From a corner of The J’s basketball court, during a pickup shirts-skins game, Lansana Lapia drove for the boards, his eyes fixed on the net and a sure two points.
At the last second, though, without ever taking his eyes off the hoop, the 5-foot-8 point guard, originally from Sierra Leone, passed the ball behind his back to a waiting teammate who took the shot.
Sweet play for a young man who, as a kid, came close to losing his left leg in the blood diamond civil war that consumed his homeland. But more on that later.
Back on the court, Lapia, playing the game he loves, got back on defense right away, occasionally flashing a grin at the other players — shirt and skin alike.
That’s what impresses Dr. Ian Zlotolow most about his son.
“He fits in any place,” the 72-year-old retired dentist and expert on facial prosthetics said. “No matter where we go, he fits in.”
Now, Zlotolow, who grew up in Louisville, playing hoops on the same court as Lapia, hopes his adopted son will fit in here. They moved back less than five weeks ago looking for a safe community in which to live.
Zlotolow feels nostalgic about Louisville. A Highlands native, he said boys his age used to call the then-JCC “home.” Outside the center, his parents, like many Jews, ran a store on Market Street (wholesale), and he attended Adath Israel.
But he never imagined he would someday adopt a Muslim boy from West Africa – a story that would generate national headlines – and bring him to Kentucky to live.
But he did, and Lapia has changed his life.
The story started in 2002. Zlotolow was the head of dental service in the Department of Surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, but through a foundation he co-founded, he also visited war zones around the globe, building prosthetics for war victims who had lost ears, noses or jaws.
That’s why he traveled to Sierra Leone that year, and how he met Lapia in a hospital.
The boy was 8 at the time (he thinks), His mother had been murdered in the war and his siblings were taken away to be child soldiers. As for Lapia, a snake had bitten his leg. Doctors were preparing to amputate it above the knee, leaving him a cripple for life.
Zlotolow, who quickly felt a connection to Lapia, wouldn’t have that. He obtained a medical visa to bring him to New York. There, he underwent a series of operations that saved his leg.
But the story didn’t end there. Zlotolow walked away from his position at Memorial Sloan-Kettering to spend more time with Lapia. They moved to the East Bay of northern California where he went into private practice and taught.
And the Jewish man from Louisville adopted the Muslim child from Africa. They have been inseparable ever since.
It wasn’t long before The New York Times picked up their story. Father and son were also featured in a segment on ABC’s 20/20.
Not everyone has understood the connection between the two. One of Zlotolow’s colleagues even called it “irrational,” though other friends weremore supportive.
Likewise, Lapia has often wondered where he fits in here in an America that is still largely divided along color lines.
Nevertheless, Lapia, now 24, has thrived in his new country. Bright and eager to learn, his father boasted that he learned to play chess in one week as a boy, and he picked up English in no time.
He also writes poetry – with a rapper’s rhythm.
But his passion, to put it mildly, is basketball. After his father showed him how to use the remote one night in their Greenwich Village apartment, Lapia found a Lakers-Spurs game on TV.
“I just remember watching that and saying, ‘I can do that,’” Lapia recalled.
And he did. He began playing pickup games in Manhattan. Dad signed him up him for sports camps. When they moved to California, Lapia played in high school.
“I just love to compete,” he said.
He also briefly attended Marist University and tried out for the basketball team.
Here in Louisville, Lapia hopes to return to school. He has an idea for becoming a trainer, helping people to get the most from themselves – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Clearly, he has some experience doing all three.
More than anything, though, Lapia wants to coach basketball. Doctors back in New York may have saved his leg, but he understands that it probably won’t hold up for long playing at the level he expects from himself.
Coaching, he said, is a way to stay connected to the game.
“I love teaching what I’ve picked up,” Lapia said. “I want to give it to another who wants to develop his game. I want to see that talent come out.”
Zlotolow, like any father, just wants to see his son happy.
“I just want my kid to grow up and not feel inferior – to be a solid contributor,” he said. “He needs a break.”
(Lee Chottiner is the interim editor of Community.)