Bringing down the house

HELEN FORD DRIVES to the house from memory, parks along the curb and idles in her car. This three-story duplex in
Cambridge, Mass., had been her home for 40 years, but now she wonders whether she has the courage to enter. She turns on the radio and takes out a crossword puzzle. "I don't know if I'm ready to do this," she says.

It has been more than two years since she was last here -- two years since her famous son betrayed her and the foreclosure specialists arrived with moving trucks. She fixates on the house during the long nights alone in her one-bedroom apartment, dreaming about all the good memories and waking every few hours because of the bad.

"I have to see it," she says now. Helen turns off the radio and walks to the house. "The only way I'll ever move on is by getting back in there." A blue padlock is on the front door that she had once been too trusting to lock. A sign that reads "Danger: No Playing" is planted in the front yard, where she had hosted graduation parties for her children -- four of her own, four adopted and at least 30 foster kids. Cigarette butts and half-empty beer cans litter the makeshift basketball court, where one of those children had turned into a star.

Helen's lawyer, Dennis Benzan, stands on the front steps, waiting to greet her. The house belongs to the bank now, and Helen doesn't have the authority to enter alone. Benzan punches numbers into the padlock, then turns toward his client.

"Technically, I should tell you that we are going to be trespassing," he says. He asks Helen if she'd wear a mask to protect herself from dust and mold, but she waves him off.

"This is my house," she says. "I can handle it."

Helen steps through the door. A blast of cold, stale air stops her at the entryway. "Dear god," she says. The house is dark. The objects take form slowly, and at first they don't make sense: clothes, furniture and garbage strewn about the living room floor. Tattered mattresses. Broken champagne bottles. A Fisher-Price basketball hoop flipped on its side. Tiles have been stripped from the kitchen. Graffiti covers the walls. Basketball trophies that were once part of her children's Wall of Fame are piled in a trash can near the door.

"The squatters got to everything," Benzan says.

"Yes, I see," Helen responds.

Only one item remains untouched, high on the living room wall: A poster of Rumeal Robinson in his University of Michigan uniform, dribbling. His lips are pursed. His eyes look downcourt confidently. A message scrawled near the top of the picture says, "Our Rumeal."

Our Rumeal: Helen's greatest pride, the boy she took in off the street at age 10, who later earned a college scholarship, hit the winning free throws in the 1989 NCAA championship game, joked with a president at the White House and bought his mother a Mercedes and a mink coat. His success persuaded Helen to devote her life to helping more children. She once petitioned the city to rename her street in his honor, calling it Rumeal Robinson Way.

Our Rumeal: Helen's greatest disappointment, the child who burned through his millions, broke the law and executed a series of scams that resulted in his mother's eviction and homelessness at age 65. His failure has left her riddled with self-doubt. She later petitioned the city to rename the street again, to anything else, so long as "they get his name off of it."

Helen turns away from the living room now and walks out of the house.

"I've seen enough," she says.

HE HAD COME to see them as a sign from God.

It was the fall of 1977. Helen and Lou Ford had recently lost their 2-month-old son to spina bifida when an employee at the local grammar school called to tell them about Rumeal Robinson, a homeless Jamaican boy on the school basketball team. Who better to ask for help than the couple everyone referred to as Ma Ford and Uncle Lou? Lou was a Cambridge letter carrier who also owned a bar, and he knew every adult in town. Helen was a cheerleading coach and a school security guard, and she knew all of the kids. They lived with two sons, ages 11 and 6, and they hosted so many parties at their duplex near Central Square that neighbors referred to the place as the Ford Hotel.

"Maybe you can do something for this boy," the school employee said.

The next day, Helen drove to the elementary school and met with Robinson after basketball practice. He seemed unusually serious for a 10-year-old, she thought, and he spoke dispassionately about his problems. He told Helen that his mother had moved to the United States when he was a toddler, leaving him in Jamaica with impoverished grandparents who often let him roam unsupervised and sleep on the beach. They had recently put him on a plane for Boston to be reunited with his mother. When he arrived, she had yelled at Rumeal for being in her way; he had chafed at her strictness. "I can get by on my own," he told Helen. "She doesn't want me."

