their clock, Sanchez lost one year when he played eight games with a local club team in the Dominican Republic; another when he played 3:38 of garbage time for the Dominican Republic national team and two more when he attended and competed at Monroe Community College in New Rochelle, N.Y.
And on the surface, it's accurate. He did play eight games with the club team. He did play 3:38 with the national team. And he did all of that after he was 21. No one is arguing any of that.
What St. John's and Sanchez, with the help of his lawyer, Robert Orr, are hoping for is that the NCAA will look at the extraordinary events in Sanchez's life and grant him a waiver to the legislation.
"It was decided by the staff in November and heard on appeal in November by the subcommittee, which is an independent group comprised of the membership,'' NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said via email. "We have been waiting on St. John's since that point to submit new information in order to help reconsider the case.''
The NCAA denied his request the first time, explaining that in order to receive a waiver, Sanchez would have to identify one "specific event outside of his control that delayed his collegiate enrollment."
Now St. John's has essentially boiled down Sanchez's life to identify that one critical moment.
Technically, Sanchez's hardships began at birth. His parents didn't have much money. Unable to care for him, they sent Sanchez to live with his paternal grandparents. They weren't well off by any means but more comfortable and able to care for the boy.
But in 1998, Sanchez's grandfather died. Though he and his grandmother, Sabrina Vargas, got by on the money he left them, that eventually ran out too. Vargas had health problems -- rheumatoid arthritis among them -- that prevented her from working. In 2005, when Sanchez was just 17, his father decided Sanchez would come to Spain and work with him as an apprentice carpenter.
Sanchez essentially dropped out of school, went to work and sent what money he could back to his grandmother.
"I didn't feel like I had a choice,'' Sanchez said. "I felt responsible. She raised me. She gave me everything she could to help me go to school. I wanted to help her.''
And that, St. John's and Orr are arguing, is the specific event.
"When a 17-year-old is told he has to drop out of school, move to Spain and go to work, that's about as specific an event you can get,'' Orr said. "He was told by the adults in his life he had to do this. Using legal language, it's but for this he would have continued on his normal track.''
Instead of finishing school, Sanchez spent three years working in Spain, including one in another town without his father after the two butted heads. By the time he returned to the Dominican Republic, he was 20.
That's when a representative from the Dominican Republic National Federation spied him in the park. They hooked him up with the club team in town -- San Lazaro -- where he played the eight games and also helped him get back in school.
He was 21, his NCAA clock already ticking off a year with those eight games, even though he didn't know such a clock existed.
That same year he finally graduated from high school and in 2010, he made the national team on his second try. In the first of a five-game tournament that year, Sanchez played garbage minutes -- 3:38 in all -- in a walkover win against the British Virgin Islands.
Those 218 seconds counted as one year of NCAA eligibility because Sanchez was over the age of 21. Had he been 18, 19 or even 20, it wouldn't have counted against him.
When he graduated from Monroe in April 2012 with an associate's degree in business administration, Sanchez was, by the NCAA's thinking, out of time.
"I had no idea,'' Sanchez said. "I was honored to play with the national team. It was an honor to play for my country. If I knew, I never would have played.''
The bylaw that tripped up Sanchez, the one about his eligibility after the age of 21, has been, in effect, rescinded.
The change, however, didn't go into effect until August 2011, or a year too late for Sanchez, who was grandfathered into the old -- and now deemed faulty -- legislation.
Here's the part that Steve Lavin can't understand. Currently college basketball is in something of a identity crisis. The NCAA preaches amateurism and peddles its student athletes while the NBA age limit makes a mockery of the entire process.
For plenty of college basketball players, there is not even a pretense of getting a college degree. Kids don't want -- and in many cases don't need -- to be in college.
Orlando Sanchez wants to be in college. NBA scouts who have watched Sanchez practice think he could play in the league. If he wanted to uncomplicate his life, he could have simply gone overseas this year, pocketed a few dollars and thrown his name into the draft.
He didn't. Lavin -- admittedly for selfish reasons -- thought he should stick around. So did his grandmother.
"After I finished talking with coach, I called her,'' Sanchez said. "I told her I thought about leaving. She said, 'Why? No, you stay there and get your diploma. If basketball doesn't work, you have your diploma.'''
To which Lavin nods his head.
"He's the poster child for what you want,'' Lavin said. "He wants to go to college. You just hope that they can look at the whole body of work and just use some common sense and say this kid deserves a chance.''
For the past four months, St. John's, Sanchez and, more recently, Orr have submitted document after document to help explain their position. They collected the death certificate from Sanchez's grandfather and health documents about his grandmother.
In December, Sanchez went home to convince his mother and, in particular, his grandmother to write letters on his behalf. His grandmother was reluctant. He was too. They were being asked to share private and sometimes humiliating details about their dire circumstances.
"She didn't want to do it at first,'' Sanchez said of his grandmother.
But Vargas did, penning a three-page handwritten letter about her circumstances. The letter, written in Spanish, was translated and the translation notarized.
This is how Vargas concludes her letter:
"Our family has placed all faith and hope in the hands of God, so that our Orlandito might become a professional academic, a graduate from a University in the United States. He is [not] merely our pride, but also our hope.''
And now Sanchez hopes the NCAA will understand.