Ministers With Balls

When Calvin Wainright talks about violence, his right eyelid sometimes twitches.

It twitches now, for example, when the 53-year-old recalls his neighborhood on fire.

In April 1968, Wainright was living in a high-rise at the Wayne Miner projects at Ninth Street and Michigan Avenue. He was 15 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and all hell broke loose in Kansas City.

Mobs hurled Molotov cocktails into homes and businesses, and gunmen hid in the smoky shadows, taking aim at the police and National Guardsmen swarming the streets. Armored convoys rolled east of Troost.

“I remember the riots like it was yesterday,” Wainright says. “I remember 35th Street burning down.”

Wainright had already seen plenty of trouble. When he was 9, his father went to prison for peddling heroin and taking part in a string of robberies. The oldest of seven kids, Wainright looked after his siblings, accepting the burden of being the oldest male in his broken home.

In the years before the riots, when middle-class blacks and whites in the urban core were fleeing to the suburbs, Wainright took refuge at the Boys Club on 19th Street and Paseo. There, Wainright found support from a group of men in their early twenties who taught spirituality and righteousness even as the neighborhood sank into desolation.

Though the riots left half a dozen dead and countless homes and businesses destroyed, the Boys Club stood undamaged.

But so did the nightclubs and bars three blocks from Wainright’s house.

“Twelfth Street was really rocking,” he recalls. “There were five or six pool halls and gambling joints. I could have easily got involved, but walking down Woodland, you can bypass all that. Because if you keep straight, you’re going to hit the Boys Club.”

By his midteens, Wainright had gained respect on the basketball court. Soon, leaders at the new Boys Club farther south, at 43rd Street and Cleveland — in a neighborhood not ruined by the riots but corroding in their aftermath — asked Wainright to coach there.

“Mr. Calvin Wainright, he has always been an ideal kid,” says Alvin Clark, 70, who volunteered as a coach and mentor at the 43rd Street site from 1968 through 1986. “He’s always been the type of kid you want your kid to be involved with.”

After he graduated from Manual High School, Wainright signed on to play basketball for Lincoln University in Jefferson City. His sophomore year, the team played an exhibition game against inmates at the prison where his father was serving time. Wainright remembers his father in the bleachers that day. It was the only time his dad saw him play.

“He was sitting in the auditorium, way in the back,” Wainright says. “I was asked at an early age if I ever wanted to be like my daddy. I said, ‘Hell, no.’ I did learn from my father. I learned how to whop a woman. I learned how to disrespect a family, how to tear up a home, how to make seven kids and disappear.”

It was men like his father who destroyed the urban core, Wainright says.

He never followed his dream of leaving the ghetto. He studied physical education and sociology at Lincoln but returned home, 27 credits shy of a degree, so he could provide for his daughter. “I had a plan to finish but got a call from child support saying I better get a job,” he says.

But he never lost sight of his desire to help troubled kids. He got a job at the Boys Club on 39th Street. Over the years, the club would expand to 11 sites across the urban core (six in stand-alone buildings, the rest in schools during off hours).

Wainright would spend the next two decades coaching in the city’s community centers, rec leagues and middle schools. Over time, the Boys Club (since renamed the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City) stopped reaching out to the street kids who scoffed at any discipline or structure in their lives, Wainright says. So he has teamed up with one of the kids he saved and another Boys and Girls Clubs veteran to try to reach the city’s toughest cases.

They could use a little help.

After he left Lincoln, Wainright worked first as activity coordinator and then as youth director at the Don Bosco Community Center, at the corner of Independence and Garfield avenues. By 1987, organized street gangs had started smuggling crack and assault rifles into the neighborhoods.

Wainright remembers an early-’90s talk he had with 10 kids he was coaching, including his nephew. “I said, ‘Three of you guys are going to die a violent and vicious death. Four of y’all are going to spend time in the penitentiary. Two of y’all are going to catch HIV or AIDS. And one of you guys will probably be really successful.”

Less than a month later, one of the teens was shot and killed during a robbery outside a Vietnamese store in the River Market. Within a year, three more were killed during a drug sale, and Wainright’s nephew was dead, having crashed his car at 46th Street and Prospect while fleeing the police.

As predicted, all the others ended up in prison.

“All 10, all 10, all 10, all 10,” Wainright says. “And those kids were real good athletes but caught up in that scenario of Starter jackets, gold teeth, sneakers. If they don’t hurry up and get some men or some people who really want to dig in and intervene and give them some real-life skills and prepare them for that next level, there’s going to be a whole lot more of those 10s.”

