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For Even the Smallest Ships Can Weather the Storm: Penny Hardaway Brings Hope to the Children of a Gang Ridden Community
It’s hard to imagine living a life of violence. However, it’s a part of our reality that many in the country have seen firsthand...even as early as our childhood. How many stories have we read about children who live in neighborhoods infested with gangs who draft kids to be a part of what they call a “real family”? How many times have we seen children gunned down because they were playing ball at the wrong time of the day in their own front-yard? What kind of lives can they live when they are in constant fear of simply wearing the wrong colors?
Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, a retired NBA star, once lived that life in his hometown of Memphis in the Binghampton community. It was basketball that helped Penny find the better life that he wanted. It would be this sport that would do the same for the children living in Bighampton today.
On March 16, 2012, CNN interviewed two major figures who led the Lester Middle School Lions basketball team to a championship game. Desmond Merriweather, the head coach of the Lions, was one of those major figures. According to the report, Coach Merriweather manages a team of 12 kids. Out of those, nine have grown up without having a father to raise them. In addition, at least half of the team lives in one to two bedroom apartments and shares them with more than six siblings.
The story of these young men is sadly not unique. Many of Lesters' students come from broken homes. The school itself is located on Carpenter Street and nicknamed “C Street” as it’s primarily known for being Cripes territory. Sadly, the Cripes are just one of four gangs that dominate the Binghampton community.
About five months ago, Coach Merriweather was diagnosed with colon cancer. Although he went through surgery and chemo, doctors had little hope he would win the battle. It was aroudn this time that Penny Hardaway, who was a childhood friend of the coach, paid Merriweather a visit.
Both Hardaway and Merriweather had seen a lot of violence as they grew up in Binghampton and both had dreams of helping the Lions find a better life beyond the projects. At Hardaway’s insistence, Merriweather began to introduce the former NBA star to his team. Originally, Hardaway started as a volunteer, but in time Merriweather had passed on most of his coaching duties over to Hardaway as he was still feeling weak from his cancer treatmentss. Eventually, Hardaway became the team’s new coach without asking for pay, but kept Merriweather by his side for guidance.
Hardaway did more than just coaching his team in the ways of basketball. He also became a mentor, stressing his kids to keep up their school work. He would stick his head in their classes to make sure they were there and often checked up with their teachers on their progress reports.
As Hardaway discussed his experience on CNN about coaching the team, he recalled telling the kids: "Don't use not having a father as an excuse. There are a lot of people who came out of adverse situations and made it. Use it as motivation. Use it to drive you."
With the right amount of drive, the team produced amazing results. Coach Hardaway had succeeded in helping the students boost their GPA from 2.5 to a 2.9. He and Coach Merriweather also went personally to the gang leaders and demanded they stay away from the kids…and the leaders agreed. Perhaps the team’s most incredible achievement was earning their place to play Fayette East and compete for this year’s State Championship.
Incredibly, the Lions had earned their victory. In a report posted by Action News 5 on March 11, they defeated Fayette East within the final moments of the game 58-57. In fact, some of those points are attributed to numerous 3 pointer shots made by Merriweather’s son, Nick. The team was honored as special guests of Zion Temple COGIC for their victory:
“I told them all last season that the things they do good in life, it's going to come back to them, and this is what I really enjoy,” remarked Coach Hardaway during the ceremony.
While Coach Hardaway continues to coach the team, he is also seeking help build a better community for his hometown. Currently, he is working with a youth foundation to collect funds and break ground this year for Penny’s Fastbreak Courts. The building will house numerous facilities including 7 basketball courts, an auditorium, and a classroom for tutoring kids. More information for donating towards the cause can be found at the My Coke Rewards site:
For those of us who have never been in a gang or know someone who has, it would appear rather black and white that being in a gang is a bad idea. I’m sure that for most of us it would be unthinkable to shoot someone just to steal a few dollars or for the sheer pleasure of using terror as a mean of control. I could never imagine smashing someone’s face in with my fists because I couldn’t get my way or because I needed to prove myself to become “part of the family.”
The fact is, though, that there’s so much more to it than just wanting to get your way. In fact, may not even be the issue at all. When childhren grow up without having a role model in their lives, they don’t know the difference between right or wrong. If anything, most of them will feel as if they have been wronged. When children are left to fend for themselves with absolutely no guidance on how to survive or how to love others, chances are they will resent everyone and everything. They are given no education opportunities, no skills to work good jobs, and no motivation to step outside their neighborhood to experience the world around them.
The worst feeling of all for these children is simply being left behind, making them feel as if nobody cares about what happens to them. I don’t doubt there are gang members who just don’t care who they hurt and are simply greedy. However, reading this story leads me to believe that for a lot of these children that isn’t the case. They live in a world where they have one of two choices: fire the gun or be killed by one. With a choice like that and no real figure to tell them there is a better life out there, what choice do these children really have? In many cases, these gangs are the only family they have.
Coaches Hardaway and Merriweather understood that sense of longing and need for guidance. They experienced first-hand the life and hardships of growing up in a gang-infested neighborhood. That also gave them the edge they needed to help their team survive. Penny and Merriweather knew how to help them fill the void in their lives.
These kids needed someone who had been down that road and cared enough to provide the motivation they needed to change their lives for the better. These kids needed real “father” figures, who offer them a better and stronger choice than a gun: a diploma, a pat on the back, a real dream that would come true. These kids needed to find a real starting point towards a better future.
Coaches Hardaway and Merriweather found that starting point on the basketball court. When the team won the championship, they did more than just win recognition for achieving a historical victory. They finally understood the their coaches’ lessons: no matter where you grow up, you have always have a choice of making a positive change in your life.
It’s a message we can pass onto our children today and I don’t mean just our sons and daughters. Every child is born into this world full of questions, and we can provide the answers. We can show them that no matter where they live or how they grow up, there is always a chance of realizing your dream and making it come true. However, that is a belief that must be instilled from the time that they are young enough to appreciate what you have to say. The longer we wait to be a role model for these kids, the harder it will become for them to break away from that life of crime and chaos.
These children are navigating the stormy waters of a violent world on a ship with no captain. So let’s board that ship with them and show our children they have what it takes to land it on the shores of opportunity and success.