He had been sleeping in the halls of the Peabody Terrace apartment complex for the past two weeks, wearing the same sweater and subsisting on leftover school lunches and dry cereal. Winter was approaching, and the hallway was drafty at night. He missed the warm evenings on the beach in Jamaica. "It gets a little cold, but I'm fine," he told her.

Helen had been a victim of an unstable childhood herself. Her mother died during the birth of one of Helen's younger siblings, and Helen was rotated from one relative to the next. She had embarked on motherhood with the motto "Children need stability." So on that day, without a moment's hesitation, she took Rumeal back to her house, made him fried chicken and called the police to explain the situation. She told Rumeal he would share a room with her eldest son, Donald, and that he would stay with them for a little while.

Rumeal was polite and grateful but at first kept mostly to himself. Within a few weeks, though, in his bedroom he began to create whimsical drawings of his new family; the pictures would then appear on the family fridge, where everyone could see and praise them. Soon enough, Rumeal went from calling Helen "ma'am" to "Mrs. Ford" to "Ms. Helen" and finally, just before the holidays, "Mom." For Christmas, she bought him an entire wardrobe: 6 sweaters, 13 pairs of pants and 3 pairs of basketball shorts. "I've never gotten this much before," he said. A short time later, Helen and Lou decided to adopt Rumeal.

The Fords liked the laughter and energy created by a crowd of children. Soon, they wanted more. Helen registered to become an emergency-placement foster parent. For most of the next decade, she and Lou cared for a dozen foster kids at a time, toddlers and teenagers, some who stayed for a few days and others who never left. Lou bought the other side of the duplex and knocked down the center wall to double their space. He tore out the carpet in the living room so the kids could ride their bikes and skateboards inside the house during the winter. He attached a basketball rim to the old oak tree in the front yard, where dribbling was optional during pickup games because of the uneven dirt. They bought other hoops for inside the house; scuff marks covered the walls. "It's a house for kids," Helen would say. "Let them have their fun."

Lou filled one bedroom with four refrigerators -- one for milk, one for juice, one for meat and one for produce -- so the kids could always help themselves. Helen cooked for 15 every night, adding water to her soups and preparing five pounds of meat at a time. Guests were given two instructions: Announce yourself when you come in, then make yourself at home.

"If we had a castle and unlimited money," Helen says, "we probably would have had 100 kids living in there."

There was Randy, Helen's son from an earlier marriage, who became a record-setting track star. There was his high school rival, Lazar, who had a falling-out with his parents and needed a place to stay. There was Dawn, a white girl from the neighborhood who showed up at school with bruises on her arm. There was Louis Jr., the state's player of the year in basketball. There were Tyrone and Ernie, the rambunctious twins from New York.

Then there was Rumeal, the budding athlete, the center of the Fords' orbit, the emergency-placement case that led to all the rest.

EVERYONE NOTICED HIS WORK ETHIC before anything else. On weekday mornings during high school, Robinson would strap on a 40-pound vest and run five miles along the Charles River. His coach at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, Mike Jarvis, challenged him to do 100 pushups and sit-ups each day; he did 500 of each instead. He went to Michigan on a recruiting trip and spent most his time working out with the track coach, quizzing him about ways to improve a vertical jump.

"He worked as hard as any player I've known," says Jarvis, who went on to become a head coach at four colleges. "I can think of two other guys I coached, Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan, who were in Robinson's class as far as work ethic."

Rumeal already looked like a professional athlete by his sophomore year of high school in 1984, with his broad shoulders and barrel chest. He played with a different style from most other point guards: less calculation and finesse, more brute strength and aggressiveness. Helen sometimes gave him coaching advice at the dinner table: "Go hard to the hoop and stop shooting from so far away."

