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“If you’re not going to do it, just go home,” Nyblom yelled as roughly thirty kids labored through push-ups on the old gym floor.
It was the first day of practice and Nyblom was wearing a dark blue short-sleeve shirt with “Hope” stitched over a pocket in white letters, baggy tan shorts, and white sneakers. Overhead, fifteen small blue-and-white banners hung from the ceiling, rectangular tributes to past glories. The walls of the gym were tan brick. There were five rows of dark blue bleachers on one side, and three on the other. A small American flag hung in one corner. Twelve large Palladium windows, six on each side, let in the winter light. One side of the gym looked out over a small courtyard in the middle of the school. The other side looked out to an athletic field in the back, and an affluent neighborhood across the street from the field, one of the oldest in Providence, dating back to the nineteenth century. The basketball court was old, worn by decades of kids running across it. The gym was showing its age, like some dowager who can’t hide the years no matter what she does.
“That will get you a ticket right out of here,” Nyblom said again in his big, loud voice as one kid threw up a ridiculous shot. “This isn’t the playground.”
But it sure seemed like it.
My last time in this gym had been in December 1961. I was a junior then, playing for a small suburban high school ten miles to the south. Hope was a city school that had won the state title the year before and had played in the New England Tournament in the old Boston Garden where the Celtics ruled, and on that long-ago winter night Hope beat us, one of only three losses the entire season. Even then, though, the gym was small and everything seemed old, and Kennedy was in the White House and no one had heard of the Beatles, never mind rap.
But if I hadn’t been in the gym in over fifty years, I had driven by Hope countless times. I had played basketball at Brown University in the ’60s, and Hope is only a few hundred yards away from the seventh oldest college in the country. Across Hope Street from the school is Moses Brown, a private school that’s been in existence since 1819. Less than a mile away is the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, which attracts students from all over the world. In front of that school is Benefit Street, the most historic street in Providence, which dates back to the seventeenth century and is now a historic landmark. Hope is on Providence’s East Side, the oldest part of the city, an area rich in history that goes back to the beginnings of the country and the beginnings of Providence, an area now lined with million-dollar homes.
Hope was part of my history too, even if indirectly.
My father had played football for Hope back in the early ’30s, when it was called Hope Street High School, an old red-brick school located across the street from where it is now; it had first opened in 1898. I have many friends who went to Hope back in the early ’60s when it was a melting pot of sorts, full of kids who continued on to college and professional lives and remembered Hope fondly, seeing it as a pathway to success.
But I had seen it change, too. Through the years I had written a few columns on athletes from Hope. One was on a great runner, and we stood in a dirty locker room where too many locker doors were broken, hanging from their hinges. Another time, the football coach said his biggest problem was getting his kids to come to school five days in a row, his rule for who was eligible to play on Saturday. And just a few years ago, I had talked to a Hope football player who had lost one of his closest friends to gang violence, which has become an epidemic in inner-city Providence.
“In my age group, seventeen, eighteen years old, we fear for our lives,” he had said quietly.
So what was going on here?
How did a school whose very name is the motto of Rhode Island become a symbol of everything wrong with American education in this new millenium—high dropout rates, absenteeism, violence, the materials outdated and the structure in disrepair, overcrowded with kids the country seems to have few answers for? More important, who are these kids that society seems to walk to the other side of the street to avoid? All these nonwhite, poor kids, the ones with their hoodies and baggy pants, who often fear for their lives?
Who are these kids?
It was the question the country was grappling with throughout 2012, after Trayvon Martin, a young black male in a hooded sweatshirt, was killed by a civilian in a gated community in Florida who believed he shouldn’t have been there, must have been there to commit a crime.
So who are these kids?
And what do they dream?
In many ways they had become invisible to me, too. They were the kids you sometimes saw walking down Thayer Street, the hip commercial street full of Brown students, on their way to the nearby bus tunnel that went downtown. They were the ones you saw downtown on Kennedy Plaza in front of the gray stone City Hall where the buses from all over the city stop. They were the ones who played in the Rhode Island Interscholastic League that was traditionally dominated by Hendricken and La Salle, the two parochial school powerhouses. In so many ways, these kids from the public schools in Providence were out of sight, and out of mind, even in sports.
