Sherwin Anderson was at the University only a week when he got the news. Back home, in the rock-hard, trash-filled projects of Brooklyn, N.Y., his best friend was in jail. Murder. Pulled out a gun and shot a man.
Anderson was in a daze. The only world he knew had just exploded, and the world he was now in was unlike any he’d ever seen. It was clean, safe, in some ways soft. His roommate grew up in a small town with plenty of food and money. The two would sit around and trade stories about the dichotomy of their lives. Big city vs. small town. Rich vs. poor. Seven days into his college career, Anderson was already in the middle of one of the biggest tests of his life.
“I arrived on campus with a boom box and some clothes,” Anderson says. “I didn’t know you needed all that other stuff. I didn’t know how to study or go to class. The schools where I came from had different study habits, different class system, different culture. It was a major test.”
By the end of his freshman year, Anderson was on academic probation. He sat on the verge of losing his basketball eligibility and finding himself back on the streets.
But Anderson grew. He changed. He matured on the court as a basketball player and off it as a person. He graduated early, entered the master’s degree program in sports administration and set himself up for his current job as owner of the Shining Stars Sports Program, which teaches basketball and life skills to more than 500 local kids a year.
And he’s not the only one. Each year the University recruits athletes from the fringes of society, where academics aren’t emphasized and life is dangerous. And each year, the University graduates athletes who leave as better people.
Jamal Walker came to the University from the gang-infested jungle of the Bronx, N.Y. He’s now the athletic director at Woodward High School in Cincinnati, trying to turn around others who are facing the same circumstances he once faced.
Stan Kimbrough came from a part of Cleveland that was so rough someone stole his first basketball on the day he got it—Christmas. He now runs Kimbrough for Kids, an organization that teaches kids to read and write and play basketball.
When he first arrived on campus, Lenny Brown had such a hard time adjusting to leaving the streets of Delaware that he actually quit—went home. The coaching staff had to talk him into returning. He graduated and is now playing pro basketball overseas.
“When Kevin Frey came here from Chicago, he came in with a lack of trust in others—particularly adult figures—for a variety of reasons,” says director for athletics Mike Bobinski. “By the time he graduated, he totally changed. He had a great basketball career, but our greatest success was how he changed as a person. It would have been a hollow victory if he graduated but was the same person he was when he came here.”
Critics dismiss Division I college athletics as sports factories, shuffling people through, using them for financial gains and then forgetting them when their eligibility is over. The University hasn’t strayed from the ideals of what student-athletics is supposed to be.
“If you don’t turn out people who are better off than when they came in here,” says Bobinski, “you’re not doing your job. The outline for that has been in place for a long time at Xavier, and we’re the better for it. But we tell our coaches, no matter where you’re recruiting, it’s important to get a person with certain defining characteristics. That’s one of the tricks of recruiting—to get to the bottom of what a person is really like. That’s especially true today because you don’t get to spend as much time with an individual as you used to.”
Ask those who changed and they cite three main sources of influence: the coaches, the administrative staff and current or former players.
Former standout Michael Davenport understands this and is in the beginning phases of starting a mentoring program for University athletes to help them adjust to life once they are out of college. The program will help them understand what they are going to face in the real world and what they are going to do without sports being so prominent in their lives.
“Xavier saved me personally,” says Anderson. “I can’t say I would have been involved in that shooting back home, but you never know how the guy’s friends would have retaliated. I could be dead or in jail.”