At Pressley Ridge, bumps in the road

For the North Side school's troubled teens, basketball can provide a life lesson or two, even when that lesson includes taking away the basketball

The rules are posted all over school. If you want to play basketball for the Pressley Ridge Patriots, you'd better adhere to them:

1. Stay in area the day before and the day of practice or a game.

2. Be aggression-free for five school days.

3. Be respectful to staff.

4. Complete required work.

5. Pass all classes.

6. No unexcused absences.

For the Pressley Ridge staff, these rules are the easiest way of maintaining order. Basketball game days are the ultimate carrot, allowing for kids to miss class, put on that shiny white uniform and play in front of a crowd.

That's why, on this early March day, Kurtis Haddock looks like he wants to cry. Earlier, he ventured out of his classroom -- a persistent problem for the talented freshman. What good is a point guard who can't stay in area? Not much. Kurtis stands outside of the gym, peering longingly through the door's rectangular glass window. His teammates are getting ready to play without him. Pressley staff members see Kurtis and meet him outside. He pushes Rico Dillard, his former family liaison who had come to Kurtis' house to play Xbox after his brother died.

"Don't put your hands on me, Kurtis," Mr. Dillard says.

Can't Kurtis at least watch the game? No, it's back to class.

Too bad, because the Patriots could really use him. Wesley Spectrum Academy has brought a competitive team to the North Side, and Pressley trails 15-10 early. Sha'Ron Williams, a stocky senior guard for Pressley, is out of control, turning the ball over and taking poor shots. Dante Yobst, a 6-foot-1 junior and the team's top post player, can't get anything to fall, and the rest of his game is suffering because of it. B.B. Flenory, calling the game in those zebra stripes as usual, reminds Dante that he hasn't gotten one rebound.

Mr. Flenory, Pressley's coach and the basketball program's founder, has a reason for every call he makes. The more the Patriots complain about the officiating, the longer he'll wait to blow the whistle, and today, he remains mostly silent.

About this series
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette received permission from the parents or guardians of three students to follow their progress at Pressley Ridge Day School, a program for children with mental health and behavioral problems. Reporter J. Brady McCollough spent 11 months learning about their lives and the challenges they have faced and continue to confront as their high school days quickly slip away.

Wesley Spectrum leads 19-18 at halftime. Inside the locker room, the Pressley team has united against Mr. Flenory's poor refereeing. He enters, and the Patriots voice their displeasure.

"Can I say something?" Mr. Flenory asks. "I'm the referee, but I'm also your coach. They think I'm cheating them, giving them a home job. You think I'm cheating you, but let me say this to you: If you quit sulking every time something doesn't go your way and get back on defense and rebound, you'd be up 15. For real, because you're twice as good as this team."

"We get fouled, and we never go to the line!" Sha'Ron answers. "Every time they get fouled, they go to the line!"

"Listen," Mr. Flenory says, sternly, "this is a gut check. You guys have dominated the competition, now this is to see what you're made of! Really, this is why I started this team! What I mean by that is, you can beat people by 100 all the time, but now I want to see if you're going to be a teammate, if you're going to share the ball, if you're going to reach inside and say, 'Man, I'm going to overcome this.' That's what I want to see! That's what it's about in life. This ain't nothing!"

In the second half, Sha'Ron continues to struggle -- and Mr. Flenory continues to holster his whistle. Dante, on the other hand, realizes that he has to figure out a new way to win. He begins driving to the basket, resulting in some strong finishes. His mood is changing with each trip down the floor. At times like these, he knows he could play for a regular high school.

"Over the past year, I've been learning how to do certain things and make myself better," Dante will say later, "and this game proves that I can actually do it."

Pressley wins, 46-35, but Sha'Ron is still playing the victim, yelling about the lack of foul calls.

Mr. Flenory takes note of Sha'Ron's behavior and plans to let the proper staffers know. Later, away from the gym, back in his office, Mr. Flenory flashes a knowing smile.

"Sha'Ron was getting mad," Mr. Flenory says. "The madder he got, the more I let them bump the [expletive] out of him. I never tell him that. When he's an adult, when he graduates, I might tell him. I might tell him."

A bad day for Kurtis

Kurtis' mother, Carol Speaks-Haddock, has been involved in the Homewood community for decades now. When her Kurtie was little, she'd take him to the polling places on Election Day, let him mingle with the political types. He was such a natural that, by the time President Barack Obama's re-election campaign rolled around, state Rep. Ed Gainey knew Kurtis was the right guy to speak to more than 250 people about why the president should get four more years.

