Death of a hoop dream

By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 28, 2008

Which was good news for the Central High basketball team. A point guard, Hornsby Jr. was “freaky athletic,” says Labrie. “He could jump, he could run, he could defend, he could handle the ball with both hands — you didn’t know if he was righty or lefty. He shot both hands. Dribbled both hands. Had he played a full career in high school, he would’ve been a definite scholarship player.”

A week into the season, Labrie named Hornsby Jr. captain. “He was a clear choice,” he says admiringly. “A lot of kids earn the respect of their peers. A lot of kids earn the respect of adults. He had the ability to do both.” As captain that season, Hornsby Jr. helped lead the team to an outstanding 20-3 record.

This was in Springfield, Massachusetts, where basketball was invented. In the sport’s birthplace, basketball “is life,” says Labrie. The kids play hard, many hoping to follow in the footsteps of Central High alum Travis Best, who played 11 seasons as a guard for the Pacers, Bulls, Heat, Mavericks, and Nets.

From age six, says Monique Hornsby, her son was one of those kids. “He always told us, ‘I’m gonna be somebody big. You watch. When I make it, I’m gonna take care of y’all. You’re gonna have this house. And this car.’ He said, ‘You watch and see. You watch and see.’ ”

The Hornsby family
City of crime
Once upon a time, Springfield was thriving. The third-largest city in Massachusetts, its wide streets were lined with stately, sun-dappled Victorians, its brick factories echoed with the happy noise of industry: Milton Bradley board games, Breck shampoo, Indian motorcycles, Smith & Wesson firearms, and Friendly’s ice cream all trace their roots to Springfield factories and drawing boards.

And, of course, it was here that James Naismith first lobbed a ball through a peach basket in 1891, launching millions of alley-oops and no-look passes worldwide. It’s where the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame opened in 1959. Both are huge points of pride for a burg that calls itself the City of Firsts.

Recent years, however, have seen an erosion of the city’s quality of life. Most of those manufacturing jobs have disappeared. The city’s coffers have been depleted, leading to wage freezes and service cuts. Four years ago, the city suffered the indignity of having its finances taken over by a state control board imposed from afar by Beacon Hill.

Springfield has also seen in recent years an alarming uptick in violent crime. There were 20 murders there in 2007, the most since 1994. According to the demographic database, Springfield’s murder rate is 1.29 times the national average. Its aggravated-assault rate is 3.51 times higher. Worse, more and more of these incidents are being committed by younger and younger kids.

The good news, relatively speaking, is that overall crime was down 15 percent over the first five months of 2008, compared with the same period in 2007. But while there were just three murders in that time frame, compared with 10 the year before, unfortunately, says Hornsby Sr., “my son was the last one.”

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