RALEIGH, N.C. -- Hawkeye Whitney remembers wandering aimlessly through the dark streets of Kansas City, Kan., strung out as far as a three-day dance with cocaine could take him, wanting nothing but a sheltered place to sleep.
He didn't have a home. For weeks, Whitney had been sleeping on the streets, working an occasional odd job to get enough money to buy more cocaine, then huddling with others whose lives had crumbled. Less than 10 years removed from North Carolina State, where he had been a two-time all-ACC basketball player good enough to be the 16th player chosen in the 1980 NBA draft, Whitney was a lost soul.
He stumbled across an abandoned house and found a dirty matress inside where he could steal a few hours of sleep away from the world and its evils. Many times he had wondered why he was still alive, but in that evening's darkness, Whitney prayed to see tomorrow.
When the sun came up that morning less than two years ago, Whitney started a long walk across the state line to Kansas City, Mo. That walk ultimately led him back to North Carolina State, where he says he is clean again, pursuing his college degree and telling anyone who will listen about how his flirtation with success turned into a story he almost didn't live to tell.
Sitting in the lobby of the Case Athletic Center, a fastbreak away from Reynolds Coliseum where he became the fourth-leading scorer in N.C. State history, Whitney is several pounds over his playing weight, and he knows it. That's one of his next projects. There's so much to do. He's preparing to remarry and he's helping former Wolfpack player Phil Spence coach the East Wake High basketball team.
And then there are the talks. Whitney is involved in the Outreach Program for youth. He tells it like it is.
"I don't sugarcoat it," Whitney said. "I've seen it all. Because of people like me, we've almost screwed up the society. There's such a drug epidemic. We've got to educate. I tell them drugs guarantee you two things -- death and jail. A lot of people aren't blessed enough to get a third alternative . . . a second chance."
Whitney's second chance started on that walk across a field on his way back to the city. He had come to Kansas City in 1980 as part of a young basketball team that included Phil Ford and Otis Birdsong. He was in the NBA, his pockets full of money and his eyes blinded by the lights.
"As I was walking across that field, I just started crying," he said. "I couldn't stop. At the top of my lungs, I hollered out and asked God to help me. At that point, I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Whitney, a bullish basketball player with a flair for the dramatic, could never have envisioned what would happen next. When he left school, he started experimenting with drugs. He had money, fame, physical strength and no reason to think he wouldn't live forever.
In the pros, Whitney fell in with a faster crowd. Parties became second nature and he liked the action. He was the sixth man on a team that reached the NBA semifinals. But a knee injury midway through his rookie season curtailed his playing time, and gave him time on his hands.
"When they talk about it being the fast lane, that's what it is, a fast lane," Whitney said.
It didn't take long before the promise of an NBA career turned into a series of rejections. No one in the NBA wanted Whitney and, he soon found out, he wasn't wanted in even the Continental Basketball Association. Depression set in as his life became a series of construction and remodeling jobs with some retail sales work tossed in.
Cocaine became his best friend. He lived to freebase, he said.
Then his friend Len Bias died. It hit Whitney hard, but not hard enough.
"When that happened, I had to ask, 'Why him and why not me?' I was doing exactly what he was doing," Whitney said.
Then another of his friends committed suicide, and Whitney's life began to spiral out of control.
"I gave up," he said. "I figured I'd quit. I didn't care anymore. I could accept anything and everything that happened. What was so sad was there were so many people doing the same thing. They gave up too. Their primary goal in life was to get high. . . . Sometimes I'd get angry with myself, but I didn't care anymore."
Needing food and a bed before his next fix, Whitney wound up at the City Union Mission in Kansas City, Mo., a place transients come for help. While there, a friend talked to him about God and gave him a copy of the New Testament to read. "It seemed like everything I read pertained to me," Whitney said.
He lived at the mission until he returned to Raleigh last May to resume work on his degree in vocational industrial education. He is the first former player to take part in a program instituted by Coach Les Robinson that funnels money from a shoe contract into helping former players finish their education.
"I asked him last summer if he'd like to come back to school," Robinson said. "He told me he'd love to but he was a little scared. He's been through some tough times but he's on the rebound now."
Whitney pops into the Wolfpack's basketball office almost every day. He's back where he came from but so far from where he's been.
"I've had people ask me why I'm so happy," Whitney said grinning. "I tell them it's because I know where I've come from."