Death of a hoop dream

By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 28, 2008

HONORED: Just days before his death, Hornsby Jr. accepted an award at the Basketball Hall of Fame for his work ethic and dedication on the court.
A place to call home
Hornsby Jr. “was a mentor to other kids,” says his father. “He’d always have six or seven friends, stretched out all over our house. They came from horrible homes, and they felt safe, and felt the love in our house. You should’ve seen our grocery bills. But I didn’t care if they emptied the refrigerator.”

“They were good boys,” says his mother. “Good kids. They just had no guidance or direction.” The same, says Hornsby Sr., holds true for many of Springfield’s so-called gang members. “They’re not gangs. They’re just boys with nothing to do. No resources, no jobs, so they hang out together.”

The day after Hornsby Jr.’s death, Central High principal Richard W. Stoddard spoke to the Boston Globe. “I don’t know what to say about it,” he said. “I just wish we could control what’s going on in the streets, and we can’t. We try so hard to build a life for these kids, and they go home to very different situations and different scenarios.”

In that way, at least, Hornsby Jr. was one of the lucky ones. His parents work long hours, but still stay involved in their kids’ lives. They set rules. They go to church. Spending just a couple hours in their presence, you sense immediately their deep commitment to raising good kids.

“He was always pushing his friends,” Hornsby Sr. says of his son. “ ‘Go to school. Have you applied for financial aid? Have you done this? Have you done that?’ After he died, I felt bad. I thought maybe I was too hard on him. But for 19 years, he served his purpose.”

Hornsby Jr. was also lucky that Labrie took an active role in his life off the court. During his senior year, an assistant coach at Brandeis, Labrie’s alma mater, attended several Central High games, and liked what he saw. So Labrie arranged some interviews for a one-year prep-school program at Brandeis, where Hornsby Jr. could keep improving his GPA, and if he did well enough, enroll the following year as a full-time college student. “It was a great fit for him,” says Labrie. “We went down, he and I. Met with the staff, went to their practice, and toured the campus.”

Hornsby Jr. hadn’t been accepted at the time of his death, but “he was in the process,” says Labrie. After years of awful grades, suddenly everything was chugging along.

Brandeis was “very interested,” says Hornsby Sr. “ ‘Just keep your grades up, there’ll be no problem, and we’ll see you in September.’ That was an honor for me. My kid’s going to Brandeis?! I was pushing him, every day: you got your transcript? You got your financial-aid papers? We wanted to make sure he was set.”

‘Am I dreaming?’
The Hornsby family has lived in the Mason Square neighborhood for 12 years. It can be a very violent place. But “when people know you, they don’t bother you,” says Hornsby Sr. “That’s why we were so surprised by the incident.”

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