How a Troubled Teen Captured My Heart (and the Hearts of a World Champion Basketball Team)
He was pencil thin and walked with a limp. A thirteen year-old boy with huge yearning eyes who was always an unlucky patient on the children’s floor of the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Windsor where my youngest daughter was all too often incarcerated.
Curtis had sickle cell anemia, an incurable, painful, and terminal disease that plagues young people of African descent.
I would meander into his room to spend a little time with this rebellious loner and, too often, I’d end up refereeing a screaming match between him and one of the nurses. The street-wise Curtis would usually win.
Over the course of a few years (the hospital was always my home-away-from-home), I eventually learned of the horror of his upbringing, the sad reality of his current life, and the apparent dimness of his future.
My experience as a volunteer in the Big Brother-like program in our local Children’s Aid Society taught me that a small dose of interest and some one-on-one attention could go a long way to helping a kid who was a social outcast, in trouble with the law, and failing school.
So, when my time was over with the last boy I was involved with, I asked the CAS if I could hook up with Curtis.
Thus began my relationship with a boy no one else had ever really known.
I learned in very short order that among his survival skills were tendencies to cajole, cleverly manipulate, and even outright steal. Although I was always kind, I had to have a second set of eyes in his presence and was forced at times to be, well, curt with Curt.
At this time in my life, I was working with a highly regarded entertainment attorney on some personal matters. This attorney happened to represent many of the athletes on the professional sports teams in Detroit, an all-time champion boxer, and some famous civil rights icons. He also happened to be a wonderful, giving human being.
In a meeting with this man, I casually mentioned Curtis and my desire to do something very special for him. In my heart, I had a feeling Curtis would not live for too many more years. Sickle cell sufferers often die in their early twenties or younger. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything from my lawyer in this regard, so imagine my surprise when, the next day, the phone rang and I was instructed to have Curtis “dressed up” and at the Palace of Auburn Hills at a specific gate number one hour prior to a Detroit Pistons game later that week.
He was a huge basketball fan. His hero of heroes was Isaiah Thomas, captain of the Motor City NBA Champs. I didn’t let on to Curtis where we were going that night. I just said we were hanging out and asked his foster mother (and I use the term “mother” very lightly) to have him dressed nicely with his birth certificate in hand.
Curtis was on time, eagerly waiting on his rickety porch when I pulled up. To my utter dismay, he looked as disheveled as he always did in his over-baggy, tattered clothes. His foster mother couldn’t find his birth certificate either.
As you can imagine, it took some silver tongued talking to sufficiently explain to U.S. Customs why I had this gang-looking teenager with no identification in my new BMW trying to cross the border on a Friday afternoon. Thankfully, fate prevailed and, soon enough, we were racing up I-75 to The Game.
I tried to make idle conversation with the excited, slouching teenager, but he wouldn’t stop hounding me.
“Is it a ballgame?”
“Is it a concert?”
“Rick, where are we going?”
Finally, he glimpsed the landmark dome of the arena from the freeway and knew he was going to get to see his favorite team play.
We found the specified gate, parked and walked to the entrance. Walking with Curtis was always a little frustrating for me (he would do the “slow, cool stroll” and I am a brisk walker), but this time there was something special waiting that we both raced to.
We were met by a well-dressed, middle-aged man who just happened to be the Vice-President of Public Relations for the Detroit Pistons. Talk about first class! He escorted Curtis not to his seat, but directly to the Pistons bench, where Curtis’ eyes grew almost as big as the basketballs flying around in the pre-game warm-up.
I took my seat directly behind the bench and ordered some refreshments, which were “on the house”. I watched in delight as one of the assistant coaches introduced himself to Curtis and, next thing I knew, guess who’s center court tossing the ball around with his hero, Isaiah?
Moments later, he was running the court and shooting hoops with Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, and the rest of the elite players!
I couldn’t even imagine the exhilaration that this young man—this young man whom life had never seemed to smile upon—was experiencing at that very moment! How could anyone’s wildest imagination even envision this lonely spirit in this ravaged body trying to, as he said, “deke the Bad Boys of basketball?”
I just sat quietly in utter amazement, misty eyed and grateful to my legal friend and to the management of the professional sports team who arranged all of this for one person—for this special Canadian kid who was close to my heart.
When the warm-up was done, Curtis climbed up to sit with me. The first half of the game was great. The Pistons were pounding their opponents. A few of the players even glanced back and motioned at their new teammate! By the time the half-time buzzer sounded, I was certain Curtis’ dream day was coming to a close.
But this was only half time! The same assistant coach who invited Curtis onto the hardwood floor pre-game called for him to hang with the team in the sanctuary of the dressing room during their much-needed break.
I’ll never forget what I think was the widest smile I have ever seen as the team emerged onto the floor afterwards and my little guy “cool strolling” with a newfound quickness and with pride unlike I’d ever seen on him before.
Unlike the journey there, the ride home was quiet. Curtis slept most of the long way home. I could only imagine his dreams. Canada Customs was kind and allowed him to sleep through their few brief questions for me. It was sad to see him sleepily stagger back into his stark reality after emerging from a world no one would believe he’d seen that day.
I thought I would receive a phone call from Curtis the next day. But it never came. Two days later, I had a very good reason to call him. My attorney and the team had arranged to have every player on the NBA Champion Detroit Pistons sign the game ball from that night and Fed Ex it, along with an autographed yearbook, to my home address to give to Curtis.
I couldn’t wait to tell him. I was flabbergasted at this unexpected and over-the-top gesture! I recall my excitement as I dialed his number and my deflation as I heard six words I’ll not soon forget:
“Curtis took off to Toronto yesterday.”
She went on to explain that she didn’t know where he was or how to contact him, and neither did the Children’s Aid Society.
I wish I’d known that memorable evening, as I watched him saunter wearily up to his house, that it would be the last time I ever saw Curtis. My instincts tell me he’s not with us anymore, but if he is, he has one great gift still waiting for him.
(Photo by M M)