But Wainright can occasionally count a success.

Kenneth “Pooh” Oliver, 24, remembers the first day he went to Don Bosco. He was so young that his little hands couldn’t dribble; instead, he just slapped at the basketball.

His parents had separated and were barely surviving — his mother in and out of jail for theft, his father always struggling to put food on the table. Oliver found afternoon asylum at Don Bosco. The first day he walked inside, he spotted a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair.

Wainright was waving him over.

“We bonded the first time we seen each other, son-and-dadlike,” Oliver recalls. “Walking down from my projects into the community center, there was just something about Calvin that stood out from all the workers there. Just how he took control of things and how he wanted to help you. That was his satisfaction.”

The skinny 9-year-old reminded Wainright of himself at that age. Wainright knew about Oliver’s troubles at home and offered to take care of him for a few months in the middle of Oliver’s third-grade year.

Oliver says those months with Wainright made him realize that life didn’t have to be so hard. “It was real good,” Oliver says. “Coming home to a hot meal, having your own room. Even though he wasn’t dad, he just felt like dad. Instead of drying off with my shirt, I could dry off with a good towel after I got out of the shower. Instead of eating sugar and bread, I got a good meal.”

Oliver practiced hard and became the first freshman point guard to start under famed Raytown South High School coach Bud Lathrop. He soon earned a spot on the all-metro team, was nominated to play in the All-American game and made all-conference, first-team all-state.

But because of Wainright, Oliver saw beyond basketball, realizing the importance of getting an education and setting goals. This season, he was named starting point guard at Missouri Western State University.

The rest of the kids in his neighborhood were dropping out of school, wearing colors and selling drugs. “Just imagine every day waking up and walking to the park and seeing someone getting robbed, or walking to the park and seeing someone getting shot,” Oliver says. “Any given day, Sunday through Sunday, 12 to 12, it really didn’t matter.”

More than 30 years had passed since the riots, and the core was still on fire.

Among the first boys Wainright had coached at the 43rd Street John T. Thornberry Boys Club was Pat Clarke. The kid had earned the nickname Scarface when he was 4: After running wildly through the house, he sprinted into the bathroom, where his mother was fitting his Easter suit with a razor blade; she instinctively raised her hands to stop him and accidentally sliced her son’s cheek.

When he started school in the early 1970s, Clarke’s mother made sure that he left each morning wearing clean clothes and dress shoes. The neighborhood boys snickered, calling him a pretty boy. “If you grew up and you didn’t have on a name brand, you be cracked on and picked on every day,” says Clarke, who’s now 43. “I had a fight every other day.”

A rebellious loudmouth by his early teens, Clarke started trading his time at the Boys Club to hustle drugs. Baseball was his first love, and he could hurl a fastball straight through the strike zone. But that didn’t earn him respect among his peers. Cashing in on drug sales did.

Clarke still wanted to play professional ball. But after he failed to make the cut during tryouts for the Kansas City Royals in 1991, he gave up on that dream.

He was 28. He realized he’d done little with his life except help perpetuate the destruction of his own neighborhood.

So Clarke organized a sports program for kids and turned his nickname into an acronym: Show Courage, Appreciation, Respect For All Children Everywhere.

In 1992, the first summer of his program, Clarke put together three SCARFACE baseball teams with kids between the ages of 10 and 12 who lived around 43rd Street. His three sons played on those first teams, and Clarke says other players were handpicked from the streets.

Before school let out for the summer, Clarke drove around the neighborhood. Whenever he spotted a kid riding his bike or hanging out, he invited him to join one of his teams. If the kid wasn’t in school, Clarke figured, he probably wasn’t getting much guidance or discipline at home. If Clarke could get a boy on the field, he might be able to reach him.

The SCARFACE league lasted four years but was soon overshadowed by the new Boys and Girls Club-sponsored program called RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City), which started around the same time. Clarke later joined that league so he could continue coaching.

Of at least 350 players, Clarke estimates, he lost about 35 to prison or death.

“I had a couple players get killed last year,” Clarke says.

One of the boys was 24-year-old Brandon Strickland, who died in a drive-by shooting last April at 41st Street and Chestnut. Clarke coached Strickland at the YMCA and in a church league when Strickland was a teen.

Last May, another of Clarke’s players, 18-year-old Ronnie Fredrick, was shot dead, police say, after he was involved in a home invasion.

