The saga of LaTravis Hawkins* (Part 1)   

Updated: December 5, 2007, 11:42 AM ET

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*We've changed the name of the young boy at the center of this story, in order to protect his identity.

If his life had a soundtrack, "Everything I Am" by Kanye West would be the song. He's a child with a gift. Far superior than most kids his age when a basketball is in his hands. But each day, that's becoming more of a challenge. As the song suggests, "The streets is flarin' up/'cause they want gun talk." In this life, nothing is easy.

He's 12 years old. Standing all of 5-4, weighing 120 pounds on the days he eats. When he takes off his shirt, his body looks strong -- not from muscle, but cut by nature. Hard. His hands resemble a railroad worker's -- already wrinkled, worn, intense. Hard. But the release on his jump shot is softer than Egyptian cotton. When crossing someone over, the ball rotates inside his small palms, so tender he can drop dimes and leave no fingerprints. There's a scar above his right eye. It's the only blemish on a face that's so innocent, with a smile that would warm a hospice. Still, the scar is unavoidable. It seems so out of place. But it's not.

I've known LaTravis Hawkins for more than three years now. He plays in the same biddy program as my kids. I've had the pleasure of coaching him in a few games, and I've let him be my assistant coach when I've filled in because another team's coach couldn't make it. Whenever I walk into the gym, he runs my way. Wraps his arms around my waist, ducks his head into my chest -- hugs from heaven. Then he proceeds to tell everyone in the gym, "They don't believe you my father? Tell 'em."

I've had to work with LaTravis on his anger issues. He's not a prima donna, but he'll throw mini-tantrums on the basketball court that are so severe, you know there's more behind them than the ref's call. One time, I had to pull him out of a game and take him into the boy's bathroom -- only to watch him break down in tears when I asked him why he took a swing at another player. I've known for a while that he's got issues. I just didn't know how deep they were.

Robert Graham, one of the other coaches at the community center, explained LaTravis' situation: "It's the whole issue of him being this young, possessing this potential, and him not necessarily being a leader and him not understanding that the people he's following don't want to do anything with their lives. He's a beautiful kid, and he has the ability to use basketball as an avenue to be successful. But if someone doesn't grab him now, he's going to become a victim of this society."

"Mr. Jackson, you need to go up to LaTravis' school," an employee at the community center told me. "It's been two months, and his mother still has not picked up his grades." That was last year. This year, when I asked LaTravis about his grades, I heard the same thing: "I don't know; my moms hasn't come to pick them up." I went to the school. Asked if I could play guardian, if his grades could be released to me. "No. We'd love to give them to you, Mr. Jackson, because LaTravis has been at this school for two years, and you're the first person who's ever come up here on his behalf."

LaTravis played ball. Basketball was all he talked about, all he loved. All summer long, he played at a public park a half-mile from the community center, with and against guys sometimes twice his age -- played alongside his cousin, who's on a D-1 scholarship at Missouri. And LaTravis held his own. They called him "Lil' CP," as in Chris Paul.

But recently, things have gone awry. I keep hearing, "You gotta do something about LaTravis, he's not hoopin' as much as he used to. All he's doing is hangin' in the streets with these dudes that are way older than him."

When I went up to the youth center to find him, his friends told me, "Naw, he ain't here. He's probably just walking around 79th Street with them dudes."

Now I had to do something. And the only thing I know of that can save this kid's life is basketball. So I made some calls. Found a program that has a youth league for pre-AAU players that's away from where LaTravis lives, away from the element that's taking basketball out of his life. The guy told me, "You're lucky. Our point guard just broke his leg last week and he'll be out for eight weeks, so we only have that one spot open. If you can get your kid here, we'll take a look."

I left messages at the center for LaTravis to call me. He didn't. A week went by. I went up to the center again. Same drill. He didn't call. Another week went by. The people at the youth league told me they couldn't hold his spot open much longer -- I needed to get LaTravis there, or they had to give his spot to another kid.

So I went up to the center one more time. And waited. Finally, LaTravis showed up. I asked him if he got my messages. Why hasn't he been up here playing? Does he want to play in this youth league? He gave me B.S. answers to the first two questions, but his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree after hearing the third one.

"OK, we have to be there Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m.," I told him. "Mr. Jackson, I promise I'll be ready." I'd heard through the grapevine that LaTravis' "family" had moved and that he wasn't staying at the same place I used to drop him off after games at the center. I'd heard that was part of the reason he was starting to slip -- he was no longer in his comfort zone. So the last thing I asked LaTravis was, "What's your address?"

The next morning, when I went to pick him up, he wasn't there. Neither was the address -- it didn't exist. I drove to several different places with similar numerology, just in case I'd misunderstood. I blanketed the blocks that surrounded that block. I went back to the place where he used to live. No sign of him.

I combed the streets of Chicago, looking for someone I knew I wouldn't find. A kid. A kid I should've taken a greater interest in before it got to this point.

It's been a week, and I still can't find LaTravis Hawkins. I have a bad feeling in my gut. But this time, I have to save him. I can no longer use basketball as an excuse. There's only so much the game can do.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2.


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