Helen and Lou saved money to send their son to five-star basketball camps. Helen rearranged her schedule to attend his games. Rumeal's birth mother came to one of them during his senior year. She made such a scene in the stands -- Helen remembers her repeatedly yelling, "That's my son!" -- that a security guard removed her from the game. Rumeal sought out Helen at halftime, scoreless and distraught, desperate for counsel. "Don't worry about her," Helen told him. "Focus on what you have now, on your family and basketball."

And so he did. He averaged 18 points as a senior and led Rindge & Latin to a high school state championship. In the spring of 1986, he accepted a basketball scholarship to Michigan.

During the 1988-89 season, with Robinson a top scorer and team leader, the Wolverines made it to the Final Four in Seattle. Lou and Helen couldn't both afford to go, so Helen traveled to the West Coast alone. The next day, friends started up a collection for Lou, picked him up in the middle of his mail route, took him to the airport in a limo and paid for his ticket to Seattle. He arrived in time to see Helen onstage at the pep rally before the championship game against Seton Hall, leading 2,500 Michigan fans in a cheer.

Helen and Lou watched Robinson score 14 of his 21 points in the first half. Then with three seconds left in overtime and his team trailing by one, Robinson drove hard to the basket, just as Helen had always instructed. Seton Hall's Gerald Greene bumped the point guard's shoulder, resulting in a two-shot foul. One shot to tie. One more to win.

Seton Hall called a timeout to try to force Robinson to consider the stakes. Robinson had been in a similar situation earlier in the season against Wisconsin and missed both free throws, so he had taken at least 100 foul shots during every practice since. Now he blew the sweat off his fingers and stepped to the line. Helen and Lou held hands.

Swish. Robinson raised his right fist in triumph. A referee threw him the ball again. The arena was silent now. Robinson lofted his second shot. Swish again.

Seton Hall's last-second attempt hit the backboard and nothing else, and Helen and Lou jumped from their seats as confetti fell from the ceiling. They fought through the crowd to hug their son. They listened to his postgame news conference; when a reporter asked what he had been thinking about on the free throw line, he said simply, "I was thinking of my parents a lot."

A few months later, Cambridge organized a city parade in Robinson's honor. The mayor declared it Rumeal Robinson Day. The high school hung his jersey from the rafters. Hundreds of people lined the streets, and Robinson and his parents rode the parade route in the mayor's convertible. They drove to City Hall for a brief ceremony, and the three of them stood next to each other on the steps.

In the year to come, Robinson would re-create his winning free throws in the White House Rose Garden, then toss the ball to President George H.W. Bush and say, "C'mon man, you can take a shot." He would grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, become the 10th pick in the NBA draft, move to a mansion in Atlanta and buy each of his parents a Rolex and a new Mercedes-Benz.

But first, on the steps of Cambridge City Hall, Rumeal handed Lou his NCAA championship ring and wrapped his parents in an embrace.

"You guys didn't give me my second chance," he told them. "You gave me my only chance."

ROBINSON LEFT FOR ATLANTA in the summer of 1990, after signing a four-year contract worth $4.3 million, and some friends from Cambridge came along. He agreed to launch a record label with them, just because he had always loved music. He invited a new girlfriend in Georgia to move into his spacious home, then extended the offer to his hairdresser too. He had the same craving as his parents: He wanted a crowded house, bustling with activity.

They went out as a group for $500 dinners at steak houses. He attended a boxing match as the special guest of promoter Don King. He sent gaudy bouquets of roses to Helen on her birthday and fancy chocolates to the house on Easter, but his calls home became increasingly infrequent. "He was never a big talker, and I thought he was just a grown man living his life," Helen says. "But we heard rumors about him blowing his money."

Early in Rumeal's second season with the Hawks, Helen asked her son Randy, the track star, to move in with his brother and bring order to his life. Randy went to Atlanta and discovered a mansion with a guesthouse and a garage filled with two Porsches, two Mercedes and a few motorcycles. Then he opened Robinson's mail and noticed nobody had been paying the electric bill. The power company wanted $2,400 or it would turn off his lights. Randy ordered his brother to pay it.

