Kevin Braswell survives, thrives 'against all odds'
Basketballer Kevin Braswell has overcome huge odds to not only make it as a professional sportsman, but still be alive. The Southland Sharks' American import tell his story to Brendon Egan.
Gunshots ring out. They're loud and they're close. But that's not unusual in the roughest ghetto in East Baltimore.
Kevin Braswell and a group of mates, huddled at a nearby corner, immediately sense the worst.
They sprint to where the noise came from. There, slumped in the driver's seat of a Dodge van, they see the bloody body of friend Damon Buckson.
As Braswell holds Buckson in his arms and stares at the bullet wounds to his face, he knows it's too late to save him.
Twelve years on, Braswell is still haunted by those images.
If it wasn't for basketball, it could have easily been him dead in the street. As a teenager, he was shot at several times. At the age of 11, he was selling drugs, putting his life at risk.
Baltimore is one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. In 2010, it had the fourth highest murder rate in the country with a total of 223, or 35 per 100,000 people.
In Baltimore, 11 per cent of black males, do not reach the age of 35 . Eight per cent die annually as a result of homicide.
Braswell has lost 11 friends back home in the two years he's been in New Zealand, and says areas of the city have become even more violent.
"Most of my friends I grew up with are in prison, dead or playing basketball or American football.
"The ones playing basketball or American football, I can count on one hand. The ones, who are dead, I need both hands and feet. The ones in prison, it's too many to count.
"Without basketball, I'd honestly be dead."
Braswell, now 33, considers himself one of the lucky ones to get out of the deadly streets of East Baltimore.
On his lower left arm, he has a tattoo, depicting two dice with one dot on each, commonly referred to as snake eyes. On his other arm is another set of dice, featuring double six, and the phrase 'Against all odds'.
"All my tattoos mean something. At the casino, when you're shaking the dice, you've got 30 to one [success] odds. That's the chance I had of making it from Baltimore."
Braswell has an extensive array of inkwork over his upper body, but the one that means the most to him is on his left forearm.
It commemorates the life of Buckson, who died on November 18, 2000, aged just 21.
Growing up, Braswell and Buckson were precocious basketball talents, who dreamed of escaping the poverty and following fellow Baltimore natives, Muggsy Bogues and Sam Cassell, into the bright lights and big bucks of the NBA.
The boys attended rival Baltimore high schools. Braswell was a gifted young point guard for the Lake Clifton High Lakers, while Buckson was a silky smooth shooting guard at Northern High School.
The streets of East Baltimore are filled with the threat and temptation of drugs, gangs and guns. Buckson ended up choosing the wrong path in life, and paid the ultimate price.
"He made some different decisions in his life, that we all do, when we're young," Braswell says.
"He took it upon himself to get into the drug game and it caught up with him.
"Not a day goes by when I don't look at that tattoo. To have a friend all day, every day, then that friend is gone, is crazy."
Braswell cheated death on numerous occasions during his life and says lady luck always seemed to be on his side in times of distress.
He recalls one incident where he and a friend were shot at as they were driving away from a fast food restaurant. Braswell, who was sitting in the front passenger's seat, somehow avoided being hit, but his pal was not so lucky and lost an eye.
"There has to be an angel on my shoulder."
"Too many of my friends have been in certain situations, where I was right there with them and had to leave, two seconds before [the trouble], or I was supposed to meet them and didn't go and something happened."
Buckson died just as Braswell was about to start his second year at Georgetown University in Washington DC, where he was on a basketball scholarship.
He says his friend's death was a massive wake-up call and he vowed not to make the same mistakes.
"As a kid, everyone comes to a point where something happens in your life, which reshapes you as a person. That was what that did."
Braswell grew up in a neighbourhood in East Baltimore, colloquially referred to as 'Down the hill'.
An impoverished, crime-ridden area, not too dissimilar from the scenes in the American television drama series, 'The Wire', which is set in his hometown.
His early years were spent living in his grandad's three bedroom house, which his mother, Millicent Boone, younger sister, Janae, and eight other members of his extended family were all crammed into.
"There's just crime everywhere. If you go on the internet and type it in for a weekend, you'd see seven or eight murders.
"It's not a safe environment. If you watch, 'The Wire', that in a nutshell, is what it is."
Braswell has never met his biological father, Franklin Braswell, who left in his early years, which meant his mother, who still lives in Baltimore, had to hold down multiple jobs, as they struggled to make ends meet.
Without a father figure to offer direction, Braswell took it upon himself to help support his family and began associating with the wrong crowd.
Aged 11, he started hanging around on the street corner dealing drugs to ease the financial strain on his mother.
It's not something he is proud of, but acknowledges there was no other choice.
"My mum was struggling and I needed to help her, so I ended up doing it. You don't think about the risks and you don't think, 'I could die from this one day'. You just think, 'Right now, I have to do something to survive'.
"We had to eat, so I was out selling drugs."
Braswell lived just down the street from Baltimore's famous Patterson Park, where he first picked up a basketball, aged six, and found refuge on the courts with his friends.
