After man vanishes with cash for D.C. league, another fights to save it

Shortly after organizing a basketball league, a homeless man disappeared. That hasn't stopped the league from playing.
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

James Russell had an idea so big and beautiful, he would talk for a good half-hour, if you let him, about his goal of creating a basketball league run by the homeless to keep teenagers out of trouble.

Homeless himself, living under a bridge in Northeast Washington, Russell said he thought it would symbolize the notion that even those living on the streets had something to contribute.

He enlisted others to help him and then persuaded dozens of young players to pony up a $50 fee for uniforms and professional referees.

Then, after the first day of the league, and having collected more than $1,000 in fees, Russell vanished last month.

"There was a lot of anger," said Wade Simmons, 39, who met Russell when they were living on the streets and eating at the same soup kitchens. "A lot of people went out looking for this guy."

Simmons had agreed to coach the teenagers on one of the league's teams, a decision that gradually gave Simmons, a recovering addict and convicted felon, two things he never thought he'd experience again: respect and responsibility. In the short month he practiced with his team, Simmons cleaned himself up, started working again as an independent energy consultant and rented an apartment.

He wanted to help the teens on his team so they wouldn't turn to drugs and crime to cope with disappointment in life, as he did.

So when Russell disappeared along with the teenagers' money, Simmons, the other coaches and the young players were furious.

They waited for him to turn up at the basketball court off Florida Avenue and First Street NW. Some tried to think up excuses for him. Maybe he was buying them uniforms. Maybe he was making arrangements for the trophy and the trip to Atlanta he had promised for the winning team.

But two weeks later, all that was left was anger -- at Russell for running, at themselves for trusting him and believing in the league.

Many of the 60 or so players, mostly ages 16 to 25, come from poor families in this largely black neighborhood. They had paid Russell with money scraped together from part-time jobs or from parents who couldn't afford to waste money on their children's hoop dreams but did it anyway.

Russell himself had talked about the players in an interview with The Washington Post before he disappeared.

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