Aren’t you going to school?” his mother asked the first day.
“Nuh-uh. My stomach hurts.”
He stayed in bed. The next morning he was still there.
“Aren’t you going to school?”
“I still feel sick.”
A week passed. Then two. After three weeks, his high school basketball coach, Ben Kelso, called to inquire. Where was Delvar, the kid they called
“Shaq”? How come he hadn’t been in school all this time?
“He’s sick,” his mother said the first time Kelso called.
“He might be back tomorrow,” she said the next time.
“I don’t think he’s coming back,” she said the next.
Finally, more than five weeks after Delvar’s disappearance, Kelso got into his car and drove out to the house. He knocked on the door, and Delvar came out, all 6-feet-6 of him. He seemed OK. Except his soft, boyish face kept looking down. He was embarrassed.
“What is it?” Kelso asked. “Why haven’t you been coming to school?”
“Because of what they say.”
“What who says?”
“The other guys.”
“What do they say?”
Delvar looked away. How could he explain this? His mother worked as a phone solicitor for a burglar alarm company. She made, in her best year, maybe
$10,000. She had three kids to feed, bills to pay, and no husband. So there was never any money. Delvar owned two pairs of pants, two decent shirts, one pair of shoes.
And that was it.
The kids in school had noticed. They got all over him. They dogged him about wearing the same clothes each day. They dogged him about his “weak” shoes. Being teenaged is all about status, no matter where you live — even the inner city — so they dogged him about being too poor. This, is in a neighborhood with bars on the windows and bullet holes in the porches. Too poor?
“I don’t want to hear it anymore,” Delvar told Kelso. “I’m sick of it. I’m not coming back.”
Kelso nodded. He knew what to do.
This is a story of a city kid who had his eyes opened by a coach. It’s also a reminder of how many of Detroit’s young men need a coach — because they don’t have a father around. Delvar Barrett, a 15-year-old basketball prize, has already endured a lifetime of challenges. He suffers from diabetes and must inject himself twice a day with insulin. He cooks his own food, drains the fat, avoids sugars, and travels with an emergency kit. He deals with bullets in his neighborhood and drugs in his streets. He is taller and stronger than most grown men — yet he is still a kid.
And, like any kid, he yearns for adult guidance.
“If I had a father around,” he says now, sitting in the gym office at Cooley High, “I never would have quit school. My father would have told me to stick it out, ignore the other kids. And I would have listened. Like I listened to Coach Kelso.”
He leans forward in his chair, his long arms dangling in his lap.
“Where is your father?” he is asked.
“Who knows? East side, somewhere, I think.” Where are all the men?
Take a pulse of the Detroit school system, and you’ll find a wretched trend. Most kids are being raised by one adult, and most of the time it’s the mother, grandmother or other female relative. Where are all the men? Sure, Delvar’s mother could have made him go to school when he told her he was sick. But when you work all day and you tend to two daughters — one of whom also has diabetes and has to be home-schooled — and when your son is the size of an NBA forward, and weighs 250 pounds, and says he’s not going to school and lies in bed all day — what are you going to do? Drag him?
“I was hoping he would come out of his depression,” Vivian Barrett, his mother, recalls. “I knew if I forced him, it wouldn’t work.
“I felt very bad. He doesn’t have many clothes, it’s true. We don’t have the money. I haven’t bought anything new for myself in years.
“But he’s at that age when he listens better to a man. Maybe if he had older brothers . . .
“His father? Ha! I don’t know where he is. He’s what you call a Christmas-card father, you know? He barely works. He’s just not interested.”
Which is where Kelso came in. He was interested. On the day he discovered Delvar at home, he returned with a pair of sneakers, some sweats, and an article that had been written about Kelso in Sports Illustrated, an article which detailed his similarly difficult youth. “You read this,” Kelso told Delvar. “And then see if you can come back.”
Kelso, 48, has been doing this type of thing for years, casting his shadow into the empty rooms of his players’ lives. There are many Cooley alumni in Detroit who think of Ben Kelso as the most dominant male influence in their lives.
That is both good — and sad.
Delvar read the article. He read about Kelso’s poverty- stricken childhood in the rural South, how he once was bitten by a rat during his sleep, how he picked through trash for something to eat, how he pumped gas as a high schooler, never had time to play organized ball, worked on an assembly line until he got into college, and still managed, somehow, to make the NBA.
And then he read the part that stuck:
“Kelso’s father left when Ben was 4 years old.”
Delvar’s father left when Delvar was 4 years old.