Still, there was no slowing Robinson's spending. He invited people to the house for what he called "business meetings" a few times each week, and he made deals for Atlanta real estate, music equipment and designer dogs. He hired a fashion consultant to build his wardrobe as well as an interior designer to work on his house. Sometimes, Randy says, Robinson handed his employees blank checks, trusting them to pay themselves. One contractor stole his dogs and relocated her business to another state using Robinson's money.

He had never been a drinker, but he threw parties to show off his house and cars. He paid for friends to fly in and visit for a night. Late one morning during the off-season, three of his guests woke up in Robinson's house expecting to have breakfast with him. They couldn't find him anywhere, so Randy called his cellphone.

"Where are you?" he asked Robinson.

"I'm out in Brazil," he said, explaining that he had bought the ticket on a whim the night before.

Meanwhile, Robinson's play suffered. He occasionally slept through his morning workouts and started to gain weight. He averaged just 5.6 points and 2.8 assists as a rookie in 1990-91. He improved those numbers to 13 points and 5.5 assists during his second season, but his maddening inconsistency made coaches eager to trade him. Robinson drifted to five teams during four more NBA seasons. He almost never started. He played in the CBA and Europe. In 1997, when he was making nearly $1 million as a benchwarmer for the Lakers, American Express sued him for unpaid debts. In 1998, he filed for bankruptcy, and a court forgave his liabilities to three creditors.

He moved to Miami after his retirement in 2002 and lived in a condo on Williams Island, near the opulent homes of Sammy Sosa, Missy Elliott and Whitney Houston. He started a real-estate development company with plans to attract investors and build a resort called Harmony Cove on 25,000 acres in his Jamaican hometown. He met a stripper named Stephanie Hodge, who had recently dated former Miami Heat forward Chris Gatling; Robinson hired her as his office manager. She was compensated with a company Mercedes and a salary of $150,000.

Robinson's real estate business never made any money, he would testify, and he never filed tax returns. But he was accomplished at attracting investors. It was something of an obsession -- "Rumeal talks about deals all the time, left and right, all day long," Hodge would later say -- and he borrowed money from anyone he could: businessmen from Michigan who remembered his free throws, relatives in Cambridge, loan sharks, a WNBA player.

Although Robinson and his partners traveled to Jamaica and regularly stayed at five-star hotels, they never made any progress building their own. He focused more on what he bought, turning his life into a constant spending spree. Three family members flew to Florida on separate occasions, witnessed his extravagance and asked him to stop. Each time he turned sullen and defensive, they say. "I have billions coming to me in business deals," he told them.

Randy blamed stubbornness and stupidity for his brother's money troubles: "He thought he was like an international deal maker." Perhaps, but money had also become his identity. Money distanced him from the memories of the 10-year-old boy who had wandered the halls of an apartment complex with nothing to eat and nowhere to go. "He had come from nothing, and now he couldn't get enough," Helen says.

His monthly credit card bills, according to court records, testified to his wanton excess:

Rodeo of New York: $2,050. Coco Cigar: $794. Bodega: $1,491. Louis Vuitton: $1,990. Biltmore Golf Course: $1,592.
Circuit City: $14,257. "Laptops," Robinson later testified.

Bed Bath & Beyond: $1,449. "That might have been a gift," he said.

Pottery Barn: $2,920. "Just spent some money," he said. "I don't know what Pottery Barn is."

Robinson developed a habit of spending himself into debt every few months, then seeking a major loan to cover his expenses. He borrowed several thousand dollars as many as 10 times from a Florida foreclosure specialist named Rick Preston, who charged him 14 percent to 18 percent interest.

Sometime in 2002 or 2003, Robinson approached Preston about another deal. Would the foreclosure specialist, he asked, have any interest in acquiring an old house near the heart of Cambridge, at 2 Rumeal Robinson Way?

