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Scoring points with kids at the MLK Center

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On Monday afternoon, Sharif Fordham was dribbling a basketball, as he has been doing in many other places for most of his 42 years, starting as a teenager, playing alone in the late-evening hours under the half-light of a street lamp on a court in a gritty part of Far Rockaway.

Those practice sessions on the court at P.S. 197 helped earn Fordham a starting spot on the storied Red Men basketball team at St. John’s University, once one of the highest-ranked college squads in the country. The Red Men made the NCAA playoffs both seasons Fordham played, in 2000-01 and 2001-02.

These days, Fordham is a basketball coach at the Martin Luther King Center in Long Beach, where he spends five afternoons a week teaching the game to young people and talking to them about their lives beyond sports, as he puts it, and the dark parts of his own life.

He has been at the MLK Center since 2005, and his sports program is growing. He is also an assistant basketball coach at Nassau Community College, and an office manager at Five Loads Food Service in Inwood.

The center shut down shortly after the coronavirus pandemic exploded last March, and remained closed for almost a year. It has reopened, but with restrictions. Talks between city and center officials on expanding services continue. Meanwhile, young people keep signing up for Fordham’s sports program.

But the road to the center, on Riverside Boulevard, has been long and painful for Fordham. His life has included an 18-month stretch at a prison in Georgia for selling drugs, and then there was the death in 2019 of his son, Sharif Jr., 23, who was killed in an auto accident in South Carolina.

Fordham graduated from St. John’s in 2002, and played for teams in the American Basketball Association, hoping to make the NBA.

But that year, he stepped out of a car and broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. For a time Fordham tried to hide the injury so NBA scouts wouldn’t see, but his foot became swollen and painful. His pro basketball career was over.

He was out of money and out of luck, he said.

“My life took a turn,” Fordham said. “I got into trouble. I was looking for some fast money.” In late 2002, he was arrested for drug trafficking, and spent 18 months at Dooly State Prison, a medium-security facility in Unadilla, Ga.

When he was released, the only job he could find was at Waldbaum’s in Long Beach. On a summer day in 2005, Fordham took a lunch break and drove around the city.

“I heard a whistle,” he said. “Then I saw a light.” He was outside the MLK Center, and walked in.

He met then Executive Director Thomas Owens. They spoke, and Owens took Fordham on to coach sports, mostly basketball.

“He’s a college graduate, an outstanding young man,” Owens said. “We were not going to throw away a life for a mistake in someone’s past.”

Fordham’s life seemed to be on a more even keel again when, in October 2019, a car in which his son was a passenger left a South Carolina road and struck a tree. Sharif Fordham Jr. and the driver were both killed. The younger Fordham had been living in South Carolina at the time.

A year ago, Sharif Sr. started a foundation in his son’s memory — 3 Me When You See Me. Sharif Jr., his father said, loved to take shots from beyond the 3-point line. The foundation raises money for children with mental health and other issues.

These days, Fordham focuses on his other children, Allen, 20, Katelyn, 19, Jocelyn, 13, and Ethan, 11, and the young people he meets with at the MLK Center.

Aside from coaching, Fordham holds daily talks with them, hoping to persuade them to think about life beyond the court or the baseball or football field.

On Monday afternoon, a group of eight, ranging in age from 8 to 13, circled around him. “The question is, what do you want to be when you grow up?” Fordham asked. “Most of these professional athletes, do you think that being like them is going to give you a career?”

Then he asked if they thought $1 million was a lot of money. The young people stared blankly at him. Then he asked what they would do with the money if they had it.

Several said they’d buy a big house; another said a Lamborghini. Fordham said the big house could cost $500,000 and the luxury car at least another $200,000. And after paying a sports agent 10 percent of their salary, they would be left with little, he explained.

He told them the story of Vin Baker, a superstar at the University of Hartford who won Olympic gold in basketball in 2000, spent 13 years in the pros and played in four NBA All-Star Games. But alcoholism, risky business ventures and over-spending wiped out Baker’s nearly $100 million in earnings. He wound up working as a barista at a Starbucks in North Kingstown, R.I. The young people look stunned.

They said they enjoy working with Fordham.

“He’s a good coach,” said Tatianna Clark, 13, who attends the Waterside School for Leadership in Rockaway Park. “He connects with the kids.” Tatianna wants to become a dancer, and said the exercise she gets at the center helps keep her in shape.

Jaron Burns, 11, of Long Beach, said of Fordham, “He’s funny and fun.” Jason wants to become a basketball player, and believes he’s in the right place to learn the game.

At the end of the day, Fordham clapped his hands. All the young eyes were on him. He told them that Sharif Jr.’s 24th birthday would be on Saturday.

A broad smile crossed his face. “Maybe we’ll have a party,” he said.