U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2008 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Getting the message
Bud Withers, Seattle Times

CHICAGO – For Jeremy Pargo, this is where it began. No, not basketball, not the sports thing. Right here in Mrs. Stella Evans' classroom is where Pargo started to hear and feel and sense the commitment somebody had to helping him become a success story, not another dismal footnote to some of the toughest streets in America.

He was a freshman then, in her reading class here at Paul Robeson High School, and he was disinterested. His passion was basketball, not books.

"Oh, Jeremy, I don't want to hear that," Evans told him.

But he showed her, logged onto the Internet and found his name, a star in the making with a round ball.

"Then you really have to learn to read," Evans said, brightening, "because you have to be able to read a contract one day."

Not right then, but eventually, he got it. And on a warm day last June, Evans and Charles Redmond, Pargo's retired coach, sat in her classroom and recounted the events that took Pargo from south Chicago to Gonzaga University.

And in the middle of it, without warning, Redmond broke down in tears.

He and Evans have preached the message before. Some listen, some don't. Some flourish, some die.

When somebody hears them, it can be overwhelming.

Zags reach out

Stop us if you've heard this one: Standout athlete from the 'hood turns his back on gangbanging and drugs, makes it out and attains celebrity as a college player. It's a clichι of the sports world.

But for Gonzaga, a predominantly white school in the heavily white city of Spokane, there's another layer. The Zags' basketball program came to national prominence mostly – not exclusively, but mostly – by recruiting white players like Matt Santangelo and Richie Frahm and Casey Calvary and Mark Spink.

To take the next step, to grow to the level of North Carolina or Kentucky or UCLA, the Zags had to expand to black America.

Which is how they found themselves in Chicago a few years ago, pursuing Jeremy Pargo, who had blown up in a summer camp, but who had no grades and no test score. And once they saw those numbers, no recruiters.

"Illinois, Kentucky, Cincinnati," says Redmond, "a lot of schools were recruiting him."

And then they said: No thanks. For them, he was simply too much work, too much baby-sitting, too much investment against a minimal chance of return. Silently, by their disappearance, they became like some of Pargo's teachers and others, people hardened by the percentages. Even they told him he had no shot.

Against the tide of dissent stood a few people, people like Evans and Redmond.

"We have a Vietnam right here in Inglewood"

Stella Evans lives nearby. She knows the community inside-out. She knows the ugly demographics and the sense of hopelessness. Her dogged campaign is for Inglewood, the area surrounding Robeson High, but it could as easily be for Compton or South Philly or Harlem.

Referring to Pargo, she says, "Especially now, Jeremy can look back and say, 'Thank God somebody stayed on me.' I'm sure he didn't get it at that point. He didn't understand me fussing on him about respecting adults, not burning bridges."

Yesterday, Evans says, a boy was shot. Today, he was supposed to graduate. She knows of five such shootings in the past school year, and there could be more.

She's just getting warmed up.

"I'm tired of burying boys from this community," she says. "It just eats at me, it upsets me. I tell people, 'If my boys are OK, my girls are going to be OK, because my boys are going to see to it.' They're going to take care of them, and their daughters and their sons.

"The Vietnam War took a lot of black men during my time. Now it's like we have a Vietnam right here in Inglewood, but it's black-on-black crime. This neighborhood alone might have four gangs, if not more.

"For Jeremy to make it around that and get to where he is today, it's a miracle in itself."

Summer school, night school

You could almost call Gonzaga and Pargo a marriage of convenience. The program saw a chance to recruit a strong, gifted player from somewhere it doesn't often go. Pargo had no other scholarship offers when he signed a letter of intent. Still, the skepticism was thick.

Says Pargo, "A lot of people said, 'Gonzaga? What the hell you thinking?' "

But don't mistake convenient for easy. On Gonzaga's end, assistant coach Tommy Lloyd worked Pargo hard – not just to convince him to come, but to impress upon him what he had to do academically.

"Tommy pushed him to no end, to make sure he did the things he was supposed to do," Redmond says. "Tommy worked his butt off. He made at least three or four trips back to the city. Illinois came through the door, looked at the transcripts, and we haven't seen them since."

To qualify, Pargo would have to go to summer school. He'd have to go to night school. Redmond, a stickler for schoolwork, would sometimes let Pargo miss practice so he could get to night classes.

Then came the summer of 2004. Pargo had just finished his junior year. Redmond was embroiled in the same, distrustful dispute that goes on across the nation: High school coaches against AAU coaches.