ROBINSON FLEW HOME and showed his mother a series of drawings that he described as architectural plans for Harmony Cove in Jamaica. Lou had handled the couple's money, but he had died of dementia the previous year. Helen listened as Rumeal said he needed her help to develop Harmony Cove.

"I'm not a rich woman," Helen told him.

"But you have this house," Rumeal said.

She owned it outright, but Robinson asked her to take out a new loan against the home's equity. Robinson said he would take that money and use it to fund the project in Jamaica. He said he'd pay her new mortgage. In return, he promised to make Helen an investor in the project. "This could make you a rich woman," he said. If all went well, he said, she would make $5 million within a few years.

Helen thought the Harmony Cove design looked nice, with its imaginary trees, hotels and casinos. But she didn't understand the finances; Lou had bought their house in 1951 for less than $8,000 and made the payments himself. She had never dealt with any of it.

"Okay, sure; I trust you," she told Rumeal. "You're my son. I'm your mother. Okay."

On June 16, 2003, Robinson sent Preston to Cambridge to take care of the paperwork. Helen had never met him, but she insisted that he stay at her home. He took her to the city courthouse, where Helen thought she was agreeing to a loan for her son. Instead, she later testified, she unwittingly sold her home. She signed a deed that gave ownership of the house to Preston. Then she went with Preston to the bank, where she thought that the roughly $250,000 she received was a loan. It was, in fact, her proceeds from the sale.

She unknowingly signed over the money to Preston, she says, thinking it would go to the construction of Harmony Cove. "I really just signed here, do this, that, and I was just going through the motions," she says now. (In court testimony, Preston said that Ford knew she was selling her home.)

During the next few years, Robinson and his friends flipped the house twice in a scheme that grew to involve bankers and housing appraisers throughout the country. Each time, Robinson and his friends made thousands in profits from the sale -- money allegedly intended for Harmony Cove but instead wasted on motorcycles and spent paying off other debts.

Preston first sold the house for more than $600,000 to Jorge Rodriguez, a business associate of Robinson's, who had also obtained $150,000 for the Jamaican development from his mother-in-law. Rodriguez then sold the house to Stephen Hodge, 19, the brother of Robinson's girlfriend in Miami. Hodge was an unemployed Iraq veteran who lived in Hawaii, but according to court records he managed to secure a loan to buy the house for $1 million.

Robinson had kept up with the loan payments on the house for a time by borrowing from other investors, still convinced that he could eventually make back the cash in Harmony Cove, but the project never earned him a dollar. "I don't think Rumeal ever believed Helen would actually lose the house, but he was operating in denial," says Benzan, Helen's lawyer. "He couldn't keep up with those debts. Nobody could. He was running in quicksand." As the years passed and the house's ownership changed, nobody took care of the mortgage.

In 2007, a sheriff's deputy knocked on the door at 2 Rumeal Robinson Way and served Helen with foreclosure papers. "This must be a mistake," she said. She went to court to bargain for more time and called Robinson. "What in God's name happened?" she asked him. Robinson promised to take care of it, made a handful of payments, then stopped answering her calls. A sheriff's deputy came knocking again in March 2009. This time he brought moving trucks.

The next two days were among the worst of Helen's life. She was living in the house with three of her children and five grandkids, and the relatives scrambled to find new housing. Her youngest son, Louis Jr., then 22, came from Washington to help her pack. They had a lifetime of belongings to organize in two days. Helen, meanwhile, called Robinson and prayed for him to answer. A part of her still believed in her son, because questioning his actions and motives also meant asking tough questions of herself. Much of her image had been built on his story, on the fact that she ushered him from homelessness to stardom. He was her greatest success. So if Robinson was a failure, what would that make her?

"My mom had such blind faith and love in Rumeal that she was thinking he was going to do something until the last hour," Louis Jr. says. "I was sitting there bad-mouthing the hell out of this dude, and she was calling him thinking he might pick up. She thought he was going to save the day."

