A loving legacy Family: Life started out all wrong for Navy's Hassan Booker, but fate brought him the love and guidance that put him on the right path.

March 13, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

To understand Hassan Booker's unique family background, start with the initials he inscribed on his Navy basketball shoes.

"JAB" stands for the late Joyce Astarte Booker, his biological aunt, who died of lung cancer in 1989.

"DDB" stands for Joyce's husband, David Duke Booker, a white police officer who was left to raise four black children as a single parent.

The children shared the same birth mother -- Joyce's younger sister, Mary -- but she was out of the picture because of a substance-abuse problem, and each had a different father.

Thus, even in a society full of broken homes and dysfunctional families, the Booker children faced longer odds than most.

An absent birth mother. A deceased adoptive mother. Birth fathers they never met.

And an adoptive father with a different skin color trying to keep them on a straight path in South Central Los Angeles.

Yet, the Bookers not only survived, they've thrived.

The older son, David, 25, is a University of Southern California business school graduate teaching English in Japan.

The older daughter, Mataji, 20, is a professional dancer with a touring Los Angeles company.

And Hassan, 21, is a junior computer-science major with a 2.3 grade-point average at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Jameelah, 15, remains at home, completing high school.

At 6 feet 2 1/2 , Hassan is Navy's leading rebounder. Tomorrow, he will attempt to stop Utah's Keith Van Horn, a 6-10 All-American, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The Midshipmen are 19 1/2 -point underdogs against the second-ranked Utes, but if they get trounced, it won't be for Booker's lack of effort or courage.

His AAU coach, Roger Millstein, calls him "the toughest ballplayer I've ever coached." His sister, Mataji, says, "It's always inspiring watching him play."

Hassan's fury is evident on the court, the way his face contorts with emotion, the way he muscles past larger opponents to the basket.

He is on a mission, a special mission.

"I've really started to use my mother as spiritual motivation for me," he said. "I've dedicated the season to her."

'It just happened'

By his mother, Hassan means his adoptive mother, Joyce.

He didn't meet his birth mother, Mary Graham, until he was a teen-ager, and maintains minimal contact with her now.

Joyce Booker always looked out for her younger sister, David Duke Booker said. And Mary Graham, he added, had an "ongoing" substance-abuse problem.

Graham moved in with the Bookers after they were married in 1972. She already had given birth to her first son. And when he was 2, she was institutionalized.

The boy stayed with the Bookers.

"There was no question about it," David said. "Who is so hardened that they wouldn't become attached to a young child living in their home? It just happened."

Hassan and Mataji entered the family even sooner -- "essentially at birth," David said. He still remembers getting the calls from the hospitals, bringing each of them home.

The Bookers completed the formal adoption of the three oldest children in 1979, when Hassan was 4. Jameelah later joined the family in much the same way.

"To know the whole story, you would have to have known my late wife," David says. "This woman, she was a saint on this earth."

Magnet for kids

The house was always buzzing, and not just with the Booker children. Kids from all over the neighborhood flocked to the Bookers'. Some stayed months, even years.

Even now, with only Jameelah home, visitors are frequent.

"There are thousands of children in big cities that need someone, either temporarily or permanently," David said.

"My late wife was the kind of person that people with problems just kind of gravitated to. She was more than a match for anybody's needs or problems."

And David, 45, a member of the California State Highway Patrol, was her husband.

He was 22 when he and Joyce began caring for young David. But one by one, he embraced his wife's nieces and nephews.

"To take on four kids and ask your partner to do that, that's a lot to ask," Mataji says. "But my father was willing. Even though my father wanted his own family, this is what my mother wanted. He didn't even think twice. He loved my mother. This was her blood."

And David, one of the few whites in the neighborhood, welcomed others' children, as well.

"Our door was always wide-open," Mataji said. "Most of the kids had parents who didn't give a rat's butt. He was like a father to the whole neighborhood.

"He would discipline them. He would whip them right along with us. They wouldn't complain and whine and go home. They knew they deserved it. They knew they were getting love.

"To this day, I know people who say they appreciated that."

But when it came to disciplining his own children, Joyce often served as mediator, Mataji said. Hassan, too, recalled his mother's compassion, how she would give money to beggars on the street.

She ran her kids to all their activities without complaint.

And always -- always -- she stressed education.

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