At Olympics, Swin Cash has McKeesport on her mind


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On Wednesday afternoon, an ocean away in Manchester, England, Swin Cash prepared to play a basketball game.

Back home in McKeesport, the town that has pushed her forward on this journey to a second Olympic Games, another day slowly geared to life.

Just as she had for most of her adult years, Cash's mother, Cynthia, put on her orange McKeesport Housing Authority T-shirt and work pants and headed to the Crawford Village projects for her job as a maintenance technician at a senior living facility. It was going to be a hot one, so Cynthia also wore a black spandex cap over her head to hold in the sweat as she sat in a beat-up truck with no air conditioning and talked about what it was like to raise a daughter in McKeesport.

It was different place then, she said. Everybody knew each other, looked after one another, and once it became clear that Swin had the talent to be a shining light for their community, people often stepped in to help Cynthia. Sure, the mills were gone, and the money was tight all over town, but they were never short of good people, the most crucial capital.

That's why the last month has been so painful for native McKeesporters like Cynthia, who grew up in the Harrison Village projects and raised Swin there without much worry.

A rash of gun violence has put fear into the air. At least six shootings have occurred since June 22, three of them fatal. With stark numbers like that hanging over the once-proud town, this summer's McKeesport heat wave has been more closely associated with citizen outrage than the searing temperatures.

PG graphic: Western Pa. Olympians
(Click image for larger version)

Cynthia and Swin knew one of the boys who was killed, 18-year-old Chauncey Williams. He participated in Swin's "Cash for Kids" charity basketball leagues and was likely to do so again if he hadn't been shot July 1 while hanging out on a friend's back porch at 4:15 a.m.

Cynthia, who has a 20-year-old daughter still at home, has gotten the message. She is no longer leaving anything to chance.

"Now, you have to think about 'Is my door locked?' " Cynthia said. "You used to be able to sit there with your door wide open, but I don't do that anymore. I'm not going to sit there and think I'm different than anybody else and they're not going to come up in here."

As Cynthia spoke of this new McKeesport she doesn't understand, less than a mile away, hundreds of people filed into New Beginnings Ministry to attend the funeral of the other young man who died, 20-year-old James Andre Sims.

Sims was shot in the head early in the morning July 6 while driving onto Pirl Street from Versailles Avenue. Wednesday, at that intersection, seven teddy bears sat below a sign that said "We love you Andre!"

Swin's coach at McKeesport Area High School, Gerald Grayson, once mentored Sims and attended the funeral. Later, as Grayson lunched at the local Eat'n Park, he began to choke up.

"I never went to a funeral when I was young," Grayson said. "I'm going to one every other week now. This one got to me. This one was tough."

Grayson can smile, though, when he thinks about Swin, who's about to play for Team USA at age 32. Grayson can smile thinking about how Swin frantically called when she found out Williams had been killed, because it shows how much she cares about the place that made her.

"What can I do?" Swin asked him. "What can I do?"

She has done plenty the last few years with Cash For Kids, finding time in her hectic basketball schedule to form relationships with some of McKeesport's youth who need the most attention. Now, in the short term, all she can do is be an example by playing the game she loves.

Wednesday afternoon, Team USA would take on Great Britain in an exhibition, and Cash would score 7 points in 14 minutes in an easy 88-63 victory. She'd like to focus on basketball, but, these days, her thoughts rarely drift too far from McKeesport.

"I'm supposed to be thinking about representing my country," Swin said, "but my heart is breaking for my city."

Working her way out

On Sept. 22, 1979, when Cynthia Cash-Smith was 17, she gave birth to her first child, a little girl she'd name Swintayla, which means "astounding woman" in Swahili. It was not going to be ideal to raise her daughter in Harrison Village, but then again, it really was all her family knew.

Cynthia stayed in high school and graduated. She attended a trade school, eventually went to community college and then attended a school that taught her about computers. She was struggling to find employment, and Swin's father was not around to help. When the McKeesport Housing Authority gave her a job in maintenance, it felt like she'd just been tossed a life raft.

Throughout Swin's childhood, Cynthia would tell her about what basketball could do for her. Cynthia had played in high school before having Swin, and, while she didn't get to ride the game to a college scholarship, she saw that potential in Swin starting around the seventh grade.

Grayson's Lady Tigers had been sending young women to college consistently for years behind Grayson's old-school, defense-first approach. He knew how good Cash could be, so he was determined to push her. Thing is, she was ready for it.

"Swin picked up what her mom gave her," Grayson said.

Grayson just took it from there. "Don't let anybody out work you!" he taught his girls, and he had the perfect situation for his team: Its best player was also its most relentless.

"Swin has a work ethic of an old-time McKeesporter," Grayson said. "She has a Steel City type attitude."

By her sophomore year, Cash was generating plenty of hype. Her junior year, legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt volunteered to come and speak at the Lady Tigers' team banquet, and Grayson was pretty sure it wasn't Summitt's giving heart that brought her to McKeesport that night.

