Coleman has inspiration

Boys basketball: Walbrook's Velmar Coleman lost his grandmother to cancer and is dedicating the season to her.

High Schools

February 23, 2005|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

Velmar Coleman played in a high school basketball game three days after Christmas on the day his 63-year-old grandmother, Marlene Willoughby, died of cancer. The Walbrook senior did the same thing eight days later, missing the funeral of the woman who raised him since he was 3.

But to understand Coleman's motives, one must know about his relationship with Willoughby.

From the day Coleman picked up a basketball and began playing at the Bentalou Recreation Center at age 11, Willoughby recognized her grandson's gifts on the court. She saw the game as Coleman's means of achieving success.

"She'd explain to me that `this is what's going to help you to get an education and to improve your life,'" said Coleman, 18, whom Willoughby nicknamed "Rocky" for "the shape of my head," and whose first name is derived from "Velma," a close friend of Willoughby's.

"My mother moved out of the house early on in my life, and my father hasn't been around for about two years. But my grandmother, she took me in and she took care of me right," said Coleman, who now lives with his sister, Marnell, 25, in a West Baltimore apartment.

"My grandmother would make everyone go to church on Sundays, but if she was to know that I had a basketball game that day, she'd make me go and play," Coleman said. "She was like my mother and my father. We were really close. She meant the world to me. So I know that if she was able to, the day she died, she would have told me to `go play basketball.'"

Coleman, a 6-foot-4, 175-pound swingman, has played as if he's dedicating his season to Willoughby, averaging 16 points, nearly 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals since her death.

Coleman's efforts have contributed to a 12-game win streak that began the day of Willoughby's funeral with a win at No. 3 Dunbar. Second-ranked Walbrook (20-2) will attempt to dethrone Dunbar (16-3) as Baltimore City champions tonight at Poly.

It was Coleman who clinched the 56-53 victory over the Poets before a packed house at Dunbar. The win marked the first time in school history that Walbrook had beaten the Poets at home, according to eighth-year coach Kelvin Bridgers.

Against Dunbar, Coleman's three-pointer, followed by a defensive rebound and a full-court, driving layup, turned a 50-49 deficit into a 54-52 lead with 1:39 to play.

With four seconds left and his team leading 54-53, Coleman made two free throws to complete a 21-point, eight-rebound, six-assist effort.

Coleman dedicated the game to Willoughby, who "would have understood the importance of him having to be there," said Marnell Coleman, who supports herself and her brother through her job as a head cashier at a West Baltimore gas station. "[Willoughby] always felt that basketball meant a lot to Rocky, and that if he did really well in school, academically, it could represent his future."

Coleman is a B-average student who recently achieved the corresponding SAT score to be considered a full qualifier under the NCAA's freshman eligibility standards. Towson University is where Coleman wants to play.

"Rocky's been a good shooter for us, but because he always gets the best defensive player from other teams, he's had time to work on the rest of his game," Bridgers said. "Rocky's making better rebounds and assists, and he's become a better penetrator. Overall, his game has evolved, and he still ends up with 19 or 20 points."

Coleman scored 28 points in a loss to Dunbar of Washington on Dec. 28, hours after learning of Willoughby's death.

"Right after that game, I went home and stared at the picture [of Willoughby] in our living room. I was just sitting there, thinking about what she would want me to do in my life," Coleman said.

"Sometimes, I feel like there's a load on my shoulders, but she would want me to be responsible, finish college, to be a leader," he said. "Overall, she would just want me to be a man, and I feel like I'm ready to do that."

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