Road from prison leads to an unlikely shot at hoops and a new beginning

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When Dave DeVenzio tacked fliers around the Community College of Allegheny County's Boyce campus in August to announce tryout dates for the school's first men's basketball team in 21 years, he fully expected to field a roster of misfits.

And, sure enough, waiting at Mr. DeVenzio's office a few days later was an ex-convict, a cab driver, a preacher, a prison counselor, a husband and a father of six -- and that was just one guy.

Glenn Germany was 43, twice the age of any other player, and he hoped to add "junior-college basketball player" to his list of experiences.

"I was very polite," Mr. DeVenzio recalled, shaking his head, "but I had no thoughts that he'd actually make the team."

A week later, Mr. DeVenzio invited Germany into the gym for a skills test. To Mr. DeVenzio's surprise, Germany joined in, enthusiastic, and more than held his own.

"He didn't do great, but he didn't do badly," Mr. DeVenzio said. "He was better than a lot of the kids."

One question lingered, though. So when they met for a workout a few days later, Mr. DeVenzio pulled Germany aside.

"I like you, man," Mr. DeVenzio said, "but what the hell did you do to spend 15 years in jail?"

A troubled childhood

Glenn Germany's long and twisting journey began on Pittsburgh's North Side, in the shadow of Allegheny General Hospital.

At 10, he lost his father to cancer, leaving his mother, Joan, to raise a girl and six boys. That same year, one of the boys, Fred, died at 16 of a drug overdose.

"He was a good kid," Germany said, "but he sniffed the wrong stuff."

Glenn, the youngest boy, was in and out of trouble as a child.

After Germany failed the ninth grade at Langley High School, Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount, a family friend, invited Germany's mother to send her son to the Mel Blount Youth Home in Vidalia, Ga., where, under the watchful eye of Mr. Blount's brother, Clint, the boy would get back on his feet.

After a year in Vidalia, Germany went to live with his oldest brothers, Duwayne and Gary, in Phoenix. There, trouble returned.

Germany joined his new high school's basketball team but was ruled ineligible for the season because he had played a few games in Vidalia. Angered and impatient, he quit the team.

He had a job at Target but fretted about scraping together enough money for rent. A friend approached him one night, pulled a plastic bag from his pocket, and said he knew a way to make some quick money.

Germany couldn't see any other option, so spent his last $200 on the cocaine in that plastic bag. He went home that night and sobbed, ashamed and penniless. But he made a quick $300 the next night. So, out of convenience, a habit was born.

Germany got his GED, had two children with a girlfriend, and together they moved to Pittsburgh. He could make a good profit ferrying drugs here from Phoenix, where product was plentiful and cheap.

He enrolled at CCAC Allegheny and joined the basketball team in 1992. One more round-trip ticket to Phoenix, he thought, would get him through the season. He'd find other work after that.

"I made one more trip," Germany said, "and I never made it back."

The last trip

Germany was warned about routine searches along the bus route from Phoenix to Pittsburgh, but he boarded the Greyhound bus anyway, carrying a quarter kilo of cocaine and a pound of marijuana.

In Springfield, Mo., halfway home, narcotics agents climbed aboard the bus, Germany recalls. One approached him and asked, "What's in the bag?" Germany hesitated, fumbled for his words and fibbed that it was just his glasses.

"I did everything possible wrong," Germany said.

Germany was caught, tried and convicted of conspiracy to transport drugs. He was sentenced to 188 months -- more than 15 years -- in federal prison. Still, he looks back on that day as a blessing.

"It was only a matter of time before I ended up in somebody's trunk," he said.

Gamble pays off

What turned Germany's life around, oddly enough, was his penchant for prison gambling.

One Saturday night three years into his sentence, Germany lost $200 on a game of spades. The next morning, he sought out the same opponent and demanded a chance to win back his money.

"No," the man said, "because I'm going to church. Why don't you come along?"

And so he did. Germany had attended church as a child but hadn't given it much thought since. This day, facing another dozen years in federal prison, he was struck with a newfound curiosity.

Germany began taking correspondence courses and studying scripture up to six hours a day. He joined a Bible study, and before long he was teaching it.

