Quentin Simms introduces himself while playing a video football game. He is battling a friend while several other kids hover, fidget, wait their turns. Quentin doesn't bother looking up. His thumbs are furiously massaging the controller, he's talking junk to his opponent.
"I'm about to beat them corners," he says, meaning he's about to toast the defensive secondary for a touchdown.
Watching a group of teenage boys take turns playing Madden NFL '06 is like being at one of those lively sessions of the British Parliament. Mouths are roaring. Seems like a good time to ask a break-the-ice question: Who's the best among you?
"That'd be me, right here," Quentin says, quick on the draw, like he's a contestant on "Jeopardy!" "I'm the best at everything."
The sentence comes with a beautiful smile that turns swagger into charm. What at first sounds like arrogance is revealed as innocence. All Quentin Simms really wants you to know is that he believes in himself. At 16, he already expects to be rich and famous.
The Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll found that 68 percent of area teens overall said it was likely they'd be rich someday; 31 percent said it was likely they'd be famous.
When the expectations of black and white teens were examined separately, however, striking differences emerged. African Americans were more likely than whites to expect they'd be rich (81 percent to 60 percent) and much more likely than whites to believe they'd be famous (54 percent to 19 percent).
Quentin, a junior at McKinley Technical High School in the District, is one of these black teens. He is 6-foot-1, 146 pounds, with braids tied in a knot, the tips adorned with cowrie shells. He buries his style under a black nylon skullcap. He lives in the Naylor Gardens apartment complex in Southeast with his mom, Terri, and an aunt. His favorite television show: reruns of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." His favorite movies: "stuff like 'Titanic,' flicks that have meaning." His dreams sometimes wander: maybe journalism, maybe Web design, maybe oceanography. But the wandering dreams always settle on a shiny hardwood floor in a noisy arena with the crowd shouting his name. That's when Quentin really flashes his Aquafresh smile.
"I just got a feeling that I can be that lucky one, like LeBron, and make it to the NBA."
Take a number, Q. Dreamland is overpopulated with hoop dreamers. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters go to sleep at night with visions of themselves dunking on "SportsCenter." And when they wake up, there are still only 360 full-time jobs for players in the National Basketball Association.
Granted, the league is three-quarters black. Good news for black teens. But the odds of making it are better in practically any other field. There are about 41,000 black physicians employed in this country, 43,000 black lawyers, 91,000 black engineers. And yet, as Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University expert on black popular culture, puts it: "Because of the huge popularity and visibility of both hip-hop and the NBA, every kid with a crossover dribble thinks he can be Allen Iverson, and every kid with a flow thinks he can be Jay-Z. These things are seen as attainable."
The question Neal raises for parents, teachers and others who are pushing alternative models of success is: "How do we make getting an MD, becoming a lawyer, becoming a journalist sexy to our kids in the same way that being an Allen Iverson or Jay-Z is sexy?"
It's not that white teens aren't stirred by the same cultural influences -- in fact, according to market research, they buy far more rap music than black kids do. They watch MTV, just like black kids do. They are entranced by celebrity lifestyles, just like black kids are. But the difference, Neal says, is that "white professionals are much more tangible and visible to white kids in ways I don't see reflected for black kids. I've got [black] kids at Duke who are going to graduate cum laude who pass on their [rap] demo tapes to me. There's something about the allure of hip-hop that transcends the success they're obviously going to have."
Somehow, Quentin thinks, landing a job in the NBA will just happen, simply "because of my athletic skills." What his mother lets you know is that her son is more curious than he owns up to being, has more options lodged in his brain than he realizes. He used to draw striking replicas of Metro buses and trains. Sharks and whales fascinate him.
"If they do a whole week of sharks on TV," says his mom, "he'll watch every program."
Right now, though, he doesn't see sharks making him rich and famous. He acknowledges being dazzled by the up-from-the-mean-streets narrative of so many athletes and entertainers.
"If you look at yo' 'MTV Cribs,'" says Quentin, "you see a lot of the same superstars . . . grew up in the same ghetto places, and they came out of that."
But that's hardly Quentin's life, his mother points out. "He don't know nothing about no hardcore ghetto," she says. "He ain't been out in the streets. He's never been around any street kids, crime kids."
On the day I meet him, in fact, he's surrounded by kids who hope to become lawyers, psychologists, biologists, forensic scientists. They are holding down summer jobs as outreach workers for Metro TeenAIDS, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to prevent HIV infections among young people through education.
Quentin and his peers seem to represent two other findings of the poll. According to the survey, a greater proportion of black than white teens say that having a successful career is "very important" to them (93 percent to 65 percent) and that making a difference in the world is "very important" to them (76 percent to 58 percent).
"There are plenty of ways to be rich," says Robert Gorham, a 16-year-old Eastern High School student, "but to be successful it takes education." And, he adds, curiosity. "I want to know why the sky's blue."
The Metro TeenAIDS office is in the basement of a building on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. At about 1 p.m. a supervisor enters the room and puts an abrupt end to Madden '06. "Awww," goes the chorus. Melantha Stith, the supervisor, explains today's assignment. They will be going to the Potomac Gardens public housing complex, where some of the students will hand out condom kits. Others will conduct interviews with young people to gauge their awareness about HIV/AIDS. The questions they must ask are probing, if not prying: Who are the people you feel are most at risk of getting infected with HIV? How can we reach them? Are you sexually active? This is the kind of work some highly trained professionals might be terrified to do in a public housing project, but the teenagers, who are getting paid $8 an hour, take it in stride.
