The car idles near the main liquor store in Fuquan Edwin’s old neighborhood, and the 22-year-old senior at Seton Hall University steps out from the passenger side and into the cold.
Edwin is just now wrapping up his final months at college. His university is only a dozen miles down the Garden State Parkway from here, the place where the Alabama Projects once stood. But in Edwin’s mind, the university where he’s made his mark — a star basketball player at a once-great and now-resurgent basketball school, one of the finest perimeter defenders in all of college basketball, a much-improved scorer, and perhaps the most unlikely of all, a soon-to-be college graduate — might as well be another planet.
Because here, in the 14-building housing project near Alabama Avenue that used to be home to thousands of people in Section 8 housing, people rarely made it out. That’s just not how things went in the roughest part of one of the roughest towns in America.
Edwin doesn’t come here much any more. He’s got practice, and games, and class, and — who knows? — maybe even a shot at a professional basketball career to prepare for. Why should he come here? This place is in his past. He’s more interested in his future.
But on a recent winter morning, 12 hours after his team suffered one of their 11 conference losses in Edwin’s final season of Big East hoops, here he is, walking along the broken sidewalk near his old home, peering into that past, in this place that both hope and good fortune have long ignored.
Edwin points toward a U-Haul dealership. He remembers when he was a kid, and there was an ice-cream truck parked over there, and he and some friends broke into the truck to steal ice cream; he was terrified when police caught them. He points toward an old, abandoned house, and he remembers when he and some friends peeked in there and saw a bunch of dogs — dead dogs, dogs that had been used for fighting. He remembers stealing bikes and riding them to the pool, or sneaking out to go to parties after his mother left for work at 10 p.m., or the drugs that could be found on any corner at any hour.
He walks up to a chain-link fence and leans his face against it. He grew up over there, across the big empty field. A giant rat dashes by. Edwin flinches, his eyes big, then he looks back across that field. Over there used to be the rec center where he learned to play basketball. He remembers dressing in the locker room one day when two older boys came in, pulled out their handguns and bragged about them. Over there used to be the two high-rises, the buildings with so many entrances and exits that police chases always ended here because there were so many places to hide.
And he points across the field to several dozen sparkling-new townhouses, built on the land where the projects used to stand. Until four years ago, when Edwin watched wrecking balls tear down the buildings where he grew up.
"It just looks completely different," he says, shaking his head. "It’s so different."
Edwin hears some rustling under an old truck near that chain-link fence. It’s that damn rat. Rats freak him out.
He turns and walks back to the car. He passes a car detailing shop, which reminds him of another story: Back when he was a kid, he and some friends used to climb on top of that building. They’d pick some fruit from a nearby pear tree, and wing the pears at passing cars. Cars would screech to a stop and turn around. The drivers would jump out and try to chase the boys down. But the boys never got caught. They jumped off the roof and over the chain-link fence, and they sprinted toward the projects, the place that was their refuge as well as the jail that held them in.
"You can’t come in here and find us," Edwin says as he gets back in the car. "You turn around, we’re already in the building. Car stops, turns around, we’re already running. You couldn’t catch us. We got so many places to run."
It’s conference tournament time in college basketball.
Unless you’re a diehard from South Orange, N.J., you are not thinking about 15-15 Seton Hall. You are not expecting the Pirates to pull off a miracle in the Big East tournament. You are not paying attention to Fuquan Edwin.
Instead, you are thinking about the bubble teams. You are wondering which Big East teams will end up on the right side of the bubble, or the wrong side: Providence or St. John’s? Georgetown or Xavier?
You are talking last four in and first four out. You are dreaming about your bracket. You are debating who the No. 1 seeds should be. You are comparing Wichita State’s undefeated season in a down Missouri Valley Conference to Kansas’ seven-loss season while playing in a brutal Big 12.
You are preparing for March Madness. And in the unforgiving math of college basketball, there are 351 teams that are playing, but there are only 68 teams that will get in, and maybe half that have a realistic shot at doing anything.
This is the reality: Fuquan Edwin plays for a team that does not matter this March. He plays for a program that hasn’t mattered in March during his career. He plays for a school that’s rebuilding under the young, brilliant coaching mind of Kevin Willard, for a school that’s bringing in a top-10 recruiting class next season, for a school that has a bright future. But the reality is that in the month of March in college basketball, next season might as well be next century, because all anyone cares about right now is what happens in the next 31 days until a national champion is crowned at AT&T Stadium outside of Dallas.
Because in the month of March, as we focus on the teams that supposedly matter, more than 1,000 Division I college basketball careers will come to an end. Seniors like Edwin, people who’ve spent four or five years on a college campus, will disappear from our collective memories. Bench players will have their long-delayed moment of recognition on senior nights. Stars at smaller schools briefly will be praised for their career accomplishments, like LIU-Brooklyn’s Jason Brickman, who this week became the fourth player in college hoops history to get 1,000 assists — and then we’ll move on. Because it’s March, and March is about the winners, not the also-rans.
But I’m here to urge you: Use March as more than just a time to break down brackets, root for upsets and crown a champion. Use March also as a time to celebrate college basketball in its entirety. Use March as a time to appreciate the stories of not just the one-and-doners heading to NBA stardom but also the stories of the guys who ground it out in the college game, the guys who weren’t blessed with the natural abilities of an Andrew Wiggins or a Jabari Parker, the guys who are more like you and me.
Just about every team has a Fuquan Edwin on its roster, a senior whose time is running out. Use March to appreciate what a grinder like Fuquan Edwin has meant to his school and to his hometown.
