Forward Orlando Sanchez won't suit up for St. John's this season, but rather than give up on a talented player who turns 25 in May, the school has stepped up efforts to win eligibility for Sanchez for the 2013-14 season by hiring attorney Richard Orr to handle the final appeal to the NCAA.
Speaking to the media Saturday in a conference call arranged by school officials, Orr, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice who has represented several other college athletes in eligibility cases, said the NCAA agreed to allow St. John's to submit new documentation Monday before making a final ruling that he expects in March. Should the NCAA deny Sanchez, Orr held out the possibility of taking the governing body to court.
"I certainly hope it doesn't have to go to court," Orr said. "I have not talked to St. John's or Orlando about a 'what if' scenario . . . I'm optimistic that sound reasoning and good common sense prevails somewhere in the NCAA decision-making process that this young man deserves to play here for St. John's."
Sanchez is a 6-9, 214-pound forward from the Dominican Republic whose schooling and athletic career were interrupted, Orr said, by circumstances beyond his control involving family hardship. He lived with his grandmother before leaving high school and moving to Spain in 2005 to live with his father and earn money as a carpenter to support his grandmother. He returned to the Dominican Republic four years later and finished high school in 2010.
During summer 2009, Sanchez played eight games with an amateur club team that counted as a year of eligibility. NCAA rules say any organized basketball after age 21 counts as a year.
In summer 2010, Sanchez played 3 minutes, 38 seconds in a tournament game with the national team. The NCAA says that brief appearance also counted as one year of eligibility, and that is what St. John's disputes.
Sanchez played two seasons at Monroe Community College in the Bronx, where he was recruited by St. John's coach Steve Lavin. Sanchez has practiced with the Red Storm all season and currently has a 3.48 GPA, according to information provided by St. John's outlining details of the NCAA case.
"Orlando is as gifted a basketball player as I've coached in my career," said Lavin, whose team faces Pitt on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. "He is a very special talent and person. Orlando's personal story is compelling, and the degree of adversity he's overcome will serve to inspire others."
Though the NCAA routinely makes exceptions for older athletes who have served a religious mission or who have enlisted in the armed forces, it regards Sanchez's hardship as a "non-specific event" that is hard to quantify.
"Orlando's situation is unique, but he has done nothing wrong," Orr said. "You want young people to go back to school. Then, when an opportunity presents itself to go to college, he does that and essentially is being penalized because of the circumstances his family has found themselves in."
In a statement released by St. John's, Sanchez said, "I have dreamed of playing NCAA college basketball, and I hope this dream can come true."