ODU Athletics

Minium: It was Pretty Emotional Seeing Ronnie Valentine Again 16 Months After We Found Him in Miami

November 07, 2019
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

MIAMI, Fla.

Last Saturday was the first time I’d seen Ronnie Valentine since Wes Lockard and I found him nearly a year and a half ago.

Ronnie was homeless for nearly three decades, and for about 15 years, no one from Old Dominion University had seen nor heard from the school’s career leading basketball scorer. Many wondered whether he was dead.

With the help of the Camillus House Catholic charity, we found Ronnie living in Miami’s notorious Liberty City neighborhood in a one-bedroom apartment. He'd been off the streets for months, but was clearly not out of trouble.

Virginian-Pilot story about our search for Ronnie Valentine

The story of his recovery since has been steady but slow. It may take him years to completely recover, and that's understandable given the hurdles Ronnie still has to overcome.

I spent the first half of ODU’s football game at Florida International talking with Ronnie. And while he looks better and sounds better than he did when we found him in July of 2018, he’s not well yet.

Certainly not well enough to come home.

Seeing Ronnie Valentine again was a great experience. 

It was emotional to see Ronnie again. He was my favorite basketball player when I attended ODU and the search to find him in 2018 was preceded by a month of making phone calls to South Florida and hours of trying to find traces of him on the Internet. I was so elated when we found him on my third and last day in Miami and grateful that he agreed to allow me to write about him.

We didn’t save Ronnie from homelessness. That was done by the Camillus House, which followed him and tried to serve his needs for years and finally convinced him to come off the streets.

But the ODU alums and friends who have since stepped up to help Ronnie may have kept him from going back onto the streets. 

Ronnie spent nearly half of his life homeless in downtown Miami. When he went to supportive housing in 2018, it was as if he'd been placed in a time machine that propelled him decades into the future.

He did not know how digital our civilization had become and had never heard of Netflix, Hulu or wireless Internet. He'd never heard of social media and had never held a cell phone. He now has a cell phone, courtesy of his friends at ODU, but still can't quite grasp how to text.

As counselors told me, homelessness can become an addiction, and once rescued, if you get lonely enough or discouraged enough, you might go back.

Imagine living half of your life with no TV or radio, fending for food while living with hundreds of other homeless people around you, boiling in the heat and humidity of Miami, not showering for weeks at a time, wondering at any time if you're going to get robbed or stabbed and sometimes going without food for days while being verbally abused by people in the neighborhoods who just want the homeless to go away.

Wes said he recently drove Ronnie around the downtown area where Ronnie once lived. He recognized a few people and said hi to them. It was, Wes said, an emotional experience for Ronnie.

Hopefully, it gave him perspective of how far he's come and how life is now so much better.

Both Wes and former ODU player Reese Neyland and former women's basketball star Nancy Lieberman offered him a place to live and to put him in drug rehab in the 1990s. He turned each offer down. It took long hours of counseling from the Camillus House to finally get him off the streets.

Once Ronnie was found, Wes took the lead in taking care of him. The former Miami Heat mascot is an ODU graduate who is close to a lot of Monarchs athletes from the 1970’s. He’s also become my dear friend.

Karlton Hilton, Big Blue, Ronnie Valentine and Stephanie Field, with Wes Lockard lurking in the back. 

Neyland and former players Tommy Conrad, Ronnie McAdoo and others have provided and coordinated financial aid for Ronnie.

Wes and former Maury High star Karlton Hilton, who lives in the Miami area, have provided Ronnie with help getting to appointments when he needs it. They’ve hosted him in their homes and, in essence, made Ronnie a part of their families.

So has Stephanie Field, a Norfolk native who was a ODU cheerleader when Ronnie played. She has traveled with Wes to see Ronnie and was there last Saturday when Ronnie and I met at the FIU game.

Wes and Karlton have taken him to NBA and Major League Baseball games, out to shop, out to lunch and dinner. So has Lieberman. Karlton worked diligently to help get Ronnie on Medicaid and get him signed up for Social Security. Field visited him recently with her scrapbook from her days at ODU, sharing with him stories written about him long ago. 

In other words, he hasn’t had the chance to be lonely.

“People don’t understand how close we all were at ODU back in the 1970s,” Field said. “The campus was smaller and there were about 2,000 students living on campus.

“All of us on campus were active in student activities. The cheerleaders and basketball players were very close. We all loved each other and still do.

“We’re like family.”

Stephanie Field hugs Ronnie Valentine last week at FIU. 

When Ronnie arrived at FIU, she hugged him like you would your child or significant other.

There's a link of text messages between about a dozen ODU grads who help Ronnie, and a text from Conrad, the feisty former point guard, rang true with that I've seen: "Funny, most people really don't understand the friendship and teamwork that we have even 40 years later."