Clarke has a loud, in-your-face coaching style, mixing tough love with a demand for respect. He admits that he might reach more kids with a fatherly style like Wainright’s. “I’m learning how to be humble,” Clarke says. “By the time I get another 10, 15 years on me, I hope to be as wise as he is. I don’t think I’m doing a bad job now. What happened with Calvin, man, Calvin had the kids who wanted to be something. I got a new era of kids. You got to sell these things to the kids now.”

Clarke occasionally ran into Wainright on the basketball courts around town. Their teams sometimes squared off against each other in tournaments or other league play. Wainright saw that his former player now had the same vision: trying to teach life lessons to the most vulnerable kids.

This year, Wainright watched the way Clarke coached the sixth- and seventh-grade basketball team at King Middle School, where Wainright had been working for a couple of years and was coaching the eighth-grade team. Wainright saw fire in Clarke’s style, the way he commanded the boys around the gym.

The Cobras went undefeated, and Clarke’s youngest son, Chiefy, was a star player. The team went all the way to the city championship.

School officials planned no pep rally the week before the big game. No one even seemed to notice the team’s success. Clarke was furious. “They don’t want to be bothered with the kids,” Clarke says of school leaders. “They’re just there for a paycheck.”

On February 25, the Cobras lost to Paseo Middle School, 34-20.

Wainright left Don Bosco in 1999 after disagreements with a new program director. Over the next year, he divorced, became a single parent, and buried a brother and a sister. “Emotionally, I was drained,” he says. “My vision was still there, but as far as my mental capacity, was I mentally prepared to take on a big project? No. But it didn’t stop me from the focus of the children.”

Wainright had been searching for a place to open his own community center. He’d inquired in the area of 43rd Street and Prospect, where vacant buildings stood on nearly every block. But bad credit prevented him from getting a loan, and with no partner for support, he’d been turned away again and again. “People didn’t want to give,” he says. “Why do we have all these vacant buildings around?”

Wainright kept running teams, though, at night hoops and in city leagues and at places such as the Guadalupe Center. He took on a part-time job at a Minute Circle Friendly House Community Center (which will be renovated to become a branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs). He also worked at the Kansas City Free Health Clinic as an HIV-prevention specialist.

He had thought about starting up a ministry for years, but he kept telling himself he was too busy. “You run from your calling,” he says. “I guess I was tired of running from what was really needed.”

After studying at the Destiny Life Center, Wainright was ordained in September 2002. He says there are many youth ministries in town, but he seeks a unique audience. “The people that we’re searching for are the kids who are lost in the shuffle, dying for attention, dying for direction, wandering in the wilderness,” Wainright says. “I want that kid up there talking about the Bloods, Crips, the ‘hood. We can deal with them.”

Three years ago, Wainright opened Heaven Sent Outreach Ministries out of his home in Raytown with his new wife, Cassandra. He opened his home to his players and tried to teach them the power of spirituality, the importance of excelling in academics and learning to deal with confused emotions. After those lessons, he would take them down to the courts and fields to play ball.

Around the same time, in August 2003, Wainright took a full-time job as site coordinator and counselor with Caring Communities at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School at 42nd Street and Indiana. By day, his job was to schedule activities that brought neighborhood residents to the school after hours. But on most evenings, Wainright coached boys 10 and older in various leagues inside the gym.

The summer he started at King Middle, Wainright and his wife returned to 43rd Street to renew his hunt for a building. The new focus was to offer sports and life lessons for kids, along with the word of God. Most of the boys in the neighborhood thought making it to 25 was a long life. They needed salvation fast.

Wainright looked at five abandoned buildings, but even when the owners had no prospective buyers, they refused to rent out the spaces. One of the buildings had stood vacant at 39th Street and Agnes for nearly 20 years.

When he looked at other buildings, owners told him that they’d have to spend thousands of dollars on remodeling before any lease could be signed, so they turned him away. As for the ones who were selling, the price was never under $300,000.

Wainright was frustrated, but he promised himself that he wouldn’t give up. He remembered the successes he’d seen. There was Edward Spencer, who graduated from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington last year after being recruited to play basketball for the school’s Division I team. And there’s Lawrence Johnson, a red-shirt freshman at Rockhurst University this season; he has the desire to succeed — not just in basketball but also in working toward an engineering degree.

