Boys in the 'hood

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Many years ago, I coached a fifth- and sixth-grade boys basketball team in Pine Bluff.

The team was made up entirely of African-American boys, ranging in age from 10 to 12. And it was a very good team. The only games we lost during my first season as coach were in a tournament where we competed against older players.

Most of the players on the team came from rough environments. There was very little parental involvement and I often picked the young men up for practice and games. Sometimes that involved going into parts of town that I would otherwise never visit.

It's more than 20 years later now, and I can still recall most of their names. Our point guard was Kendrick, a tremendous passer and ball handler. Kendrick actually joined the team a few weeks into the season. He tagged along with a friend one night. The friend asked if Kendrick could play and I said yes, as long as his parents approved and he had a birth certificate. His mom gave her OK and we headed off to practice. When we got to the gym, Kendrick picked up a basketball and immediately began dribbling between his legs and behind his back. Not only can he play, I said to our assistant coach, but he can start. I told someone later that season that it wouldn't shock me if he reached the NBA, and I wasn't exaggerating.

Our small forward was Aaron, who was the biggest player on our team. Aaron was around 5-8 and probably weighed somewhere around 180 pounds. But he was a gifted athlete who could run the floor, pass and was the best shooter on the team. He was a legitimate three-point threat as a fifth-grader.

Our power forward was Alton, a long, lean young man with tremendous quickness. Alton was not a scorer but he was a tenacious defender and rebounder. He was the key to our press defense, quick enough to cover the ball on inbound passes and then help double-team the opposing guard after the pass. He was also quick-tempered and could sometimes sulk. His father was in prison and I never saw his mother. We learned very quickly that Alton responded to praise. I can still picture his face lighting up when I would tell him how well he was playing.

Our shooting guard's name was Kenneth Moore. Kenneth was an outstanding scorer who could take the ball to the basket seemingly any time he wanted and was virtually unstoppable in the open court. In our very first game, Kenneth scored 24 points as a fifth-grader. Altogether, we scored 52 points and won in overtime.

I had a blast coaching that team, and although the boys got out of line sometimes, we really had very few problems. Still, I couldn't help but wonder what would become of them as they grew up. Pine Bluff is a hard place and without the right guidance, it's easy for young men to go astray.

At the time I coached the team, I was sports editor at the newspaper in Pine Bluff. My oldest son wasn't old enough to play organized sports yet and my youngest hadn't even been born.

Eventually, I took a job with the statewide newspaper based in Little Rock. When my oldest son began to play baseball and basketball, I coached his teams. But I kept up as best I could with the young men I had coached in Pine Bluff. I even took my sons to watch Kendrick play in a state championship football game. He had given up basketball for football and turned into an outstanding wide receiver and defensive back. His team lost the state championship game, but he made a one-handed interception that was one of the best plays I've ever seen.

Aaron also switched to football and became an all-state defensive end at Pine Bluff High School. He went on to play college football at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

But I didn't hear too much about Alton or Kenneth.

Later, I returned to Pine Bluff as a news reporter and eventually managing editor. And Alton and Kenneth turned up in our news pages -- both of them were arrested multiple times and Alton eventually went to prison.

I heard Kenneth's name for the last time a few months after I arrived in Carroll County in June 2014.

On Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, Kenneth Wayne Moore Jr. was shot to death in a parking lot in Pine Bluff. He was 28 years old. He was survived by four children, including his oldest son, Kenneth Wayne Moore III.

To some people -- maybe to most people -- Kenneth Moore is simply a statistic. Just another number, just another young black man with a troubled past who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up dead.

When I remember Kenneth, though, I remember a cat-quick guard who could score almost anytime he wanted. He was just a kid then, and I wonder what he could have accomplished under the right circumstances.

I was saddened by Kenneth's death, and by the fact that Alton wound up in prison. Yes, they both made bad choices that contributed to their problems. But growing up surrounded by poverty, with no role models and no guidance, is it any wonder? That's a cycle that will sadly continue unless our society can find a way to change it.

I haven't seen or spoken to any of the young men in years, except for exchanging Facebook messages with Kendrick.

"I remember it like it was yesterday, those were the good ole days," Kendrick wrote. "I want to thank you for those years, some of the best years of my life!"

Mine, too.