The players circled Bowie State associate head coach Larry Stewart, a man who towers over most, and listened as he talked about the things that must be done to defy the odds.
The Bulldogs men’s basketball team had a fine season, and last week Bowie State won the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament. But that doesn’t mean the eighth-seeded Bulldogs have any business upsetting top-seeded West Liberty, which has lost once all season, when the teams meet in their NCAA Division II tournament opener on Saturday.
For this to happen, Stewart told Bowie State’s players after a recent practice, everything must be done right — almost perfectly — and even then, nothing is guaranteed. It is simply the way the world works.
One of the faces following Stewart belonged to Cameron Knox, a player who is many things and has been many more. He is a 5-foot-11 walk-on guard, a 26-year-old sophomore and the father of a 3-year-old daughter named Camryn. He said he was once a criminal, a man with a different name, the owner of a wandering mind and a lost soul.
Then he was invited to play a pickup basketball game one evening at Bowie State, a historically black university of about 5,420 students located in the Washington suburbs, nearly an hour from his native Baltimore. Stewart and Bulldogs Coach Darrell Brooks spotted him, years after Knox’s last high school game. What came next changed him, and it made those who know him believe that long odds are nothing that can’t be beaten.
“Just random,” said Bulldogs forward Byron Westmorland, who invited Knox that night. “It must’ve been fate or something.”
The plan was to break in and grab whatever they could. Years ago, Knox said, he worked the streets, selling drugs sometimes to support himself and his siblings. He graduated from high school in 2006, and college wouldn’t pay the bills. And anyway, he believed his grades hadn’t been good enough.
Then one day his best friend proposed robbing a house in East Baltimore. Knox obliged.
“The only thing we knew,” Knox said last week, sitting inside A.C. Jordan Arena.
He said they stole a television and a PlayStation.
“Nothing much,” he said, adding that he also left with regret. From then on, he said, he’d awake each day, figuring he’d do something illegal.
Sure enough, he said, several of his friends were arrested and some are still in prison. Knox said he managed to evade police, sometimes keeping his edge with a fake ID. When anyone asked, he wasn’t Cameron Knox; he said the card identified him as “Mucho Johnson.” Knox said he was not arrested as an adult; a charge for a crime he committed as a minor, he said, was expunged from his record.
Westmorland, a longtime friend, had left Baltimore to play basketball at Bowie State. He invited Knox to stay with him sometimes, and although he didn’t plead with his friend to alter his life, he offered other activities. One morning, Westmorland asked Knox to play with him in a pickup game at a YMCA. Before long, they were playing every day.
As time passed, Knox’s future still looking bleak, he began wondering how a life goes in such a way. He wondered if it were even possible for a train, charging headlong in one direction, could switch tracks.
One evening, Westmorland, a scholarship player at Bowie State, suggested they take their pickup game to campus. The gym was open each week for recruits and scholarship players — and anyone else who happened by.
He stood next to Stewart on the crowded sideline, asking for his turn. Keep waiting, the coach told Knox.
When the whistle blew and Knox finally ran onto the floor, he guarded Darren Clark, the Bulldogs’ starting point guard and an all-conference player. Stewart and Brooks watched as Knox defended Clark, showing quickness and instincts that aren’t often seen. Stewart’s brother had played against Knox at the YMCA and told Stewart to follow him. Brooks had received no such tip.
“It was like, ‘Well, who is this guy?’ ” Brooks recalled.
Afterward, Westmorland and Knox climbed into Stewart’s car for the ride back to Baltimore. Stewart asked Knox a question: Had he considered college?
It was an ambition, Knox told him, but hardly a reality. He had tested poorly in high school, and besides, it wasn’t something that’s done in Knox’s family. None of his relatives had been to college.
Even so, Stewart told him, he should consider it. If all went right, maybe he could play someday for the Bulldogs.
Knox later requested his high school transcript and completed Bowie State’s application. He was accepted, and in 2010, four years after graduating from Baltimore’s Northern High — it has since been renamed W.E.B. Du Bois High — he was a student again, paying Bowie State’s $14,500 annual tuition with the help of student loans and grant money.
Basketball would have to wait longer. Knox said the NCAA Clearinghouse ruled him ineligible as a freshman, and in his second year, his grades kept him off the court. As he had for years, he watched as others reached their goals. He struggled in the classroom while working on a communications degree, and his mind wandered back to those East Baltimore streets. No, he thought, a man can’t change who he is.
“There were a few times,” Brooks said, “where he was like, ‘Coach, I’m not going to make it.’ ”
During one practice in spring 2011, Knox lost his temper. He was frustrated, and after a confrontation with Brooks, Knox headed toward the exit. Brooks called toward him: If you leave, don’t bother coming back.
When Knox sent a text message to his coach after the confrontation, Brooks invited him into his office. They talked about regrets and priorities, about how Brooks once was given a second chance after pleading with a history professor for a passing grade decades ago. Knox said he needed to support his daughter. Brooks replied that with a college degree, he’d be equipped to help her for the next 40 years.
That wasn’t all: If Knox could hold on, Brooks told him, they wouldn’t be telling merely a basketball story back in Baltimore. When Knox’s narrative was finished, it would be about how, sure enough, a kid jumped those tracks, leaving behind the old life to graduate from college.
“For me,” Brooks said, “it just became more important than basketball.”
Knox promised that another outburst would never happen. This week, Brooks said it hasn’t.
“I wanted to give up,” Knox said, “and he wouldn’t let me.”
Knox, a junior academically with two years of basketball eligibility remaining, met with a tutor and went to study hall. He said his grades have improved, and last fall he set a goal of finally playing — not just practicing — for Bowie State.
On Jan. 10, Brooks spoke with Knox. The Bulldogs were playing a road game at Saint Augustine. The coach told Knox to be ready.
He jogged out with his teammates, the lights shining and the shoes squeaking. He looked into the stands and absorbed the moment, knowing what had led him here.
“I’m warming up, and I’m really doing it,” he said, thinking back. “The crowd was live, and there’s a feeling that I can’t even really explain.
“When I got on that court, it was like a minute left in a game we’re already winning. I’m just out there running wild. I don’t even care. I just wanted to grab that ball one time. I didn’t even care. I felt like all my dreams came true.”
Knox made his first basket two games later, but work remains. Brooks said he plays too often like he would in a pickup game, not controlled like the point guard the old coach envisions. Change, though, takes time.
Brooks said he no longer worries about Knox slipping back to the streets. Perhaps in two years, the coach said, Knox will be a team captain. For now, Brooks said, he plans to surprise Knox with some scholarship help next season. It’s a reward for not giving up — for proving that whether it’s a long-shot NCAA tournament game or the arc of a young man’s life, who’s to say what the result might be?
“I never thought I would be here right now,” Knox said.
He shook his head and smiled.
“In five years,” Knox continued, “I want to wake up and say: ‘I want to go here, I want to go there.’ That’s what I’m aiming for. . . . There’s nothing I can’t reach right now.”