With some trepidation I approached Room G, where I’d been instructed to report for my first day as a family therapist at the Solomon School for Boys in a suburb of Philadelphia. As I cautiously opened the door, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the eight boys I was to meet with had already assembled, sitting on metal chairs in a circle, with an empty one apparently reserved for me.
But as I looked more closely, I saw that the kids appeared eerily detached from each other. They also seemed completely indifferent to my presence as I walked toward my chair. One kid, who later identified himself as Darryl, glanced up and mumbled, “Yo, you the doctor?” There was no other indication that I’d even entered the room.
Quickly, I took in the environment—green-painted concrete walls, a scarred linoleum floor, and harsh fluorescent lighting overhead. The institution officially called itself a school, but for all practical purposes it was a jail for adolescents. All the kids had been convicted of one or more offenses, some of them violent. Like many places of its kind, it was heavily populated with poor youth of color.
Over the next several weeks, much of my time with the boys was characterized by long periods of silence and numerous failed attempts to engage them. Once, I asked them to go around the circle and tell the group one thing they liked and respected about themselves. Radio silence. Finally, a kid named DeShaun muttered, “Lamest shit I ever heard.” Chortling all around. Trying fiercely to avoid relying solely on “talk therapy,” I brought in art supplies and asked each of the boys to draw a picture that could represent some aspect their lives. Nothing. Not one of them made even a cursory attempt to put anything on paper.
At some point, I realized that they couldn’t do what I was asking, because if one of them complied, the rest of the group would consider him “soft.” So in a strange way, each of my failed attempts to engage them was helping them form a bond, albeit one of resistance against me.
Still, their individual strategies for shirking my efforts were limitless and creative. Every time we met, Malik would slump down in his chair with the brim of his Yankees cap covering his face. Darryl would softly rap his favorite song of the day as he swiveled in his chair. DeShaun would doodle, drawing designs of his street name, “Sadat,” with black and red markers.
Then, about a month into our time together, I walked in with my index finger heavily wrapped in white medical tape. Thirteen-year-old Drew pointed at it. “You had to mix it up with somebody?”
“No,” I replied, “I jammed it playing basketball.”
Several boys exploded into laughter. “You play basketball?” “I don’t believe that shit.” “Who you? Dr. J?” Malik added, “I bet you as soft as rich peoples’ toilet paper on the court. Probably how you got your finger jammed.”
For the first time, they were interacting with each other. The steady stream of belittling assessments of my basketball skills continued as they extended high fives to each other and embellished each other’s criticism. I pretended to defend myself, but I was secretly delighted. They were engaged.
In subsequent sessions, I made a point to use basketball as the centerpiece of our conversations. As I bragged about my ball skills to both bait and engage them, I tried to sneak in advice about their lives as poor youth of color. For example, I’d say to Malik, “I can’t imagine you beating me in a game because your eyes are always covered by your baseball cap. You block things out so you can pretend they’re not there. How you gonna beat me when you can’t even see me?”
This type of banter continued for weeks, culminating in a threat from me that I’d bring in four of my “old head” friends and beat them in a game of whole-court basketball. I further asserted that we’d spot them points and still beat them, because they didn’t seem to know how to trust each other, play together, or sacrifice for each other.
Trust and teamwork weren’t these boys’ strong suits. All had suffered severe and debilitating trauma that had left them perpetually wary of others. Fortunately, basketball had captured their attention and imagination—and I had to seize on this. As we continued to meet, I used video clips from NBA games as an entree to discuss how to effectively manage one’s emotions, think critically, and make good decisions. The weekly basketball repartee motivated Malik to suggest, “We should organize a team.” I responded, “Only if I get to be coach.” The idea quickly gained traction.
After determining that this group was serious about forming a team, I met with the administration to pitch the idea. The CEO reminded me that I was hired to do therapy, not coach basketball. “Think about Malik and Rashard,” he said. “They’re both 17 years old with a long history of violent offenses. This is their last chance. If they offend again after leaving here, they’re going to adult prison. They’re beyond your play therapy.”
I refused to give up, ultimately volunteering to coach them on my personal time. Finally, the school approved our application to form a team and enter a league comprising detention and residential treatment centers in the area. We called ourselves The Hawks.
Recognizing that these kids had little time to lose, I toughened my persona. Gone was any trace of a gentle, “therapeutic” demeanor. I was now in lecture-hassle mode, especially with Darryl, who was severely overweight and tended to stand around rather than run up and down the court. “You’ve got to try harder!” I badgered him. “Give up here and you’ll give up in life.”
We weren’t a very good team. Even though Malik was an outstanding player, probably talented enough to play collegiate ball, his eruptions of rage regularly sabotaged him. He led the team in ejections—including one at tip-off for viciously elbowing an opposing player. After playing eight games, we were 1 and 7. The more we lost, the harder it was for the boys to stay focused. It was as if they believed that if they didn’t play hard, they’d be spared the even worse humiliation of losing badly when they did try to win.
