Basketballer's tale of redemption
He had the perfect life, playing his beloved basketball for a living, representing his country, and spending the off-season in his beautiful 'home' town on the island of Hawaii. Then the dream turned into a nightmare for Konrad Ross.
Konrad Ross knows why they call it P. For him that singular, instantly identifiable abbreviation stands for "Pure" all right. Pure Evil. It's a drug that sucked 12 years out of the life of this former Tall Blacks basketballer and sent him to hell and back, via the cool embrace of the US federal penitentiary.
Ross, now 43, back living with his mother on Auckland's North Shore and just weeks out of the best part of seven years behind bars in the United States, doesn't want your pity.
But he does require your attention. He has long ago learned to live with the consequences of "one decision that changed the course of my life"; but he would like you to take in his cautionary tale in the hope it might prevent someone - anyone - repeating the mistakes he made.
If this doesn't come across as a warning against the destructive powers of the drug we call P (for pure methamphetamine) and in Hawaii, where Ross first sampled the devil's nectar, they know as Ice, then he has wasted his breath. He's not telling a sob story; the tears have long ago dried up, replaced by a grim determination to make others aware of the pitfalls of P.
Ross, now more than six years clean, wants us to know it's not just the destitute or the downtrodden who fall prey to this parasitic invader. Far from it. He can relate tale after tale of his six long years of addiction - some harrowing, to say the least - where the smart, the moneyed, the achievers all fell into the same spiral of despair. Once you're sucked into that whirlpool, escape is problematic.
Ross will never return to Hawaii, or indeed the US, where his two daughters, Taylor, aged 14, and Kyleigh, who's 8, reside. Immigration laws won't allow it. But as he rebuilds his life, literally looking for someone to take a chance on a man who has learned his lesson, his girls are the principal drivers. He has not even met Kyleigh properly, and has been a father in name only to Taylor.
"More than anything I want to be a good example to my girls," he says over a cup of coffee on the North Shore. "I've already done a good job of showing them what not to do. Now it's time for me to show them what to do. I've made a deal with Taylor, I said, 'You do your best to make me proud and I'll do my best to make you proud'. That's what it's all about now."
You can only wonder what that's like. A daughter whose beautiful eyes you are yet to look into; whom you are yet to drape a fatherly arm around. "It's rough," says this tall, powerful man opposite, blinking back the emotion. "When you're locked up you can't escape yourself, and eventually you need to come to terms with what you've done and, man, that is not easy when you've been caught up in the lifestyle I was.
"I laid awake numerous nights in my bunk thinking about the things I've done, and the kind of person I was. Man, it's not an easy pill to swallow. But all you can do is learn from it and make sure it never happens again."
For a long time, Konrad Ross lived the life he'd dreamed of. Born in New Zealand, one of three boys of John and Helen, the family moved to the Big Island of Hawaii when he was 9. He grew up in the small town of Honoka'a, and it was soon evident his mixture of size - he would grow to 2.03m - and athleticism made him ideally suited for the game of basketball. He was a high school star, and attended Linfield College in Oregon on a hoops scholarship. He started every game there and was an All-American in his senior year - a first not only for his town, but the entire island.
For Ross, the basketball court was where he was most comfortable, able to express himself with his rare talent in a game that came so naturally. "I loved everything about it," he says, the smile returning. "I was athletic, so that made it really fun. I loved the competition, the camaraderie, the dunking . . . just everything man."
Naturally New Zealand came calling post-college and, in 1994, he returned to play for Waikato in the National Basketball League, then Otago, Taranaki and North Harbour. He quickly became a fixture in the national men's team, the Tall Blacks, turning his passion into his livelihood, and a ticket to see the world.
"He was one of the most physically gifted athletes ever to play for New Zealand," says Ross's former national skipper Glen Denham. "He had ridiculous hops and brought a new dimension to the Tall Blacks. He was one of those guys who only had to look at weights and he'd get bigger. I don't think he knew what to do with all that talent, but he always had a good heart and was a brilliant team-mate."
Yes, life was good. Then it became bad. Very bad. In 1999, he returned to Hawaii and decided to stay on. He'd become a little jaded by the Kiwi hoops scene, the exchange rate was horrific and his girlfriend was about to give birth to Taylor. The chance to play at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney appealed (he still regrets that decision), but there is no money in international hoops, and Ross had bills to pay.
Then came the night that changed his life. He was out with friends, at a bar, then a party, when out of the blue someone passed him a pipe packed with "Ice" and Ross figured, "what the heck, I'll try some".
One thing led to another. "It came time for me to go to work on Monday and I hadn't slept. So you get some more. That's how it starts. One decision changed the whole course of my life."
Ross is transparent about his descent into the abyss. Some things remain unsaid, but his picture is vivid. "I always thought I've got this under control, whenever I'm ready I can stop. Of course I was kidding myself. It's super addictive. It robs you of your soul, your self-worth and your perspective, and your integrity goes out the window. It leaves you a shell of who you were.