But who are they?
In December 2012 I decided to find out.
So there I was at the first day of practice, watching kids in their baggy shorts and different-colored sneakers, in their gym class T-shirts and their ragtag uniforms and their hopeful expressions. And at first glance it all looked like basketball chaos. One kid rocked a big Afro, as if he’d been transported from the ’70s, complete with a red tattoo on his throat. One had a ponytail and the first initial of his first name tattooed on the back of one leg, and the first initial of his last name tattooed on the other. A couple of others styled their hair in cornrows. Two played with no shirts at all. They were all black kids, except for sophomore guard Angel Rivera, who had been born in Puerto Rico. This was supposed to be one of the best high school teams in Rhode Island?
Two starters were missing because they played on the football team, which had a playoff game scheduled for that night, and Wayne Clements, the starting point guard from last year, was recovering from knee surgery.
And where was Emmanuel Kargbo, whom everyone called Manny?
Manny was the best player at Hope, second-team All State a year ago in the Providence Journal. He was a six-foot-two senior, with wide shoulders and slim hips, and an expression that could turn from warm and happy to disconsolate in the blink of an eye. He had been born in war-torn Liberia, and remembers soldiers shooting during a soccer game between a Liberian team and one from Ghana in his native Monrovia. He came to Providence with his mother and two brothers in the summer before his freshman year, after living in Delaware since he was seven. But he still carried remnants of the Liberian English he had grown up speaking, to the point where he seemed to preface every sentence with “Yo, yo,” as some sort of verbal warm-up.
Where was Manny?
“Something’s going on with him,” muttered Keith Moors, a six-foot-six light-skinned black man, a former prison guard, who has given countless hours of his time over the past six years as a volunteer assistant coach. “It’s like he’s fighting us.”
Moors and Nyblom had first met at a Christmas party at a local sporting goods company six years ago. Moors had told Nyblom he was interested in getting into high school coaching. That was the beginning.
“Dave told me to come to practice, and I had never seen anything like it,” he said. “Guys talking back. Guys getting thrown out of the gym. One took his shirt off and threw it on the floor. Another threw a trash can across the court. It was crazy. That whole season was crazy. Kids yelling when they got taken out of a game. Kids quitting. Others getting thrown off the team. It was like the Wild, Wild West and it sabotaged the whole season.”
Not that Moors was a wide-eyed innocent. For years he was a guard at the Adult Correctional Institute in nearby Cranston, and he had his own dramatic back story. But this was a high school basketball team.
“It’s always something,” he continued. “Too many of these kids have no structure in their lives. None. They’re living with grandparents. Or an older sister or brother. You see where they come from. Where they live. It’s scary. Ninety-eight percent are good kids. But there’s nobody at home. No discipline. It’s difficult. Because they don’t want to open up, don’t want to tell you what’s really going on at home.”
Moors looked out on the gym floor, lost in thought, as if seeing something only he could see.
“They all think they’re going to the NBA,” he said, resignedly. “Or at least going to a Division I college. It’s unbelievable. You ask the seniors, ‘What are you going to do next year?’ They’ll say college. Have you applied yet? No. Then you turn around the next year and they’re back here in the gym asking for help. I should have listened, they say. Every year it’s something. In ’09 we had three kids get arrested for stealing some laptops and an iPod when we went across the street to play Moses Brown. The kids were lying to the cops, and the cops already had everything on tape. That sucked the life out of the whole season.”
“You see a little bit of everything here. It’s always something.”
He pointed at Nyblom, this big man with his shorts and sneakers and his cropped hair the color of sand, this man who had a visible presence, commanding the gym with a big voice and a natural whistle that seemed as loud as a real whistle.
“They think he’s the enemy. He’s not the enemy. He’d give his right arm for these kids. The problem is too many don’t realize it until it’s too late.”
