The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

The Rise and Fall of Raphael Jones

Stories of this nature are better spoken than written and better listened to than read. The characters and
events represented here are all based on actual events and facts. Specific locations, names and dates have been modified to present a composite and portrait that reveals the story of both one and many.

It was 1995 and we were halfway through the season and although the team that we had assembled was
comprised of some of the best athletes and toughest boys I had ever coached, we were in danger of falling below .500-a distinction that no other Boys' Club of New York (BCNY) Academic All-Star basketball team had ever achieved. In fact, during the three previous seasons, and against a host of independent day and boarding schools throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic states, BCNY's All Stars had amassed 65 victories against just 11 losses. Additionally, and during this same period, over 30 boys had been placed and funded at some of the nation's top independent day and boarding schools. It was a model program serving a student
profile that was failing in school at alarming rates.

Great teams somehow find a rhythm and their individual differences become a source of unity and strength.
In retrospect, this team's destiny had been determined before we had made our final cuts and while we
began the season with the belief that we would set a new standard of excellence, we ended the year knowing
that we had witnessed something on a cold and grey January afternoon in a crowded Pennsylvania gym that
would change our lives forever and provide each of us, both players and coaches alike, with a moment and
memory unlike any we had experienced before or since.

The second half started without incident. We were playing a team that had never beaten us. We were down
by four and the fans were more than just a little animated. They sensed the possibilities of an upset against a
team that had three if not four division one level college recruits. We had every physical advantage imaginable.
When Raphael Jones entered the lane at the top of the key, he called for the ball and drifted forward just
like he had done a hundred other times during the season. A sharp pass from the wing delivered the ball to
him just as he had reached the foul-line. Suddenly, and to everyone's surprise, he ascended over two defenders
and threw down a thunderous dunk that immediately silenced the gym. With the rim and backboard shaking,
Raphael returned to the defensive side of the ball. He appeared to be moving in slow motion and his face
spoke of an out-of-body experience. The fans seemed to be paralyzed. I am not sure if anyone in that gym
had ever witnessed such physical grace and power.

During the next ten minutes, Raphael went on to score another 15 points. Earlier in the season, he had
demonstrated other moments of brilliance; however, these were never sustained from one end of the court to
the other. His season had been characterized by missed practices, missed assignments and a measure of perceived
indifference that was difficult to penetrate.

My relationship with Raphael began six months earlier. After one of our returning players had introduced me
to him, I met with both Raphael and his maternal grandmother. He was a sixteen year old African American
boy from East Harlem and like so may of his generation, he had found himself living with a grandparent with
absolutely no contact with either one of his biological parents. The crack cocaine epidemic that swept
through so many of our urban centers during the 1980's had left in its wake a generation of children who
bore the scars of one of the country's most defiled periods in its history-a period of great national shame.

Word on the street suggested that Raphael had already aligned himself with a dangerous group of young
felons and school truants. His grandmother had very little control over him. She was as I now recall a woman
of remarkable faith and strength and having watched her daughter be destroyed by such unfathomable evil,
she was determined to save her grandson. As I outlined our expectations, Raphael showed very little interest.
In fact, had it not been for his grandmother- a woman who was seeking the intervention of a higher order
and one that we certainly could not have secured, we never would have accepted him into our fold. He represented
the kind of risk that could undermine an entire program. Raphael Jones was angry and afraid and
while he would not express such feelings openly, I knew these very same feelings would make it impossible
for us to reach him.

The following week, we started the season with afternoon tutorials followed by practice. A review of
Raphael's academic records showed that during his elementary school years, he exhibited genuine promise;
however, his efforts subsequent to his arrival at junior high school had been consistently marred by poor
attendance, behavioral problems and school suspensions and transfers. He was in the 10th grade at one of
Manhattan's worst public schools with very little direction and with even less support. With the exception of
his grandmother, we could not find another single adult who had expressed any interest in his well-being.

Not surprisingly, Raphael missed his first two tutorials and when he did show up for practice, he was accompanied
by a small entourage of neighborhood thugs. After a minor confrontation, we were able to remove his
supposed supporters and friends. Raphael then went to the locker room to change and returned courtside
with nearly $500 in small bills rolled and held together by a large rubber band and with a request that we
hold onto to this for "safe-keeping". The signs continued to point to more trouble. The next day I called
Raphael's grandmother and asked her to come and see me. My intention was to separate from Raphael and
to explain to his grandmother that he simply presented a danger that we could not entertain. She pleaded
with me to give him another chance and assured me that she would talk with him. Every bone in my body
told me to walk away from what I knew was an impossible situation. I had genuine fears for our other students
and all of my assistant coaches had expressed similar concerns. Somehow, his grandmother was able
to convince me otherwise.

