Lessons In Life And Basketball

September 06, 1995|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

Joe Dickens doesn't tolerate selfish play on the basketball court, and he preaches against the teen fad of wearing baggy pants drooped halfway down the buttocks.

"I go to school dressing baggy with my pants down," said one of his players, Darryl Halsey, a 13-year-old ninth-grader at Patterson High School. "He doesn't want our boxers to show."

As a coach of youth teams in the city's O'Donnell Heights area, Mr. Dickens squeezes lessons on life into his basketball drills.

Make no mistake, he's not a miracle worker. He has produced no overnight transformations. So pants sometimes droop on fast breaks down the blue-and-red court at the O'Donnell Heights Recreation Center in Southeast Baltimore.

Raymond Joseph Dickens says he has seen talented players who had lives that went nowhere. He doesn't want that to happen to the youngsters he coaches.

"What you have out here on the basketball courts is all-America street ballplayers," he said. "They're not all-America academic ballplayers."

Mr. Dickens hopes that his teams' success on the basketball court will convince his young pupils of the wisdom of his ways.

He has taken some players to his church, Memorial Institutional Church of God on Greenmount Avenue. He requires that his young athletes spend an afternoon at the library each week. And, along with Inez "Peggy" Ritch, the mother of the late Reggie Lewis, he has co-founded a program called "Stars of the Comets" to get parents more involved in the lives of their children.

Winning has gained him respect from his players. His 13-year-old-and-under team won the championship in the summer midnight basketball program sponsored by the Police Department, the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

At the midnight basketball awards banquet last week, he was cheered wildly by teens in the audience when he was introduced. He is hoping to capitalize on his popularity by helping his players mature as ballplayers and as people.

He commands respect with an approach that is strict but not overbearing. One afternoon, he said several times to players frustrated about missing a shot or making a turnover, "Watch your language, please."

Talking to 11 boys during a break, he tells one who will not grow tall enough to play center in high school to improve his dribbling skills to become a shooting guard. He tells another to groom his uncombed Afro. And he explains to the group that it is important to follow rules, such as the one prohibiting anyone from playing in a recreational league and for a high school team at the same time.

"If everyone else cheats, why can't you?" asked Robert Butler, 15.

L "I don't have to break the rules to win," the coach replied.

In an interview later, he said, "A lot of kids are used to breaking the rules, doing what they want to do."

When he talks, these teen-age boys, most from underprivileged backgrounds, listen to him -- most of the time.

He'll know he has made another major breakthrough when he gets those pants up to the waistline.

"I tell them sometimes a thousand times a day, and I'll keep reiterating," said Mr. Dickens, a driver for Standard Medical, delivering to hospitals and laboratories. "Maybe one day they will stop wearing pants down their behinds."

The coach played basketball at Community College of Baltimore in the early 1980s, spending time at all five positions. Several years ago, he coached a youth team at the Waverly Recreation Center. He is married and the father of three, and his 13-year-old son plays on his O'Donnell Heights team.

He lives in the city's Cedonia area but started coming to O'Donnell Heights Recreation Center three years ago to lift weights. While pumping iron, he watched the young ballplayers and started giving them advice. He became an instant role model.

He agreed to coach a team and to coach in the midnight basketball program. He expects to coach four teams in the fall.

Since coming to the O'Donnell Heights center, he has seen some teens grow and a few slip. Others, such as Darryl Halsey, remain in limbo.

Darryl's basketball talent is the envy of his peers. But his attitude could hinder his success in hoops and school, Mr. Dickens said.

The coach said Darryl showed a spurt of discipline that brought his grades to a B average last year. But a downward cycle sent his grades falling again. He is the most valuable player on the team, but he didn't show up for the banquet because he would not agree to the coach's request that his players wear ties.

"I've got an attitude problem," Darryl said, taking a break from the pickup game, for which he wore knee-length shorts and no shirt." Mr. Dickens "cares about us, all of us. I listen to him once in a while -- when I'm in a good mood."

During a pickup game Thursday, tempers flared between Darryl and another player, who insulted each other, ending every sentence with the slang "Yo." They seemed about to come to blows before the coach pulled Darryl to the sideline.

"People are going to say what they're going to say," Mr. Dickens told Darryl as the game resumed. "It's up to you to ignore it. Learn how to walk away."

Mr. Dickens said later that he is trying to broaden the horizons of his teen-agers.

"These kids have never been anywhere other than Eastpoint. They've just been confined to O'Donnell Heights," he said. Yet he remains optimistic about them.

"I'm trying to help them succeed in life, get them away from the wild side," he said.

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