SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The boy had been sleeping in an apartment building hallway. His mother didn’t want him anymore.

“When was the last time you ate a meal?” Helen Ford asked him.

“Three weeks ago,” he said.

She took a breath. As a volunteer at the Cambridge (Mass.) Community Center, she had seen lots of kids. Lots of sad stories. But three weeks? Sleeping in the hallways? In December? He was only 12.

“Young man,” she said, “you are coming home with me.”

That evening the boy ate pork chops, string beans and mashed potatoes, portion after portion, and the next morning he came downstairs and said “Good morning, Mom,” and that was that. Helen and Louis Ford made him one of their own.

We marvel at sports, we celebrate the athletes, and yet today, when Rumeal Robinson takes the floor for Michigan in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament, we will be watching something truly remarkable. His is a tale about love over everything. It is the kind of thing you don’t hear much anymore.

“What did your husband say when you brought home a strange boy and said you wanted to adopt him?” Helen Ford, 44, is asked.

“He said ‘No problem,’ ” she answers.

See what we mean? They were just surviving

How can we ever complain? How can we moan about the cost of designer jeans for our kids, or the high tuition for gymnastics lessons? Helen and Louis Ford, already parents of four, were just surviving on Mr. Ford’s postal worker salary when Rumeal Robinson came into their lives. He was a quiet, Jamaican-born kid who had never known his father.

“His mother just put him out one day,” says Mrs. Ford. “I don’t know why. But children didn’t ask to come into this world. Why should they suffer?”

So the Fords decided to adopt him. His mother was notified. She came to the courtroom asked where to sign, and walked out. No struggle. No resistance. That young Rumeal was not scarred forever by that rejection is testament to the warm embrace of his new home.

Suddenly he had new brothers, and a sister, and family dinners. He spent afternoons behind the house, playing basketball on a make-shift hoop that hung from a tree. There wasn’t a lot of money, but nobody seemed to notice that. And when Rumeal grew into a star player at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, and the recruiters came after him and tried to turn his head, he told them all he wasn’t signing anything until his mother approved.

“He was at the McDonald’s All-American tournament in Detroit, I remember, in the hotel lobby, and I came in and he yelled ‘MOM!’ and then he said to the

men from Michigan, ‘OK. I’m ready now. My mom’s here.’ “

What would have happened to Rumeal Robinson if not for the kindness of strangers? A dropout? A bitter adult? Here were two people who could easily have said, sorry, we have enough problems. Yet they took him in, sent him to school, fed him, clothed him, encouraged his dreams, and never even asked that he change his last name.

Even today, as Rumeal travels around the country, seeing places his parents never will, the Ford house remains so loaded with neighborhood kids that Cambridge people teasingly call it “the high school annex.” Mrs. Ford, who adopted another son — in addition to now five children of her own — laughs that she doesn’t remember how to cook for two anymore, only crowds.

“When was the last time you and your husband had a night alone?”

“Oh, we don’t have any,” she says. “But my husband doesn’t like too much quiet. We like the doorbell ring and the sounds of feet running around.” Not a case of being spoiled

When Rumeal Robinson came to Michigan, there was a problem with his test scores, and under the new Proposition 48, he had to sit out his freshman year. People immediately whispered, “Great. Another pampered athlete with no education.”

And yet Robinson, who suffers a learning disability, didn’t listen to that. He went to class, taped the lectures and played them back in his room, over and over, until he got the words. Today his grades are fine. He’s a starting sophomore guard for the Wolverines, and an excellent player. By everyone’s account, he is also a warm, caring young man, this lonely kid who once slept in a hallway.

You never can tell.

As for Helen and Louis Ford? Well, they’ll be watching the Michigan-Florida game on TV today. They don’t get to travel much. See, there are these twin boys, Ernie and Tyrone, five- year-olds, and they’ve been in foster homes since birth, and the Fords have decided to . . . well, you know.

“I was raised to believe there’s always room for one more at the table,” says Mrs. Ford, who’ll give Rumeal two new brothers this summer. “We’re not rich, by no means, but we have plenty of love. And I figure I’ve been blessed with the children in my life.”

Truth is, it’s the other way around.

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