By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Bambale Osby sat on a stool in front of his locker last week, soaking in a world that seemed so far away when his basketball odyssey began nearly four years, more than 3,000 miles and two wrong turns ago.
Nearly all of his Maryland teammates already had cleared out, and the celebration of a victory had died down. But the Terrapins senior lingered in the locker room, surrounded by a silence broken only by his own booming laugh, when a visitor pointed out that Osby had just unwittingly put on a relic from the early days of his long journey.
Osby's old gray T-shirt bore a logo that read, "2005 Mountain West Conference Champions."
Out of high school, Osby earned a scholarship to New Mexico and a chance to escape a Richmond neighborhood so blighted, it once inspired him to write a poem titled "Why I Have the Urge to Die." The Lobos won the Mountain West his lone season in Albuquerque, but Osby grew frustrated by a lack of playing time and ended up at Paris Junior College in Texas, where even his closest friends admitted his numbers were nondescript.
That's why to see Osby solely for his 12.2 points and 6.9 rebounds this season for Maryland is to miss a more remarkable journey. It's why, even now, Osby struggles to explain all the breaks that led Coach Gary Williams to pluck him out of obscurity.
"Amazing isn't the word, man," Osby said, reflecting on his good fortune. "It's like a miracle."'Fear the 'Fro'
At 6 feet 9 and 250 pounds, Osby's frame resembles the dimensions of a vintage Cadillac, with arms that look as if they are made of cold Detroit steel. His nickname, "Boom," doubles as a succinct description of his game as a classic back-to-the-basket player.
Some of his most devoted fans line up at Comcast Center hours before tip-off to claim seats directly across from the Maryland bench. Every game, at least half a dozen of them sit together in the front row wearing matching Afro wigs, a tribute to their favorite player's preferred hairstyle.
Earlier this season, they were shocked when Osby wore neatly-tied cornrows, and in protest, one fan brought a sign that pleaded for him to "Free the 'Fro." When Osby granted the wish two games later, the satisfied fan changed his sign to read "Fear the 'Fro." Knowing that Osby actually would listen to them is just one reason his fans say they love him. Mostly, they cherish the feeling of being invited along for the ride.
"Every single game, he comes over here and shakes our hands, high-fives us," said Maryland freshman Brian Daly, who still brings the sign to every game. "No other player's done that."
This is the way Osby envisioned it while growing up in Richmond's tough north side, where he found solace from the surrounding violence by watching college basketball on television. Even more than the contests themselves, the energy in the arenas mesmerized him. He could feel the electricity when cameras panned across seas of basketball-mad students heaping love upon their heroes.
"Man, that's where I want to be," he'd say to himself. "I want to be playing there. I want to be part of that."
That's why, last season, when a hostile crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium pointed at his Afro and chanted, "It's not '70s night!" Osby smiled.
"This is what you live for," he said.Richmond Street Life
Osby was 8 years old when his father, William, bought him his first basketball hoop. Matthew Wallace, a friend who lived on the next block, got one the same week. The two friends spent days playing never-ending home-and-home series, with Boom going one-on-one with Lemon Head, as Wallace was known to the other neighborhood kids.
But trouble never was far away. Violence was so rampant that by middle school, Osby's yearbook could double as a roll call of the slain. When Osby's parents divorced, he rebelled. He helped the neighborhood dealers carry drugs around the city. He broke into houses and cars. He joined a gang. His grades slipped. He was 12 years old.
"I always felt bad after we did something stupid," Osby said. "I knew right from wrong. Then, people started getting killed, and that's when I had to get out."
The end of Osby's delinquency came during one bloody week, when several people in the neighborhood were shot. He heard that retaliation was coming, and a few days later, a car full of men toting assault rifles rolled down Osby's street.
"You coming with us?" a person in the car asked.
"I can't be part of this," Osby said.
