TRANSITION TEAM | Disparate Dreams
Between Father and Son, a Chasm Over Basketball
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page B01
Third of four articles
The music brayed, loud and unintelligible. The gym was hot and smelled of sweat. Balls bounced everywhere. Jean St. Ulme sat in the bleachers at Kennedy High School, his Bible open on his lap.
Looking up from the court, Ben St. Ulme picked out his father in the crowd and nodded to him. It was Feb. 17. Nineteen of the 21 regular season games had been played. Six years had gone by since Benji, as his father called him, had started playing on basketball teams.
And now, for the first time, the father had come to see his son play.
Jean St. Ulme, pastor of the Eglise Baptiste du Calvaire and an immigrant from Haiti, knew his son disappeared for hours, shooting the ball by himself at friends' houses or at the playground near the St. Ulme home. The father knew that his 17-year-old son dreamed of a life as a professional basketball player. But he viewed sports as something done for fun. To exercise the body. It should never get in the way of the real business of life.
"I hope two things for you," he told his son. "That you serve the Lord. And that you have an education."
Living for basketball, for fame, no, he said, this was not something he could understand. He saw the news. He knew what happened to too many NBA players in the spotlight. They rise so high and fall so far from grace.
"This is not my goal for him," Jean St. Ulme said.
Like immigrants of every generation -- and more than half the Kennedy team's players are the children of immigrants -- Jean St. Ulme wanted his children's lives to surpass his own in status and achievement. You can be whatever you want to be, he counseled his children at their weekly prayer meetings at home. Work. And you will overcome any obstacle. Already, his daughter was in medical school. His elder son on his way to a doctorate in psychology. All on scholarships.
"Always shoot for the stars," he told his three children. "Even if you miss, you will land on the moon."
Benji had high marks in advanced courses. He would be an engineer, his father thought. This passion for basketball was not to get in the way.
Still, his son had invited him to his senior homecoming game against the Northwest Jaguars this night in late February, and he had come. They lived just across the street from the school.
He found the stands empty, as they usually were. A few American-born parents were regulars, such as Donald Jones, who came to cheer for his son, Erik "Nerd" Jones. He remembered what it was to be 17 and playing your heart out. "I've just always been a big sports fan," he said.
But many foreign-born parents were like St. Ulme. Issa N'dour had not come to watch his son, Lamine, one of the best players in the league. Instead, he had spent hours in the library with his son, drilling him for college entry tests. He was a teacher and said he had Lamine on track to get an MBA at Wharton. And then perhaps a PhD.
"Academics is my world," he would say. "Sports is his."
Memah Kamara, a native of Sierra Leone, had not come to watch her son Noah. But for different reasons. A single parent, she worked two jobs to support her five children. It wasn't until the season was long over that she thought to ask her son when he would play next.
This evening, Jean St. Ulme had arranged to have another minister lead his weekly Bible study because it was so mystifyingly important to his son that he be in the stands. But he brought along his Bible, determined to keep his New Year's resolution to read the entire book in one year.
The ref's whistle blew. Within the first seconds, St. Ulme, out on the wing, got the ball. The way was clear. He had practiced this shot so many times. He bent his knees, just like his hero, Michael Jordan, sprang up and sent the ball soaring. An effortless three-pointer whooshed through the net.
Up in the stands, Jean St. Ulme was surprised. He hadn't expected his son to be this good.
Jean St. Ulme grew up Catholic in the countryside of Haiti near Caye. His parents were farmers. He knew what it was to be poor, to have no money and no opportunity to go to school beyond the 10th grade. He knew what it was to always be afraid. Remembered vividly the people who disappeared in the night, when the Tonton Macoutes came to mete out the displeasure of dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
He dreamed of being a teacher. But as a teenager, he was forced to help support his five younger brothers and sisters. He joined the Haitian coast guard and manned the antiaircraft guns of an aging destroyer. In 1970, the coast guard attempted to overthrow Duvalier. When the coup failed, St. Ulme and the others sailed to America and sought asylum.
In New York, he got a high school equivalency diploma. He began college. And he converted to the Baptist faith, becoming a respected preacher, singing "Jezi Leve' Defi A" -- Jesus Takes Away My Burden -- in a booming tenor bass. In New York, he met the woman who would become his wife, Rienne.
As a girl in Haiti, Rienne had loved school. She was smart. Latin was her favorite subject, and she always did well. But at 14, she fell curiously ill. She was blinded for a time. Could not get out of bed.
Her mother took her from doctor to doctor until they all agreed. Someone had put a voodoo curse on her, someone jealous that she dared rise above her station. The only way to save her life was deny her dreams and take her out of school.
When Jean felt the Lord call him to Maryland in 1982 to begin a church for Haitian Christians, Rienne already had decided that her children, their futures, would be what she would live for.
She required that each choose a major to study in college by the end of their sophomore year in high school.
"They are my whole life," she said. "After God, I invest all I have on them." And nothing, no game, no call of some ball, was going to get in the way.
If Benji's grades threatened to dip below a B average, Rienne was the first to panic. "Give me the phone," she would say time and again, holding out her hand. "I'm going to call your coach and tell him you will not be coming to the game tonight."
Sometimes she called Ben's sister, Danielle, 27, for help.
"Take the same ambition you have for basketball and use that for education and you will become unstoppable," Danielle told her younger brother.
But in December, Jean St. Ulme stepped in with his son. Every morning, he would ask whether Ben had sent in his college applications. Every morning, the son answered that he hadn't yet.
Jean St. Ulme put his foot down. No college applications, no basketball.
"I don't want anything to interfere with your schooling. That is your career," he told his son. "This basketball is secondary. It's minor."
By the end of the month, far in advance of most college application deadlines, each of Ben St. Ulme's was in: to the University of Maryland, Morehouse, Howard and George Mason.
For months, while Ben was living for basketball, Jean was watching for other, more important signs. Was Ben ready to dedicate his life to God? To be baptized? One day in late December, Ben came to him in his basement office and said that he was.
On the last day of the year, in the borrowed Baptist church where the congregation gathered, Ben stood before his father, dressed in the white robe of the initiate.
"Do you believe in Jesus Christ?" Jean asked his son in French Creole. "Do you accept him as your savior and Lord?"
"Oui," Ben answered.
The father gently submerged the son in the baptismal pool. "You have died with Jesus," he said, his eyes becoming wet. "I raise you now to follow him and live."
'You Can Hoop'
Ben St. Ulme and the Kennedy Cavaliers burst from the team room after halftime that night in late February. The Cavaliers were up by 12 points over the Northwest Jaguars. The whistle blew. If they won this one, they would be division champions, something no Kennedy team had done in nearly a decade.
St. Ulme looked up in the stands. His father was gone.
Suddenly, he found the ball in his hands. He hesitated, then pitched up an air ball.
"What is your issue?" Coach Diallo Nelson yelled. Two more misses. Then a jump shot that hit.
Nelson called a time out. "Ben, you've got the best fundamentals in this gym," he said quietly. "You can hoop, son."
Later that night, when Ben got home, he went downstairs to his father's office. Jean, who had left the game for the Bible study, stood reading from his Bible. He asked his son how the rest of the game had gone.
They had won 68-58, and St. Ulme had put 15 of those points on the board. Ben did not say that the players rushed the floor, jumping and whooping and hugging. They were the division champions. He didn't mention that the playoffs were starting, the road to the glory of Comcast and the state championship.
He said simply, "We won."
"I am happy for you," Jean said. And he returned to his Bible.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company