(MCT) BALTIMORE − The wristband caught his attention several times throughout a typical day. If he took a shower, the blue silicone bracelet stayed on. When he had basketball practice or a game, he moved it from his wrist to his ankle.
Pictures of red, yellow and blue puzzle pieces surrounded a simple message Jordan Latham read whenever he glanced at his wrist: I love someone with autism.
As the former City center labored through his freshman season at Xavier two years ago, the bracelet kept him connected to home. An identical blue bracelet served the same purpose for Jordan's father, Orlando Latham, as he longed for his family from an Army base in Iraq.
Back in Baltimore, Rhonda (Jordan's mother) wore the same bracelet, as did Joseph Bundy, her teenage nephew who came to live with the Lathams in their West Baltimore home after his mother − Orlando's sister − died in 2007.
And then there was Myles, an affable computer whiz with a love for watching movies and singing in talent shows at his high school in Northeast Baltimore. Myles' yellow bracelet displayed a message different from those worn by the rest of his family members: I have autism.
The close relationship between Jordan, 21, and Myles, 19, was a major reason the elder Latham brother left Xavier a year-and-a-half ago to transfer to Loyola. Jordan's return to Baltimore has benefited the reigning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions − he's the starting center on a Greyhounds team that has matched the best start in program history (9-3) − and most importantly, his family.
"Were you happy when I came home?" Jordan asked Myles during a trip back to his childhood home this month.
"Yes," Myles said confidently, a substantial grin breaking out across his face as Jordan nodded approvingly.
A brain development disorder characterized by struggles in communication, social interaction and repetitive behaviors, autism affects more than 2 million people in the United States alone, including approximately one out of 54 boys. Myles speaks with assurance, but the words come out "in bits and pieces," Jordan said. "He knows what he's talking about, but he can't really say everything like he really tries to."
But for as long as Jordan can remember, the relationship between Myles and him has transcended simple chatter − even during the year when they were 500 miles apart.
The two youngest Latham brothers − Orlando Jr., 32, lives in Beltsville with his wife and two daughters − were inseparable growing up. Jordan would do his best to include Myles in every activity he could. When Myles played baseball at his first school, Jordan would run around the bases with his younger brother after a hit.
"We were real close. Going outside together, dressing up, dressing alike, spending time with each other. This is my biggest fan right here," Jordan said. "Wrestle, play-fight, everything like that. Everything like normal brothers would do."
From a coordination standpoint, Myles was like any other elementary school-aged kid. But the youngest Latham sibling's condition was evident in his struggles to communicate with others. He didn't start speaking until he was 7.
"Some (autistic) kids don't speak at all, not because they have a disability, but because they don't want to talk to adults," Rhonda said. "We used to always ask Jordan when they were by themselves, 'Is Myles talking to you?' He would say no."
As Jordan grew into one of this city's best youth basketball players, Myles became a fixture at Mount Royal and other local gyms. When Jordan's teammates asked about his younger brother, he offered a simple explanation about autism and never had to address it again.
"People I grew up with in AAU, everybody fell in love with him," Jordan said.
Added Rhonda: "All of Jordan's basketball friends, to this day, they know Myles. Everybody knows Myles. Myles has always traveled with us. He probably has been on even more basketball trips than me."
Despite his close relationship with Myles, leaving Baltimore for college was essentially a foregone conclusion for Jordan. The 6-foot-8 center, who Scout.com ranked as a four-star prospect and the No. 94 prospect in the country, had plenty of high-major options heading into his senior season at City. In June 2009, he committed to Xavier over offers from Marquette, Oregon State and Penn State, among others.
After helping the Knights to their second straight Class 2A state championship, Jordan left Baltimore for Cincinnati. But being eight hours away from home quickly proved to be "kind of a challenge" for Jordan. Playing time with the Musketeers was scarce for the freshman, who appeared in just 16 games during the 2010-11 season. And off the court, Jordan missed his younger brother.
"I tried to talk to him sometimes on Skype and on the phone," Jordan said. "It's kind of hard for him to speak his mind or talk like that, but he knows when I'm gone. He came to see me play when I was in Virginia. He was happy to see me there, I could tell. But he knows when I'm away or when I'm not around.
"I have a bond with him. And not seeing him every day or hearing (his) voice or just hanging out with (him), not being there, it was hard."
At St. Elizabeth School near Morgan State, Myles is surrounded each day by other special-needs students, ranging in age from 6 to 21. He has starred at school talent shows, including the time his rendition of "My Girl" by The Temptations elicited "buckets" of tears from his proud mother. At home, Myles works with computers and watches videos, displaying an uncanny knack for rewinding any particular film "right to the part he likes word for word," Rhonda said. Between school and home, the Lathams have cultivated a welcoming, routine environment for their youngest son.
But the same week Jordan left for Xavier, Orlando − a logistics management specialist based out of Fort Belvoir near Springfield, Va. − was deployed to Iraq on a six-month tour, leaving Rhonda to take care of Myles and Joseph by herself. The sudden absences of Orlando and Jordan took some getting used to, but thanks to regular Skype sessions with his father and brother, Myles handled the change well.
