I met Juan Bernal in the fall of 2004 when I arrived at Winter Park High School with Matt Hixenbaugh. We had just taken over the basketball program and in doing so, had inherited Juan as manager.
He was a senior and at first glance a tough guy to figure. He duly appeared at all open gyms, and was known to rebound for anyone on the team willing to get extra shots up. He walked with a distinctive swagger and fashioned a loose blown-out, latin-flavored quasi-afro. He took himself quite seriously, and was simultaneously a source of comedy. He literally knew everyone or at least about everyone in the Orlando basketball scene. Unlike most managers I have been around, he did not ostensibly view himself as a basketball player. There were rumors that he occaisionally won money at local parks in one on one showdowns, but he almost never played in open gym. He had carved a completely distinctive role as manager.
Thus imagine our surprise when Juan did not come to the first day of try-outs. A lively affair that featured 70 players and unprecedented unintentional comedy. After locking up the gym, Hix and I were leaving campus when we saw Juan walking the campus at 9pm. Juan explained that he avoided try-outs because it was “too painful” not to play, but that he would be good to go the following day. And he was.
Juan was an epic manager. He produced stats in chicken-scratched handwriting and created the vaguely homo-erotic turnover rule “the recipient gets screwed” (referring of course to the fact the turnover should be credited to a pass reciever who mishandles and otherwise catchable pass). He rebounded and passed anywhere, anytime. He was a liason between the players and coaching staff. He discoverd Ken the Camera Guy, now known as KTA. He fell victim to the immortal spinning top drill to improve defensive equilibrium prank, and when we came up six points short in a regional semi-final, no one was more devastated.
Juan managed for four years at Rollins College and graduated with a degree. He has worked clocks, scorebooks and camps in every gym in greater Orlando. He has coached in high school for three seasons now, and is founder and head coach of Pedro’s Posse in the Orlando Pro-Am league. He has worked the phones, found sponsors and hustled to keep the Posse together. Champions in 2009, turbulent in 2010 and bitter runner-ups in 2011.
He has traveled the area, the state, and the nation keeping in touch with friends. There is a similar phenomenon that takes place along the way. Upon first meeting him, people don’t get it. They look at you with strange faces, “what’s with this guy?” Then with continued exposure they are exchanging numbers, twitter and facebook info, and they are forever a “friend of Juan”.
A few months ago, Juan made a trip to St. Louis to visit with Hixenbaugh. One morning during the trip, I checked my facebook to find someone had posted an album entitled “photos of juan”. The album featured a series of g-rated Hangover style pics taken in an ostensibly upscale bar with Juan, Hix and a couple of middle-aged women laughing hysterically. The women clearly intoxicated, Juan stone-cold sober, but in the mix as always.
Juan is an original, and a genius at being him. He is the same whether he is talking to a millionaire nba player during a pro-am game, or six year old Rollins camper. He is as loyal as the day is long. If I had to have anyone bear witness to me committing a homicide, I would choose Juan and he wouldn’t rat. I have not known Juan to refuse to help a friend in need if humanly possible. He was instrumental in getting this blog off the ground during a few phone calls late at night. He has delivered unforgetable speaches at wedding rehearsal dinners. When I reflect on my experiences in basketball beyond the wins and losses it is as about meeting an original like Juan Bernal: 407 Hood Legend.