“WAKE UP!” yelled Nyblom as he watched the basketball sacrilege going on in front of him, a simple three-man weave being treated as if it were some mathematical equation.
“CATCH THE BALL.… BOUNCE PASS.… GO BEHIND HIM, ANGEL.… WAKE UP! If you can’t pass and catch the ball, fellas, it’s going to be a long season. How are we supposed to run a play when we can’t even run a three-man weave without any defense? This is Basketball 101.”
The drill continued, over and over, with similar results.
“TURNOVER CITY!” yelled Moors.
“Fellas, we can’t keep doing this,” said an exasperated Nyblom. “If we only have six guys who can do this then those are the six guys who will play, and everyone else will go home.”
But they did keep doing it. It was a practice full of basketball atrocities.
And the next afternoon was more of the same, starting the minute practice began.
“LINE UP ON THE BASELINE!” yelled Nyblom.
Once again it looked like a ragtag group, more like a gym class than a high school basketball team.
“In order to play basketball you have to have your sneakers tied,” he said, distinctly staring at one skinny kid who looked back at him, clueless.
“Yeah, you,” Nyblom said.
Hope had lost in the state football playoffs the night before, so there were a handful of football players at practice, including two prospective starters. One was Delonce Wright, the best football player at Hope, a five-foot-ten kid who had run 4.37 in the forty-yard dash at the Boston College football camp, the kind of speed that gets everyone’s attention in football.
There was something a little different about Wright. He seemed more socially poised than most of the other kids. Maybe that was because he had spent a year at St. Andrew’s, a private school in suburban Barrington, before being thrown out after his freshman year for what had been called “bringing some product from his neighborhood to the campus.” Or maybe it was because he had gone to the Paul Cuffee School in Providence as a kid, a school generally considered better than the Providence public schools for so-called at-risk kids. You could have a conversation with Wright, which was more difficult to do with most of the other players.
The other football player was the dark-skinned Johnson Weah. He, too, had been born in Liberia. But his mother took him and his older brother to the Ivory Coast when he was just nine months old to escape the civil war that raged on for fourteen years. He only saw his father once, when his father made a short visit to the refugee camp where his family lived. He remembers him as “just a normal person who got caught up in the war.” He spent the next eight years in a refugee camp, as his mother and older brother cut wood every day. He went to school, but it was basically just daycare. The only sport the refugee kids played was soccer, with a ball made out of old plastic bags.
“My mother worked with me on my ABCs and times tables,” he said. “That was the highest education I had when I came to America.”
He was ten years old, without any formal schooling, when he first came to Providence. He was put into the third grade.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel like I was in my own body,” he said of that first year in an American classroom, both older and bigger than anyone else around him, with a profound sense of displacement. He had arrived in a strange new world that no one had prepared him for. “I had a problem reading. I didn’t mix in with the other kids. I felt left out.”
Weah was six-foot-two, rock-solid, a player who didn’t have many skills but was the very definition of tough and hardworking, the ideal teammate. He also knew how fortunate he was that his mother took him out of Liberia, for if he had stayed he would have been conscripted into the war, just another child soldier in a brutal war full of them.
“If I had stayed I would have been forced into it,” he said softly.
He, too, carried his Liberian childhood in his speech.
“What language did you speak as a kid?” I asked him one day.
He looked at me as though he didn’t understand the question.
So why can’t I understand you, I wanted to say.
“Liberian English,” he said, no doubt seeing my confusion.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You wouldn’t understand,” he said.
“Try me,” I said.
He paused for a second, then looked at me.
“You, me, go to corner, yo?” he said in an almost singsong voice.
I would come to learn that Johnson Weah was very sensitive about his speech, to the point that he thought you were making fun of him if you had trouble understanding him and asked him to repeat himself. He was proud, almost regal in appearance, with ebony skin, and scars on his back that no one ever asked him about. But if Johnson didn’t say much, there was no doubt he would try to run through a brick wall for his teammates, no questions asked.
