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The Assist

High school hoops, hope and the game of their lives

Posted: Friday February 15, 2008 9:49AM; Updated: Friday February 15, 2008 4:55PM
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By Neil Swidey

From the book The Assist by Neil Swidey. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs (www.publicaffairsbooks.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2008.

The Assist
Courtesy of PublicAffairs

George Russell was no star. The stocky, square-faced senior couldn't jump high or run fast or shoot particularly well. But he was tough under the boards, and he was always hustling to get better. Jack O'Brien, the longtime basketball coach at Charlestown High School in Boston, prized George's loyalty and discipline. After using him as a utility player for three years, he'd finally made him a starter. George was enjoying his new status.

But while he was walking to class on a Friday morning in early February, something popped into George's head that stopped him dead in his tracks. The regular season was three-quarters over. Back in December, after the Charlestown guys had been humiliated during their home opener against rival East Boston High School and O'Brien responded by dialing up the duration and intensity of the team practices, George had felt the end of the season couldn't come fast enough. But now that George was finally getting a chance to enjoy the celebrity that came with being a starter on the most famous basketball program in the state, he was wishing he could slow down time.

So much in his life had improved over the last two months -- athletically, academically, and socially -- all that really matters in high school. Following that Eastie loss, Charlestown had gone on a tear, winning 11 games in a row. George knew some of those wins had more to do with the weakness of the opposition than the strength of Charlestown. He also knew the hardest stretch of the schedule was the final one. But for the first time he was operating with the confidence of someone who knew he had a key role to play. With his smothering defense and his willingness to throw some elbows under the boards, George had proved his worth in recent weeks.

He'd even found a way to earn a few extra bucks in the process. When O'Brien had noticed that too few of his players were taking "charges" -- planting their feet under the hoop and bravely drawing an offensive foul from the opponent charging toward them -- he decided to offer his guys $5 every time they did. George liked the extra spending money so much that he kept a running accounting. Anytime he drew the call during a game, he would yell over to the bench as he jogged to the other end of the court, "That's five dollahs, Coach."

George also kept a close eye on another incentive program: the "star chart" hanging in the locker room, which O'Brien used to track player achievements like improving their grades. In a few hours, George would find out whether he'd earned a critical five-star bonus when he learned what his grades were for the second quarter. For the first time in his life, George had a real shot at making the honor roll.

Success on court was also doing wonders for George's social life. During a passing period between classes, he positioned himself in the landing of a crowded stairwell that was painted bright green and began his favorite pastime, something he called "playing the hall." He shouted to a girl who was descending the stairs, "LaToya, I called you last night." He put his hand up to his ear to pantomime a phone. "I wanted some company." She smiled and gave him a warm hug.

Despite the way he loved to socialize in school, outside of school George mostly kept to himself. Like other guys on the team, George had grown up in a dreary housing project and had a father who was in and out of jail. When he was in middle school, his mother sat him down in front of the TV and made him watch the unsparing HBO prison drama Oz, so he'd see where street life got you. "That scared the hell out of me," George once said. "I knew I didn't want that -- taking showers and having guys come up to you."

When it came time to pick a high school, George sought advice from an older friend who lived in his project and had played for Charlestown. "Look at the other high school teams in Boston and see how many of those guys end up in college, and then look at Charlestown," the friend told George. "It ain't even close." The idea that George, who struggled in school and wasn't a natural athlete, would be thinking about how he could use basketball to get to college was pretty remarkable. O'Brien took immediately to the kid's work ethic, but his lack of gifts meant he had to log a lot of time on the bench before gaining his starting spot.

During his first-period class, called Law and Justice, George sat in the back next to Lamar "Spot" Brathwaite, his smooth-talking teammate with the Hollywood smile. George told Spot about a new girl he had just begun "talking to," which meant they were somewhere just shy of dating. Until recently, George had been dating a short, talkative, pony-tailed girl named Shay. But he'd grown frustrated by all the reports he was getting about how Shay was flirting with other guys, including Troy, who was George's 6-foot-5 teammate. George refused to confront her about it, so Spot did it for him. After the team's easy win the night before, Spot went up to Shay and cussed her out for two-timing his buddy George with another baller. Shay denied it.

George told Spot that after that exchange, Shay had confronted him, saying, "I heard from three people that you heard people are talking about me and Troy!" So George pretended he didn't know anything about it.

"Just tell her you did!" Spot said, waving his San Diego Padres cap with the unbent brim to make his point. "Why won't you?"

"I don't need to," George said. "I got another girl."

"What's her name?"

"Chadry, or sumptin' like that," George said. "I didn't know her name. I called her cell phone and some old lady answered. So I said, 'Is you daughter there?'"

Spot burst out laughing. "Man, you got some serious problems! What if she had another daughter?"

"Nah. The other sister is like nine."

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