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Sunday, November 10, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`He's A Fighter': Hazzard Battles Back From Stroke

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES - Walt Hazzard wants to go back to work for the Los Angeles Lakers, doing West Coast scouting again, doing community relations in his dual role as special administrative assistant. Doing whatever.

But he moves slowly and walks with the help of a cane. He still struggles to speak and is so self-conscious about making a mistake that he used only two phrases, sparingly, during a recent visit - "Yeah" and "Oh, yeah," - although Jalal Hazzard said his father will go to therapy and ramble, same when he's talking to a friend. He tires quickly. His right side is especially weak.

Work looks like a long shot. Even a day he once considered average looks like a long shot.

Or maybe not. A stroke he suffered in late March nearly killed him, but he has already come much further than anyone had a right to expect, able to be self-sufficient in many ways. So why settle simply for surviving?

"From the very, very beginning, he was pretty beat up," said his wife, Jaleesa. "But he had a good attitude. He's strong. That's what everybody has said - `He's a fighter. He's strong. He's tough.' And I've seen that come out of him. That toughness."

Hazzard was 32 years removed from starting at guard on UCLA's first national-championship team, 22 years after a 10-year NBA career that included three seasons with the Lakers and an all-star selection, and nine years after being named Pacific 10 Conference coach of the year for leading the Bruins to a 25-7 record. Hazzard, about two weeks shy of his 54th birthday, got up to go to the bathroom about 5 a.m. He returned and settled back into bed.

"Something didn't seem right," Jaleesa said.

She asked her husband if everything was all right. He didn't answer.

"I realized something had happened," she said.

The kids were awakened, 911 called. Walt had suffered a stroke, later found to have been caused when an infection weakened a heart valve and threw an embolism. Doctors prepared the family - Jaleesa and their kids Yakub, Jalal, Khalil and Rasheed - for the possibility he might not survive. Friends who visited at the UCLA Medical Center painted a grim picture.

It didn't look good.

"We just sort of hung in there," Jaleesa said. "And he did too."

Progress came. So did the support. UCLA responded in waves: John Wooden, Mike Warren, trainer Tony Spino, Athletic Director Pete Dalis. Cards, flowers, calls.

And the Lakers?

"They've been what I always thought the Lakers were," Jaleesa said. "Extremely generous."

Not just because they signed Hazzard to a two-year contract extension shortly before training camp, even though no one can say whether he will work again. Executive Vice President Jerry West, General Manager Mitch Kupchak, Coach Del Harris and Mark Scoggins, the executive vice president of California Sports Marketing, all have shown their concern.

There have been others, from near and far. A summer dinner to raise money for the Los Angeles Sports Academy, Hazzard's foundation to help kids, and to deliver another emotional boost for Hazzard himself, drew more big names. Los Angeles Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor. Jamaal Wilkes. Agent Fred Slaughter, also a former Bruin player. Cazzie Russell. Wali Jones, a friend for years and now vice president of community relations for the Miami Heat.

It helped keep the fire burning. Good thing. This beating-death thing takes it out of a guy.

"Get frustrated sometimes, honey?" Jaleesa says to her husband.

"Oh, yeah," Walt responds, cracking a smile.

They are together again at the family home in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. Family members come in and out. Friends come in and out. People call wondering when it would be OK to come by and see Walt, trying to tread lightly because they don't want to disturb him. Jaleesa laughs and says the trick is to find when Walt is sitting at home with enough free time to visit.

They go out to eat, to the movies. Of course, they're also regularly driving him to therapy, five days a week. These days, the physical aspect consists of his walking the treadmill with the help of a harness, allowing his feet to touch the ground but not bear his full weight. The speech part, once limited to counting and naming the days of the week and repeating words, now is about talking in sentences, raspy voice and all.

The emotional side?

Home therapy.

"We've found we have a huge family support," Jaleesa said. "We have our family and then we have the people who think they're our family.

"It's just a matter of seeing what we get. It's just a building process. I don't think anybody right now knows what he will or will not be able to do.

"My personal feeling? I think he'll get most everything back. Maybe he'll even get a better golf swing. Our attitude is that he'll recover. Definitely recover enough to do all the things he wants to do."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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