UNC's Reggie Bullock left Kinston's streets, but carries their memory

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 13, 2013 

— On one side of the intersection of East and Bright sits a run down mini-mart, bars on the windows. On another stands a brick building from another time. Two faded paintings of McGruff, the cartoon dog who fights crime, stand guard outside. Between the two McGruffs is a message:

“Hey Kids, Let’s Make KINSTON a Drug-free City!”

Down below, a man shuffles down the sidewalk carrying an old electric heater. He’s trying to sell it on the street. He asks for money.

Reggie Bullock, the North Carolina junior guard, grew up a few blocks away. He has a picture of this intersection – East and Bright – tattooed on his left arm. This is his neighborhood. These are his streets.

They can be predatory. To outsiders, they can be scary. Not many people from here leave them, Bullock says.

He did, with the help of his grandmother and men who became father figures to him – men like Jerry Stackhouse, the former NBA All-Star and UNC All-American who grew up amid these same streets. And Skeet Davis, who helps run the gym nearby. And Derrick Sheffield, who saw in Reggie a younger version of himself, growing up fatherless in what Bullock’s mom describes as “the hood.”

Those men and this neighborhood are never far from Bullock’s thoughts. He goes back often. Bullock describes aspects of it like this:

“It’s gangland. Drugs. Everything that’s there to just try to get me off the path of trying to attain my goal, which is being a pro basketball player. I faced a lot of adversity with drugs, gangs.

“But those gang members, they saw something good in me so they would keep me away from those types of things ... I just love the place.”

Woody Spencer, a spokesman at the Kinston Police Department, doesn’t have statistics ready to illustrate the plight of Bullock’s neighborhood. But he says Bullock’s “gangland” description is accurate.

“To get as far as he’s gone is pretty amazing,” Spencer says.

Brick walls, big dreams

In both directions of the man peddling the heater on the street, housing projects occupy several blocks. That’s where Bullock grew up, in the Simon Bright Apartments. The buildings are all uniform, two-story, brick. Clothes hang to dry on lines outside. Children play on the sidewalks, while men on bikes meander by slowly.

Basketball took Bullock from here to Chapel Hill, but it took more than the game. It took the neighborhood. The infrastructure is weak in some areas. Things are worn, buildings dilapidated. Some have sat abandoned since Hurricane Floyd flooded the Neuse in 1999. Yet in some ways the infrastructure is strong.

Bullock arrived when he was 4. His dad drove him down from Baltimore and dropped him off with what Bullock describes as a “big bucket of change.” He never saw his father again. He died when Bullock was 6, and Bullock’s maternal grandmother, Patricia Williams, played both parental roles.

On that tattoo of the intersection on Bullock’s arm, Williams’ name winds around the street sign like a ribbon. Williams, a minister, died during Bullock’s freshman season at UNC.

When he was younger, she kept him straight. Church on Sundays. No playing outside until homework was done and his room clean.

“She wouldn’t let him be lost to the streets,” says Wells Gulledge, Bullock’s Kinston High coach who gave Bullock a place to stay when Williams became sick.

Only then, with his room clean and homework done, could Bullock play basketball. The comparisons came early. Even when he was only 10 or 11, Bullock says he heard about Stackhouse, who’d grown up in the same neighborhood about 15 years earlier.

“They were like, ‘you’re going to be the next Stackhouse,’ ” Bullock says. “And that’s when I finally met him.”

Bullock was about 12. Stackhouse was years removed from UNC, already an established NBA All-Star. He came back to his old gym at the Holloway Recreation Center, a mile from the projects, and put on a basketball camp.

At the end of it there was a scrimmage: campers vs. staffers. Bullock guarded Stackhouse.

“I remember hitting a 3-pointer, off the glass, and everybody in the gym just started going crazy,” Bullock says.

A rich basketball history

Kinston is a small town of about 22,000. Yet its basketball history is rich. Stackhouse made his name as a high school player here in the early 1990s, like Charles Shackleford did in the early 1980s and like Cedric Maxwell, who won two NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, did in the early 1970s. Mitchell Wiggins, a longtime pro who is the father of Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 recruit in the country, is from here, too.

They weren’t just from Kinston, but from the same part of Kinston. Not much has changed. Stackhouse remembers “drugs and shootings and all those types of things,” he says.

“(They are) more prevalent now in Kinston than it was even when I was there,” says Stackhouse, in his 18th NBA season. “We all went through those types of challenges growing up.”

Which is why the Holloway rec center means as much as it does. Outside, a rusty swingset has seen better days and the wooden park benches rot away, slats missing. Inside, boys come in search of a game, some structure, some fathering.

The gym has one court. Two rules hang on the wall behind both baskets: “No dunking,” reads one sign. “No profanity,” reads the other. Bullock started coming here in the fourth grade. Stackhouse practically grew up under this roof.

“That’s my gym,” Stackhouse says with a laugh. “My name should be on it.”