The addition of Wright and Weah instantly made Hope better. Put them with Kargbo and junior Ben Vezele, the thin, long-armed left-handed forward, and there was no question Hope was an athletic high school team by Rhode Island standards.
The only problem?
The senior point guard was nowhere to be found.
I noticed him sitting by himself on the last row of the bleachers, as geographically isolated from the team as he appeared to be psychologically.
“I remember a kid puked in a bucket when I was a freshman and I was nervous I was going to do it too,” Wayne Clements said, almost to himself, as I sat down next to him.
He was thin, five-foot-ten or so, with cornrows and a boyish face. His entire persona screamed out too-cool, but every once in a while a smile would sneak across his face, like when he described how he broke his elbow.
“There was a big girl fight down on a field by Brown last spring and then three cops came and they were pepper-spraying everybody and I was running to get away and I jumped over a fence and fell on it.”
This was said matter-of-factly, as if relating just another normal afternoon after school. He’d had surgery on his knee in August, after hurting it playing basketball over the summer, and more surgery in September after reinjuring it. And it wasn’t better yet, much to the consternation of the coaches, who felt he wasn’t exactly punishing himself in his rehab.
He had missed the state tournament last year because he and freshman Angel Rivera had been caught stealing two basketballs from the gym at East Providence High School during a game, an act that had been captured on videotape. The coaches believed Wayne’s absence had prevented them from winning the state championship. Now he seemed to drift in and out of practice like a ghost, here one minute, gone the next, even though he said basketball was very important to him.
Certainly he had grown up with it. His father, Buster Clements, a one-time high school star in Providence, ran an inner-city rec center on Sacket Street in South Providence, so Wayne had started playing there as a young kid, along with several of his future Hope teammates. He’d wanted to go to private school in Rhode Island after the eighth grade, but his grades weren’t good enough.
“Do you study now?”
“Not really,” he said. “I was pretty good as a freshman, but then I got lazy.”
He walked over to the treadmill by the door in the corner of the gym, got on it.
A few minutes later Nyblom walked over to him.
“You’re on the treadmill?” he asked, stating the obvious.
“Yeah,” Clements said.
“A long time.”
“Five minutes,” said Nyblom, walking away.
I had first met Nyblom about a decade earlier. He was a big man with a sandy-colored brush cut, one of those no-nonsense guys who seemed to have stepped off the pages of adolescent sports fiction. By chance we were on adjoining treadmills at the South County YMCA, about thirty-five miles south of Providence in South Kingstown, where he grew up and still lived. He said that every year he brought his team down for dinner at his house, and every year there were a couple of kids who had never eaten dinner at a table before, an image that’s always stayed with me. One night, he said, the kids were going from his house to his mother’s house a couple of hundred yards away in a field. It was dark and some of them had said they were afraid, and Nyblom had said, “How about I fire a few gunshots into the air so it will feel like home?”
* * *
The first game of the 2012–13 season was on December 7, a Friday night. It was Hope’s only nonleague game and it was against Moses Brown, the private school across Hope Street. The school had been founded by Moses Brown, one half of the Brown brothers who had been instrumental in Providence’s transformation from a small settlement at the base of College Hill into a city that sent ships all over the world. The Browns were one of the most powerful mercantile families in New England in the 1700s. Moses Brown had also been a central figure in the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the founder of what is considered to be one of the first factories in the country.
The root of the Brown family’s vast wealth was their involvement in the triangular trade, between New England, Africa, and the West Indies. It was a rather sophisticated business for the eighteenth century. Molasses and sugar from the West Indies were distilled into rum, which was taken to Africa and traded for slaves, who, in turn, were brought to America. Both Providence and Newport, Rhode Island, thirty miles to the south down Narragansett Bay, were key cities in the American slave trade in the 1700s, and the Brown family had amassed amazing wealth. To this day the Brown family’s legacy is deeply ingrained in Providence; Brown University is named for the family.