Last summer, Clarke talked to Wainright about SCARFACE — though he had become a coach in the RBI league years earlier, he had continued SCARFACE. Now about 60 kids were going to college and professional sporting games, getting together for flag-football matches and fielding basketball teams. Clarke had begun teaching the kids that God should come first in their lives. Wainright told him that 30 people came out to his house for prayer on Wednesday evenings. The two decided to search for a place that could house both of their visions.

They called on an old friend whom Wainright had coached in his days at the John T. Thornberry Boys Club on 43rd Street and Cleveland to see if he’d be interested in helping.

Joey Smith, 50, had volunteered and worked for the Boys and Girls Clubs for nearly 20 years. He’d given Clarke his first chance at coaching 10-and-younger basketball when Clarke was just 13. Now Smith is the physical education instructor at the Genesis Alternative School, which shares the building with the Boys and Girls Club at 43rd Street and Cleveland. Last summer, Smith started his own ministry as the deacon of Helping Youth To Attain Goals (HY-TAG). The three men have begun gathering resources to create their own center.

They still don’t know how they’ll find the funding. Smith fears that accepting philanthropic donations might force them to compromise their vision.

Other youth ministries and the Boys and Girls Clubs don’t have the raw edge that Wainright, Clarke and Smith want to maintain.

Wainright still respects the work of the organization that saved him when he was a kid. But he says times have changed and the Boys and Girls Clubs have turned into something more like after-school day care.

Clarke says the clubs’ mostly young, paid employees aren’t the “street warriors,” that he, Wainright and Smith are. The feel inside the club these days is too corporate, he says.

The John T. Thornberry Boys and Girls Club at 43rd Street and Cleveland is a maze of game rooms, study rooms, computer labs, a library with tutors, two gyms and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Every door is labeled with the names of sponsors — the United Way, the Kauffman Foundation — dedicated to helping kids enjoy the club and learn. It costs only $15 for a child to join for the entire school year.

The loudspeaker blares. Several kids giggle on their way to the next activity. A few lone boys shuffle down the hallways.

Tony Byrd has walked this building for 10 years. He started as a volunteer but was eventually offered a full-time job; he is now the senior unit director at Thornberry and at the Troost-Midtown Boys and Girls Club. He’s one of 21 paid employees at the Thornberry site. The employees share time with a handful of volunteers who come and go with the seasons. Byrd says that, on average, 240 kids a day come into the club throughout the school year. On this late afternoon, about 100 are milling about.

“The Boys and Girls Club is the number one youth-serving organization in the world,” Byrd says. “It’s just a beautiful thing.”

Giving a reporter a tour, he takes every opportunity to stop a child to say hello, pat him or her on the back and offer reassuring words. His eyes show a deep devotion to the children.

“Our biggest thing is prevention,” he tells the Pitch, his words sounding as if they’re recited from a manual. “We want to prevent the kids from becoming involved in gangs. We want to prevent the kids from getting on drugs. We want to prevent the girls from getting pregnant. We want to prevent the boys from getting the girls pregnant.”

He waves his finger, laughing, saying it takes two.

Byrd’s smile tightens when the discussion turns to bloody 2005, when 127 people were murdered in Kansas City, many of them from the surrounding neighborhoods.

“You know what — none of those kids were Boys and Girls Club members,” he says. “It hurts that you see all these kids dying, but you know what — I don’t know why. I don’t know what. But as a black man in this community and as a person who wants to help a kid no matter what color or race he is, it does hurt to see that, because the majority of the people who are dying are young black men. It’s almost like we didn’t have an opportunity to work with them.”

Byrd lightens the mood by showing off a motorcycle donated to the club by Harley-Davidson. A couple of kids pass by to hang their coats on a rack behind the motorcycle, barely giving it a glance.

He says the organization’s programming isn’t influenced by its sponsors. “We need and we struggle, too. We need to make sure the kids are doing and having the things that they need to succeed,” Byrd says.

“The Boys’ Club don’t want to deal with badass kids,” Clarke says later. “We deal with at-risk kids. I’m talking about kids who carry pistols. I deal with drug-dealing kids all the time. I know their parents. I watched them from diapers. Now they’re 16-, 17-year-old kids, running the neighborhood. They ain’t scared of nothing and nobody.”

It’s just after 3 a.m. on February 13 when police arrive at a car in the median of U.S. Highway 71 near 75th Street. The driver’s-side door is open. Inside, Arthur Timley is slumped over the steering wheel, blood pouring out of his head.

Timley had been heading home from a bar in the 11,000 block of Blue Ridge Boulevard when his killer opened fire on the highway. Bullets sprayed into the driver’s-side door and windshield.

