Monday, February 13, 2006
Updated: April 15, 1:18 PM ET
Acts Of Kindness
By Chris Smith
The boy sits on the low cement wall every afternoon, rain or shine, waiting. Randy Foye is 11 years old. He gets out of school and balls for a couple of hours until an invisible game clock tells him it's time to head to the wall and wait for Z.
Z--no one uses his full name, ZeGale Kelliehan--is a kid himself really, a college freshman, just seven years older than Randy but possessed of a maturity that knows no age. Z is, and always has been, cool. He's smart without showing off and he's fun, too, and a great baller. That's what Randy first admired about Z: his game. But it's not why Randy sits and waits.
The reason isn't logistical, either. Yes, Z's house is across the street, and an asphalt basketball court beckons just steps away. More powerful, though, is the psychic pull of the place. When Randy was 5, this is the spot, says a family friend, where his mother, Regina Foye, climbed into a van and vanished forever, abandoning Randy, whose father had been killed in a motorcycle accident three years earlier. So, sitting on the wall as the sun goes down on one of Newark's roughest neighborhoods (waiting for Z to come home from class) Randy waits for the first member of his improvised family.
He waits to be saved.
If it takes a village to raise a child, as the African proverb says, that village was Newark, N.J., for Randy Foye, now 22. Riddled with crack, guns and gangs, the good citizens in Foye's story are male and female, black and white, Jewish and Catholic, young and old. They don't share blood. Their bond is an unselfish love for one orphaned boy. "I'm blessed," Foye says. "A whole bunch of great people formed a circle around me, and every time I tried to go out of it, they pushed me back in, kept me solid."
"Solid" has many meanings. Last spring, after leading Villanova to within a point of a Sweet 16 upset win over eventual champ North Carolina, the junior guard with the 15.5-ppg average looked like a sure thing to quit school for the NBA. But Foye justified his protectors' faith by returning to school. And he didn't return just to get his degree or to lead the undersized Wildcats into the Top 10. He stayed to add his team to his unbreakable circle.
EVERY DAY Z would tell himself he'd go straight to studying. Then he'd round the corner from Orange Street onto Third Street, and before he'd even passed the rice-and-beans joint, Randy would be bounding along beside him. The boy with the ball and the big smile always seemed hungry. So they'd head to the kitchen in Z's house, dig through the fridge, eat and talk. "He was real quiet until you got to know him," Z says. "But it was clear from the beginning he knew how to play. I didn't waste his time telling him about basketball. We talked about what it took to get out of Newark. I guess God put us in the same neighborhood for a reason."
Z had been a local star at West Orange High, drawing a few college recruiters. But he ended up at nearby New Jersey City University, where his brother had once played. "The one thing I knew was that I was going to get a degree somewhere," he says. These days Z is teaching special ed at P.S. 27 in Paterson while he studies for a master's. He points to the housing projects that loom behind
Third Street and describes where the Crips' turf ends and the Bloods' begins. The houses where Foye lived with a grandmother and then an aunt crouch in the slim neutral zone between blue and red ganglands. "There hasn't been a player to make it out of this neighborhood in a very long time," he says. "Too much can go wrong too easy. Me, I just wasn't good enough. But we knew from when he was small that Randy, he's the one."
If Z saw in Foye the player he'd never be, Randy saw in Z the man he wanted to be. "I tried to do everything he did," Foye says. Most of Z's friends were hustlers and thugs, but he always worked hard for what he got. "In Newark, kids who don't have money say, `Okay, I'll sell drugs for two months, then I'll stop,'" explains Foye. "But you can't stop, because the money's so fast. So if I said, `Z, I need $20,' he gave me $40. If he was going out of town, and he knew I wasn't doing nothing, just being around negative influences, he'd take me with him. Z showed me what's right, what's wrong. We call ourselves godbrothers."
