With his father in and out of jail and drug wars all around him that took the lives of friends and other family members, Luis Colon understood despair growing up in rural Carolina, Puerto Rico.
Sometimes, they had nothing to eat, he said, as money got misused “for whatever reason” in his home.
So the pre-teen boy might go to a local store and volunteer to pack groceries, desperate for a tip.
“At some points in my life, I felt like I had no hope,” he said. “Then basketball came along, and it was kind of like my coping skill for all my anxieties … basketball was my outlet, my escape.”
For that matter, basketball was “my hero,” and for a long and meaningful time it loved him back.
It was his pathway to Florida for high school and then to Kansas State, where the 6-foot-10 Colon was a bruising part of K-State’s Elite Eight run in 2010.
Then he went on to play internationally, including in Uruguay and Venezuela, before his course abruptly collapsed.
A back injury he initially suffered in his last Big 12 Tournament and tried to shrug off later degenerated.
By the time it got properly diagnosed, he required surgery that his last pro team wouldn’t pay for because, well, the team wasn’t paying him what he was due anyway and it was a pre-existing condition.
Poof, he was done with basketball before he was 25 years old, in itself leading to a depressing “very dark place in my life” that in late 2013 somehow took a turn for the worse.
Masked men broke into the Fort Lauderdale rental home he shared with Elyse Ehlers, then his fiancée and now his wife.
Colon woke up with a pistol to his head, he said.
When he saw the invaders hit Elyse and tried to defend her, he was pistol-whipped and ended up tied up with a pillow case over his face as the young couple was robbed of “pretty much everything” — including their peace of mind.
Before the couple escaped by jumping from a second-floor balcony, Colon believed they might be killed. He underwent surgery for brutal damage around his nose, and he needed counseling for what he called post-traumatic stress disorder.
To this day, he keeps a picture on his phone of himself in the hospital.
“To remind me where I was a few years back (and) where life takes me,” he said. “It was a tragic moment, but we can always bounce back, right?”
All of which goes a long way toward explaining the lower-profile and more substantial life the reborn Colon leads today:
Again finding light amid despair, he’s in his first few months in a newly created position as a youth case worker in Kansas City’s Northeast at Sheffield Place, whose mission is “to empower homeless mothers and their children to heal from their trauma and help them become self-sufficient.”
“That’s my main thing, creating hope,” he said, later adding, “It’s plain and simple the reason it means so much to me. (Because) I empathize with it.”
That was among the prevailing initial impressions to the staff and executive director Kelly Welch, who knew nothing of Colon’s basketball background before the interview and is pretty certain there’s no mention of it on his resume.
What stood out in Colon, who most recently had been working in behavioral and mental health services at PACES in Wyandotte County, was his earnest demeanor, ideas and life experiences.
As the interview went on, she felt the energy in the room soaring with Colon, 31. Among the things she remembered him talking about was the conviction with which he could address children.
“I can say to them, ‘I get where you are, I was in the same place you are,'" she recalled him saying. "'And if I can do it, if I can get where I am, you can do this.'"
When she thinks about who Colon is now, the strength in his humility and what he brings to Sheffield Place, she adds, “He’s not one of those people who’s living in his past.”
So there are thought-provoking points in all this for about anyone — but particularly for the young who might feel sports is their only route to a prosperous life and be tempted to neglect the pesky practicality of school.
No doubt basketball was crucial for Colon, who is happy to report that his father’s life has stabilized, and helped make him who he is.
But as much as he relished the game and hoped it would be his livelihood, Colon always was about more than just the game.
His mother, Madeline Rivera, encouraged him to go to Florida less to follow his basketball ambitions than to learn English and get an education, and he embraced her words.
“The most powerful thing is wisdom,” he remembers being told by the woman he has called his greatest love and greatest influence. “Nothing beats wisdom. The more you know, the better you are, (the) more power to you.”
So even as he basked in playing at Kansas State, he kept perspective.
Colon took his studies seriously there, he said, and earned his degree in criminology and would put his English up with anybody’s now.
Meanwhile, he was uncomfortable with some of the celebrity status, wondering why people would, say, send free shots to him at a bar just because he was on the team.
“I never really liked that,” Colon said.
Which was different from how he felt about the way K-State fans reacted to a gofundme.com page a friend set up after the home invasion just before Christmas in 2013.
Stunning the friend, almost 250 people contributed nearly $11,000 in a 24-hour span.
“I guess he didn’t know about the K-State nation,” said Colon, adding that the gesture left him with tears in his eyes because it allowed them to recover most of the material things they’d lost.
So when his basketball dreams ended, the attached anguish wasn’t so much about potential lost income as it was about missing the joy of the game.
“I have a lot of friends who are rich, and I’m not going to say that they’re happier than I am, honestly,” he said, noting the different sort of stress that can come with wealth and adding, “The more you have, the more you have to lose. …
“I learned the lesson of money.”
That outlook freed him to know his true priority after basketball and the most recent of his hardships — finding fulfillment in helping others.
So he began coaching some AAU ball in Florida, where witnessing first-hand the chaos of a player being whirled around the foster-care system led him to volunteer work and eventually to working as a case manager for Henderson Behavioral Health and ChildNet in Florida.
The more he spent time with kids who’d been “abused, neglected and abandoned” or even endured human trafficking, the more their needs resonated with him.
And he’s only built on it since the couple and their infant son, Luis Jr., returned to the area last year to be closer to the family of Elyse, an Olathe native who works as a recruiter for Creative Circle.
“Every day’s a different day,” Colon said. “You never know what’s going to happen, what challenges (you’ll) face.”
The demands of Colon's job are numerous and often intense, from direct counseling to group sessions, from playing games with children who often are in trauma to making sure their vaccinations are up to date, from advocating for them in school to helping them learn proper hygiene, from breathing exercises to life skills …
And then some, from someone Welch sees as a self-starter who is already helping create new programs and partnerships with other organizations and who is involved in, well, other forms of outreach.
“If anybody wants to help, go to our website (sheffieldplace.org),” he said. “We always need stuff to help our families.”
It’s the sort of work that turned out to be the help he needed, too, when basketball turned out only to be a portal instead of a destination and after the cruelty of the world struck that night in 2013.
“It’s real life, it’s the real world,” he said. “Basketball is fun, it inspired me, it was my coping skill. But at the end of the day, it’s a game.”
This is something a whole lot more.
To be “able to be that inspiration that I was always looking for as a child … it really fills me with joy,” said Colon, later adding, “I feel like I kind of save lives sometimes."
Starting with his own.