From a distance, a proud father sees a different path for his son

January 21, 1996|By JOHN STEADMAN

Fatherly pride is reflected in contrasting ways. Some brag to a point of boredom; others push children to the maximum, all the while demanding they do more. For Russell Smith, temporarily living in Hagerstown, there's a quiet contentedness. His son plays basketball in Baltimore and, yes, that's my boy, he says. He tells his friends all about him.

Omar Smith, dribbling, cutting, passing and shooting from incredibly long range, plays in the backcourt for Patterson High, where he's been averaging 16 points a game. Since his dad can't come to see him, Omar writes updated reports on how the season is progressing.

In the classroom, Omar averages between 75 and 80 -- not spectacular, yet well above minimum standards.

Coach Larry Alexander says, "He's a fine young man. It would break my heart if anything went wrong and he created problems for himself. This is the kind of kid you pull for and want to go the extra mile to help."

No doubt, he has a special relationship with the coach, who believes he's a player capable of using basketball skills to open doors to a future that otherwise might not be there. An ability to play sports can lead to a college scholarship, a chance to rise above the difficulties that can be found on almost any street corner.

The opportunity to talk with Omar Smith came after a letter written by his father with elegant penmanship and eloquence of expression. It led to a desire to find out more about the situation. Russell had no idea it was going to be reprinted, but here it is . . . . just as he wrote it:

"In this time of turmoil and pessimistic views surrounding young black males, it's a blessing to have a son that's performing at such an outstanding level. This is just to inform you of his success.

"Let me educate you about one of the area's best-kept secrets within high school basketball; Patterson's Omar R. Smith. He has scored approximately 100 points in six games. He was recruited by USA Today's preseason No. 1-ranked team, St. John's Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md. I would appreciate it very much that his scoring average and other accomplishments with his school be conveyed.

"Understand, please, I'm an extremely biased father [smile], who has made countless errors in my life, and only wish my son excels to the best of his ability and have it appreciated. Thank you for your time and patience."

You see, Russell Smith, 250-752, is in the Maryland Correctional Institution, doing 10 years for possession with intent to distribute cocaine.

This means Russell can't see Omar or his other son, Warren, play. He'd like to be there, applauding and taking parental delight in what is happening on the court. But that's the price to pay for breaking the laws of the land and facing up to the penalty.

His first parole hearing isn't scheduled until next year. The counselor, or as he is termed in the system, a case management specialist, is Victor Wachs, who was asked to relate what the computer record reveals about Smith and his past:

"Most of his trouble has been drug-related. He's 35, divorced, has five children, 16 to 2 years old.

His employment background seems good. He told me he wants to get into computer programming. He's interested in making a turnaround. Of course, we're hoping he does."

Not all of Omar's friends know his father is away. "Some do, some don't," the son explains. But he says it wouldn't be an embarrassment for him if others found out.

Deep within is a determination to not fall prey to similar problems, a case of not wanting to follow in his father's footsteps. "I'm just not going in that direction," he promises. It would defeat his ambitions and certainly not be in his best interests.

Russell was drawn into a web of trouble and couldn't pull away. Now he's settling the debt. Something as basic as going to a basketball game to watch his son is denied. The unrelenting consequence: Both father and son suffer. It's not easy for Omar to talk about being separated from his father. He's elated that his mother continues to offer encouragement, strength and direction, something he'll try to repay when he makes the grade.

Back to coach Alexander and his evaluation of the best backcourt player he has ever had. "I talk to him about his grades and, believe me, he's under control. I tell him if he stays on track, he's going to be a good prospect at any level of college basketball.

"I didn't know about his father until you got the letter. This is a kid I saw in ninth grade and right away was impressed with the way he shot and dribbled."

Omar says he had a good relationship with his father and remembers the happy times, when they lived in another part of the city and would go to Druid Hill Park to play one-on-one, a father introducing his son to the elements of the game.

Alexander has been coaching long enough to realize not all prospects end up fulfilling their promise. He wants Omar to give himself a chance to succeed because, if he doesn't, he's cheating himself.

Every flowering bud deserves to bloom. The wish of Omar is deeply personal, like one you've probably never heard before.

"I just hope," he says, "it might be possible that what I do will encourage my father to be motivated to get himself together and change from the past."

A father and son separated. One in a prison facility, the other in high school. The kid's priority is his father makes it back and goes straight. The true hope of a boy for his father.

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