Moses Brown had become an abolitionist, eventually breaking away from his brother, John. After the death of his wife in 1773, he left the family business and became a Quaker, and spent the rest of his life speaking out against slavery, no insignificant thing given that his brother John was one of Rhode Island’s leading slave traders. He started the school in 1787, and it moved to its present location on the East Side in 1819. It began as the New England Yearly Meeting Boarding School and was renamed nearly a century later in honor of Moses Brown. Now, 109 years after the school had been named for an abolitionist, its basketball team was playing against a nearly all black team in an America that no one back then, not even Moses Brown, could have begun to imagine.
The Hope team had been cut down to roughly fifteen kids, football player Corey Brinkman being the only white player, and they were sitting in the locker room near Nyblom’s physical education office. It had blue lockers, a gray floor, and tan walls. Outside its door was a large mural of five black football players in bright blue-and-yellow uniforms. Nyblom, wearing dark slacks and a white short-sleeve shirt with “Blue Wave” in small blue letters on the back, was passing out the home uniforms when Manny Kargbo walked in.
Manny had just been told he was not going to play against Moses Brown; he was being disciplined for what Nyblom called his poor attitude. He wasn’t happy. Especially when he saw one of the young sophomore substitutes about to put on his white uniform top with “Blue Wave” on the front in blue lettering, and number 25 on the back.
“Are you all right with me wearing your number, Manny?” the kid, skinny and young looking, asked quietly.
“No,” Kargbo said. “Take it off.”
He was wearing jeans and a blue parka. “I guess the game tonight is not that important,” he said to no one in particular, more as a defense mechanism than an attempt at bravado. Like many of the kids, Kargbo wore his emotions on his face, and when he wasn’t happy he had a mournful look, like a pallbearer at a funeral.
He was not being punished for anything egregious, but it was Nyblom’s way of sending him a public message that he didn’t like the way Manny had been acting lately. His occasional tardiness. His moodiness. The sense that there were things going on in his life that he was not telling anyone about.
But Kargbo was not the only unhappy player heading into the first game. Angel Rivera, the sophomore point guard who was starting until Wayne Clements returned, had been caught cutting an English class and would spend the game on the bench. He wasn’t happy either.
A few minutes later the team was upstairs in the Health Room, which also served as the team’s study hall every afternoon before practice while the girls’ team used the gym. It’s around the corner from the gym and down a small flight of stairs, a big room with windows that looked out over the athletic fields in the back. There were various exhibits and messages on the walls, including a large one headlined, “Health Risks of Drug Use,” with a list of assorted ills. The players sat in chairs at tables. Nyblom stood in the front of the room.
“Moses Brown only plays one Division I team and you are it,” Nyblom said, “so you’re going to get their best shot. So no personal highlight shows. Let’s play together, and start to build something, okay?”
He hesitated a beat.
“How many of you have looked at the playbook we passed out?” he asked.
Four hands slowly went up.
“We’re not prepared to play a game tonight, gentlemen,” Nyblom continued. “We simply haven’t had enough practice time. What we’re looking for tonight is great effort. If you are hustling, diving on the floor, doing what you can do to help us win, that’s what we’re looking for.”
The starting lineup was junior Ben Vezele; five-foot-ten senior Dennis Wilson, a valuable piece of the Hope team that had lost in the state finals at the University of Rhode Island last March; junior Marquis Young, the nephew of Laurence Young; junior big man Quenton Marrow; and sophomore Eli Lewis, who had recently moved to Providence from Bridgeport, Connecticut. Only Vezele figured to start next week when the league season began.
The lineup didn’t make much difference.
Hope was expected to beat Moses Brown, regardless of the fact that they hadn’t practiced and Kargbo wasn’t going to play. Moses Brown started four white kids and Hope was simply too athletic for them, their smothering defense the key to the game. Not that a tape of the game was ever going to be sent to the Basketball of Fame. Neither team could do much offensively. Nobody made many perimeter shots. The game was sloppy, played before a couple hundred people in the old second-floor gym with wire over the windows, what the gym in the movie Hoosiers would have looked like if it had been set in an inner-city neighborhood in the ’50s and not in rural Indiana. Hope won 58-41, and the Moses Brown parents, about a dozen who had sat together near the door, seemed to fast break out of the gym as soon as the game ended, as if their field trip to the inner city had just ended and they couldn’t wait to get out.