As the season unfolded, progress with Raphael was slow. Gone, though, was his entourage and this represented
a very significant step. He was regularly late for tutorials and practice, but he was showing-up. He
also found it difficult to comply with our dress code and missed several early games as we refused to take
him on the road dressed in the manner that more closely resembled how inmates at some of the area prisons
dressed-a fashion phenomenon that was being embraced by legions of area youth and a disturbing trend
indeed. This too began to change as he started to arrive on time and more appropriately attired. He had also
become friends with two of our more senior and positive students and he was beginning to follow their lead.
With all of this, his playing time increased and so too did his willingness to talk with us. Like so many boys of
his generation and from his neighborhood, he was terribly insecure and his fears were deeply rooted in an
ethos of dysfunction and disappointment.

We continued to counsel Raphael throughout the remainder of the season and applied those principles of
strength-based youth development that had served us so well in the past-focus on the positive, honor one's
family, be respectful and responsible and by all means always exercise a level of self-restraint. We connected
Raphael with some of our former graduates who had gone on to college and successful careers. These relationships
helped to further cement our efforts and as the season came to an end, Raphael began to reveal his
true self- a caring, all-be-it frightened, kind and bright young man. Perhaps I really had been wrong about my
earlier assessment.

A month prior, all of our students sat for the SSAT exam and while most of our boys struggled relative to
national and independent school norms, something extraordinary was about to occur and something that
none of us could have ever predicted. As a pre-requisite to applying to the independent schools that many of
our graduates went on to attend, the SSAT represented a genuine barrier to many of our boys. While much
of our tutorial work focused on test preparation and exam techniques; our boys presented serious and often
fundamental academic deficits that were difficult to over-come.

In late February, the second round of SSAT results had arrived and one of my assistants was busy collecting
and collating all of the data. He suddenly burst into my office with a declaration of surprise and affirmation.
In every category measured, Raphael's scores represented some of the highest we had ever seen. Clearly,
standardized testing in America can be divisive and a source of isolation and social immobility. It can also
open doors and we were about to give Raphael the keys to a better life and future-this much now we were
certain of.

Two days later, both Raphael and his grandmother came to our offices. All of my assistants were there to
help celebrate such an important milestone. We meet for over two hours mapping out what we all felt would
be a possible plan of action for us to consider. Placing Raphael in boarding school would not be easy. He was
a gifted athlete, intelligent, and when focused and secure, he exhibited very attractive personal qualities. The
gaps in his school record; however, would be difficult to explain and his candidacy would be viewed as a
risk- a perception that we had all earlier shared. We saw potential where others would now see danger.
Nevertheless, we agreed on a strategy and proceeded to conduct our outreach.

After several school visits and interviews and after completing a number of applications, Raphael was accepted
to a school in Massachusetts and one well suited to engaging him and meeting his needs. What followed
was a period of euphoria. Taken from the clutches of almost certain destruction and despair, was a young
man whose life and fortunes were about to change. This was a victory that we celebrated all spring and summer
and as the new school year approached and Raphael readied himself for a new frontier, we began to
turn our attention to other boys still mired in the quicksand of drug trafficking and gang violence. Ironically,
Raphael had introduced us to two younger boys from his neighborhood that he feared were destined to the
fate he had escaped. He was thinking of others and had finally learned to trust those who truly had his best
interests at heart.

Raphael was scheduled to leave NYC on a Sunday morning when he would start his new life on a New
England School campus that was anxiously awaiting his arrival. He had done all the required shopping,
bought his new blue blazer and learned to tie his school tie. On the Saturday night prior to his departure, his
entire building came out to celebrate his accomplishments. A pot-luck dinner was held and well-wishers from
all corners pointed to Raphael as an example to follow. On his way home that night, Raphael was shot in the
back of the head by a jealous rival who was determined to make sure that Raphael did not escape-hope and
promise evaporated.

For his grandmother now, Saturday nights are for weeping.

Having told this story to high school age students, teachers and administrators alike on several different
occasions, the reactions have always resulted in spirited discussion. While the story's ending is quite devastating,
it also provides very specific parameters that shape a discourse that almost always has broad personal,
social and political implications and not surprisingly, high-school age students are able to draw profound
and deeply felt conclusions as a result. Today and on the same date of that first pot-luck dinner, neighbors
and friends still gather to remember and celebrate Raphael Jones. His was an abbreviated life but his legacy
continues live on as others now follow the path he was never allowed to travel.

Brad Zervas
TAP, Founder & Director