Death of a hoop dream

By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 28, 2008

He’s learned to navigate the complexities of 501(c)(3) forms. He’s becoming adept at finagling corporate largesse. He’s cashed in his 401(k). His aim, in tandem with other Springfield community and anti-violence groups, is to set up a comprehensive family-resource center and an outreach program for at-risk youth.

“You can’t stop the violence, but you can try to curb it,” he says with quiet certitude. “I know we can’t save the entire Springfield community. But if I can get out there and impact just one child’s life, I’m willing to do whatever I’ve got to do.”

A DREAM CUT SHORT: Hornsby Jr.’s youth basketball photo
‘Who’s this kid?’
“He wasn’t the perfect child,” Hornsby Sr. says of his son, while sitting in a conference room in Springfield’s Puerto Rican Cultural Center (whose members are helping him get his own foundation off the ground), flanked by his wife, Monique, and Chelan Brown, the founder of the anti-violence group AWAKE (Alive With Awareness, Knowledge, and Empowerment). “But the reason he’s getting so much attention now is that he made this full 180-turn at a critical point in his life.”

To understand how and why Mario Hornsby Jr. made such an about-face so quickly, just talk to his high-school basketball coach, Mike Labrie.

“Our relationship was special,” says Labrie by phone from his Chicopee law office, his voice occasionally cracking with emotion. “I’ve been doing high-school basketball for 25 years, and a lot of times you make positive changes in kids’ lives on a gradual basis. Some of those changes aren’t realized for many years. But this was a significant turnaround, and I’m just privileged to have been part of it. I was in the right place at the right time to help him change his life — and he did. I’ve never seen a kid turn around so drastically, in such a short period of time. It was just fun to be part of. And it makes this tragedy even more difficult to swallow.”

Hornsby Jr. was a streetball wiz, but he wanted to play basketball for Springfield’s Central High. His awful grades made that idea a nonstarter. Nonetheless, when Labrie (who’d formerly coached at Chicopee High) took the reigns of the Central team during Hornsby Jr.’s junior year, he showed up for tryouts. A hundred kids were there, but one stood out. Watching his dexterous ball handling, Labrie had just three words: “Who’s this kid?”

“He was clearly one of the best players,” says Labrie. “But before you make any cuts, you check grades; I checked the next day, and he had all F’s. I took him out of class, and chewed him out in the hallway, trying to explain to him what he was missing in life, and what kind of skill he had that he could really utilize to make something positive out of himself. I didn’t know if he listened. I didn’t know him well enough to see if it sunk in.”

It did. Although ineligible to play, Hornsby Jr. kept coming to the gym, shooting around. He watched the games. And he saw the team have a banner season without him. “We had a great year,” recalls Labrie. “We won the league championship. And I think he was real upset that he wasn’t part of that.”

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