“I think that’s your 968th career win,” Moors said to Nyblom as they walked off the court together.
“One down, twenty-three more to go,” he said.
They were all back in the Hope gym the next morning for a scrimmage against a team from Ledyard, Connecticut, the town near the southern Rhode Island border where Foxwoods Casino, one of the biggest in the country, is located. Nyblom likes to schedule either extra games or scrimmages on Saturdays, always against good opponents who will test his team, games that don’t count on the record. It was a raw, gray day in early December, the promise of winter in the air, and it was cold in the gym, as if the week’s allotment of heat had been used up the night before.
Before Norwich arrived the atmosphere was low key. Three boxes of doughnuts sat on the scorer’s table. Nyblom, Moors, and the two other volunteer coaches, Rob Whalen and Jim Black, were going through the box scores of Friday night’s high school games in the Providence Journal, as if checking in on old friends. Rhode Island is small, and the Rhode Island Interscholastic League is smaller, a basketball village where everyone listens to the same drumbeats.
Jeremy Rivera, who said he’s Angel’s cousin, was telling anyone who would listen that he doesn’t want to go to college, wants to go right to the NBA instead. Whalen, thin, with short dark hair, smiled ruefully and rolled his eyes.
“He quit last year,” said Whalen, pointing at Jeremy Rivera, “then he became our biggest cheerleader.”
Five kids who used to play for Hope were in the gym. Moors calls them “alumni.”
“We probably had ten of them here last night,” he said. “You ask them what they’re doing and they say nothing. They don’t go to school. They don’t have a job. There’s often a couple of them here every day because they really have nowhere else to go. Then they say they should have listened to us. It’s sad. That will be Wayne Clements next year, mark my words.”
He looked out on the court.
“These kids don’t get it. They don’t go to school. They miss practice. And when you call them on it they pout. Dave’s always getting calls from colleges: ‘You got anybody?’ He will find them a place to play, but they have to do their part too.”
All the players were in the gym—except Manny Kargbo.
“I don’t get it,” Moors continued. “He’s throwing his senior year away. Like last night, saying it must not be an important game.”
A few minutes later Nyblom walked in.
“Where’s Manny?” Rob Whalen asked.
“He’s on the bus.”
“Did he call you?”
“I called him,” Nyblom said.
Finally Manny walked into the gym.
“ALL WORLD!” Moors yelled out, a big smile on his face.
“The only problem,” Rob Whalen said quietly, “is he believes it.”
The team from Connecticut began warming up at one end of the gym, while Nyblom talked to his team at the other.
“We are here to execute plays, gentlemen,” he said quietly. “Not to laugh and joke. Not to fool around. But to run plays. Because last night we couldn’t run any. And I guarantee you that when we start running plays in games you will not know them. It’s real simple, gentlemen. You’ve got to get serious and you have to figure out what we’re trying to do.”
Once again, there were three alumni in the gym. One was Malieke Young, a small, wiry black kid with an orange streak running through his tight Afro. He is Laurence Young’s nephew, and his younger brother, Marquis, was a junior on the team fighting for playing time. Their mother, whom Nyblom taught when she had been a student at Hope, was sixteen years old when she gave birth to Malieke. His father was in jail. Last year Malieke started on the Hope team that lost in the state finals in the Ryan Center at the University of Rhode Island; he was a good player who could make shots. Then the season ended, and Malieke Young became an unfortunate statistic, another young African-American kid who was not in college and didn’t have a job, no big surprise in a state with the second highest unemployment rate in the country. When his senior year ended no schools came calling. So now he was in limbo, hoping he might get an opportunity next year to go off to junior college and chase the basketball dream. He was killing time, hoping Nyblom could hook him up somewhere.
Another one of the so-called alumni was also in the gym.
