Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, former star player for the University of Memphis men's basketball team, didn't have to, but he did. After a 16-year career in the NBA, Hardaway moved back to Memphis a rich man, but when he got the call, he returned to his old neighborhood, Binghampton, and to Lester Middle School.
Hardaway was answering the call of his boyhood friend Desmond Merriweather, head coach of the Lester Lions basketball team. Merriweather was battling cancer, and Hardaway more than answered Merriweather's call. As replacement coach for the Lester Lions, Hardaway led the team to a dream that came true: the 2012 state championship — a championship that Wayne B. Drash, a staff writer for CNN.com, chronicles in On These Courts: A Miracle Season That Changed a City, a Once-Future Star, and a Team Forever (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster). Researching and writing this book has been a homecoming of sorts for Drash too.
He first met Hardaway when the two were 15-year-olds attending basketball camp at the University of Kentucky during the summer of 1987. At 6'-2" Hardaway may have been rail thin, but he was a born shooter. Drash wasn't so bad himself, averaging 25 points a game. But he was something else: the son of Sam Drash, who once served as headmaster at Christ Methodist Day School, which meant that Wayne Drash grew up, in his words, in a "completely separate world," that world being East Memphis.
Drash's privileged background, however, hasn't kept him off the streets of Binghampton — a neighborhood that sees more than its share of broken homes, gang activity, and gun violence — or out of the lives of the Binghampton residents he interviewed for this book, be they family members or neighborhood leaders.
Hardaway certainly figured in the often fatherless lives of those winning Lions, among them: Kobe Freeman, Reggie Green, Nick Merriweather (son of Desmond), and Robert Washington. And Hardaway wasn't only on the court. The product himself of a broken home, Hardaway led by example off the court too. Discipline, hard work, and teamwork were life lessons he'd learned from the grandmother who reared him, Sheila Harris.
It takes a village to raise a child? For "village," think not only Binghampton but the city of Memphis. Part of the proceeds from the sale of On These Courts will go to Penny's FastBreak Courts, an ongoing effort by Anfernee Hardaway to help at-risk youth citywide.
Vinton, Harbert, Carr, Melrose, Goodbar, and Peabody: This isn't Binghampton. It's Midtown — Central Gardens, to be exact — and these are the streets that make up a paper route, the newspaper being the city's onetime afternoon publication, the Memphis Press-Scimitar.
The year is 1959. The paperboy, age 11, is Victor Vollmer III. And in July of '59, Victor will see more of the world than he knew existed. Local readers of a certain age will recognize that world in all its particulars in Paperboy (Delacorte Press) by Vince Vawter.
And yes, Victor is a thinly disguised self-portrait of Vawter. And yes, this is the same Vince Vawter who worked as a reporter at the Press-Scimitar before he moved on to other, out-of-town newspapers.
Vawter is retired now and living outside Knoxville, but it's wrong to think of Paperboy as a sentimental journey back in time. It's also mistaken to think of Paperboy as strictly for young-adult audiences. Readers age 10 and up will sympathize with Victor's coming to grips with his stuttering and the adult world. Readers of any age — and especially Memphians — will find in Paperboy an affectionate but honest portrait of a bygone era by a writer as sure at story-telling as he is at recapturing days gone by.
Wayne Drash will be discussing and signing On These Courts at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on Friday, May 10th, beginning at 6 p.m. Welcome home Vince Vawter when he returns to Memphis to discuss and sign Paperboy at the Booksellers on Tuesday, May 14th, beginning at 6 p.m.