And when Carol wanted to get Kurtis into the Milton Hershey School, a boarding school for children from low-income families located in Hershey, Pa., she knew where to turn for recommendations:

"When Kurtis addressed the audience to speak about what this presidential election meant to him," Mr. Gainey wrote Jan. 20, 2013, "there was not a dry eye in attendance, and he received a standing ovation."

"Kurtis is a passionate and intelligent young man with a bright future," city Councilman Bill Peduto wrote Jan. 22, months before he'd be elected Pittsburgh's new mayor. "Each time that I have seen him speak, he is poised, eloquent and moving."

"Kurtis is a conscientious young man who is well thought of in his community," Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald wrote Jan. 8. "He is also known as having a big heart. He is industrious and engaging."

Even with the help of Pittsburgh's political power brokers, Kurtis was not admitted to the Milton Hershey School. He was also refused admittance by Taylor Allderdice High School and the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy. Kurtis was ... stuck, as best he could see.

On March 8, one day after missing that basketball game, he arrived at school in a foul mood. The reintegration classroom was reserved for the Pressley kids who had shown enough progress to re-enter their public schools. Kurtis had been there the entire school year, and there he remained. His mother did not want him to go to Westinghouse High, his community school, because she felt it was too dangerous. They had yet to find another option.

James Davis had been teaching at Pressley for five years, so he had learned how to read the signs. He knew Kurtis was going through a tough time, but he still had a job to do.

Kurtis was restless, on the move, looking for a shot of adrenaline. Mr. Davis was sitting in a chair when Kurtis approached him and raised his voice, demanding that the teacher get up and give him his chair. Mr. Davis refused and told Kurtis to go back to his seat. It was at that point that Kurtis removed Mr. Davis from the chair. The teacher fell to the floor, and Kurtis, sinewy yet strong, got on top of him. Doug Francourt, the classroom's mental health professional, called for backup and restrained Kurtis until others arrived to defuse the crisis.

Mr. Davis had to see a doctor for bad bruises on his knee. He and the Pressley staff met to debate whether he should press charges. With Kurtis, it was hard to know. One minute, he could be simply adorable, with a baby face that made all the girls blush. The next, he was almost unrecognizable, with a tongue sharp enough to cut barbed wire.

They decided pressing charges would serve as a form of treatment for Kurtis.

"It was a difficult decision for me," Mr. Davis, 29, would say. "But I was looking at the bigger picture. He needed the presence of someone to hold him accountable."

Assault of a teacher is a felony in Pennsylvania that would be lowered to a misdemeanor if Kurtis met the requirements of his probation. At juvenile court, Kurtis wore a suit and handled himself well. After all, he had plenty of experience with public speaking.

Duquesne dreaming

The last big snowstorm of the season was on the way. Radar maps showed weather so foreboding that school districts had no choice but to announce closings, and so would Pressley Ridge.

But, later that day, the annual Pressley Ridge staff vs. Patriots game was scheduled to be played at the Palumbo Center, just hours before the Duquesne University basketball game. Was it still on? That's what Jeri Williams, Sha'Ron's grandmother, wanted to know. She called B.B. Flenory to make sure.

Mr. Flenory wasn't going to let all those parents and kids down. He remembered growing up in New Kensington, dreaming of playing at the old Civic Arena. Of course he eventually got to do it, and he wanted his Patriots to share that sensation. Palumbo wasn't the Civic Arena or the new Consol Energy Center, but, through his deep Duquesne connections, it was what he had to offer them.

That night, as Sha'Ron's family piled out of a minivan and into the arena, Mr. Flenory felt a real sense of accomplishment.

"It was like a clown's van, like 400 people got out of it," Mr. Flenory would say.

Ms. Williams had taken off work to be there. This, Mr. Flenory thought, is what it's about!

To the players, though, it was more than playing a meaningless game against their teachers. To some of them, they were taking that first step toward earning a scholarship to play for the Duquesne Dukes, just like their coach had. Sha'Ron and Dante would often ask Mr. Flenory when the Duquesne coaches were going to see them play, and he would push those discussions to the back burner, allowing their hopes of playing Division I basketball to simmer just long enough to provide them motivation in the short term at the cost of likely disappointment down the road.

After the game, Sha'Ron left with his proud family, while Dante stayed to watch the Dukes with Mr. Flenory. Dante had decided, nearly two years into his time at Pressley, that he wanted to return to public school starting next year and try to make the basketball team at Brashear High.

"It would mean more than anything," Dante would say. "I wish I would have made the right choice back then. I'd probably be playing at Perry right now. But coming through the obstacle I had to go through, it would mean more than anything."

Dante had something to prove, and Mr. Flenory thought it a real possibility, if Dante truly wanted to leave his comfortable perch at Pressley. That would be up to the young man to figure out in the coming months.