SANDY PYONIN coached Bobby Hurley when he was a prodigy, Al Harrington when he was a string bean and Jay Williams when he was Jason Williams. So Pyonin knows talent, and he saw it in the 12-year-old. "Yes, Randy was an incredible player, quick as a jet, could shoot the three," he says. But it wasn't what he saw first: "He was such a supernice kid. If someone gave Randy a dollar, he'd give 50 cents of it to a friend."
By day, Pyonin teaches Phys Ed at a Jewish academy. But his longtime passion has been the Road Runners, an AAU team he runs. When Foye joined the club, Pyonin drove him to practices and tournaments in a beat-up station wagon. The hours on the road made time for an invaluable seminar. "Sandy is the closest thing I have to a father. He means that much to me," Foye says. "He taught me how to see the floor, control a team. And he taught me if you have something special, cherish it. I learned about loyalty in those conversations."
Foye showed his loyalty even in a moment in which something special was taken away. As a freshman guard, he helped lead Newark's East Side High School to the state semis. Then, just like that, the team evaporated: it was discovered that five upperclassmen from Africa and Europe were living unsupervised in an apartment and had dubious immigration papers. The players were suspended, and East Side's coach resigned. Suddenly, Foye was very popular with recruiters who represented New Jersey's powerhouse private school teams. Foye shakes his head now. "They made it seem as though I was in a messed-up situation at East Side and I didn't have a chance," he says.
Instead of bolting, though, Foye stayed at East Side, embracing the challenge of playing leader to a band of younger, inexperienced teammates. Not that he was the perfect role model at first. "We went through a good battle," remembers Bryant Garvin, a hard-ass who took over as East Side's basketball coach after years with the school's football team. "Randy was late for practices, and I had to suspend him for a couple games," he says. "With his father dead and his mother nowhere to be found, it was a struggle for him mentally. He just couldn't get himself together. When I got angry, he'd shut down."
But when Foye pulled away, Garvin pulled him closer, inviting him into his own home for meals and to watch hoops videos. The coach talked about how he'd grown up in Chicago in a situation not unlike Foye's, and about how hard he'd worked to get where he was. "I told him he could follow my footsteps and do better," Garvin says. "All of a sudden it just clicked. It's hard to say exactly why." The coach laughs. "Maybe he just got tired of us preaching to him. I'm so proud of this kid, it brings a tear to my eye-even though he played no D for me." Foye, scoring 22 ppg, led East Side to the state championship in his senior year and was named New Jersey Player of the Year.
Even as he is asked to recount all the wrenching dramas of his childhood, the only thing that makes Foye visibly upset is when he hears Garvin's comment about his defense. These days, Foye, at 6'4'', 205 pounds, is a lockdown terror, regularly assigned to bigger, stronger opponents. "I played D!" he protests. Then he laughs. "He was a great coach, but he was so much more to me. I didn't like it at first, but I needed the discipline."
MARIA CONTARDO is an effusive old-Newark Italian. A parent of a son and a daughter. What she's not is a jock den mother. A former student advocate at East Side, she still regularly visits a former student who's in prison for homicide. Yet Contardo has a special affection for Foye, whom she calls "my Randy." When a fight broke out during an East Side game, Contardo rushed onto the court and ordered Foye into the locker room. She was no less protective during the school day, hectoring Foye into study hall, pressing his teachers to make him work harder in class. "It's not a science," Contardo says. "Kids need structure, they need attention. Once you gave Randy rules to follow, he thrived."
No one was more responsible for making Foye into a student. "She helped me do a complete turnaround," he says. "I went from a guy who skipped out of classes to a guy who wanted something out of life." In Foye's sophomore year, though, he slacked off in class and got into a brawl in a hallway. "Mrs. Contardo turned her back on me," he says. "She said, 'I tried to help you, but you didn't do it.'" Instead of begging for forgiveness, Foye buckled down. At the end of the marking period, when she saw his grades, she said, "You did this without any help?" and he said, "I wanted to gain your trust back." Of course she took him back under her wing. "Mrs. Contardo says she saw a sweet soul," remembers Foye, "and she wanted this sweet soul not to turn out sour, so that's why she helped me."