The next day, Delvar put on his old blue pants and his old blue shirt, and he went to school. Big, strong, quiet, shy
In the Cooley gym, Delvar pounds a ball and slides in for a shot. He has enormous skills for a kid his size, soft hands, good inside moves, a feel for the basket. A sophomore, he already starts at center for Cooley, averaging eight points a game. Yet he has always been quiet and shy. One day last year, he just stopped during the middle of running drills and left the court. He got dressed and went home. Never said a word.
“Normally I chew a kid out if he stops,” Kelso says. “But you could see something unusual was happening.”
Delvar was having a diabetic reaction. His blood sugar was low, and he was shivering and weak. Kelso — who didn’t know of his disease at the time — now
has the team travel with orange juice and insulin. And Delvar, when he goes home, makes sure he boils his hot dogs, and cooks his hamburgers in a pan, and stays away from sweets and fried foods. Because his mother works until 8 at night, Delvar takes care of himself and helps his younger sister Chirese, who also suffers from juvenile diabetes. He knows that each month he has to get a new pack of syringes from the drugstore — “60 per pack,” he recites — and new vials of insulin.
“If I had one day where I could eat anything I wanted?” he says. He smiles like a young leprechaun, his whole face lighting up. “I know. I’d eat a whole box of Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch.”
And he laughs. Delvar Barrett is a bright kid, and, given his basketball skill, he has a good chance at a college scholarship. He dreams of seeing
“faraway places, like Alaska and Hawaii — I’ve never been anywhere but Lansing.”
He dreams, so he has a chance. It is disturbing to think all this could have been lost because he was ashamed of his clothes.
He came this close.
“If Delvar didn’t come back to school,” Kelso says over the squeak of sneakers on the gym floor, “who knows if he’d even be alive next year?” Get used to whizzing bullets
Outside Cooley, the snow is piled against the dark brick walls. Like most inner-city schools, all doors are locked except a designated few. There is a police car nearby. You park at your own risk. Once, an out-of-town school came to play against Cooley, and the coaches parked their cars on both sides of Kelso’s. When they came out, their cars were gone, Kelso’s was still there.
This is the city. Delvar Barrett lives not far from school, on Buena Vista, which translates to “beautiful view.”
“One time, on the Fourth of July, someone opened a fire hydrant and we were splashing around, having fun,” Delvar recalls, “and then bang! Somebody shot a man in the neck and everyone ran.
“Where I live, you can hear bullets every night — especially in the summer. I used to wonder how close they are, or who was doing the shooting. But after a while, as long as they’re not right next door, you ignore them.”
Delvar, somehow, has stayed away from guns and gangs. He has a 2.8 grade-point average, and he is in school all the time now, hanging around Kelso the way a groupie hangs around a rock star. “If I’m in the office, he’s in the office,’ Kelso says, laughing. “If I’m in the gym, he’s in the gym. He’s like glue.”
Delvar doesn’t do this because he’s insecure; he does it because Kelso cares. “Coach is the first older man that really showed an interest in me,” he says.
Where are all the men? Delvar tells a story about seeing his father for the first time after a three-year absence. It was Christmas, and his father brought him a GI Joe doll.
“I was so happy to see him, I didn’t even want a present. But then he just disappeared again.
“Now he’s gone and married some woman with her own family. I feel like, who needs him? If he wanted to marry someone, why didn’t he marry my mother?
“It’s like we’re not good enough.”
He says this, and he looks away in anger, and honest to God, you want to cry. There are young men like Delvar all over Detroit, kids with one female elder, no male guidance. Sometimes they say yes when they should say no, sometimes they get into trouble, and sometimes they simply stop coming to school for the saddest of reasons — like other kids teasing them about their poor clothes.
What do we expect? They are still kids. If the right voice is there, they can be put back on track. If it isn’t . . .
Delvar steps onto the court and takes another shot. When Kelso walks past, talking to someone, Delvar watches admiringly, always aware of where he is.
It’s funny. When Kelso was a teen in Tennessee, he was stealing lunches from other school kids. He got caught and was about to be expelled. A teacher stepped in, defended him and helped turn him around.
And here, some 35 years later, Kelso has pulled a kid from a dangerous bed of self-pity and steered him toward a better life. This time, a coach was there. But if Delvar’s father is reading this — if any Christmas-card fathers are reading this — you should know there won’t always be someone else around. This was your place, your responsibility, your job, and where were you? Where are all the men? Until we find them, we won’t begin to solve the problems of this city. We won’t even come close.