Second in a series on the heartbreaks and hopes of unsung Detroit area athletes.
The trouble, James says, began last year, when they fished his Uncle Alfonso out of the Detroit River. Alfonso was 28. He was into drugs. Crack cocaine. He died of an overdose. Police said Alfonso had been floating for two days before a fisherman discovered his body.
After that, James’ mother began to slide. She loved Alfonso, and in grief or foolishness, she got into drugs, too. She would come home staggering, her eyes glassy and gone. James would say, “What’s wrong with you?” and she wouldn’t even answer. Just sit on the couch, her head listing back and forth.
One day, James came home from school to find all his mother’s belongings on the street. Well. Not all of them. Just the old stuff. The newer stuff — a big-screen TV, a couch, some chairs — was gone.
“Your cousins stole it,” a neighbor told him. “They came with a truck. They said your mother didn’t pay to fix the place.”
After that, James moved in with a friend. His kid brother, Tommy, who is 7, and his kid sister, Evelyn, who is 8, went with his mother to an apartment on Eight Mile Road. She was still into the drugs, and so the kids often didn’t get to school. Sometimes, James would get a call from his mother saying her boyfriend had beat her up.
In August, James moved to the place on Eight Mile to help take care of his brother and sister. He cooked them pork chops and chicken. He ironed their clothes. When the school year started, he set his alarm for 6:30 a.m. so he could wake them, dress them and get them on their way. You may ask where his father was. You may ask where Tommy and Evelyn’s father was. You would have to ask three times, since they are three different men. The answer is the same for each. Not around.
James does have an older brother. He is wanted by the police. Parole violation. Carrying a concealed weapon. He sells drugs, too, according to James. And, of course, he has a different father. One time, James came home from basketball practice to find his older brother sitting there, waving a wad of cash.
“You want to waste your time with basketball,” he said, “or you wanna make the big money?”
In October, James’ mother suffered an overdose. She was in her car, parked on the street, with her two young kids in the back. Neighbors called an ambulance. She was taken to a hospital.
She got out the next day. The following morning, she got in the car again, claiming she was going for groceries. She was gone for hours. “When she came back,” James says, “she was all groggy and out of it. She took those pills again.”
She went back to the hospital.
In the months since then, it has been pretty much James and the kids, making their way. They moved to their third home this year, on Coyle Street. James moved in with his friend Mike, from the Cooley High basketball team. His brother and sister moved in with the family next door. James’ mother is out of the hospital now, but isn’t quite ready for the full-time responsibility thing. Once upon a time, parenting wasn’t so optional.
This is not once upon a time.
So after school, James picks up Tommy and Evelyn and takes them to basketball practice, where he can watch them and they can watch him back, watch him shoot and drive to the basket, doing the one thing that lets him soar the way children should be able to soar, free and light and happy.
James Williams is 5-feet-9, a high school sophomore with a soft voice, trusting eyes and the thin hairs of a teenaged mustache on his upper lip. He looks like a kid. He smiles like a kid. But, at 16, he acts more like a adult than either of his parents.
We talk about the future of this city, how we can solve its problems and ensure its survival. We can talk all we want. One question stops all discussions.
Who is bringing up the children?
“Gimme kiss, gimme kiss!” Evelyn Williams squeals. Her 8-year-old arms are wrapped tightly around the neck of Joyce Kelso, who has just walked in from shopping.
“But I have lipstick on,” Joyce says, smiling.
“Gimme kiss, here, here!” Evelyn insists, pointing to her cheek. Her brother Tommy races up to Joyce’s feet, bouncing a toy horse, his white-socked feet sliding across the tiled floor.
Joyce Kelso is the wife of Ben Kelso, the Cooley basketball coach who saw something in James Williams, and who gave the kid a spark of hope by making him a guard on the Cooley team. Williams now plays basketball as if the last lights of his life are in the rim. He dives. He leaps. He averages nine points a game, leads the team in steals, and, Kelso says, “never gets tired. He never wants to come out.”
