Getting Sober & Coaching Basketball.
There is no playbook for life. In March of 2013, I accepted an Assistant Basketball Coaching position at West Catholic Prep in Philadelphia, PA under Coach Jazz Williams. I was fortunate enough to have my brother-in-law Paul Colistra, who was Vice President of the school set us up for a meeting. Paul is now the President of West Catholic Prep. I have such a huge place in my heart for West Philadelphia, the coaches, players, and the neighborhoods. They helped me more than I could ever imagine!
I coached at West Catholic for 2 seasons, but that short stay impacted my life tremendously. At the time, I was 10 months sober. Yes, I’m an alcoholic. I was 27 years old, struggling with this new lifestyle, recently demoted in my position at work, totally uncomfortable in my skin, and trying to get through each day without drinking. One of the cliché’s I learned in rehab was “people, places, and things”. Stop hanging out with people that drink, stop going where people drink, and don’t go near anything that makes you want to drink. That seemed nearly impossible.
Fortunately for me, I found Coach Jazz Williams, Coach James Thomas, Coach Larry Strand, Coach Rob Wharton, and all the players in those 2 seasons. Those were my “people”. I found West Philadelphia, West Catholic Prep Gym, and the neighborhoods all over the city where our players lived. Those were my “places”. Long commutes to and from practice, endless conversations after practice about basketball with the guys, lots of film, late night scouting reports, and texts threads. Those were my “things”.
Each day was a grind, until I got in my car after work for an hour and 30 minute commute down 76 to 45th and Chestnut Street for basketball practice. That car ride never bothered me because I knew I was heading to a safe place, with people that accepted me for who I was. I also forgot to mention these guys that helped save my life don’t know I’m an alcoholic and 6.5 years sober….
I quickly learned that coaching the game of basketball was the easiest task at West Catholic. It was everything else that needed our undivided attention as a coaching staff. Our players, their families, and their friends had real problems: drug addictions, shootings on the streets, gang life, rough neighborhoods, prison, and later down the road…a player murdered.
One of the lessons I learned now after reflecting at my time in West Philadelphia was that in order to grow, I needed to do things that were uncomfortable for me. Getting sober at the time was uncomfortable, but so was being the only white guy in every gym in the city, driving through rough neighborhoods to take players home where you knew you didn’t belong, calling and texting players daily even though they weren’t sure if they could trust me, and getting Chinese food at 22nd and Diamond in the middle of the summer. Talk about uncomfortable!
By doing these things, I earned their trust, and more importantly I forgot about my own struggles. I didn’t have time to think about me because these kids needed our help. Not only did our players start to trust me, but the coaching staff welcomed me into their circle. They taught me about the streets, the family upbringing, the struggles a black teenage male has to go through. They all experienced that life growing up and got through it. I looked up and admired them because they were all great leaders in their communities, and more importantly great fathers.
There was one player in particular I became heavily interested in helping. When I met Brandon Cole, he had a bad attitude, anger issues, and always in trouble in school. But through all his character defects, he showed leadership qualities at many times. He was always protective of his teammates, he had a desire to win, very passionate at times, and loved to cook! It was a real struggle in our first year with Brandon. The outbursts on the bench and meltdowns in practice outweighed the good qualities that first year, but we stuck by him. Actually, his mother fought for him in a meeting where we suggested he go to another school. I’m glad she did!
Suspended for the first 4 games of the season, he was a good teammate, and he progressed very well over the course of that season. After that season ended, our conversations about going to college became more serious. He would say things like “It’s not for me coach” and “I won’t get in coach,” or “I don’t have the money coach.” Slowly, he started to believe in himself, and our coaching staff did a nice job working with the administration to help him along with the process.
After the completion of his junior year, he was fully qualified as a student to go to college as long as he maintained the minimum requirements needed for his Senior year. That summer, Brandon started to change. He was in the gym working on his game, he was comfortably talking to our staff and opening up about his anger problem, and his desire to be successful. Brandon now wanted to go to college!
Our team struggled in our second season as a new staff, but Brandon continued to get better on and off the court. About mid-way through the season, Brandon was dealing with some really heavy off-court stuff, and all the sudden, the old player came back. Angry, defeated, and unfocused. Again, my own problems and my racing thoughts were put into perspective when watching a young teen go through very tough times.
In late February of 2014, Brandon was kicked out of practice for being late. I was so worried about him at this point. I talked to my wife when I got home, and asked her if she had any cookbooks or knew about any famous chefs, as Brandon was interested in pursuing his culinary dreams in the future. She went out and bought me a Bobby Flay Cook book, which I put in my gym bag before our road game against Neumann Goretti.
Brandon was clearly not mentally right, while dealing with off-court problems, and had another meltdown on the bench. Anger and tears, just completely distraught. Brandon walked off the bench and sat with his neighborhood crew that were in the stands for the second half. Coach Jazz Williams taught me another lesson about crisis management, but that’s for another day.
Immediately after the game, I raced to my bag and grabbed the book. I chased him outside in the parking lot, gave him the cookbook, and said “ I believe in you.” That’s all I said…and I went back to the locker room. In his final 3 games of the season, Brandon had 19, 17, and 22 points respectively, and finished off his 4 year career at West Catholic with a vicious two hand dunk! Those 3 games and the help of Coach Jazz earned him a roster spot in the All Star Labor Classic in March 2015. Coach Jazz also had the opportunity to coach Brandon in this game. Brandon was named MVP of the game, which led to an article written about Brandon by Aaron Carter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Aaron Carter is a phenomenal sports writer who has a huge impact on the Philadelphia high school hoops scene. (See more of Aaron’s work by following him at @AceCarterINQ on Twitter)
A basketball coach at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, NC happened to read this article and was intrigued, learning about Brandon’s interest in cooking and knowing that JWU has a culinary program. The coach called Coach Jazz right away to talk about Brandon. Brandon was soon offered a scholarship from Johnson & Wales, a division 2 NAIA school. How awesome is that…combining both of his passions – culinary and basketball!
Still under a lot of pressure from his neighborhood, Brandon decided to go to Charlotte and attend Johnson & Wales. I met Brandon at his home the day before he left for school to drop off dorm supplies and some groceries. Neighbors were closely watching, wondering what the hell I was doing on their block. Brandon invited me into his home where he made chicken cutlets for me.
Let me make this very clear, leaving Philadelphia under his circumstances was very uncomfortable for him, but he did it. He finished up his freshman year at Johnson & Wales with a 3.1 GPA, and was the 6th man during the basketball season, playing in 25 games and averaging 6.3 ppg. We spoke once a week while he was there during his freshman year. We became very close. He was helping me more than I was helping him. He just didn’t know it.
That summer, Brandon came back home to Philadelphia for summer break and was shot and killed on July 3rd, 2016. We were absolutely crushed. That image of him laying in the hospital bed at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center with his chest open and tubes down his throat is vivid. I’ll never forget that. I think about this player every day. He gives me strength when I’m afraid about something. And, he reminds me to continue to do things that are uncomfortable in life.
The last text I received from Brandon in June 2016:
Thank you Jazz Williams, James Thomas, Larry Strand, Rob Wharton, Paul Colistra, all the players during those 2 seasons, and West Philly for saving my life without knowing it.
You taught me the following…
- Give Second Chances: I am one, and so was Brandon.
- In order to grow, you need to meet people, go places, and do things that are uncomfortable.
- Invest in others. Believe in others. Help others.
- Stick with the winners.
- Be compassionate towards others.
- Always put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Someone is always going through tough times at some point.
- Be Unselfish.
- Take Risks.
- Be Authentic.
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