"It also takes away your emotions. I became someone I just couldn't stand looking at, or even thinking about. So to deal with that, I'd smoke more to numb myself. It's a vicious cycle - pure evil."
Thus began a prolonged battle with addiction, or as Ross looks back on it, "a complete waste of life". The athlete, the team-mate, the star was now a sad loner. "I didn't accomplish anything; I was still trying to be a daddy but, of course I fell short in everything. In a matter of six months, I'm all sucked up; I've got no car, no job, no place to live and my family has left me.
"Numerous times I was homeless, sleeping in my car or someone else's car, there were times I pitched a tent, times I was sleeping on people's couches ... a lot of times I had nowhere to go so just wouldn't sleep."
Ross tried to quit. For three years. But he could not free himself from the grip the drug had on him.
"I don't expect anyone who hasn't experienced addiction to comprehend what it's like to be under the power of this evil drug. My life before was full of fun stuff and accomplishments; now it's just hell."
Once he ran out of gas in a remote spot and spent four days literally unable to extricate himself. But the lows kept getting lower. He started dealing the drug to pay for his habit; he resorted to burglary to score his next hit.
"So now I'm a dealer," he says, wincing. "You do whatever you have to do to get it. I never thought I was capable of these things. But there are no friendships in that scene, no loyalty, no trust. It's utterly corrupt and everything revolves around the drug. When that's gone, so is everything else.
"You're not capable of making proper decisions because you've been sucked dry of all your strength. If you know someone battling this type of addiction, you need to physically remove them from the scene and put them somewhere it's not available. That's what it took for me."
Yes, life was bad. Then it became worse. Then better.
As mentioned, decision-making is not a forte when you're an addict. Ross was eventually arrested, first on minor felonies, then on more serious federal charges. Compounding the situation, he had hunting rifles in the car he was using when he was nabbed. ("One of my things when I got high was I liked to go pig hunting," he explains.) And they found a P pipe. Suddenly he was a user of controlled substance in possession of firearms. Jail time.
Ross had also got involved brokering a deal to sell an old World War II machine gun and, unknown to him, was being set up. Midway through a three-year jail term, the second charge hammered home and his stretch was extended to seven years (he served six).
But there was an upside. During a long period in lockup pre-trial in Honolulu, he came off the drug and got clean for the first time in six years. Emotions and clarity came flooding back. "Man, that was hard, realising I had been a deadbeat dad for so long, and now my kids were going to be without me for so many years."
He found religion too. "God had to remove me out of the fire, sit me down and give me a lot of time to think about things. My whole outlook and perspective are different now because of my faith. I cried out man, I cried out to God."
Turns out he needed the help. To Ross's surprise, he ended up in a high-security federal penitentiary in Victorville, southern California. He says there was a mistake with his custody level points, but the upshot was he found himself in with some of the most unsavoury criminals you could imagine. Lifers. Murderers.
It was hard time. The hardest. Once he witnessed two inmates go at it in a knife-fight to the death. Weapons, drugs, gangs, racial tension were all constants. "It was hard man . . . traumatic."
Basketball helped. A lot. Coming back to the sport he'd left behind provided both a coping mechanism and a surviving one. He got to know people through dominating on the court. As he soon found out, life in prison was about getting by and being liked. Eventually he was transferred to a medium-security facility, then finally a detention centre before his deportation.
"I learned a lot in prison," he says. "I learned your word is everything, about thinking before you speak, about being respectful and courteous. You're living with all these people you wouldn't normally want to associate with and you're stuck with them all day every day for years.
"[But] the period I was addicted to drugs was far harder. The bonds of addiction were way harder to handle than the bonds of being locked up. It took getting locked up to finally be free."
Ross counts the positives from his time behind bars. His faith, his outlook on life, his appreciation for family and friends - they're all enhanced by his incarceration. "Now I can take joy in all the little things I once took so much for granted."
The next steps are uncertain, yet important. "It's early days, and I've got an uphill battle. I need to find work . . . basically I need somebody to take a chance on me. I keep waiting for this traumatic event to happen, but it's been really smooth, man. I'm in a really good place now."
Why tell this story?
"To raise awareness and let people know no matter who you are, no matter where you are in your life, you're only one bad decision away from losing it all. And, when it comes to drugs, there's not one single positive thing that can come from experimenting, from using, or even thinking about it."
So, how is he now? Pretty good, is the short answer. He's in good shape physically, all things considered, and is back playing basketball with some like-minded souls. He's piqued by the growth in hoops in this country, and is eager to explore any chances to get more involved in his beloved sport. It's about rebuilding his life now, back in the warm embrace of a family who never gave up on him.
Ross figures if he can help one person, then this story will have been worthwhile. But this story clearly demonstrates he has already helped the most important person he could have. Himself.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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