Only A Game first aired on July 24, 1993, so throughout 2013, we’ll be celebrating our 20th anniversary by revisiting and updating some of the stories you’ve heard on the program over the past 20 years.No story has had a greater impact on me than the one I found during the 2000-01 basketball season, which I spent getting to know the members of the men’s team at Roxbury Community College in Boston. The community is a tough, sometimes dangerous place to grow up, and the team was distinguished by several factors. Some of the players, Ka’reem Horton among them, were the first members of their families to attend college. Early in our association, on a day when he was playing through a lousy cold, I asked Ka’reem about how he was handling that circumstance.
“I feel a lot of pressure, man,” Horton said. ”Every day. But just not about school though. About basketball. So many people have so many high expectations for me, they put me on a pedestal, so every time I do something it’s watched and observed. I wish it wasn’t like that, but it’s a price to pay with being, like, a good athlete.”
“I guess if you weren’t as good, nobody would be watching and that wouldn’t so good either,” I said.
“Not at all,” he said. “I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you neither.”
School and basketball weren’t only the pressures Ka’reem was facing. I’d later learn that he and his girlfriend were raising two children, the younger one a four-month-old daughter.
“Man, it’s the same stuff for two years,” Wynn shouted during halftime of one 2001 contest. “Jamil, why do I have to say it? Guards tip the ball! Big men rebound!”
For the record that locker room tirade worked. On the night Coach Wynn delivered it, Roxbury came back from six down at the half and won by 20.
They didn’t often have to come from behind. Malcolm Wynn didn’t often have to yell at them. The team was talented, deep, and tight.
I recently caught up with Malcolm and the two players with whom I’d spoken most often during that 2000-01 season. We met in the gym at Curry College, where Wynn is the head coach of the men’s team. The target of Coach Wynn’s locker room wrath that night 12 years ago, Jamil Abdullah, arrived first, followed by his former teammate, Ka’reem Horton. We learned right away that the coach’s memory is selective.
“See, this is the thing, you know, people wait 10, 15 years, the memory gets clouded,” Wynn said. “It was a lot of visual-arts stuff, and meditation music.”
“You’re lucky we had a thick skin, man,” Abdullah said. “For real.”
A thick skin wasn’t all Jamil Abdullah had going for him during that spectacular season. He was tough, durable, and apparently able to go without sleep. He worked over night as a bus station security guard, made it to basketball practice at 7 a.m., and then went to class, where he was impressive enough so that his physics professor began lobbying for Northeastern University to give Jamil an academic scholarship to pursue an engineering degree, which he eventually earned. For the past eight years, he’s been working for NSTAR, the company providing energy to much of Eastern Massachusetts, and he’s still balancing multiple responsibilities, among them working with children in Boston’s Islamic community.
“Working on my masters in Power Systems Management at Worcester Poly Tech, doing a lot of work in the community, like a lot of poetry events, a lot of youth work, a lot of writing workshops and things like that for the kids,” Abdullah said.
Jamil calls Coach Wynn his surrogate father. Then he smiles and says Malcolm wasn’t the only one. If that physics professor hadn’t known him as an athlete as well as a student, things might not have worked out so well.“He was a big Roxbury basketball fan, so he was at every game. And then in class, the first 10 minutes, he was talking directly to me about it, the rest of the class is waiting on the lesson,” Abdullah recalled. “Just to be serious for a moment, it was, you know my situation was, in high school, growing up in Boston, it was like the 18-25 year old black man is an endangered species in the inner city.”
Twelve years ago, Jamil told me Roxbury Community College was a bubble of safety for men like him. But now he recalls that it was more than that. The basketball team at RCC was a community…even a family.
“Going through tryouts, going through practices, and then we genuinely liked each other, so we would hang out, and coach took a vested interest in us, with our athletics, with our academics, with our family life, which was extremely rare,” Abdullah said.
Another beneficiary of that community was the team’s most talented player, Ka’reem Horton. In 2001, Coach Wynn told me Ka’reem had a chance to play professionally. He was the only member of that Roxbury team to move on to Division I basketball after being recruited by Maryland Eastern Shore. Injuries derailed his career there, but he graduated on time, and then returned to Boston. Five years ago, Ka’reem bought a house in Dorchester, a neighborhood adjacent to Roxbury. He and his fiancé have three children now. The daughter born just before that 2000-01 basketball season now runs track, swims competitively, and plays softball. Ka’reem works as a behavioral specialist at a residential treatment center west of the city and as a supervisor at an adult mental health facility. Some of his work days are 18 hours long, which doesn’t leave much time for the game at which he once excelled.
“Sometimes I do coaching, but it’s kind of hard to be around basketball, to be honest with you,” Horton said.
“Really? How come?” I asked.
“Just ’cause things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to work,” he said. “I fractured my shoulder blade, and after that I pretty much really never was the same, as far as mentally. I was afraid to do a lot of things, because I was different. My body was different, and it kind of messed with me mentally, so I just stopped.”
“But you must be proud of what you’ve accomplished,” I said.
“I’m very proud. I’m blessed,” he said. “You have no idea. I tell you that I’m blessed, and I’m appreciative every time I wake up, see another day, it’s a good one for me.”
Likewise, Jamil Abdullah and Malcolm Wynn seem to be content. They’re doing what they enjoy doing. But when the coach remembers the two seasons during which he worked with Jamil and Ka’reem, it’s with some melancholy. In 2000, Roxbury won the Division III Junior College National Championship. At the end of the following season, the one during which I met them, they made the Final Four again and finished third in the country. Malcolm Wynn recalls those days as extraordinary.
“Those were the best days of my life,” Wynn said. “Because our life had purpose. And I never have been with a group of folks that set a goal and never wavered from that goal. See, it’s easy looking back. I say that was my favorite team, they say, ‘Yeah, ’cause they won the national championship.’ No. It’s because the way they went about doing their business. The national championship was just something that happened from doing your business the right way.”
At that, Ka’reem Horton nods.
“Those are my best memories of playing basketball actually, that team right there, out of all my years of playing,” Horton said. “It was totally different. It was a great feeling, so, and something that you look back on every day and think, damn, it’s gone.”
At the end of that 2000-01 basketball season, I had lunch – a banquet of ribs and greens – with Ka’reem Horton and some of the other players. Ka’reem made a point of thanking me for telling their story. And, after we got together at Curry recently, I’m damned if he didn’t thank me again.
Hey, Kareem, you’re welcome. Thank you.