Pargo's AAU coaches took him to a tournament in Las Vegas. Redmond was dead set against it, arguing that Pargo needed to be in summer school. Finally, Redmond phoned one of the AAU assistant coaches, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Antoine Walker, and soon, Pargo was on a red-eye flight home.

Today, Pargo minimizes the incident, saying he knew he was allowed to miss three days of summer school and he was only carrying out a plan. But that year at Robeson, in a paper for a class, he wrote, "Coach Redmond does not want anything for me but my education. He's concerned about me as a person, not trying to use me."

"When I read that," says Redmond, "that just got me."

It still does. He breaks down in tears at the memory.

Older brother plays in NBA

Make no mistake, there were lots of people involved in the growth of Jeremy Pargo. Two of them are sitting in a downtown-Chicago condo building where Jannero Pargo has a unit.

Jannero, Jeremy's older brother, is a five-year veteran NBA reserve guard for the New Orleans Hornets. Their mother, Charlie Mae, is described as a quiet but rock-solid influence in their lives.

The two Pargo boys are close, phenomenally close. They had their battles, Jannero always winning. In the basement of their house, they played "basketball," shooting socks over pipes protruding beneath the ceiling.

Then they grew older, and the pro baller took care of little brother, buying him a Chrysler 300M when Jeremy was a sophomore.

Evans and Redmond rolled their eyes.

"Why'd you get him a car?" Evans asked Jannero. "He needs a tutor."

Jannero is a quiet, buttoned-down person who credits his mother for his work ethic and his persona.

"I don't know anybody in the world that works harder than my mom," Jannero said. "I definitely get that from her."

He struggled in high school himself, earned superior grades in junior college and excelled at Arkansas. When he saw his brother coming up short academically, he tried to buttress the message from people like Evans and Redmond.

"I just explained that if he applied himself in the classroom the way he does on a basketball court," Jannero said, "the route for him would be much easier."

Shortly into his senior year, Jeremy weighed a scholarship offer from Gonzaga. His grades were slowly getting there, but still, they were more about hope than reason.

"That's too far, coach," Jeremy Pargo protested to Redmond, referring to Spokane. "And it's basically all white people."

Redmond shot back, "Who else is recruiting you?"

Case closed. Months later, the letter from the testing service came in the mail, telling him he'd become NCAA-eligible. Pargo called over one of his high school coaches, unwilling to believe.

He'd made it.

Nickname is "Buck"

Late August 2005. First day of classes at Gonzaga, and Pargo is in freshman English, bright and early.

"Maybe 20 to 30 students in the class," Pargo said. "I was the only black kid. It was kind of like,'I'm a ways from home.' "

"I think that's been good for him," said his mother. "I think that's what made him grow up pretty fast."

It's been a cultural shock, but Pargo is nothing if not a strong person. Despite being scorned by some people back home – "people that had power in basketball were unhappy, like I'd made the worst decision of my life," he says – he never entertained a thought of transferring.

"Not at all," he said. "I made a decision to be here, so I'm going to deal with every aspect of it."

"Buck" was his nickname back in Chicago, given to him long ago by an uncle, and it seems to fit. He is of his own mind.

That's why, when the bad news crept over the ESPN ticker early last February in Redmond's home, the coach didn't panic.

"My wife said,'Gonzaga players in trouble,' " Redmond said, recalling the drug-related arrests of Josh Heytvelt and Theo Davis. "I said,'It ain't Buck.' "

Pargo called Redmond anyway, just to ease his mind.

"You know I ain't doing that," Pargo told him.

And he doesn't. Years ago, Jeremy and Jannero made a pact – no drugs, no alcohol, no exceptions. Once, there was a wild Fourth of July celebration involving family members – Jeremy won't share the details – and that sealed the deal.

"Drinking can't help you," Jannero says firmly. "It can only hurt you."

Instead, Jeremy's primary vice is occasional carelessness with the basketball. He's not the classic, pass-first point guard, but a thick, bullish force who has few peers nationally getting to the basket.

Last season, he was an all-West Coast Conference choice. This season, he's a co-captain, and leads the Bulldogs in scoring (12.8) and assists (5.8). He scored 28 points last week in a loss at Oklahoma.

Half a continent away, back in that classroom in south Chicago, Stella Evans keeps fighting the good fight.

"I've been teaching since'73," she says. "It took me awhile to realize, you can't save 100 percent, but damn if I don't try."

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The story of Jeremy Pargo underscores an old truth: It takes a village.


• Second place: John Feinstein, Washington Post
• Third place: Rob Schultz, Madison Capital Times
• Fourth place: Marty Dobrow, Boston Globe
• Fifth place: Bryan Burwell, St. Louis Post-Dispatch