Instead, the bank changed the locks on the house, and Louis Jr. loaded a U-Haul truck and moved his mother into a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Somerville. Only then, torn from her home, did Helen's confusion turn to anger. And her anger build to rage. "He betrayed us," she would say whenever anyone asked about her sudden move. She hired a lawyer who explained the steps behind Robinson's deception during half a dozen meetings, and each time she grieved again. She discarded most of his basketball memorabilia, and she asked friends not to mention his name.

In September 2009, Robinson was indicted on charges that went far beyond deceiving his mother: federal wire fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and issuing false statements to financial institutions. All of his scheming had finally caught up with him. Federal prosecutors held Robinson's trial in Iowa because a bank he defrauded was based there. Helen flew to his trial to testify as a witness for the prosecution. She had not seen Robinson for several years when she entered the courtroom. He was sitting at the defense table, dressed in one of his sharp suits. He looked handsome,
she thought. She tried to make eye contact, but he looked away. She swore under oath and looked at him again.

"Are you related to Rumeal Robinson?" the lawyer asked.

"Yes sir," she said.

"What's your relationship to him?"

"I'm his mother."

She answered questions for about 30 minutes, briefly recounting her son's successes and his scams. "He wasn't raised this way," she said. The judge dismissed her, and after she left the courtroom she began to cry in an elevator. Then she fainted. A courthouse employee helped her to the staff break room, where she lay on the couch, drank water and sobbed. "It was my breaking point," she says.

A few days later, after Robinson was found guilty on 11 criminal counts and Helen had traveled back to Massachusetts, the judge issued his sentence. He told Robinson he would spend six and a half years in federal prison.

"You could not handle the money once it got in your hands," the judge said. "It was like a drug to you."

TWO YEARS LATER, on a gorgeous fall day, Helen leaves her one-bedroom apartment and drives to work. Her eviction defines every hour of her daily routine: She wakes each night at 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. because she still feels uncomfortable in her apartment. She leaves home at 5 to spend an hour walking on the treadmill at a Gold's Gym in Cambridge because everything in Cambridge feels more familiar. At night she tries to modify her old recipes to make them for one. She watches sports because she'd rather listen to the announcers than deal with the silence. She prefers football because basketball reminds her of Robinson.

At 67, she still works as a security and safety specialist for the Cambridge elementary schools, devoted to helping troubled kids. On this day, she monitors the lunch rush at a local elementary school, doling out meatball subs and chocolate milk while watching the students come and go.

"I used to feel like I knew them all, trusted them, understood them, could tell where they were headed in life," she says, eyeing the children, shaking her head. "But people change. They disappoint you. Now I'm not so sure."

She has not talked to Robinson or tried to contact him since the trial. He is incarcerated in South Carolina. He refused to comment for this story unless he was paid, sending a letter from prison filled with legalese, threatening ESPN The Magazine with copyright infringement and going to the trouble of having it notarized. In that letter, he also wrote that he has appealed his sentence, blaming "inadequate" defense attorneys for the guilty verdict.

Helen has been working with a lawyer, Benzan, to try to win back the house, even though she has no money for a down payment. Benzan has known her family for ages and has offered to volunteer his time, spending the past two years untangling a real estate mess that involved a series of fraudulent buyers and victimized banks across the country. He has finally reached a tentative agreement about the house, and on this fall day he wants to explain it to Helen in person. She drives to meet him after the children clear out of the cafeteria at school.

"I'm due for some good news," she tells him.

Benzan explains that a third party has agreed to buy the house, clean it, repair it and divide it into rental condos. Units will go for about $2,000 a month. One will be reserved for Helen, as long as she pays the landlord.

The new buyers have plans to restore the center wall that Lou had taken down so long ago, when his family needed more space. They hope to carpet the living room where the boys had ridden their bikes. They will paint over the basketball scuffs in the halls.

They'll clean the house of its history, the good and bad.

"I'm sorry," the lawyer says. "I know it's quite a change."

"I'll be okay," Helen says, nodding. "What hasn't changed?"

Eli Saslow is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.