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Joaquim Cruz Sr. had sacrificed his health simply so his children could survive. Sensing that, his son always wanted to go beyond survival, beyond a life of subsistence. "My earliest memories are of trying to make my own toys," he says. "There was no money to buy them. Food came first and, after that, maybe shoes. But I remember finding broken toy cars and trying to fix them and wishing just once I could have a new one. But I always knew why I couldn't." He was adrift, in that precarious state where wants pulled him one way and reality another, until he felt he was going to come apart.
When Joaquim was 11, he was enrolled at SESI-D.N., a school for sports that was partly financed by the company his father worked for. Its appeal was instant and profound. "I liked it. It was nice. I had a future there."
The basketball coach was a loquacious, almost peremptorily earnest man of 24, Luiz de Oliveira, who was from Araraquara, in S�o Paulo state. A fine soccer player, quick and agile and tough, de Oliveira, the son of a railroad engineer, had had to decide between soccer and college. He chose college. He was also smart.
De Oliveira had studied the teaching of basketball, soccer and track at the University of San Carlos, spending a year on each and excelling in courses on scientific training methods. He'd worked at the YMCA in S�o Paulo for a couple of years before going to Brasilia.
"I always had luck," de Oliveira says. "I was invited. SESI-D.N. needed people to start programs for kids."
And so his gaze came to rest upon Joaquim Cruz. "He asked me to play basketball," says Cruz, "because I was a little bit tall and skinny. I have a picture that proves how skinny I was, but it's still hard to believe."
When Joaquim was 12, his team traveled to a basketball tournament in Cear�, in the north. "And," he says, "I'd never believed such a thing could happen—we flew on a plane. And we didn't have to pay for anything." One can imagine the wide eyes of the boy as the endless, variegated greens of the Amazon jungle passed below. Those eyes are the same today, looking out at the world with a sense of inestimable privilege.
"I got excited on that trip. After that, sometimes I'd just go run, to stay in basketball shape. I started thinking I could make my career in it."
Two years later, he entered a new school. There was a track meet coming up, and a friend who had seen Joaquim run in basketball practice started bending the track coach's ear about this guy who could win the 1,500 meters. Joaquim himself said nothing, of course, and tried to gag his friend. But the coach spoke to de Oliveira about it. "And Luiz came to me and said, 'Let's just see how fast you can do 1,500,' " recalls Cruz. After an hour of working out, he ran 4:45.
Three weeks later, in his school race, Joaquim ran 4:19, the equivalent of a 4:39 mile. "I won and thought it was over. But that qualified me for the Brazilian student championships. I told Luiz I didn't want to go."