Forrest returns to his roots
After long career in Europe, Georgia Tech's March Madness hero helps Atlanta youth
The city of Atlanta has closed 22 rec centers within the past year, another casualty of an economy that is leaving cities strapped for cash.
James Forrest doesn't care much about the politics of the decision or even the finances. He cares about one thing: the kids who suddenly don't have a place to play.
Forrest grew up in the city, grew up on the playgrounds where he could always find a pickup game that would simultaneously let him work on his game and keep him out of trouble.
"Where are these kids today supposed to go?" he asked. "What are they supposed to do when school is out?"
Forrest thinks he has an answer.
He's counting on his friends who work with and play for the local pro teams, his former Georgia Tech teammates and his own place in the Atlanta sports pantheon to make things better.
Forrest, whose buzzer-beater stunned USC in the second round of the 1992 NCAA tournament, started the James Forrest Scholastic and Sports Academy. What started as a summer camp in nearby Lithonia has grown into a program for more than 300 kids, and Forrest has designs to do more. He's begun an AAU program and hopes in the near future to build a facility that will give kids a place to play, do their homework or just meet with a mentor from the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program.
He's already brought many to their first collegiate or professional game, opening up a world many didn't even know existed.
"I can't believe how many of these kids have never been to a game," he said. "When you take them down to see the game, the expressions on their face is just priceless."
Sort of what their faces looked like when they Googled their coach this past summer.
In the past 11 years, Forrest figures he's lived in the United States no more than 45 days as he pursued a successful professional career in Europe.
So while the parents of his current players may know who he is and remember his NCAA tournament heroics, his players didn't.
Until they started researching on the computer.
"My kids [ages 13, 9 and 5] didn't even really know," Forrest said. "Then all of a sudden, the kids on my team were like, 'Coach we saw pictures of you when you were 18. We didn't know you hit that crazy shot.' I just laugh and tell them the same thing I tell everybody: It wasn't designed for me."
Uh, no, that's putting it lightly.
"He was the last resort, the absolute last guy we wanted the ball to go to," former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said.
Forrest was talented, but in 35 games during his freshman season, he hadn't made a single 3-pointer and attempted only three. With only 0.8 seconds left in the game, the Yellow Jackets trailing by two and Matt Geiger inbounding from midcourt, Cremins figured in all likelihood the Trojans would force a deep shot.
With sharpshooters Travis Best and Jon Barry as options, Forrest didn't even qualify as a safety valve.
But USC wisely blanketed Best and Barry, covering the two so well Geiger nearly was whistled for a five-second call.
Convinced the game was done and his team was going to lose, Cremins started to walk toward USC coach George Raveling to congratulate him and the Trojans on their victory.
In the last second, Geiger found a waving Forrest on the wing. The rookie caught the ball, turned and swish.
"My high school coach always told me, 'Work on your game,' and I wasn't a 3-point shooter so I never practiced shooting 3s," Forrest said. "But the crazy thing is, if you watch the replay, it's like I shot it in rhythm, like I knew what I was doing. It was complete panic."
Quickly dubbed the "Miracle in Milwaukee" by Al McGuire, whose "Holy mackerel" reaction is every bit as famous as the buzzer-beater, the shot stunned a USC team that had designs on the Final Four. When Cremins finally did shake Raveling's hand, he didn't say a word, realizing his opponent was too overcome by the loss for even sincere condolences.
Cremins was equally stunned. Despite blustery conditions, he walked back to his hotel that night.
"I needed fresh air," he said. "It was so dramatic and when I walked out, there was snow. It was perfect."
Things didn't go quite as perfectly for Forrest. He was a freshman All-American in 1992, an ACC tournament MVP in '93 and a first-team All-ACC player in '94. Many people thought he should have come out early. Instead he stayed for four years and went undrafted in 1995.
But Forrest found happiness in Europe. He played in Israel, Spain, Greece and Italy, enjoying a five-year run in Greece and four seasons in Italy.
"So many people think if you don't make it in the NBA, your career is over," Forrest said. "That is not the case. If I didn't have kids, Europe would be my home. It's just peaceful there."
Early in his career when his children were young, they would visit Forrest in Europe for extended holidays. Regardless of his playing schedule, they were never apart more than 30 days, he said. But as his children got older that became more difficult and after Forrest and his wife divorced, he decided it was time to come home for good. He retired from basketball last year.
When he returned to Atlanta, he discovered through his own basketball-playing son that the opportunities in the city were drying up. That's when he got involved. He started out coaching but soon realized he could do more.
For now, he's using King Middle School and his own alma mater, Maynard Jackson High School, for practices to run his AAU teams. But he has big plans. He's reached out to Georgia Tech and to his teammates -- Best remains in the area -- for help and suggestions and even got a hand from an unexpected source.
Last season at the Georgia Tech-North Carolina game, Forrest ran into Raveling. Now an exec with Nike, Raveling graciously donated T-shirts to Forrest's teams.
"I wrote him an e-mail to thank him," Forrest said, "and I told him, 'Thanks for not holding a grudge.'"
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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