The court at Holloway is named after Robert Murphy, who died in 2006. Murphy ran Holloway for decades, served as a neighborhood mentor and used to unlock the gym for Stackhouse when he needed a place to go, or practice.

Mentors provide love, direction

Now Skeet Davis, a longtime teacher and coach, helps keep Holloway going. He coached at the middle school Bullock attended years ago, and then came to know Bullock better when he started coming into Holloway just about every day.

Like a lot of boys who walk through these doors, Bullock didn’t have a strong male influence at home.

“The majority of the boys don’t have a father,” Davis says. “Their fathers are here. You take them under the wing, and treat them just like they’re yours. You had to discipline them. I had to discipline them all the time. I don’t put hands on them, but I talk to them a lot. And I ain’t the only one.

“But I’m old-school around here about doing right. Pull your pants up. I don’t play. This is just how we do.”

Davis, who taught physical education for 32 years, has an eye for athletic talent, and saw it early in Bullock. So, too, did Ronnie Battle, who taught Bullock in the fourth grade and now helps out at Holloway, and Sheffield, who graduated from Kinston High in 1983 and played at Fayetteville State.

“Everybody’s not going to be the basketball player that’s going to Carolina,” Battle says. “But there’s still opportunities there.”

Of all the men who give their time at Holloway, Sheffield has become the closest with Bullock. In a lot of ways, Sheffield saw in Bullock a younger version of himself. A kid with hoop dreams, but no father.

For Sheffield, inspiration came from guys like Maxwell. For Bullock, it came from Stackhouse.

“I saw the situation he was in as far as he lost his father,” Sheffield says moments after taping a UNC basketball poster – Bullock displayed prominently – on the wall at Holloway. “And he really needed somebody to kind of lead him.”

Sheffield, who like Bullock grew up in the projects, became what Murphy was for Stackhouse: a confidant, a mentor. Someone who could unlock the gym any time.

He unlocked it during Bullock’s freshman year at Kinston High.

“He played varsity, and they lost the championship game on a Saturday night,” Sheffield says. “He calls me Sunday morning. He wanted to come to the gym. He came to the gym and took about 200 shots.”

That’s when Sheffield began to believe Bullock could have a chance not just to make it out of the neighborhood, but a chance to make it somewhere big. Sheffield, who works full time at a Smithfield Foods packing plant, stayed on Bullock. He called his teachers to check grades. He encouraged practice.

Sometimes Bullock gets Sheffield a ticket for games at the Smith Center, and Sheffield looks to the rafters and the banners. He sees Stackhouse’s No. 42 hanging above and, below, Bullock playing.

“I sit back,” Sheffield says before his voice trails. “I’m just proud of him.”

Bullock calls Sheffield “pops,” but the kids at Holloway just call him “coach.” About 30 or 40 of them are in the gym now, a group of younger kids going through drills and older ones playing pick-up on the other side.

‘House of Hope’

Just outside the court a case houses trophies, plaques and pictures. Holloway has teams that compete outside the gym, and they’re good. A younger Bullock is in one of the pictures, and he and his teammates are wearing black jerseys that say “House of Hope.”

Stackhouse donated those jerseys, along with other equipment, years ago. The words across the uniforms, “House of Hope,” are a reference to the church Stackhouse built in Kinston. Stackhouse grew up with both parents – his mom is a pastor – but his neighborhood needed hope when he was younger. It still does, Bullock says, and he can tell stories about gunshots and dealers and walking home scared.

Still, there’s a community that allows a way out. Bullock says the gangs left him alone “because Kinston is a hard area to get out of.”

“And when they see somebody trying to get out of it, doing something good with themselves, it’s just like – nobody would try to keep a crab in a bucket. … Let them explore the world but at the same time not forget where you come from.”

That’s part of the reason Bullock has the tattoo of the corner of East and Bright. He made it out yet still goes back often. Bullock’s mother, Danielle Brown, still lives in Simon Bright, in a small apartment with Bullock’s younger brother and younger sister.

Brown goes to as many of the Tar Heels’ games as she can and it’s meaningful, Bullock says, “just (to) bring her to something like this that she’s never seen before – being in this type of atmosphere.”

Franklin Street is a world away from Bright Street. Stackhouse learned that long ago. Yet he appreciates more where he came from, and the people there like Murphy and Davis and so many others.

“As much bad as there is,” Stackhouse says, “I think there’s equal people there – mentors and teachers and people who want to see kids … do well.

“There’s people that were there for him, in Reggie’s corner, and there in my corner.”

For Bullock, Stackhouse was one of those people. And now Bullock might become that person for someone else – maybe one of the boys out on the court at Holloway. Bullock came back to the gym last summer, helped with a camp and spoke to the kids. Sheffield says he reminds the younger ones what they can become.

“I tell them I’m looking for next Reggie,” Sheffield says.

Some of them are already dreaming. Holloway has a 9-and-under league, and some of the kids can shoot. When they make a 3-pointer, Sheffield says, it’s not unheard of for the kids to yell Bullock’s name.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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