Before the responding ladder trucks could douse the businesses set ablaze in the protest of the death of Freddie Gray, millions of itchy-fingered Americans took to Twitter, Facebook and other assorted apps with knee-jerk analysis that fanned the flames of what feels increasingly like a four-alarm firestorm of racial tension.
Patrice Days didn’t have the luxury of engaging in electronic debate and pontification. He needed to keep his phone free for an actual call. The assistant men’s basketball coach at Abilene Christian University grew up in Baltimore and still has family there, some of whom were in the neighborhood where and when it all went down.
When I messaged him on that Monday night to see if his loved ones were OK, he wasn’t sure.
“Waiting to hear back from my brother and grandparents,” Days texted. The next morning, he buzzed me to say, “Just got off the phone with my family there. It’s quiet right now on their side. For now anyways.”
“My father is right in the middle of it,” he later told me. “He’s OK, but he’s not going outside. My grandmother is in kind of a neutral point in the area. She keeps the phone at her bedside at all times, so when I didn’t hear from her, I got nervous.”
One of Days’ recruits, freshman Isaiah Tripp (’19), who led Baltimore’s Edmonson-Westside High School to a state title, lives minutes from Mondawmin Mall where much of Monday’s melee occurred. When I contacted Tripp’s father, Keith, that night to see if the family was OK, he replied early Tuesday, “We appreciate your prayers for our town. We need them. It’s the morning after, and the destruction is evident. We are hoping control is gained soon. We are praying because things have gotten way out of man’s hands.”
The life of a college coaches is almost by necessity nomadic and Days’ has been even more than most. Since matriculating at Caldwell Community College as a player in 2001, Days spent the better part of a decade on university and prep school coaching staffs up and down the east coast, from southern Vermont to northern Florida, before arriving at ACU as an assistant to head coach Joe Golding (’99) in 2013.
But Baltimore is home. So as he watched the news coverage of his city in flames, he didn’t just see familiar territory; he saw himself.
“The city’s speaking out,” said Days. “The kids are venting. I even felt that way when I was younger. I was angry but didn’t know why. Seeing somebody getting murdered, seeing somebody getting stabbed. Being part of the wrong crowd and seeing people do wrong for no apparent reason. I didn’t understand it. My outlet was anger. I would fight people.”
One such rumble led to a run-in with the law. But the responding officer, Craig Singleterry, met Days’ clenched fists with an open hand and an invitation to a different way of channeling his anger.
“I had to be 12 years old at the time,” Days recalled. “I loved basketball, but there were also some other things out there I was involved with. Craig caught me on the court. I got into a confrontation with some guys. He kind of broke it up. I happened to be talented at the time. He convinced me to come to the PAL (Police Athletic League) Center.”
Police Athletic Leagues date back to 1940 and, according to the national website, “work to prevent juvenile crime and violence by building the bond between cops and kids.” The organization counts such heavyweight heroes as Muhammad Ali, NBA star Oscar Robertson and entertainer Billy Joel among its alumni. The Baltimore PAL program was founded right as Days arrived at a crossroads.
“They had us playing everything,” Days said. “Their outlet was sports to keep us busy and out of the streets. It was like, ‘If we’ve got practice at this time, we can’t be in the street. If we have a game, we can’t be in the streets.’ It was always some sport, whether it was boxing, baseball, soccer.”
It worked. Days stayed off the streets and into sports, in part because Singleterry enlisted the help of athletes from professional teams in the area such as Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Keith Booth from the University of Maryland men’s basketball national championship team, and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who himself endured a criminal conviction to become one of the city’s most philanthropic public figures.
“They would come down there all the time and bring other pros,” said Days. “It gave me and all of us kids hope. And I feel like there’s not a lot of that going on in Baltimore anymore.”
Keith Tripp echoed that sentiment.
“Our youth here need something,” he told me. “No rec centers, no extracurricular activities, no guidance equals frustration, build-up and this mess.”
The 13th chapter of Luke begins with a strange exchange between Jesus and some of his followers about, ironically, a police killing. Many in those days believed if any kind of calamity came upon a person, he or she probably had it coming. In that pre-Twitter universe, disciples were likely speculating face-to-face what juicy sins those Galileans had committed to deserve their demise.
Jesus wouldn’t retweet.
Instead, He challenged his followers to take responsibility for their own behavior. That’s what Days wants to do to help his hometown heal.
“We need more non-profit organizations. And I think we need more of us, people who are successful to go back home and have some kind of impact,” Days said. “When I go back to Baltimore, it means something for me to walk in that gym because I made it. These kids need someone to look up to like I had.”