Larry Nicholson, a skinny and soft-spoken 17-year-old high school basketball player from Philadelphia, says he doesn't know what made him throw a punch at a referee in the middle of a game last week. All he knows is that when his fist connected, he lost something he'd been working on for years.
Since eighth grade Larry had wanted to win the city championship, and with his 18 points and eight rebounds a game, Murrell Dobbins Tech High had a chance to do just that this year. He had also wanted to put himself in position to get a basketball scholarship from a good college and study architecture. And while punching a referee in the face—and getting hauled away in handcuffs as the ref was taken to the hospital with blood on his face and a swollen eye—probably isn't enough to scare off all recruiters, who have never been the most discerning people in the world, it certainly didn't help.
But if you want to feel sorry for someone, there are more worthy candidates than Larry Nicholson. The poor ref, Ron Palmer, for starters. He gets clocked for doing his job and ends up with six stitches under his eye and stars in his head.
And how about Larry's teammates? "Yeah, they're mad at me," he says. To the school district's credit, Larry was thrown off the team, ending his high school career midway through his best and most promising season, and unfortunately dimming Dobbins's title hopes. He also was suspended from school for five days, and a criminal complaint—of assault and reckless endangerment—waits to be heard next month.
You can feel sorry for his coach, too. Rich Yankowitz does more than run his kids around in shorts. For 26 years he has also been tutor, motivator and family counselor at a school that sits in a neighborhood of shut-down factories and 24-hour drug operations. A lot of his former players have disappeared into the shadows, one had his face riddled with bullets in a drug hit, and four have gone on to the NBA. "It's a shame that a kid with Larry's potential had to make a mistake like this," Yankowitz says of the baby-faced senior forward.
Then there's Larry's grandmother, Elizabeth Counts, who has raised him the past 10 years, devoting herself to making sure Larry goes somewhere in a city filled with thousands of kids who never go anywhere. He let her down too. "Oh, god, did it ever," Counts says when asked if Larry's outburst surprised her. She paces the edge of the living room of her two-story brick row house, where a photo of a peacemaker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is framed on a wall. "I've worked with him, talked to him about life—the things you do, the things you don't do. He's a good kid. He doesn't drink or smoke." She lets it trail off, not sure where to go with her thoughts.
Meanwhile, Larry, a 6'4" set of hinges and limbs, is folded on the sofa, watching the NFL playoffs on television. Maybe it was something he saw in there—in that blasted box. Dennis Rodman head-butting a referee. Roberto Alomar spitting on an umpire. Robert Horry throwing a towel in his coach's face. We pamper our athletes, pay them millions and forgive them their sins, all of which sends a message. How about it, Larry?
"That's not it," he says politely, refusing to accept the crimes of others as his excuse. "I'm not a follower."
Well, then, maybe it's the neighborhood, which isn't the one the Beav hung out in, unless Theodore Cleaver was dealing crack and sticking up PTA moms when we weren't looking. Larry's North Philadelphia neighborhood is a place where old-fashioned fistfights, of which he has had a few, practically bring a sigh of relief from parents. Semiautomatics are the weapons of choice, and Larry has had friends who went that way.
But he insists that it's not the neighborhood, either. That's not what made him punch Palmer in the mouth after arguing a no-foul call and drawing two technicals.