Three weeks ago, 6-foot-6 Blue Oliver was the star of the Loudoun County High School basketball team, confident that his talent could carry him past a troubled youth.
But the 17-year-old senior was kicked off the team two weeks ago, his chance of playing his way to college perhaps destroyed, because a school yard fight automatically led to a three-day suspension and the suspension led automatically to dismissal from the team.
Now, Oliver and two other black teammates are back on the squad and Oliver is hoping for a championship and a schoolarship, because a number of people did several uncharacteristic things.
One was Gene Ashton, Oliver's foster father, who took and ax and chopped the Confederate flags off the Leesburg high school's sign.
That got him arrested, but it also got his picture on the front page of the Loudoun Times Mirror, the county's weekly news paper.
Then a group of about 40 black Loudoun residents appeared before the county school board last Tuesday to raise gently the possibility that blacks were being singled out for discipline in a school system that is 90 per cent white.
"When discipline is needed, is it fairly extended regardless of race, social standing or teacher involvement?" asked Lou Etta Watkins, spokeswoman for a newly organized group called EQUAL, a largely black group of parents.
The school board's tepid response prompted the Rev. Howard Wilson, a black minister, to say, "I truly don't think you've heard Mrs. Watkins, not at all. I'm very disturbed about the disturbance in the (black) community."
That story made the local paper's front page, too, and a story on the dismissal of Oliver, who was averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds, made the front of the sport's section.
An increasingly active black community appeared ready to confront the county's white establishment over the treatment of black students.
In November, Gary Lee Stewart, a potential starting guard, had been suspended for three days for cursing in class. The school has a rule that two unexcused absences from practice result in dismissal. So Stewart was off.
In December, 6-foot-4 forward Patrick Young and Oliver were cutting up in class, and Young, who had been warned before, was sent to the school office for cursing.
The result was a suspension from classes and autumatic dismissal from the team. Young asked the coaches to change the rule but the coaches refused to do so, according to reports.
On Jan. 4, after an argument about a debt, a student pushed Oliver and Oliver said he punched him. Both youths were suspended. But Oliver was also off the team.
Ashton, a 31-year-old musician, sought to get the youths reinstated, but said he felt he was getting nowwhere. He had grown up in the county, graduated in one of the first desegregated high school classes and gone off to Catholic University and Boston to study music before return ing to Leesburg in 1975. Whites and blacks said he has a reputation as a gentle, calm, thoughtful man.
"Being suspended is nothing we protested," Ashton said. "I understand the situation about rules. He broke a rule, but you don't destroy his future.
"The reality is people -- people's lives. Being off the team just seemed unfair. There should always be a alternatives," he said.
Ashton began calling people, talking to ministers, raising concern in the black community.
Ashton was working as a counselor at Gladydin School, which specializes in working with emotionally disturbed children, when he met Oliver. Oliver had been a resident at the school for five years before moving in with the Ashton's last summer.
"Blue is a very sensitive person, a super-hard worker, but he had not had enough stable people around him. He was really a loner and he didn't trust people," Ashton said. "But he's special. That's why he's in my house."
So the musician took an ax and chopped the Confederate flags off the school sign. "It was a thing of trying to demonstrate that there was insensitivity to black students. That was what I was trying to do," he said.
Police cars arrived and Ashton was handcuffed and taken to jail before being released on his own recognizance on a charge of destroying property.
"I'm not trying to divide the community," Ashton said before the school board meeting on Tuesday. "I just feel the school is insensitive to black students. They just don't understand."
"This family has motivated me and helped me settle down," Oliver said. "It's a nice family to be with. It's the first real family I've been with in six years.
"My first report card wasn't so good, but Gene would sit down and talk to me. I knew what he wanted out of me. It was like a father. My grades went up 100 per cent. My last report card was Bs and Cs," Oliver said. "I don't know what I'll do if I can't play ball."
On Thursday, Ashton and School Supt. Robert Butt met, and Butt later announced, "I have had a review with the coaches and staff. I am granting the appeal on the suspension from the team. The boy will be reinstated tomorrow. I felt the school rule had to be overruled. The other two boys will also have the opportunity to play."
Ashton said, "Blue will be back on the team. That's what we wanted. It possibly would not have happened if the community hadn't backed him and showed up. It came out of the community, black and white.
"I think people in the school system have become more aware of how the community feels and the community is aware that if they become more involved they can change things," Ashton said. "Blue's good and he's a leader. I think his chances of getting a scholarship are excellent.