I went to dinner the previous night in Miami Beach with Dr. Bradley Butkovich, ODU’s orthopedic surgeon; ODU football athletic trainer Justin Walker and assistant athletic trainer Angela Moening.

Dr. Brad, as I called Dr. Butkovich, is a great guy. He bought us dinner, a sumptuous feast at a Cuba restaurant in which Gloria Estefan has an ownership interest, along with two pitchers of drinks. We had a fine time as we walked the streets of South Beach for hours and watched the beautiful people stroll by.

My mind wandered at times to the hundreds of homeless people I’d seen camped under Interstate 95 just a few miles away in the summer of 2018. I wondered what the homeless would think of the opulence we were enjoying.

Much like California, Miami has a lot of very rich and very poor people. The income inequality there is nothing like we have in Hampton Roads.

I had a great night and yet felt a little guilty for it. 

The game began at noon the next day, and by then temperatures and humidity were in the high 80s. I spent the first half with my friends, and for the first time, got a chance to have a genuine conversation with Ronnie, meaning it wasn’t an interview.

We sat, watched the game and talked and it was pretty awesome.

Ronnie doesn’t like to start a conversation, but once you get into it so does he. He especially enjoys reminiscing about old times. Police officers Wes talked to said Ronnie liked to do that when he was homeless. He would tell tales of his days at ODU and many would shake their heads in disbelief.

If only they knew the truth, that at one time Ronnie was a superstar.

Wes Lockard with ODU ticket manager Ryan Parrish last week in Miami. 

Ronnie says he will never forget ODU’s 80-58 victory at Georgetown in 1977 for the ECAC South championship. It was a huge upset, and was even sweeter, Ronnie said, because of what legendary coach John Thompson told the Washington Post before the game.

When asked if he was worried about ODU, he said no. When asked if he was concerned about being the victim of an upset, he replied: “I said I’m not worried.”

“He was convinced they were going to crush us,” Valentine said. “When we won, everyone in (McDonough Hall) was stunned.”

Except, of course, for several thousand Monarch fans who turned the arena into an ODU pep rally.

“I think that’s the game that really put ODU on the map,” Valentine said. “That's when people started paying attention to ODU.

"I’ll never forget it.”

Valentine, then a freshman, dropped 38 points on the Hoyas. Thompson, along with coaches at many ACC teams, had unsuccessfully tried to recruit him away from ODU coach Paul Webb. Ronnie said his relationship with Paul Webb is why he went to ODU.

Ronnie led ODU to its first Division I NCAA tournament and twice to the NIT.

Valentine spent a year with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets before heading to play for a decade with teams in Europe and Latin and South America.

His greatest joy in the NBA, he says, was playing in Madison Square Garden. “That’s the place where you grow up watching NBA games played,” he said. “Playing there and in Boston Garden, those were special games for me.”

He talked a little about his childhood growing up in Norfolk. He was a youth football player and also played football briefly at Norfolk Catholic, where he was a two-time All-Tidewater basketball selection.

“I liked playing football,” he said.

Some ODU fans in Miami recognized Ronnie Valentine.

But when Catholic basketball coach Ed Fraim heard Ronnie was playing football, his career ended abruptly.

“Coach put an end to that” within a week, Ronnie said laughing.

Ronnie knew about ODU football years ago. He read newspapers and followed their scores as best as he could.

“We’ve got a good defense,” he said during the first half. “But we need to score touchdowns.”

All true.

Karlton says Ronnie’s ailments include lesions on his lungs that resulted from so many years on the streets. Ronnie also suffers from acid reflux. Medicaid regulations are sometimes difficult to deal with, and there have been delays in getting him properly diagnosed and treated.

“We’re working through that,” Karlton said. “What’s going on with his lungs is difficult. It makes him feel like he has COPD.”

Wes and Karlton have been trying to get Ronnie’s apartment hooked up for cable TV.

“Sports has been Ronnie’s life,” Karlton said. “He would get so much enjoyment from watching ESPN.”

Apparently a previous tenant in the apartment left an unpaid bill and that’s being pinned on Ronnie.

Karlton and Wes have become adept in wading through bureaucracies and they'll eventually get ESPN for Ronnie.

At halftime, I had to leave. I didn't want to. I would have rather spent time with my ODU friends in South Florida, but work beckoned in the press box.

“Tell everyone that I appreciate all that they’ve done,” Valentine said of people who’ve sent him letters and money.

I gave them all bear hugs, and headed upstairs. Fortunately, it was a long walk

By the time I got there, I had regained my composure and wiped the tears from my eyes.

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu

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