It was a 10-game season. After our seventh loss, I met with the team in Room G and had them listen to a song by Tupac called “Keep Your Head Up!” I gave them another mini-lecture about the importance of not quitting. “Listen up,” I said. “If your ancestors could overcome slavery, you can do almost anything you’re determined to do. Starting next game, we’ll no longer call ourselves The Hawks. Instead, we’ll be Doc Hardy’s Hustlin’ Hawks. We might win or we might lose, but we will not be out-hustled!”
In the next game, something had shifted. Malik scored a season-high 26 points and managed to stay in the entire game. And Darryl played with unprecedented energy and focus. We lost by eight points, but it was a huge moral victory.
A week later, everybody gathered in the locker room before game time. I had a surprise for the guys. I pulled out an enormous shopping bag and presented each kid with a complete uniform that I’d purchased a few weeks earlier. The uniforms were black with gold numbers and each boy’s name printed in gold across the back. The front of the uniforms proclaimed in gold letters, “Doc Hardy’s Hustlin’ Hawks.”
They exploded with excitement. As they grinned and leapt around the locker room in a manic state, I saw that many of them had tears in their eyes. I could hardly hold back my own. When they’d calmed down a bit, I explained that I chose the black uniforms to represent all of us as black people and that they should always be proud of that. The gold symbolized all the parts of them that were valuable but that they couldn’t see at times. I wasn’t sure how much they actually heard as they called out, “Thank you, Doc Hardy! Thank you!”
When they ran onto the court to meet the Wildcats, the tiny crowd in the stands burst into raucous applause. With their adrenaline pumping, the Hustlin’ Hawks played like never before. Malik had his best game of the season and assumed a key leadership role, facilitating play after play and shouting encouragement to his teammates. Then, with two minutes remaining, he fouled out. The score seesawed. We were down by one point.
With only seconds left in the game, the Wildcats were called for a three-second violation, and had to return the ball to the Hustlin’ Hawks. DeShaun took it out of bounds and threw it to Darryl, who’d been left unguarded by his opponents because he rarely moved to the ball and virtually never shot it. In a split second, however, Darryl caught it, turned around to face the basket from just above the foul line, and banked it off the backboard before it swished through the net. His grin lit up the court.
The final score was 61-60, with Doc Hardy’s Hustlin’ Hawks the victors! Every kid on the team was shouting and dancing and hugging. They’d shocked themselves. They’d shocked me. They were winners.
The taste of victory was short-lived, though. A few days after he made the shot of his life, Darryl was arrested for theft while on a home visit for the weekend. Shaken and dismayed, I took it personally. It was heartbreaking. I’d defied all the “rules” I’d learned in graduate school about not getting too close to your clients, keeping a professional distance from those you serve.
Ten months later, the Solomon School lost funding, and my position was eliminated. The guys and I had an emotional goodbye. I gave Darryl one final, probably unwelcomed, lecture about the importance of him fighting to avoid becoming another black-male statistic. My final words to him: “Dude, you have a life and it’s precious, even if others think it isn’t. If you want to stay alive, you need to find your purpose.” Then, gradually, I lost touch with all of them.
Fast forward five years. I walked into a neighborhood barbershop to get a shave and a haircut. Sitting down, I waited for the barber to cover me with a white cape, and suddenly, from behind me, I heard him shout, “Doc Hardy! You’re Doc Hardy, right?”
I felt a bit vulnerable, because this man was holding a straight razor and I had no idea who he was. He looked around and announced, “Hey y’all, this is Doc Hardy. Man, this dude saved my life.” His voice cracked. “He believed in me when no one else did, not even my own pops. He’s the reason I’m here today and not on lockdown.” He turned to me. “Doc Hardy, it’s me, Darryl!”
Stunned, I managed to say, “Darryl, look at you! You look great!”
Darryl flashed his familiar grin. “Thanks, Doc.” Then he tilted my chair back and expertly placed a steaming towel around my lower face and neck. I breathed deeply and began to relax. Darryl handled the straight razor with dexterity and precision as he shaped my mustache, and I took great pleasure in noting how much he’d changed over the years. He was no longer the reckless, ill-focused adolescent who broke my heart. He was confident, mature, and full of gratitude. He even refused to accept payment for my haircut and shave, saying, “Nah, I can’t. I owe you, Doc. I owe you a lot! You helped me find my purpose.”
I paused briefly to take it all in. Fighting back tears, I gave him a hug and whispered in his ear, “You helped me find mine as well.”
Kenneth Hardy, PhD, is director of the Eikenberg Institute for Relationships and professor of marriage and family therapy at Drexel University.
This blog is excerpted from "The Final Shot" by Ken Hardy. The full version is available in the May/June 2017 issue, What Now? Five Therapists Face the Limits of What They Know.
Photo © Ammentorp/Dreamstime
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