Starks works overtime to get Roosevelt to City Title Game

Theodore Roosevelt's Ezell Starks, right, balances basketball and schoolwork with a full-time job in his family's cleaning business.
Theodore Roosevelt's Ezell Starks, right, balances basketball and schoolwork with a full-time job in his family's cleaning business. (For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 12:42 AM

Ezell Starks did something unexpected after making a buzzer-beating, championship-clinching basket last month: he left the gym and went to work.

While many high school basketball standouts would revel among friends well into the evening, the Theodore Roosevelt senior guard quickly slipped from the spotlight after his layup as time expired gave the Rough Riders a 62-60 victory over Eastern Feb. 26. The win earned Roosevelt the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title and gave it a berth in Monday's Abe Pollin City Title Game against two-time defending-champion DeMatha at Verizon Center.

Within a couple of hours after sinking what he called "the shot of my life," Starks was doing what he has done every night since last June: helping his family's fledgling janitorial business. He typically works from about 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. seven nights a week, mopping, sweeping, dusting and tidying up at offices, restaurants or other companies around the Washington area, before hurrying home to sleep and then head to school.

"I knew everybody's gonna be happy, out celebrating," Starks said, "but I've got responsibilities."

Starks, 17, acknowledged that because his courseload is lighter as a senior, he's able to break away in the middle of the day and doze off on a couch in a teacher's office, but it doesn't diminish how tiring his life has become.

"Sometimes we've got to prop him up with Snickers [bars] or Mountain Dews," Roosevelt Athletic Director Daryl Tilghman joked. "But to see a kid do what he does, that's a rarity. Only a special kid has that kind of a work ethic."

Last season, though, threatened to break Starks's drive. The 5-foot-9 Starks, who spent his first three years of high school at Wise in Upper Marlboro, figured to move into a starting role on the Pumas' varsity. Shortly before the season, however, senior Daryl Traynham, who ended up being an All-Met point guard, transferred to Wise and kept Starks on the bench. Minutes became precious and when he got onto the court, Starks had to produce immediately or he came out.

"It killed my confidence," he said. "For all of 11th grade, my confidence was down. You'd be scared to do certain things. It makes you think you can't do certain things."

Last summer, Starks moved in with his aunt in Southeast and enrolled at Roosevelt. Calling it his "escape route," Starks knew this was his last chance to prove himself. Yet the confidence issues from last season still lingered.

"At the beginning, he was hesitant to take games over," Rough Riders Coach Rob Nickens said, "and I think that came from not playing a lot" last year.

Starks, however, slowly eased into control, and when the playoffs came around, there was no question who held the key to Roosevelt's title hopes. With the Rough Riders trailing Ballou by 15 at halftime in the DCIAA quarterfinals, it was Starks who led the second-half charge. He hit five three-pointers after halftime and led the way to a 61-56 victory.

Then, after Antone James hit a desperation game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to shock Spingarn, 71-69, in the semifinals, Starks beat the final horn with a layup to knock off Eastern.

"The kid could always play," Wise Coach O.J. Johnson said. "I'm glad to see he's doing well at Roosevelt."

Starks, who averages 13.7 points for the Rough Riders (25-5), said his late-game heroics were a product of a simple adjustment: he didn't work any of the nights before the DCIAA playoff games.

He said he felt rested, and that's why he also planned to take this past weekend off to get ready for Monday's championship game.

"If we win," Starks said, "we're all taking the night off and going out to dinner. We have to celebrate already."

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