Michael's chance

Bob Herbert

August 19, 1993|By Bob Herbert

THE youngsters on the basketball court on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were trying to figure out a way to pull a kernel of opportunity from the death of James Jordan.

The afternoon was appropriately gloomy, a sullen gray, humid. The ball rattled off the backboard and into the hands of Dyam Jennings, who is 15. A moment later, standing beside the court, he and a few friends asked how Michael Jordan was doing and said they worried that he would have a hard time next season when he will have to go onto the court without his father nearby.

"I feel real sorry for him," said Gabe Leibowitz, who is 14.

"He's my favorite player," said Jose Toro, 15.

Although a few years younger, the boys on the West Side -- good kids -- looked as if they could have been playmates of Larry Demery and Daniel Green, the North Carolina teen-agers accused of murdering Mr. Jordan. They had the baseball caps turned around backward, the baggy shorts and gaudy T-shirts, the slouching nonchalance of adolescence.

Besides appearance, they all have at least one other thing in common: They are growing up in the new era of violence in the United States. The amount of violence is astounding. Thousands of youngsters go to sleep serenaded by gunfire. The Commission on Violence and Youth of the American Psychological Association reported that a 17-year-old girl in Boston told a state task force that she had been to the funerals of 16 friends who had died by violence.

I wrote not too long ago about a small high school in Brooklyn TTC that had four students who were killed in separate incidents over one summer. The students' classmates did not think that was strange.

Some schools have rooms permanently reserved for mourning.

Something is wrong.

The boys playing basketball in Manhattan seemed worried about the possibility that James Jordan's death might have been pointless. They recoiled from that.

"Maybe," said Adam Hulse, 14, "maybe Michael could go around and make some speeches about how guns are never the right answer. Maybe he could try to convince kids by showing how guns affected him."

This was thought to be a good idea. Gabe Leibowitz nodded excitedly. "Sure," he said. "He could go to different schools and lecture. Kids would listen to him."

"He could make a video," said Jose Toro.

Dyam Jennings had remained quiet. Now he spoke. "He could deliver the message that violence and murder are not fun. That vandalizing cars is not cool. That killing somebody is not something you should be proud of."

The boys stood around now, quiet. The only noise was traffic going by on Columbus Avenue and every now and then a low roll of thunder. It looked as if it would begin to pour at any moment.

Charles Barkley, who revels in the outrageous (he once suggested he had been misquoted in his autobiography), has said: "Professional athletes should not be role models. How the hell does an athlete qualify for the job? If the only qualification is that you have to be able to dunk a basketball, then I know millions of people who could become role models. Hell, I know drug dealers who can dunk. Can drug dealers be role models, too?"

Sure, they can. They are. The dealers led the way in establishing ever more brutal levels of violence. They helped turn murder into acceptable behavior for thousands upon thousands of young people. The result has been an explosion of violence and grief.

The boys who murdered James Jordan were enthusiastically following the drug dealers' lead. The boys in the West Side playground want their peers to be shown the alternatives.

The toll is growing. Authorities in Robeson County, N.C., said Mr. Jordan was awake and frightened just before he was killed. It's a hideous kind of fear -- a cold terror laced with dread -- that is known to millions of crime victims.

The boys in the playground believe Michael Jordan could make a difference. They may be right. He could be a powerful influence against violence.

It might even be better if he were joined in some kind of effort by his skeptical friend Charles Barkley.

Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.

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