EDITOR'S NOTE: In his first book, THE ASSIST, Neil Swidey chronicles the gripping journey of a group of boys striving to beat the odds imposed by life in the inner city, and their high school basketball coach who needs them and their problems as much as they need him. Excerpted with permission of PublicAffairs.
Jack O'Brien knelt down, and his index finger began tracing the etching in the black granite. It moved quickly through the curves of the numeral 3, the straight line of the 1, but lingered when it arrived at the detailed image of a basketball sailing through a net.
He closed his watery brown eyes. His large forehead, made to look even larger by the way he brushed his brown hair up and back, became as deeply grooved as the granite.
He stood up and stepped back, taking in the full image of the stone. Then he turned to the two boys he'd brought with him. "Nice, huh?" O'Brien said.
Between the 31 and the basketball net, there was a face. Laser-etched onto the granite, it belonged to a handsome young man who wore his hair closely cropped, diamond studs in each ear, and a slightly crooked smile.
Below the face, a name:
O'Brien's mind flashed back five years, to the fall of 1999 when Richard Jones first crossed the threshold of his gym. O'Brien had made it his job to be aware of every teenage boy in the city of Boston who ever picked up a ball. But Richard, a tall, laid-back junior, had bounced around enough schools in and out of Boston to have eluded O'Brien's detection. The kid with the electric smile and spot-on Eddie Murphy impersonation was so friendly he was impossible not to like instantly, even for O'Brien, who had learned the power of withholding warmth. But Richard also had a habit of making excuses for himself. During his years coaching in Boston, O'Brien had heard more excuses than a highway cop clutching a radar gun. His reaction was always the same: ride the kid so hard that exhaustion wore down any reflex to pass the buck. Yet somehow Richard had inspired O'Brien to be more creative. Once when he showed up late for practice, O'Brien got Richard a chair and sat him down in the center of the court, making sure he was comfortable. Then he made the rest of the team run grueling "suicide" sprints around him. Richard was never late for practice again. Better yet, he turned into a leader, holding himself and everyone else around him accountable. He, more than anyone, helped O'Brien guide Charlestown High School to the first of its four back-to-back state titles. In turn, O'Brien helped Richard score an athletic scholarship to a Division I college in Buffalo, where he became a model on and off the court. He was on track to graduate a semester early and begin graduate school -- hardly a typical trajectory in the world of D-I basketball, where graduation rates tend to clock in well below field goal percentages.
Staring straight ahead, O'Brien extended an arm in either direction. The boys on either side of him, his co-captains for the upcoming season, clasped their hands with his, and bowed their heads. "Dear Lord," O'Brien began. "Please watch over Richard and his family, especially his mother. And let us meet again someday in Paradise."
O'Brien's eyes fixed on the dates etched into the granite: November 5, 1982 -- May 5, 2004. Richard Jones had been gone for nearly four months now, but his stone had just been erected. Then, O'Brien glanced at the dates on the gravesites on either side of Richard's. To the left, a sixty-four-year-old; to the right, a seventy-eight-year-old. There's grief in every death, for sure. But there had to be a special sadness reserved for the death of a twenty-one-year-old who had overcome the long odds imposed by life in the inner city, only to drop dead on a basketball court in college. The cause of death for Richard, whose warmth and love of live seemed to be boundless, was an enlarged heart.
