By Eric Dixon
At first glance basketball is just a game, but for those who live it and love it is much more. It is a place and journey all at once. “It is my place of refuge,” states Ashley Howard, former Drexel guard and current Head Men’s Coach at LaSalle University. This “game” provides life lessons beyond classrooms and lecture halls, provides light in darkness and reveals the inner makings of people like open wounds.
Anyone who has ever been transfixed by the bouncing of the ball on the asphalt, mesmerized by the rhythm of ball pounding against the concrete with a tenacity and consistency born of an innate attraction to an activity that can transform, transmit and transport you to places beyond your imagination.
The game speaks to players with a melody that, like any other music, is understood and heeded no matter the circumstance or locale. “Basketball is the universal language,” says Khalif Wyatt, a former Temple University standout and successful international player. Wyatt, a “chubby” Norristown native, followed the music from “Oak Street Park” to Champagne, France, with stops in China, Israel, and the Philippines in between.
Basketball is a connector, it brings people together in ways that help them form lifelong bonds that endure past players’ physical ability to play the sport. Darnell Alford, a Trentonian, was a relative unknown when he was tabbed to play in the minor professional league United States Basketball League. “Played for free just to get on,” he said. Alford, a standout guard at Monmouth University, credits his relationship with Trenton natives Bryan Caver, formerly of Seton Hall, and Greg Grant, a diminutive speedster that spent 9-years in the NBA, playing for 6 different teams, with making him aware of professional international opportunities in the sport. Caver in particular took a liking to the athletic Alford, encouraging him to play in summer leagues around Trenton and prove his mettle in the sport. “He told me to just go do what I do. Just play hard to the end and don’t quit.” He did just that using the lessons learned playing in those summer leagues to hone his skills that landed him a professional gig in a top Australian Pro League for 4 years, before returning home to Trenton to take care of his young son, Darnell Alford Jr, who is now playing professionally internationally.
Alford Sr., now works in education, teaching and coaching, imparting the lessons he learned in life to the young people he works with. “I didn’t even know playing (internationally) was a thing until I (learned it) from them”, he mused, recounting how it was the relationships that he built that helped him grow in the sport and in life.
Basketball is a counselor and a teacher. “I felt like a fish out of water when I first got to St. Joe’s Prep,” says Howard, who was first introduced to the game as a preschooler as a ballboy at the Chaney/Sonny Hill Basketball camp when he would tag along behind his grandfather who was the camp chef. “I used ball to get me through.”
In 1997, Howard lost his beloved grandfather and had to lean on the game and his family to cope. That experience gave him a determination to succeed, and not just in basketball. “I determined then that I was not going to be denied success in life.” Later when he “wasn’t in a good place” after transferring to Bonner, it was again his old friend basketball that helped him maintain and flourish, finishing second in Catholic League scoring to legend Rasual Butler.
For many, basketball is merciful and presents a path to redemption, granting some second and, sometimes, third chances at success. Nafis Ricks, former Lamberton High bucket-getter, lost his bearings and it was the game that guided him back and showed him the way. “I didn’t know about the (NCAA) Clearing House,” laments Ricks, who despite being a prolific scorer his senior year (35 ppg), he was unable to overcome academic shortcomings and a lack of exposure to garner a scholarship. He attempted to shore up his academic resume at MCI, a prep school in Maine. The situation proved untenable and he ended up leaving that January.
Disheartened and disillusioned, he put basketball down and started lifting boxes at UPS. It didn’t take long for the game to beckon him back, with his little brother providing the motivation to heed the call. He was led to JUCO standout Johnson County Community College in Kansas, where Ricks rediscovered his love for the sport and learned how to be a better leader, he landed at Missouri State University. There he decided he’d seek a livelihood in the game.
Wyatt, who credits his mother, Gail Clinkscales, with teaching him his values and brother, Aziz, and father, Vincent with providing the motivation and support he needed, didn’t even give a professional career even that much forethought. “I never really thought about it,” recalls the 2-time Isreali League Player of the Year, reflecting on how he felt during his stellar senior season on North Broad Street. “I was pretty much just focused on the game at hand, focused on the moment.”