"I like this job," says Quasey Ridley, 16, who attends Glen Burnie High School. "I didn't play football for this job."
Before going out, the kids stuff plastic Ziploc bags with safe-sex paraphernalia and a note about where and when one can get tested for HIV/AIDS.
Quentin sees this as a job where he can make a difference. "I feel that people need to know what's going on in the world and why they are dying, so they can be safe," he says.
As the group gets close to Potomac Gardens, Quentin, who has heard tales about the housing project, quips, "There go the Gardens. We're about to die."
This is Quentin's way of being funny, which is a way of disguising his insecurity.
Seven residents of the Gardens are sitting in front of a building, one on a milk crate, a couple on a cooler, others in plastic chairs. The kids explain what they're doing. Some of the residents eye them warily until the kids explain that Metro TeenAIDS pays respondents $10 per interview. Cash. No problems after that.
Quentin and Tyrone Lofton pair up and go to work. Each interview takes about five minutes -- the residents are not volunteering much information, mostly just "yes" and "no," with the notable exception of one girl who rubs the stomach of a pregnant young woman next to her and cracks: "They better not ask you if you're sexually active. That is self-explanatory."
On this day, $80 is allotted for interviews. So when eight are done, that's it. Walking back to the Metro TeenAIDS headquarters, Quentin turns the subject back to his basketball promise. When was it, exactly, that the notion formed in his head that he could become rich and famous playing basketball? Oh, a couple of years ago, he says, "when I first mastered the idea that I was good using both of my hands." Quentin explains that he's ambidextrous, a rarity among young players. Coaches love that skill. How many 16-year-olds can shoot jump shots and handle the ball well with both hands? Quentin says he can. And that, he believes, is his ticket.
As Quentin sees it, he's two years away from playing in the ACC, one of the nation's strongest conferences.
"I want to go to Maryland, Duke . . . the North Carolina Tar Heels."
But first, he'll have to make his high school team.
School is back in, and Quentin has invited me to a late-afternoon showcasing of his skills. It's just a two-on-two pickup game in McKinley's gym under the watchful eye of PE teacher Francis Bolden, who minces no words.
"If ya'll plan on playing on the team, ya'll need to get yourselves in condition," he says.
Quentin didn't play for McKinley last year -- grade problems. So most of his basket-ball success thus far has been at the AAU recreational league level. But who knows? Tracy McGrady, now a perennial NBA all-star, wasn't even ranked among the top 500 high school players in the nation when he was a junior like Quentin. Two years later, McGrady was playing for the Toronto Raptors and had a $12 million sneaker contract.
Quentin is wearing long white shorts and a long white T-shirt. He's sweating and puffing. And winning. But he is not exactly lighting up the floor. A three-pointer is followed by an air ball.
Bolden knows a few things about basketball. He played at Baltimore's Coppin State, later played semipro, and can still, at 44, destroy Quentin and his friends. He tries to preach some cautionary sermons -- about the pro he knew who ended up homeless, the college sensation who squandered his career on drugs. He brings some of the hard-luck stories to the school, so the students can see them in the flesh. But the lessons are difficult to learn.
"It's hard," Bolden explains, "because you only have so much time with them in a day." When the kids leave school, other influences take over -- peers, neighborhood coaches, other folks in the community filling their heads with these long-shot thoughts.
"They don't see the reality," says Bolden. "They just see the bling-bling and all these high schoolers who've already gone to the pros. They figure, 'If they can do it, I can do it.'"
Bolden is pushing the kids as they hoop, and also encouraging them.
Don't worry about picks that high out.
The game is tied and has come down to one last bucket. Quentin has the ball. He makes a dribble move, then steps back and nails a three-pointer. He walks off the court oozing bravado, except he's told the rules of this pickup game require a team to win by two buckets. So, the ball is inbounded to him. He starts his dribble, and noticing that he is not being guarded closely, he stops behind the three-point arc, sets and swishes the game-winner.
Quentin is pleased with himself.
Bolden is asked for an assessment of Quentin's game. Again, he doesn't mince words. He believes Quentin wants to play but doesn't work hard enough.
"Quentin can go to a junior college," Bolden says. "That's it. He's junior-college material."
No doubt, Bolden would love to be proved wrong.
Quentin just shrugs when told of Bolden's scouting report. Does he have a fallback plan, in case his dream of making it rich and famous as a pro basketball player
doesn't pan out? Of course, Quentin says.
"It's either going to be journalism or philosophy." Philosophy? Hadn't heard that one before. What would he do with philosophy? "I have no idea."
Right now, he's just living and dreaming. All Quentin Simms really wants you to know is he believes in himself.
"Me," he says, "I'm just confident."
- - -
Q: How likely is it that you will be rich someday? Is it very likely, fairly likely, not too likely or not likely at all?
Percentage of local teens saying likely
White ... 60%
Black ... 81%
Q: How likely is it that you will be famous someday? Is it very likely, fairly likely, not too likely or not likely at all?
Percentage of local teens saying likely
White ... 19%
Black ... 54%
Kevin Merida is an associate editor of The Post.