He instead returned his focus to basketball. He joined an AAU program in Richmond, where coaches took Osby under their wing. His skills flourished, and Osby was sent by his mother to Benedictine High School, a Catholic military school where he would have a better chance of drawing a look from college scouts.
A few years later, Osby was on his way to New Mexico and Wallace was headed for a junior college, in hopes of one day joining Osby at the Division I level.
But one September night, just before he was to go to Albuquerque, Osby was jolted by the unmistakable sound of nearby gunshots. He somehow knew to head for Wallace's house, where he found his friend's body on the front lawn, a pool of blood running from a golf ball-size wound in the side of his head.
Matthew "Lemon Head" Wallace was the city's 64th homicide that year. He was the fourth to be slain on the north side that week.
"When it's somebody you know and you grow up with . . . it's shocking and it's sad. But it angers you, too," Osby said "You're just mad because you're like: 'Look, you didn't have to go out like this. You could have had a different life.' "A Winning Personality
All the misery and pain of his old neighborhood taught Osby some vital lessons, perhaps the most important ones about people.
When he went from public school to Benedictine, he was thrust from a world of poverty into one where his classmates were the sons of doctors, lawyers and judges. The students at his old school were nearly all black. His new school was nearly all white. Osby didn't just cope with their differences; he thrived on them.
"I just fell in love with people," he said. "I wanted to be around them, spend time with them."
Through various stops in Albuquerque, Paris and College Park, that sociability allowed him to cultivate a support system that has helped him navigate life's various detours.
Antone Exum, a dentist who was one of his first AAU coaches, showed Osby it was possible to escape poverty. Kent Greenway, a financial adviser and AAU coach, grew into Osby's general counsel, giving advice on everything from women to the benefits of rhythmic breathing.
Carole Curry, a health care consultant, met Osby on a Southwest Airlines flight to Albuquerque. He was one of the last people to board. Instead of watching him try to cram into a middle seat, Curry offered him her aisle seat. After talking throughout the four-hour flight, she gave Osby her contact information.
"And he's been calling me ever since," said Curry, whose son, Chris, has since been folded into Osby's circle.
During a New Mexico booster event, Jerry Mosher, an electrical contractor, approached Osby, who was sitting alone. Mosher, a car buff, had heard about Osby's love for cars and figured it would make for a good conversation. Osby talked about his affinity for classics, Cadillacs mostly. From there, Osby grew close to Mosher's son, James, also a car buff. Mosher has pictures of Osby and his son working under cars, snow visible on the ground.
Osby, whose father died in 2001 and whose mother still resides in Richmond, calls the Moshers his "adopted family." Mosher's kids call Osby their other brother.Seizing His Chance
While it was guidance that helped Osby survive in New Mexico and Paris, it was partly luck that he landed in the ACC. Though this time, Osby was ready.
With the Terrapins in need of a big man, Williams tasked former assistant Rob Moxley with finding one near the end of the recruiting season. Moxley had heard of Osby through several junior college contacts. After watching him work out, Moxley was convinced.
Williams offered Osby a scholarship and a third chance to live out his dream.
"To tell you he was going to do what he's done at Maryland, I'd be lying to you," said Moxley, now an assistant at Charlotte. "I didn't know that. . . . Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes things work out well and in this case it did."
Osby is expected to graduate in the spring, though he's not sure what he'll do next. If a professional basketball career is possible, Osby said he would pursue it. If not, he might return to graduate school. Or he may chase another old dream and open a car restoration shop with his friend, Mosher.
"It's like instant gratification almost,' said Osby, who has bought several junk Cadillacs in an effort to preserve them, including a 1959 model that still is in New Mexico. "As soon as you do something, you can see the result right away."
Mosher said all car restoration enthusiasts are bound by the idea that, after the toil and frustration, each finished project is akin to a new life. But Osby, he said, is proof that the same is possible with people.
"You can stand back and look at Boom and say: 'You know what? That's impressive,' " Mosher said. "Look where he came from. Look what he's turning into."