By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009
This isn't exactly a homecoming for Randy Foye, but the Washington Wizards' latest back-court addition joked that if he were any closer, he'd be in the backyard of his home in New Jersey.
After Foye spent the first three years of his career in Minnesota, a trade with the Wizards the day before the NBA draft in June brought him within a three-hour drive of Newark -- the city in which he was orphaned before the first grade but which provided him with a support system to overcome those hardships.
With Wizards training camp set to start on Tuesday, Foye is honoring his Newark roots this season by wearing No. 15, the number he wore while leading East Side High to a state championship and earning player of the year honors as a senior. Although the numbers he wore with the Minnesota Timberwolves (4) and at Villanova (2) were already taken by new teammates Antawn Jamison and DeShawn Stevenson, respectively, Foye said he made his choice for sentimental reasons.
"That's basically where it all started," Foye said in recent telephone interview. But where it all started couldn't have been more challenging. Foye grew up in Newark at a time when its rates of violent crime, drug activity and poverty ranked among the worst in the United States.
His father, Antonio -- whom Foye only faintly remembers -- was killed in a motorcycle accident when Randy was just 2 years old. Three years later, his mother, Regina Foye, climbed into a truck and disappeared. To this day, Foye doesn't know if he was abandoned or she was murdered. Her whereabouts remain a mystery more than 21 years later, but her likeness is tattooed on his chest. Foye said relatives sometime weep when they see his 20-month old daughter, Paige, because she bears a striking resemblance to Regina.
Foye displays little emotion while discussing his beginnings, and those close to him said he never used his losses as an excuse to not succeed. "He didn't complain too much about it. He just went through it. He just moved on," said the woman who raised him, Ruth Martin, an aunt whom Foye calls Nana.
He transcended his circumstances with the help of a makeshift family that shielded him from the gangs and guns to become a college graduate and first-round NBA draft pick: Martin; his grandmother, Betty Foye; his AAU basketball coach, Sandy Pyonin; his high school coach, Bryant Garvin; one of his high school teachers, Maria Contardo; and neighborhood friend ZeGale "Z" Kelliehan. That unlikely team, linked only by each individual's concern for Foye, guided him to college, where Villanova Coach Jay Wright and former assistant Fred Hill helped him become a professional basketball player.
"You lost your mom, but God sent you this," Foye said of his basketball talent and the people who entered his life along the way. "I was just blessed to have people to come into my circle and willing to care for me like I'm one of their own. Fortunately, God blessed me with this gift to play basketball. This is one of the ways I got out of ghetto and it kept me away from the negative things in my neighborhood."
Foye started playing basketball in some rough neighborhoods in north Newark, but he became serious about the game when Pyonin discovered him at age 11. Pyonin ran the New Jersey Road Runners, an AAU program that has produced more than 30 NBA players, including Al Harrington, Bobby Hurley and Jay Williams. He spotted Foye's talent right away and provided an extra push by driving him to practices, games and early-morning and late-night workouts. Those drives in that beat-up station wagon included lengthy conversations about basketball and life.
"He really cared for me, as far as talking to me when I was going through tough times," Foye said. "That's somebody who had the most influence on my life and made me steer my life in the right direction all the time because I didn't want to let him down."
The relationship Foye had with his high school coach wasn't nearly as smooth at the start. Garvin took over East Side before Foye's junior year and tried to keep him focused on school and away from the negative influences of the street. Foye was resistant to Garvin, a former division I football player from Chicago who was not afraid to challenge his best player.
"We had some very interesting battles," Garvin said. "Me chasing him at home, trying to get him to come to school. I chastised him and cursed him out to get him to get it. He was very defiant on all levels."
The two came together during Foye's senior year, after Garvin invited Foye to spend more time and sometimes sleep nights at his home in South Brunswick. "After that, I bought into what he was telling me to do," Foye said. "From then on, he treated me like a son."
Foye departed his nurturing environment in New Jersey landed at Villanova, where Foye said Wright taught him "how to be a tough basketball player and also a man." Foye heard that he would be a late first-round pick after an impressive showing in the NCAA tournament his junior year.
He told Martin, his aunt, that he planned to enter the NBA draft, a decision that Wright said he supported.
But then Martin called Foye one day to convince him to complete his education. She said a basketball career is very short, with elite players lasting only about 12 years. "And then what?" she told Foye. As Foye paused to make sense of Martin's words, she hung up the phone. "I said, 'She's right.' "
Foye returned for his senior season, moving to power forward in Wright's four-guard lineup. Foye earned Big East player of the year and consensus all-American honors in 2006 while guarding the likes of future NBA forwards Joakim Noah, Craig Smith and Josh Boone. Before going seventh in the NBA draft that June, he also graduated with a degree in geography with a minor in sociology.
"All our guys still look up to him," Wright said. "It's great for us at Villanova because he's such an idol -- not because of the player he was, but because of his character."
Foye improved in each of his first three seasons with Timberwolves, averaging a career-best 16.3 points last season. But he has also dealt with injury and some losing seasons. He hoped that he would be given the chance to help turn around the franchise but was excited about moving closer to home after the man who drafted him, Kevin McHale, was fired as coach. "I'm definitely an East Coast guy, but I give Minnesota a lot of credit. They drafted me. It was good while I was there," Foye said. "Unfortunately, we didn't make the playoffs. We tried to make the best of the situation and it didn't work out. Now I'm here."
With the advancing age of his grandmother and Martin -- plus his aunt's aversion to flying -- Foye is comforted that those close to him can easily hop on a train and watch him play in Washington. He immediately felt welcomed to the organization when he was asked to represent the team on its 30th anniversary trip to China earlier this month.
"I definitely felt I was officially a part of the Washington Wizards without ever playing a game here," said Foye, who will be competing for the starting shooting guard spot. "This season represents for me a lot of dedication and hard work. No matter how rough the seasons have been for me, not having as many wins as I wanted to, my work ethic never changed. I stayed in the gym, I still worked hard no matter what. This season is going to show that my work ethic and my dedication to the game, by not cheating the game, is going pay off for me."
Foye celebrated his 26th birthday modestly on Thursday. He grabbed dinner with his fiancee, Christine Rivera, and Paige and watched a college football game in his apartment. This time of year is always a reflective period for him.
"All that I've been through, I'm really blessed to be in this situation right now and I'm grateful," said Foye, who runs a foundation in his name to help disadvantaged youth in his home town. "I used [losing both parents] as a way to motivate me to become the best player and the most successful person I can be, because all odds are against you. A lot of my friends got in trouble or got locked up, but I'm still here. I made my way though everything. Just kept fighting. Never backed down for nothing."