When Germany was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., the penultimate stop during his 15-year sentence, he started a small Bible study there, too. It didn't stay small for long.

One of the fellow inmates, Julius Thomas, said the group exploded in size "from two to 200" during Germany's two years in Lewisburg.

Now, Thomas and his wife drive 90 minutes every Sunday from Youngstown, Ohio, to Germany's church, Jesus' Dwelling Place in North Braddock. He is one of 17 former Lewisburg inmates Germany still mentors on a weekly conference call.

"We've all cleaned up," Thomas said. "And if you've got a good thing going, why quit?"

A pastor and his people

The Sunday morning sunlight streaming through the single window in Germany's corner office at the church illuminated the flecks of dust dancing in the air above his cluttered desk. He apologized for the disarray; it's been a busy year.

Germany has very few hours left outside of the ones he spends in the cab, on the pulpit, on the basketball court or in the classroom. But there's a light ahead, he said, smiling. Graduation is just two months away.

Germany plans to use his degree in early-childhood education to open a child care center at the church, which would allow him to spend less time driving his taxi.

Germany, like every child care applicant, will have his licensing application reviewed by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. He does not expect his drug conviction to affect his ability get licensed, as he already received clearance to spend 140 hours volunteering in local child care centers as part of his degree.

This frosty February morning, the pastor picked up a photo from his desk and proudly held it out. It's a photo of him and his wife, Keyonia. They met in class at CCAC Allegheny in September 2007, a few months after he was released from prison, and they married in March of the following year. "She was just what I needed," Germany said. "I wanted a young lady who cared about herself, respected herself."

Germany purchased this church building in 2010 and converted the Fourth Street Methodist Church into Jesus' Dwelling Place, a nondenominational church.

It's got all the fixings of a traditional church -- stained-glass windows, wooden paneling on the ceiling and a cornerstone that reads 1923 -- but a pastor who has lived anything but an ordinary life. The congregation is small and proud.

Here, they wear their scars, their stories, in the open. They tell of their fears and their failures, their sins and their struggles. There's no spotlight on the man on the pulpit, either. He has been as lost as any of them.

They ask for prayer. To end family quarrels. To shelter their children. To somehow pay the bill to keep the lights on.

A second chance

On paper, Glenn Germany is a 6-foot-1 center for the CCAC Boyce Saints. He wears No. 44 -- "just like my age!" he says, smiling.

It was a trying season at first. Germany injured his back in a car accident and tweaked his hamstrings a few times before settling nicely into his role as the first man off the bench. For the season, Mr. DeVenzio said, Germany played about 25 minutes per game, averaging four points and two rebounds. Germany drove his taxi to most away games so he could pick up a fare on the way back home.

In the regular-season finale, a 71-63 victory Feb. 10 against CCAC Butler, Germany came off the bench midway through the first half and drilled a couple of jumpers from just inside the 3-point arc. The old man kept up with the kids just fine.

Trotting back up the court after a basket, the 44-year-old slowed up, feigning fatigue, and then darted back toward the ball-handler. He forced a steal and watched his teammate finish an easy layup.

Germany spun back down the court, and he smiled.

His older brother, Gary, was perched in the top row with his video recorder trained on the action.

Gary, the worship leader at Jesus' Dwelling Place, couldn't help but shake his head in wonder while his brother gets another second chance, this time on the basketball court. The transformation has been nearly indescribable, he said. So he didn't try to explain. He pulled up a photo on his phone instead.

The photo shows their mother sitting, contented, in the first row of her son's otherwise empty sanctuary. It was her favorite spot, Gary said. Old age had crept in slowly, sweeping her dark hair gray, and she needed a walker to get around. But she could sit there all day, eyes closed, humming along as her sons played piano and drums and sang.

Gary was his mother's caregiver until she passed away last summer. They often visited Germany in prison together, Gary recalled, and his mother came away each visit with the same wish: "I pray that I live long enough to see Glenn get out of jail." She saw that day and so many more.

"She was so proud of Glenn's transformation," Gary said. "She was so proud."

Stephen J. Nesbitt:, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt. First Published February 28, 2014 10:59 PM

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