Because the Big East tournament might be the last you see of the guy friends call Fu. Maybe he latches onto an NBA team as a role player; his coach thinks he’s got a chance: "Let’s put it this way — Derek Fisher’s still playing in the NBA, and he’s playing good, too," Willard told me. "I think (Fu) can go onto a team and have a chance, yes. Be a guy who’ll go out and guard somebody. Get a stopper. The NBA needs a lot of those guys."
More likely he graduates from Seton Hall with a nearly 3.0 GPA, and he heads to play abroad. He makes decent money. He extends his basketball career. He fades quickly from the memories of the casual college basketball fans, but to the people who watched him grow up in four years at Seton Hall — and more importantly to the people who watched him grow up in 18 years in the against-all-odds projects of Paterson, N.J. — he’s a inspiring American success story, an example that through hard work and dedication, you can lift yourself out of the depths.
"Fu’s like an enigma," said Willard, a former Boston Celtics assistant. "When I first got the job, everyone told me not to take him, that he couldn’t play in the Big East. He showed up late for his first day of summer school. I laid into him for about an hour. And ever since then, he’s worked extremely hard. Nothing’s easy for Fuquan. He’s gotta work at everything. He doesn’t have that natural shot. He doesn’t have that natural handle. Everything he’s done is through hard work."
"Everyone expects he was this great talent and everything was easy," Willard continued. "But he’s an old-school, throwback guy who has to work his ass off to make it."
Cities like Akron, Ohio are understandably proud when a local kid like LeBron James makes good. So are places like Englewood on Chicago’s South Side, where Derrick Rose practiced his game on the streetball court while being surrounded by gang violence.
But James and Rose are rare talents, people you and I and others can’t come close to truly comprehending. Whereas someone like Fuquan Edwin, someone whose accomplishments can solely be traced to ambition and repetition and basketball IQ — those are people we can relate to.
"We always talk about him here at the school, always," said Randy White, Edwin’s middle school coach and a teacher at his elementary and middle school. "I lived in the complex Fu grew up in. Poverty level — you live there, that means your family don’t have money. You might grow up around kids who have things, and you don’t have those things. Like the latest sneakers. You want those sneakers. A drug dealer comes around and say, ‘You want those sneakers? I can help you get them.’ "
It’s almost an article of faith for teachers like Mr. White: They really, really, really root for people like Fu to make it out. And yet the stories of kids whose promise ends early — drugs, jail, worse — far outnumbers stories of kids like Fu.
"You always had that fear in the back of your head because of where we’re from," White said.
This college basketball season, White and others have seen Edwin on the evening news for good things: when he had five steals and 24 points in an upset victory over Georgetown, or when he scored 17 points in a Senior Night upset of Xavier this week. These are encouraging things for teachers to see, because more often they hear of the bad stories, the kids they saw grow up who didn’t make it out, the stories of promise broken and energetic children becoming troubled adults.
Like in February, when a teacher pulled Mr. White aside. There was a student at this school from a few years back. Mr. White had lost track of him. The teacher told Mr. White the boy’s corpse had been found alongside a highway in New Jersey.
The car drives away from the Alabama Projects and slows down four blocks away, at P.S. 25, the school where a decade ago Mr. White first spotted a sixth-grade Fuquan Edwin as the kid who treated the game of basketball more like football, tackling the ballhandler.
Kindergarten through eighth grade Edwin went to school here, the tall, lanky kid who had older brothers looking out for him. He got in trouble, sure, but for mostly harmless stuff. Mr. White coached him into becoming an actual basketball player. By eighth grade he was scoring 25 points and snatching six steals a game. A private school in a better part of town, Paterson Catholic, took notice. That was the first time he got out of the shadow of the projects. If he hadn’t gotten out then — if he had stayed in the local public high school, if he had been influenced by the projects even more — Edwin doesn’t think he ever would have gotten out.
"I probably would have gotten caught up in it," Edwin says. "I’d be in the projects still, just older. I coulda left school, followed the wrong crowd. I’d probably be on the streets, selling drugs, working a 9-to-5 or something."
Edwin still has a bit of time before he needs to get back to Seton Hall. School is in session at P.S. 25, and his old teachers are inside; would they remember little Fuquan?
He jumps out of the car, strolls across the parking lot, stares up at the aged building and walks into his old school. He passes a billboard with photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama: "Dare to Dream," it reads. He remembers going to art class over here, going to fourth grade over there, not always the brightest student but a hard worker with a talent in basketball. He even knew it back then, as he was leaving P.S. 25 and going to Paterson Catholic: Basketball could be his golden ticket out.
He sees his old lunch lady: "You big! Whoa!" He sees his old security guard: "Welcome back!" the security guard says, offering a hug. "It’s good to see somebody who made it!" He sees his old principal, and he sees so many teachers who say they’ve been seeing him playing on TV.
And he sees his old fourth-grade teacher, Pat Boatner, the woman who taught him how to multiply.
"You’re so successful!" she says, grabbing him by the shoulders. "I remember when he was in fourth grade, learning how to multiply. He is –"
She pauses, something caught in her throat.
"I’m not going to cry," she says.
She starts talking again: "He is one of our success stories."
She begins to cry.
"It’s tough living where he was living," she says as Edwin turns to greet Mr. White. "I always used to say: I wanted to talk about students and say, ‘I knew them when’ — and be proud. Not hearing some of the horror stories. We hear so many horror stories."
Edwin comes back. His fourth-grade teacher is still raving about him.
"When you turn pro," she says, "I’m going to say: ‘I knew you when…’ You’re an inspiration to all of the children here. I can’t begin to tell you how proud we are that you were a student at School 25."
It’s time to go back to the car, to head the 12 miles down the Garden State Parkway and back to college. Edwin says his goodbyes. As he walks out of his old school, he peers back toward the Alabama Projects, and his smile is as wide as any college senior in America.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.