"Kids with autism have to be on a regular routine. Most of the time if they are not, they kind of get out of whack, to say the least," Rhonda said. "(But) I don't think there was any effect (on Myles) at all. I tried to make it as normal as possible. Even though Orlando wasn't here, he still had one of us. We just went on with our normal routine."
Jordan, however, conceded that it was "rough being away from home" knowing that his mother was taking on so much extra responsibility. The phone calls with Myles were nice, but they were no substitute for face-to-face interaction.
"After you've been with a sibling that has a disability, it's like you don't want to leave them. You want to make sure you're always around," Rhonda said. "Every step of the way with Myles' progress, Jordan has been around there as well, even when they were small. We've always kept him in the loop. With him not being around, he didn't know what was really going on with Myles unless we explained it to him."
Jordan finally decided near the end of his freshman season that he would leave Xavier for a school closer to home. He focused his search on Division I programs in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. Back in Baltimore, Jimmy Patsos began formulating a recruiting plan to land Jordan.
By the time Jordan narrowed his list of potential transfer destinations to Delaware, Loyola and Towson, the Greyhounds had received a letter of intent from St. Frances point guard R.J. Williams (a former Amateur Athletic Union teammate of Jordan's) and received major contributions from another former Baltimore high school star in Cardinal Gibbons graduate Dylon Cormier. Patsos sold Jordan on location, playing with other local stars, and joining a program on the precipice of contending for a MAAC title.
With Shane Walker at center and Erik Etherly at power forward, a starting position was out of the question. Jordan could have taken a redshirt year and waited his turn, but instead lobbied for an NCAA waiver to play right away.
"He said, 'Hey Coach, we could win (the MAAC) this year. I could help. I want to play,'" Patsos recalled. "I said, 'Are you sure you want to give up a year? Shane is starting and Erik is starting. They transferred and earned their spots.' (He said), 'I don't care. I'm about the team. I want to win.' It's rare to have a kid walk in and say, 'I'll sacrifice for the team.'"
Said Jordan: "I was fine doing whatever. Jimmy gave me a second opportunity to show my talent. He believed in me. I wasn't trying to be too cocky or overconfident, but I knew that we could win (the MAAC) last year. So I did everything I could last year, whether it was playing 'D' or getting five minutes, 15 minutes, it didn't matter as long as we could win."
With Etherly and Walker getting most of the time at the 4 and 5, Latham played a supporting role with 12.2 minutes per game. His numbers were modest − 1.8 points per game, 1.9 rebounds _−but his contributions to the Greyhounds' first NCAA tournament team since 1994 were impossible for Patsos to ignore.
"We don't win it last year without him," the coach said. "He was great for us off the bench the last six weeks of the season."
For almost every moment of Loyola's memorable 2011-12 season, Myles was there, happily resuming his role as Jordan's biggest supporter.
"Once he puts on that Loyola shirt, he knows where he's going. He knows he's going to a basketball game," Rhonda said. "He enjoys his brother. They enjoy each other. The love there is just crazy. It's just there. I know that when Jordan wasn't around, as soon as I said Jordan's name to him, you kind of saw a little twinkle in his eye. You could just tell (he was thinking), 'I'm happy to see my brother.'"
If you go to a Loyola game this season, chances are you'll see a vocal contingent of Latham supporters sitting across from the Greyhounds' bench midway up the bleachers. There's Orlando, a former Poly star who played at Division II Cheyney (Pa.) University; Rhonda, a senior customer representative with FedEx who grew up in East Baltimore around Muggsy Bogues and other early 1980s Dunbar stars; Joseph, a student at the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Hampden and now devoted Greyhounds supporter; and Myles, likely sporting a Loyola sweatshirt loosely fitting over his solid 6-foot-2 frame, cheering on his big brother.
"He's into the game," Orlando said of Myles. "He watches the entire game. He knows when Jordan makes a basket or gets a rebound, makes a big block or something like that."
The Latham family has been together for every one of Jordan's home games since Orlando returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq last December. The Lathams even made the trip up to Pittsburgh for Loyola's NCAA tournament game against Ohio State.
"You like to see Jordan play basketball?" Orlando asked Myles.
"Yes," Myles replied immediately.
Communication remains the biggest hurdle for Myles in living a normal life. After Myles turns 21 and finishes high school, Rhonda expects her son to find work at another school for special-needs children or a store like Wal-Mart, where he can work in a stock room and have contact with just a few people. She's hopeful that he'll one day be able to live on his own.
Jordan, meanwhile, is averaging 4.1 points and 3.5 rebounds in 20 minutes per game for the Greyhounds. The junior visits his family's home at least once a week during the school year. He'll ask Myles for updates on his schooling, and then the brothers and Joseph will often settle in for a movie − "Shrek" and "The Lion King" are among Myles' favorites. Patsos has given Jordan "carte blanche" to spend time with his family whenever he'd like.
It's a welcome change in lifestyle for Jordan compared with his freshman year at Xavier, where he would glance at that blue bracelet, "think about autism or kids with conditions" and make plans for a career in special education. A sociology major at Loyola, Jordan still plans to work with children after his playing career is done.
"Anything dealing with my brother," Jordan said. "He gives me hope each and every day."
(c)2012 The Baltimore Sun
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