To kids in Northwest Philly,
Nearly 25 years ago, my college teammates and I were in the gym playing basketball. My entire family walked through the door: my sisters, my brothers, my uncles and my aunts.
My coach said Terq, “You need to come here.”
I said, “I am working. Whatever it is, it can wait until I am done working.”
After practice, I stayed in the gym shooting and shooting, while my family waited and watched. I knew why they were there. I knew they wanted to tell me my mother was gone but until they actually said the words to me, in my mind, she was still alive. After an hour, I finally walked over and my uncle just grabbed me and hugged me.
That moment was a turning point in my life.
Like you all, I am from “the hood,” raised poor and didn’t feel much love. To be frank, I know the life of the streets.
My mother had four children. I was the oldest boy with two younger brothers and an older sister. My dad was not present.
As far back as I can remember, which is first grade, I was a problematic student. By age 13, I stopped going to school altogether and was selling drugs, which led to getting arrested. The courts adjudicated me to Glen Mills, which was a school for juvenile delinquents.
My bad behavior did not stop there and I frequently found myself in more trouble at Glen Mills. I didn’t care. But fortunately, there were adults at Glen Mills that saw that I was different. They saw an intelligent, skilled and talented young man. No matter what arena I was placed in, I excelled: school, vocations, athletics and even dentistry. It was at Glen Mills where I began to feel value, self-worth and potential.
Nonetheless, my 14-year-old thought process was to stay at Glen Mills, learn as much as I can and get my GED, so I could be the smartest drug dealer on “the block” when I came home.
My coaches had other plans in mind. They too wanted me to be dominant on “the block” but the basketball block.
They told me, “Terq, there’s a lot more out there for you. You can go to college. You can play basketball. You can do whatever you want to do because you have it.”
By age 13, I stopped going to school altogether and was selling drugs, which led to getting arrested.
While my coaches saw potential in me beyond sports, basketball was what gave me hope at the time.
I started playing when I was 14 years old. By age 15, The University of Hartford expressed interest in offering me a scholarship.
During a home visit, I was excited to tell my mother about the possibility of playing ball in college, to which she replied, “You ain’t playing no damn basketball. You ain’t good enough.”
She was conditioned by her environment to think people like us don’t make it out. We don’t get opportunities. Most people in poverty-stricken areas are like that. They don’t believe that their child will be the next Barack Obama or the next astronaut or the first person to take Wi-Fi to Mars. My mom was no different.
So, I went to my room, balled the letter up and I threw it in the trash. I didn’t go back to school until my coach called.
He said, “I won’t ever tell you your mother’s wrong or she is a liar but I can tell you this… If you stick to what I say and believe in yourself, you are going to make a lot of money playing this game.”
I got on the bus at 15 years old and I never returned home again.
By my junior year, I had drawn interest from nearly every college in America. The feeling was phenomenal and short-lived. My mother became terminally ill with breast cancer and I decided I didn’t want to go far away. I settled on La Salle University. However, I struggled there, trying to take care of my family and even returning to the projects where I got involved in activities that could have derailed my success.
At one point, my college coach told me I would lose my scholarship if I got caught around any drug distribution areas. Sounds simple, right? It is simple until you factor in that the entire neighborhood was grounds for distribution and my family was heavily involved.
My uncle didn’t want me to lose my opportunities at school. So, he told me not to come home. He wanted me to live a life where I didn’t worry about who was coming after me. I started getting into other types of trouble trying to get money and I ended up being a headache to my coach. Ultimately, I transferred to Coppin State.
At Coppin State, I matured and managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA. After a dominant junior season where I was among the leaders in the country in points, rebounds and field goal percentage, I attracted the attention of NBA scouts. When I declared for the NBA draft, the Houston Rockets came to the projects in East Falls.
They told my mom, “We are going to draft your son at number 30 if he doesn’t withdraw from the draft and return to school.”
She just shook her head, “No” and kept repeating with the little strength she had, “Finish school. Finish school. Finish school.”
For her, a college degree was everything. I obliged and shortly after my mom passed away.
The moment my mom died was such an important time in my life because that’s when I became the head of the family. I couldn’t mess up anymore. That was the time to get better. That was the time to get tougher. I had a daughter. I had younger brothers. Everyone was counting on me. If I didn’t make it happen people weren’t going to eat. I couldn’t go back to the streets and risk getting locked up or killed.
But my senior year, I got cocky and my entire play went down.
The NBA was no longer calling but I thought to myself, “I ain’t folding now.”
I signed a lucrative contract to play in Spain. My career overseas lasted 15 years and then I came back home and started my own business. I am also a father of five children.
I am not in the streets.
I am not selling drugs.
I am living a good and honest life.
And I want you to know you can too.
Go to the local community centers. Get involved because there are people there that can guide you. If someone is trying to help you along the way, even if they are a different race or background than you, give them a chance.
Build up your self-esteem. People sell drugs for possessions. Most of the children that are involved in drug sales want clothes, sneakers and jewelry. No one is selling drugs at 13,14,15 years of age to buy investment properties or start businesses. You sell drugs because you suffer from low self-esteem.
I want you to know you all have a million-dollar talent. You have to believe in yourself. It’s very possible to succeed here.
Don’t compare yourself to people around you. Compete with yourself every day to be a better person than you were yesterday.
I am telling you all of this because, in my life, success is no longer about the money I make or the house where I live. My success is walking up to the park and seeing one of you run up to me to show me all of the “A’s” on your report card. My success is seeing you do well.
Even so, right now there is still too much violence and too many drugs in our community. I know your lives aren’t easy. I know many of you are hurting. But when I was growing up, it was hard. When my mom died, it was painful. I made the choice to get off the corners and live a productive life and so can you. It’s a decision! You have to decide!
This is your time to find, explore and maximize your million-dollar talent. This is your time to get tougher. Just like how my family depended on me, right now I am depending on all of you.
I am counting on all of you to do so well in life that we create a place where we help each other instead of hurt each other. Let’s not just make it out of here. Let’s all come back home and together make this community a whole lot better.
I am proud of where I am from and I am even more proud of where we are all headed.
This is OUR turning point.
Greatness is within all of us,
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Ruth, your letter moved me to tears. Once upon a time I was very closed off about the LGBT community but over a course of several years, I turned my fear into understanding and I actively stand with the community for their equal rights because it is the right thing to do.