But right then, B.B. Flenory wasn't thinking too much about the future. He'd given this group of kids a thrill, and on this frigid March night, it felt like a moment frozen in time.

The right six

Patty Folmer gazed out onto the floor of Duquesne's auxiliary gym and marveled at the scene playing out in front of her.

Kids from the six alternative schools that formed their basketball league were scattered across the building for their annual season-ending, round-robin tournament. Sneakers squeaked, coaches barked commands, and it was ... perfect.

"You've got the baddest and sickest kids in Allegheny County, supposedly, all here today, having fun," said Ms. Folmer, 49, who supervises Pressley's school-wide activities. "You look around, do you see troubled kids or do you see kids playing basketball?"

With Ms. Folmer, there was only one right answer: You saw kids playing basketball.

Of course, there were other questions. Namely, why did the Pressley Ridge Patriots, who have a roster in the range of 20, have just six kids eligible to play in the season finale?

Well, there was Kurtis' incident with Mr. Davis, and there was Sha'Ron's recent impulse to jump onto the hood of one of the minivans that transport the kids to and from school. Dante, the team's Most Committed Player in 2012, was predictably in uniform, but, ultimately, it had been a rough March at Pressley.

So, for the first time all season, the Patriots got whipped. There was no scoreboard, but you didn't need one to know how bad it was. You saw the anger building in Dante, out there playing without most of his teammates, and you saw him hurl the ball in frustration.

When it was mercifully over, what was there to say? The season was now gone, the potential for this unique brand of teaching and learning having slipped through the hourglass for another year. Kenie Siebert, the team's coach, however, was never at a loss for positive words.

"I'm very happy that you six got to make it," Ms. Siebert said. "Kudos to you, because a lot of our other players haven't been able to handle themselves. You six have had the right attitude, so, good job."

The Patriots filed out, their gym bags draped over their shoulders. Boxed lunches awaited them in the vans that would drive them back to the North Side, up the cemetery's ridge to the school at the top of the hill.

B.B.'s gut check

Basketball had always been just a game to B.B. Flenory. He vowed to never let it define him, not when he was cut in camp by the Boston Celtics just before the 1980 season began, not when he spent five years honing his craft professionally in Caracas, Venezuela, not when he came back to Pittsburgh and chose to use his criminal justice degree to become a probation officer.

Oh, he probably could have gotten a cushy job at Duquesne, could have spent his life living off his local celebrity, and nobody would have blamed him. But Mr. Flenory, the son of a police officer, went the other way. He didn't even play pickup games once he returned, stubbornly ignoring the game that had shown him the world.

After a while, Mr. Flenory wanted to do something more therapeutic. He was hired as a transition specialist at Pressley Ridge, where kids needed direction about post-graduate life. Now there was a chance to use basketball for good. Soon after arriving, he persuaded his superiors to start a program that would help the children feel mastery of something, a sense of belonging.

He was realistic. They all couldn't be saved. Over time, he had his favorites. One of them from those early years, Mr. Flenory knew, was a hard case, but he grew to love him. It was nothing for Mr. Flenory to take this young man to Duquesne games, to try to socialize him, show him a new vision of what life could be.

So to see this boy on the local news, just days after his graduation from Pressley, to hear that he had beaten his mother to death with a baseball bat, it was enough to bring B.B. Flenory to his knees. Why? Why this kid? Mr. Flenory cried and cried.

He thought about quitting his job, but he wasn't going to quit on this young man. The next Mother's Day, Mr. Flenory did not spend the day with his own mother, as he usually would. He visited the boy, who was going through his first Mother's Day living with that enormous guilt, at the psychiatric hospital where he was being evaluated. And as the years passed, Mr. Flenory would write to him in prison, send him money every once in a while.

He was all the young man had, and, after the 2013 Pressley Ridge basketball season ended, he showed a visitor to his office and pulled from a desk drawer a letter scribbled to him on yellow legal pad paper.

"He writes me every week," Mr. Flenory said. "Our motto at Pressley Ridge is 'Once a Pressley kid, always a Pressley kid.' "

B.B. Flenory softened his voice, almost to a whisper.

"I wish that basketball was a pill," he said, "that they could take and be fixed and everything's great. But I also get the comfort of, man, for three months, a kid that was in pain has some joy."

Read Part 1: At Pressley Ridge, 'Life unfolds minute by minute' (Dec. 26)

Read Part 3: Pressley Ridge: a bridge or a precipice? (Dec. 28)

Read Part 4: 'Fighting to live, living to fight' at Pressley Ridge (Dec. 29)

J. Brady McCollough: and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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