If O'Brien could find any hint of comfort in Richard's death, it was that at least he had died of natural causes. Oak Lawn Cemetery sat atop a Boston hill between a boarded-up Ford dealership and a beaten-down Stop & Shop supermarket. Across the street was the larger, more established Mt. Calvary Cemetery, where the gravestones dated back more than a century and carried the names of Boston's Irish-Catholic past. That was O'Brien's past, but because he was closer to his players than to most of his own family, O'Brien knew the contours of Oak Lawn better. There, the names were a mix of black Boston, the Washingtons and Morrisons first attached to the sons of sharecroppers, the Baptistes and Campbells attached to newer arrivals from Haiti and Jamaica. Given its tether to the city's black neighborhoods, Oak Lawn also offered a visual profile of the stretches of recent history when it was most dangerous to be a young black man growing up in Boston. The cemetery, only fifteen years old, had already logged more than 3,000 burials –- and far too many of them belonged to the young. There were clusters of headstones memorializing teens cut down in the early- and mid-1990s, but far fewer as the decade wore on, when Boston's murder rate for the young had decreased so sharply that it was branded the "Boston Miracle." Yet even before the criminologists acknowledged the shift in the narrative, a rush of new names and dates etched into granite at Oak Lawn documented the miracle's demise.
O'Brien had come to Boston as an outsider, a white guy from the suburbs whose success as a coach defined him and whose main goal was racking up more wins. But during more than a decade coaching in Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood that was almost entirely white, he worked almost entirely with black kids bused in from the city's high-crime neighborhoods. Somewhere along the way, his priorities changed. He was still obsessed with winning, but more and more he saw his relentless pursuit of state titles as a means to an end: an insurance policy against having to spend any more time at Oak Lawn.
O'Brien led his co-captains to an adjacent section of the cemetery. An afternoon shower had left the grass moist, though it had done little to improve the humid August air. They walked in silence, except for the sounds of the Canada geese squawking from an adjacent field, and the players' high-top sneakers squishing in the soil and the occasional droppings left by the flock. Thirty yards from Richard Jones's stone, O'Brien stopped and looked down at a rectangular bronze slab laid into the ground. It read: PARIS G. BOOKER. February 19, 1988 - August 5, 2003. At the top right corner of the marker, there was a covered picture frame. O'Brien knelt down and gingerly opened it to reveal a photo of a tall boy, wearing clear aviator glasses and a blue pin-striped suit. The boy looked to be a high school senior. In fact, he was only fifteen. In his hand, he was holding his middle-school diploma.
While Richard had made it out, Paris was just beginning his climb. He was 6-foot-2 in the eighth grade, destined to be a star. Even his name -- Paris Booker -- sounded tailor-made for the loud speaker at an NBA game. One year earlier, just a few weeks before he would start his freshman year at Charlestown High, Paris was riding his bike in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. An SUV hit him and then dragged him 30 feet. The driver fled. Paris's mother buried her boy with a Charlestown jersey in his arms.
O'Brien put his head down and his arms out. Once again his co-captains joined him in prayer. "Dear Lord, please watch over Paris and his mother," he said. "I never got the chance to coach him, but he was part of Charlestown, and we miss him." O'Brien's new co-captains were both seniors, so Richard had graduated by the time they joined the Charlestown program, and Paris had never suited up as a member of their squad. Still, in the family O'Brien forged, they were all brothers. The coach had Paris's initials sewn onto the shoulders of the team uniforms and Richard's jersey framed and hung on the gym wall. Before every game, he led a locker room prayer asking Jesus to watch over Richard and Paris. And as soon as the players took to the court, they would perform the same rocking, swaying pre-game huddle chant that Richard had introduced during his Charlestown days.
O'Brien let his arms drop to his side. Then he stepped back, so he could make eye contact with both co-captains, Ridley Johnson and Jason White. O'Brien had taken a gamble in pairing them: although they had played together for three years, they weren't at all close. Ridley was a 6-foot-3 wire with a soft voice and a demeanor as gentle as the slope of his profile, Jason a muscular 6-footer with piercing eyes and a penchant for icy stares. "Remember," O'Brien told them, "no matter how tough life may get, these guys would do anything to change places with you."
Neil Swidey is a staff writer for The Boston Globe Magazine. His writing has won the National Headliner Award and been featured in The Best American Science Writing, The Best American Crime Reporting, and The Best American Political Writing. He lives outside Boston with his wife and three daughters. The Assist is his first book. For more information, please visit www.theassist.net.