Timley was Pooh Oliver’s second cousin. Clarke coached Timley at the YMCA in 1996. Clarke ran into Timley last year, and Timley jabbed at him, calling Clarke an old man, remarking how his hair was graying. Clarke took one look at Timley’s flashy car and expensive clothes and knew Timley was in trouble.

Oliver took the news hard. “Another one of my homies is gone,” he says. “He was a nice kid, but he just went down the wrong path. I went down the path, but I just didn’t keep going. I just made a left.”

Oliver remembers growing up with Timley, staying at his home for stretches, throwing balls with him on the playgrounds. When the funeral was set, Oliver realized that he wouldn’t make it. “I had a tournament, and we were playing Central Missouri,” Oliver says. “I would have went. My prayers was out. My thoughts was out. He knows that.”

Timley’s aunt, Sharon Oliver (who is also Pooh Oliver’s aunt), says Timley loved basketball until the end but had stopped playing in the community centers. She remembers telling Timley to get off the street. He had a son to care for. By dealing drugs, she says, Timley was bound to end up perpetuating the cycle — going to jail, then returning home to a son who’d grown into a man without him.

“If you live by the sword, you’re going to die by the sword,” Oliver says. “If you walk in the right path with Jesus, you know, he has his angels around you.”

She remembers how Wainright took in her nephew so many years ago. “If we could get someone to help, get these kids off the streets and steer them in the right path, I’m all for it.”

It’s a cool, sunny Thursday afternoon in mid-March, and Clarke is driving down the streets of the neighborhood where he has lived his whole life. Heaps of trash and broken glass line the curbs. Scattered houses look ready to collapse.

He pulls to a stop at the wrecked corner of 41st Street and Prospect, which buzzes with motion. Dozens of people are walking about while souped-up cars cruise slowly through the intersection, gold rims spinning and bass speakers thumping.

Three teens are sitting on a bench next to the bus stop. But they don’t get on when the bus pulls up. Instead, they concentrate on the cars that pass by. Occasionally, one leans his head into a car stopping at the corner.

Clarke walks to an abandoned white brick building and peers through the barred windows. Below the “For Sale” sign is a bullet hole.

He says there’s a prospective buyer in talks with the bank. But if the bank denies a loan, the owner, pastor Thomas Pickens, says he’ll rent it to Clarke, Wainright and Smith. It would be an ideal location for the center, half a block from the bus line that stops in one of the worst areas in the inner city.

Pickens pulls up in a rickety pickup and says he still hasn’t heard whether the building is going to sell. He smiles. One of Pickens’ front teeth has a cross emblazoned in gold.

A couple of blocks down Prospect, a fat young man in a red sweatshirt stands outside a car wash, screaming obscenities at a car in the intersection.

Clarke parks and stares down the fat guy. He’s a drug dealer who hangs out on the corners most afternoons, Clarke says.

When the traffic moves forward, Clarke inches out and turns to look at the loudmouth. Clarke addresses him, sounding nonsensical but tough.

“Hey!” he yells. “You better stop cussin’ — I got my grandmother’s picture in my wallet.”

The man gives him a blank look and shuts his mouth.

Next to the fat man is a tall, slimmer man about the same age. Clarke tries to recruit the other man, telling him about a basketball game Saturday at Satchel Paige School. The man smiles and nods (but won’t show up for the game a couple of days later).

Clarke drives on.

Later that evening, Wainright greets the college kids arriving for pickup games at King Middle.

Midway through his spring break from Missouri Western, Pooh Oliver strides in to team up with four other men about his age. His hand is cold; he misses three shots the first game. The players on the court scramble in a graceful, fluid game that’s less team-oriented and more a ballet of one-on-one showdowns below the basket.

Oliver’s team loses the game, and he walks off the court. “I’m not gonna lose again,” he declares calmly.

When his team is up again, he takes control, moving slowly, then bursting to the basket with unexpected speed. Before he gets under the basket, he dishes off, and his teammate scores. Time and again, he fires no-look passes past multiple defenders, and he lands a dozen high-arcing three-pointers that seal five consecutive wins for his team.

After he completes his degree in physical education next year, Oliver plans to return to Kansas City. He, too, wants to help kids find a way out.

Oliver could have gone anywhere for his spring break. Wainright wonders why he’s spending it back in the ghetto.

“You should be off in the Bahamas,” Wainright tells him.

“This is my Bahamas,” Oliver says, tightening his laces for the next game.

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