How Penny Hardaway brought a championship to a Binghampton basketball team.
“We tell them, ‘Don’t do nothing bad,’” said God. “Don’t go negative.”
Added Love: “Desmond and Penny are helping guide the kids right.”
If that exchange sounds heavenly, it is not, and here is why:
“God” above — clean-cut and wearing a polo shirt — is the street name of a 28-year-old gang leader in the Binghampton neighborhood of Memphis. “Love” is 25 and more like it, if your image of a gang leader includes necklaces, tattoos, and a mouthful of gold teeth.
The “Desmond” referred to is “Dez” Merriweather, head basketball coach at Lester Middle School in Binghampton. And “Penny” is . . . no need to explain to Memphians who Anfernee Hardaway is. But who’s the man quoting God and Love?
He is Wayne B. Drash, sportswriter and senior producer for CNN.com, based in Atlanta, and he grew up in East Memphis, which makes him, a white man, in his own words, “an interloper, an obvious trespasser” on the streets of black Binghampton. But that is where Drash was when he interviewed the two gang members and that is where Drash puts readers in On These Courts: A Miracle Season That Changed a City, a Once-Future Star, and a Team Forever (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster). It is also fair to say that the next time you travel on Tillman between Walnut Grove and Sam Cooper, your view of Binghampton, after reading Drash’s book, will not be what it was.
What Binghampton is: a neighborhood with more than its share of broken homes, drug-dealing, gang activity, and gun violence. But what Binghampton is as well: a neighborhood not without its pride and caring individuals.
Anferee Hardaway, who grew up in Binghampton the son of a broken home, cares, and a year ago, Hardaway got a call from his boyhood friend Desmond Merriweather. Hardaway — star basketball player for the University of Memphis and for the Orlando Magic and other teams before injuries, after 16 years in the NBA, ended his career — answered that call. He didn’t respond with a few afternoons spent with the Lester Lions. Or with charitable giving, though Hardaway, through his professional earnings and endorsements, could have certainly mailed in a check and wished Binghampton well.
Hardaway, instead, went to court. He stepped in to coach the Lester Middle School boys basketball team after being asked by Merriweather, who was fighting colon cancer. Merriweather fought the good fight on the health front and is still fighting it. Hardaway fought the good fight and led his middle-school team through to a “miracle season” — one that advanced the team to the state finals and to the state championship in 2012.
Drash, who grew up in East Memphis in the 1970s and early ’80s, is the son of Sam Drash, who was headmaster of Christ Methodist Day School during those years. Though his neighborhood was worlds away economically from Binghampton, Drash himself wasn’t. His family had already shown him, by example, the injustices of racial segregation, and Hardaway had shown him what a future basketball star looks like when the two were 15-year-olds attending a basketball camp. Hardaway would go on to show Drash much more during the miracle season chronicled in On These Courts. Drash, with his seasoned eye for reporting, captures it all.
He describes, play by play, the nail-biting action on the basketball court as the Lester Lions advanced in rank. He details the largely fatherless lives and uncertain futures faced by Lester’s young athletes. He introduces readers to concerned parents, teachers, and neighborhood leaders. And he does his legwork on Binghampton’s troubled streets — streets too often, after dark, in the hands of rival gangs. But those gangs could rise to the occasion too. As Drash relates, everyone in Binghampton was behind the Lester Lions that championship season. If it meant gang members acting as school crossing guards and protecting the Lions’ valuable gear, good for those gang members (God and Love included).
Good thing Hardaway is the man he is, because what he gave the Lions and his former neighborhood was his time. The quality uniforms and shoes that he donated to the basketball squad are one thing. His coaching expertise, another. But, as Hardaway showed by example, what served on the court served off the court as well: discipline, hard work, and teamwork, whether during practice or during a game, in the classroom or in life.
Louise Hardaway, the strong-willed grandmother who instilled in Penny a set of values second to none, wouldn’t have had it any other way. Nor does her grandson, now that he’s back on his home turf, whether it’s Binghampton or Memphis itself. A portion of the sales of On These Courts will go to Penny’s FastBreak Courts, an ongoing effort by Hardaway to help at-risk youth citywide.
And for the record: The final score in the battle for the 2012 West Tennessee boys basketball state title was the Lester Lions over the Fayette East Bulldogs 58-57. Binghampton’s win: by a penny.
Midtown Memphis more than 50 years ago: It might as well be a world away in the pages of Paperboy (Delacorte Press), a young-adult, coming-of-age novel about a boy who knows the neighborhood of Vinton, Harbert, Carr, Melrose, Goodbar, and Peabody like the back of his hand — the same hand that throws newspapers on those very streets.
The year is 1959. The newspaper is the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The boy, age 11, is Victor Vollmer III. And he’s agreed to take over a friend’s paper route for a month, which is fine by his busy parents. They’ve got Nellie Avent, known as “Mam,” the family’s black housekeeper and cook, to look after the boy when they’re out of the house.
It’s fine too by Mrs. Worthington, a woman on Victor’s route with some very adult troubles to contend with, and by Mr. Spiro, who introduces the boy to a world of outside interests, including the wide world of literature and the ingredients of a well-lived life. Problem is: Victor is battling stuttering. Worse: He gets involved with a neighborhood junkman named Ara T, who may be good at petty thievery, but he and a bunch of South Memphis cutthroats are no match for Mam when she gets good and angry.
“Engaging” is just the word for this story, and the book’s target audience, young teens, will profit by the lessons taught and challenges described, among them, Victor’s speech impediment and the era’s racial divisions. But older audiences (and especially those who knew the city a half-century ago) will enjoy it too — enjoy the timely references (Britling Cafeteria, crewcuts, and My Weekly Reader) and Paperboy’s appealing, skillful storytelling.
Credit that skill, of course, to the book’s author, Vince Vawter, who grew up in the Midtown neighborhood he vividly and fondly recalls in Paperboy’s pages and who went on to a 40-year career in the newspaper business — first at the Press-Scimitar for more than a decade, then at the Knoxville News Sentinel.
In his author’s note, Vawter describes Paperboy, his debut novel, as more memoir than fiction, and that includes his own efforts, from an early age, to control his stuttering. Is he cured of it? No, he writes. Has he learned to deal with it? Yes, he also writes.
A good life lesson there, one that Penny Hardaway would not only endorse but applaud. Memphis readers of any age will, too.