He also never leaves Kelso’s side, not if he can help it. Kelso, who seems to be a surrogate father for half the teenaged basketball players in Detroit, was there for all the 2 a.m. phone calls from James, when he found out his mother was stoned again. And it was Kelso who saw how Tommy and Evelyn, because of their mother’s problems, were falling behind in their education. He tried to get them into an elementary school next to Cooley, where James could pick them up more easily.
The elementary school said no. When Kelso asked why, the principal chided him.
“Don’t you remember the parable?”
“What parable?” Kelso asked.
“About the shepherd who tries to save one sheep and loses his flock? You should remember that.”
Kelso shook his head in disbelief. He walked away from that closed door, and, on his own, purchased books, English and math books, for Tommy and Evelyn to study while James practiced. Recently, after things didn’t work out at their latest stop, the two youngsters moved into Kelso’s house in Southfield, because they were simply out of options.
Maybe coaches shouldn’t take in other people’s children.
Maybe parents shouldn’t be junkies.
“How many friends do you have who live with both their father and mother?” I ask James Williams.
“A mother and a father?” he says, as if I’ve suggested a concept from outer space. “Umm. Not many. No more than a couple.”
James thinks for a minute, then shrugs. “I guess I don’t know any.”
The city of Detroit leads the nation in single-parent families. Leads the nation. The average number of children with one parent in America’s largest cities is 35 percent.
In Detroit, it’s 60 percent.
And when something happens to the one parent who’s there, the shifting begins.
So you can stop any inner-city athlete here and ask him his biggest male role model. Most of the time it’s a coach or an uncle. The female role model is often a grandmother or an aunt. Doesn’t anyone see the silent horror of this? How do you make up for absent influence? How do you account for the stability, love and discipline that is missing when parents are missing? How do you make up for the security of coming home to the same faces at a dinner table each night?
You don’t. So instead of mother and father coming to watch him play basketball, the police last month went to Cooley to see James Williams. Turns out they had stopped his older brother, who had used James’ school ID as a false alias to avoid arrest.
Whom does James cry to about that? Who hears his humiliation when he comes home? Not his mother. Not his father.
“Sometimes,” James says now, his hands folded across his knees, “I sit and think, ‘How come my family has to be this way? How come there’s all these drugs and stuff? How come it’s so messed up?’ “
What’s your answer, he is asked.
“Nobody gives me an answer,” he says.
Over the telephone, James’ mother speaks in a hazy, halting voice, disappearing for seconds at a time. She is talking from an apartment where she lives with her boyfriend. She admits she has used drugs. She says she used to use cocaine, but that was years ago. Now it’s pills. When her brother died,
“things caved in…. I was looking for an escape…. I took the pills to relax, get my head together….”
She says she is straight these days. She says she is working some through a temp agency. Although her two youngest children have been staying with the Kelsos, and before that, with another family — and this has been going on for months — nonetheless, she says, “they live with me. Those other people, they’re just helping out.”
Have you ever seen your son play basketball at Cooley?
Were you ever high when your son was around?
Do you think you’ve been a good mother?
Her oldest son is 19, and she is only 37 herself. She comes from a family of six on Detroit’s west side. Her mother worked for General Motors.
I ask about her father.
“I never saw him,” she says.
You can talk all you want about gun control and crowded schools, drugs, gangs, sexual awareness. You want to save a city? It still comes down to who’s at home when you walk in the door.
Where are all the fathers and mothers? What are they thinking? They bring kids into this world the way they bring luggage to the airport, figuring the packages will somehow find their way.
James Williams, a good student, a fine athlete, and, remarkably, a straight kid, has had three bedrooms this year alone. His clothing collection could fit into a single bag. He didn’t have much of a Christmas, and here are his prospects for the new year:
His mother is fighting drug addiction. His older brother is on the lam. His father hasn’t shown his face. He has a temporary address, along with two younger siblings who beg to be kissed.
“If I’m ever a father,” James says, as Tommy and Evelyn play with the toy horse on the couch next to him, “I’m gonna be around. I’m gonna take care of my kids. I wouldn’t walk out on ’em. I wouldn’t use drugs around them, neither.”
He casts a watchful eye toward his brother and sister, and in doing so, shows he already knows something many Detroit parents and one school principal have forgotten. These are children, not sheep. And the way you save the flock is one at a time, one at a time.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.