As college recruiters swarmed, Foye steered them to Mrs. Contardo. She cheered silently when Tommy Amaker left Seton Hall, Foye's first choice. That made Villanova, far enough from Newark's demons but close enough for her to keep tabs, the frontrunner. But even now, sometimes the distance isn't great enough for her. Last year, Foye raced home when his brother Chris was shot, and Contardo worried he'd quit school to take care of him. After a day at the hospital, Foye returned, guiltily, to campus.
Foye goes silent for a long moment at the mention of his kid brother. "Ummm … he's been through some struggles," Randy says quietly. Chris is 20, with two kids. "Sometimes I think the reason he went through so many things is because I wasn't there," Randy says. "The streets swallowed him in. But even though we're leading two different lives, I never look at my brother different. That's my heart."
That heart still does get heavy. Contardo knows to expect a phone call each fall, when Villanova is crowded with families, parents bringing their kids back to school. "I hear his voice and know what's wrong," she says. "I think graduation is going to be really hard for Randy."
IT'S ONE of those softball questions for a TV interview the day before Villanova and La Salle are to meet in a late-December battle of Big Five unbeatens. (Nova will win by 41.) "So, Randy," oozes the local sportscaster, "this is gonna come down to who has the best talent, right?"
Foye could easily toss off a cliché-"La Salle's a great team, and we're just gonna try our hardest"- and hit the showers. Instead, his answer is infinitely more revealing. "This is gonna come down to who plays best for his teammates," he says. "We win when we play as a family."
A family. Foye lost his before he could tie his shoes, but the family that has adopted him over the years is stronger than biology. Now he lives his life to justify the faith that Z, Pyonin, Garvin and Contardo had in him. Last spring, after his breakout NCAA Tourney, the talk was that Foye was turning pro for sure. But Foye thought about finishing college. "I always wanted to be the first person in my family to graduate," he says. And he thought about the teammates he'd been with since freshman year, and about the hours coach Jay Wright had invested in him, honing him. He thought about his talks with assistant Ed Pinckney, who told him of the thrill of leading the underdog Wildcats to the 1985 national championship.
In April, Foye walked into Wright's office and told the very relieved coach he was staying. Later that summer, Foye was chosen to carry the flag during the opening ceremonies for the World University Games, and then led the U.S. to gold. And so far this season, his 20.5 ppg-37.8% from beyond the arcis a big reason the Wildcats are off to a 15—2 start. (What are Randy's pro prospects? See below.)
The Wildcats are his family now, but he has not forgotten the one that slipped away. For years, he has carefully preserved an 8x10 color photo of his mother. In his apartment at Villanova, it sits on top of the TV. Over the summer, he asked a tattoo artist to ink the likeness on his chest. "I was kinda surprised," Z says. "He rarely ever speaks about her. But this was perfect Randy. He didn't put it on his arm to show the world. He put his mother's face over his heart." Along with the words In loving memory of Regina Foye.
His final memory of her, however, is when she walked out the door one morning.
"I'm pretty sure she was a drug addict," Contardo says. "How do I know? From working in the Newark schools for 16 years. A teenage girl gets in a van and never returns, leaving her kids behind. What do you think it was about? But even if a child is left in the street, even if your mother didn't feed you, she's still your mother. And wherever she is, I hope she approves of what this village has done for her son."
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Foye's mother, and the people who raised her son, is that he has the generosity of spirit to forgive her. Foye says he'll be in the shower after practice or a game, glance down at his chest and wonder what his mother would think of him now, how she'd react to his triumphs. "I'll take the bar of soap and go over her again and again," he says. "I clean my mother thoroughly."
Nobody needs to scrub Randy Foye. He's already shining bright.