But Roland Hannah was different, and not just because he went on to play big-time college basketball at the University of New Mexico after two years at a Nebraska junior college. Nor was he different because he was six-foot-six, with a shaved head and the kind of strong body that easily adjusted to the college game. He was different because he was one of the kids who listened, who was able to transcend this old gym in this old school.
“I never had a father,” he said as he watched Hope warm up. “There were three kids and I was the youngest. My mother was everything. We came to America when I was five years old from Liberia. We landed in Newark, New Jersey. I had never seen such big buildings and I was scared. But I wanted to see America, too.”
He stopped and stared out at the court, as if the past were like a newsreel running through his head.
“African families are very strict. Much stricter than American families. I couldn’t say the word ‘stupid’ in front of my mother, and when I was a kid I had to be home when the streetlights came on.”
He had gone to grammar school and the Roger Williams Middle School in South Providence, the inner city for over a half century now. And he always took school seriously, because his mother, who worked as a nurse’s aide, made him take school seriously, to the point that if he didn’t she wasn’t going to let him play basketball. In the ninth grade he went to Hope.
By then, Hannah knew he wanted to play college basketball. But he couldn’t make the minimum eligibility score on the SAT test, so he wasn’t able to receive a scholarship. On a test where the maximum score was 1600, and you got 400 points for signing your name, he got a 496. He was bitter about it. He had never been a troublemaker in school, always had done his homework. He had also always done what the teachers asked, because he wanted to please his mother, who he felt had sacrificed so much for him. Yet when it came time to take the SATs he was woefully deficient. He was a two-time All State player, but for the longest time it seemed as if he would never step foot on a college campus. He felt betrayed, and believed that the educational system had failed him.
“The problem is a lot of teachers lump us all together,” he said. “The kids who don’t care, and the kids who do. I wasn’t prepared for the SAT test in anyway. It was full of things I had never seen before. I saw all those big words in the verbal part and it was like I was standing in a big crowd, but I was all alone. You’re all alone and you’re lost.”
He’d been a senior at Hope in the spring of 1995. That same spring he’d been a part of a group of Hope students who had marched on Providence’s City Hall to protest the ouster of the school’s principal after one year, a man whose first year at Hope had become a firestorm of controversy. Hope found itself all over the local news, complete with charges of racism and backlash, a microcosm of many of the racial tensions that were dividing society.
Hannah’s story, however, had a successful ending. He got help from a man named Bob Dyer, whose son had played against Hannah in high school. Dyer learned of his predicament and volunteered to tutor him. So they began meeting every morning before school on Thayer Street, just down the street from Hope in the virtual heart of Brown University, to prep for the test; Dyer drove into South Providence every morning to pick him up. And on his fourth attempt Hannah met the minimum score. After two years at McCook Junior College in Nebraska, where he became so focused that he would often sleep in the gym, he won a scholarship to New Mexico.
Now he’s a guard at the Training School in Cranston, where he deals with inner-city kids who walked the same streets of his childhood.
“They all want it now,” he said, looking out at the court, as if thinking of all those early mornings with Bob Dyer studying for the SATs, all those early mornings that, in retrospect, meant everything. “They don’t want to wait for it. And they don’t want to work for it. They want it now.”
What is left unsaid is that they don’t want it the way he once wanted it.
By the time the scrimmage started there were about fifty people watching. Ledyard was an all-black team, and right from the outset Hope was in trouble, quickly down 10-0. Unlike the night before, where their athleticism dominated Moses Brown, now all their flaws were instantly exposed. The lack of strong point guard play. The inability to run any real offense. The lack of practice time. The fact that any kind of defensive pressure instantly made them come unglued. The sense that they played like a pickup team that had first met about ten minutes before the scrimmage.
“PASS THE BALL!” screamed Nyblom. “ANGEL, MAKE HIM GO LEFT. HE WANTS TO GO RIGHT. MAKE HIM GO LEFT.… CAN’T WE RUN A PLAY?”
This was a team ready for its league season to start in just three days?
Copyright © 2016 by Bill Reynolds