Wyatt says no one considered him a pro prospect in middle school. He had a “great” training camp experience with the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers before being waived after the last preseason game. He spent very little time languishing over being cut by the hometown team. He would soon board a plane to go to the other side of the world after signing a six figure contract with the Guandong Southern Tigers within hours of being let go. He would play just one season in China before finding great success in the top league in Israel, where he won both individual and team awards, winning a championship while earning MVP honors.
Basketball can also be humbling, forcing players to put their pride aside and re-evaluate their place in the game and in life. Howard, who was dealt a devastating career ending diagnosis after his sophomore at Drexel, shared an experience that showed the importance of being humble and flexible as you go along your journey.
After his playing career was snatched from him, denying him the one thing that had been a constant in his world since he was a toddler, his college coach, Bruiser Flint, offered him a way to stay involved as a student coach. Howard excelled in his new role, his natural desire to teach and lead drove him to clutch the opportunity to his bosom and nurture it with the same determination and passion that made him a standout guard in high school.
Upon graduation from Drexel, he accepted a position as a camp coach at Hoop Group’s Invitational Camp. His confidence was high going into the experience. He was ready to show his talent and acumen in coaching and training players. However, before that he needed to be humble.
“The first thing Mike Rice (camp organizer) says to me is ‘Look, we just finished up the other camp and those kids left the dorms a mess. I need you to grab a mop and a bucket and get those rooms cleaned.” Howard was surprised and confused, but he set his feelings aside and accepted the task. Within two months he went from holding a mop and bucket to the title of “Camp Director”.
Basketball can also expose us to harsh realities and how we respond in the face of such ugliness may determine where our journey may end or begin. Howard’s tireless work ethic and team first attitude won him supporters within the Hoop Group. One such person was Robert Kennedy, an organization official. At dinner one evening Kennedy suggested a candidate for the La Salle head coaching vacancy who was attending the camp hire Howard immediately if he did get the job. The coach then looked at Howard, who was the only African American at the table, and said plainly “I’m not going to have any coloreds on my staff.” Howard brushed off the shockingly racist response. A month later he was invited to join the La Salle staff by the man the university actually hired instead of the bigot. In 2004, Dr. Gianni made Howard an assistant coach and his coaching career began in earnest. His resiliency helped to earn him a professional home in his “place of refuge”.
The importance of resiliency was also imparted to Wyatt as he traveled his own road in the sport. He was playing the “best basketball of his life” in February of 2017 when he tore his ACL playing in Israel. This would begin a two year span of personal exploration and growth for him as he searched for things to help him in his recovery and also cultivate his other interests. He would launch his Marathon Sport endeavor which would channel his desire to help youth and give back through sports and other enrichment programs. (For more information visit www.msport.big.cartel.com). He also adopted a new nutritional regimen which includes mostly vegetables and fish. Wyatt, 29, hopes to play five or six more years before he turns his attention to his other interests full time.
Ricks, who had seen his fair share of struggles, going through 6 agents in 3 years, achieved his goal of providing for himself and his family as a professional basketball player. He also learned a lot about himself and his problems with mental health that hastened his eventual decision to quit playing professionally and return to the States. He is open about his challenges with PTSD, depression and anxiety. Missing his young daughter, the rigors of acclimating to a different culture, while living out of hotel rooms and from pillar to post with the constant travel that goes along with playing internationally, he was left “mentally burnt out.” After returning home he became involved in education and eventually joined the staff at The University of Missouri, reuniting with his Missouri State coach, Cuonzo Martin. Today he is spearheading programs to raise awareness of mental illness and give players tools to cope with these issues.
Although Alford, Ricks, Howard and Wyatt have had very different journeys through the game they all showed some common traits as they went along the way. The humility and resiliency they displayed as they dealt with ebb and flow of their basketball lives is noteworthy and informative. The game is many things to those who choose to embrace it. Basketball can take you places, introduce you to people and teach you about yourself and those around you with a surety unexpected in a mere game.