When he was 14, Braswell's best childhood friend, Juan Dixon, who went on to play in the NBA from 2002 to 2009, invited him along to the Cecil Kirk Recreation Centre.
Under the tutelage of centre director and coach Anthony Lewis, Braswell played "organised basketball" for the first time and his game suddenly began to flourish.
Dixon lost both his parents to AIDS when he was 16 and ended up moving in with Braswell's family. The two young men played basketball all day, every day, confiding in each other, and using the sport to distract themselves from their difficulties off the court.
Braswell would later be invited to attend a Nike All-American camp, where he played against the likes of New York Knicks' point guard and two-time NBA All Star Baron Davis.
He scored 39 points in his first game at the tournament and was ranked in the top 10 high school players in the United States for his age.
"Being in the top 10 meant a lot for me. My confidence just grew. It set my way to basketball," Braswell says.
In his senior year at Lake Clifton High in 1997, Braswell experienced another life-changing moment when he was arrested for possession of marijuana. He spent 36 hours in prison and felt terrible when his mother broke down in tears when she picked him up.
"My mum sat me down and said 'I don't want to bury you, before you bury me'. That hit me 'My mum is really going to bury me'.
"I thought, 'This is not a good route for me. I keep getting into trouble. I can't do this anymore'."
That experience was an epiphany for Braswell, who realised he had a God-given talent for basketball and needed to use it.
With Braswell unable to attend any schools in Maryland following his brush with the law, he was sent to the northeastern tip of the US to complete his high school studies at Maine Central Institute. There, he started to grow as a person and discover drugs and guns were not the answer in life.
"It was a totally different environment. When I got there, three families all wanted me as their host kid. These people, who never knew me from Adam or Eve, showed me love, I'd never had all my life. They taught me how to ride a snow mobile and go ice fishing."
After arriving at Georgetown University in 1998, Braswell began to carve out a stellar collegiate career. During his four years with the Hoyas, he started in all 128 games, and finished as the college's all-time leader in steals and assists.
Braswell concedes he got out of shape in his senior year and probably started to believe his own hype too much. He was never invited to the NBA's pre-draft camp in Chicago and ended up beginning his professional basketball career overseas in Belgium.
He got within touching distance of the NBA in 2005, after heading back to the US following three years in Europe.
He was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, and asked to play on the Miami Heat's pre-season roster, alongside superstars Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade and Gary Payton, who would go on to win the NBA championship later that season.
Braswell had a dream first game with the Heat. Playing against the San Antonio Spurs, he hit the game-winner with a driving lefthanded lay-up at the buzzer. He had Miami's highest field goal percentage and best assist to turnover ratio during pre-season, but was waived by Heat president Pat Riley, a week before the start of the season, which crushed him.
"I go into his office and there's a stack of papers and I think, 'This might be my NBA contract'," Braswell says.
"We talked for 45 minutes and he was praising me so much, but said they didn't have salary cap space to sign me. I was heart-broken. I never tried again."
Hanging around larger-than-life former NBA legend, O'Neal, was an experience it itself and something Braswell will never forget.
"You come into the garage and see all their cars. You're star-struck. Even a guy like [former Heat and NBA player] James Posey let me drive his car the whole time I was there. It was a good experience to be around those guys."
Braswell headed back to Europe and would go on to play in another seven countries, before landing in New Zealand in 2010, where he would win an Australian NBL championship with the Breakers last April.
Basketball has always been more than a game for Kevin Braswell it's a way of life and has proved to be his saviour.
It has served as a positive outlet for him to channel his anger, given him financial security and the chance to travel the world. Most importantly, it has opened doors, enabling him to break free from his turbulent upbringing.
Whenever Braswell steps out onto the basketball court, he has little fear for the opposition, after seeing what he has seen, and knows there isn't much that can break him.
Even if he's having a bad game or his shots aren't falling, it pales in comparison to the adversity he's had to overcome to get where he is today.
"Basketball is a game to me. Think about how small of a career basketball is in your lifetime. Fifteen years, if you're lucky. People should enjoy the game of basketball.
"I've faced my toughest battles. Basketball is something I can control. That stuff, I can't control. I can't head out my house [in Baltimore] and not be looking [around for danger]."
Braswell, who isn't married, says he longs to settle down and raise a family of his own. He's fallen in love with New Zealand's tranquillity, so much so, he is in the process of applying for residency and has aspirations to wear the Tall Black singlet.
He reckons he's got another good five years of basketball left in him, if 36-year-old Breakers' veteran CJ Bruton can sign on for another two years.
Braswell has done all right out of basketball financially, but is not "rich", and has several career paths in mind when he eventually decides to walk away from the game.
"I swear, I'd love to model for Calvin Klein. I'm too old to be a model, even though I'd love to do that," he laughs.
"The easiest thing would be to go back home and get a coaching job in the States, but I think I'm better than that."
He will go back and visit Baltimore, whose downtown cityscape is tattooed over his chest, but would never live there again.
"To say 'I'll reside in Baltimore for the rest of my life' it won't happen.
"I've conquered and passed that period of my life."
- © Fairfax NZ News