Cash, who would grow to 6 ft. 1 inch, chose to attend Connecticut and play for Geno Auriemma instead, leading the Huskies to national championships in 2000 and '02, when she was the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

Two years later, she made the U.S. Olympic team, traveling to Athens and bringing home the gold medal to McKeesport. Soon, the city would rededicate Harrison Village's dilapidated recreation center in Cash's name and paint the Olympic rings on the front of the building.

After six years away, Cash had never stopped feeling the presence of her home town behind her.

"There were a lot of people in the community who supported me at a very young age," Cash said. "I can remember traveling in high school for playoff games, and it felt like 500 people would come to see us play, and I remember how proud the people would be. I never took that lightly. I never shied away from the responsibility that there are people who are watching me from my city and the whole Pittsburgh area."

It was a foregone conclusion in Cash's mind that she would make the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams. But, in '08, after spending much of the year training with the team, she was left off the final roster. She had been playing with a back injury, and she was not the same player that she had been in Athens. At age 28, she felt like she had failed for the first time in her athletic career.

"I was angry, I was hurt, that I wasn't there with them," Cash said. "But it really tested my faith. It really tested my mental ability to not let people define who I was going to be but let my actions define who Swin Cash is going to be."

Cash found herself at a crossroads. She knew deep down that, because of her injury, she hadn't been able to play with the same aggression. And at her age, she had to be able to outwork the competition to remain elite. Was being left off the team a sign it was time for her to focus more on her future, her budding television broadcasting career and her long-neglected personal life, or was it a catalyst to bring out the best in her again on the court?

Months of reflection led her back to where it all began -- to McKeesport, to a mentality she mimicked in the small apartment in Harrison Village and a town that was going to need her to return the love.

Back to her roots

Who was Swin Cash going to be?

First, her basketball career wasn't going to end like that. She would start taking better care of her body, and she would explore opportunities to play overseas during the WNBA offseason to stay in shape. Her broadcasting career could wait. She was going to London, eight years after that trip to Athens.

Second, she would surround herself with people whom she felt had the right kind of spirit to help fashion a new dream that was bigger than basketball. Out of that desire sprang "Cash For Kids," a non-profit that would use sports to "motivate, educate and elevate" children in Atlanta (where Cash lives), Chicago (where she plays for the WNBA's Sky) and, of course, McKeesport.

"I had to reevaluate everything in my life," Cash said. "It was that point where I was going to commit to making a sacrifice and changing all these different things about myself and the people around me. It was a gut-check."

Cash made the decision to sign with a Chinese professional team, DongGuan New Century, and would play there four months out of the year. The Women's Chinese Basketball Association only allowed one foreigner per team, so Cash was exiled in a new country without knowing the language. She saw the bright side -- at least it was in the southern part of the country, which meant she could avoid cold weather, and she was only a few hours from Hong Kong.

She missed home during her time abroad, keeping close tabs on the work her mother was doing in McKeesport with Cash For Kids. Even with her extra commitment to basketball, Cash would return to Western Pennsylvania at least a few times a year to attend her camps and leagues, which are held at Crawford Village's recreation center because the gym named after her in Harrison Village is not fit to host the event.

Cash enjoyed announcing the games over the loudspeaker and getting the onlookers into the action.

"She didn't want somebody saying, 'Oh, this is Swin Cash's foundation, but she's never around,' " Cynthia said.

Cash tried to form bonds with the children who attended, offering them her email address and allowing them to be her Facebook friend. That's how she has kept up with the unfortunate climate that now dominates her hometown.

When Cash returned to McKeesport in April to visit a Cash For Kids league game, she received a phone call from USA Basketball's Renee Brown. Cash was driving, and she pulled over across the street from Cynthia's house and listened as Brown told her that she had made Team USA. She would be the second-oldest member of the squad.

"It was just a whole bunch of tears," Cash said.

She immediately turned her car around and went back to the rec center and found her mother. Cynthia saw that Swin was crying and immediately assumed that something bad had happened. After all, that's how things had been going around here.

"They were happy tears," Cynthia said. "It was a very emotional moment."

Cash had followed through on the promise she made to herself four years earlier, and it was no coincidence that she had received the good news in McKeesport.

"It was the time and the place that it was meant to happen," Cash said. "I wouldn't want it to have been anywhere else."

No end in sight

McKeesport's month of tragedy began June 22, when two suspects broke into Meade Brothers Trucking and shot and killed Voltaire "Volt" Meade, 45. Another employee was shot, too, but he survived.

Then, there was the death of Chauncey Williams -- the boy from Cash's basketball league -- which is still under investigation.

On the Fourth of July, two boys wearing bandanas broke into the home of a classmate, Alonna Mills, and put a gun to her head, demanding money. Mills made a break for the front door and was shot. As she ran onto the street, police were arriving, and a brief shootout occurred. After six days, 17-year-old Aaron Gardner, whom Mills identified using Facebook, turned himself in and will face charges including attempted homicide.

On July 6, James Andre Sims was killed. Twenty minutes later and less than a mile away, a 17-year-old boy was shot multiple times while standing in his friend's first-floor apartment. He is expected to survive. Authorities believe that the second shooting was connected to Sims' shooting.

Saturday afternoon, a man was shot in the legs near the intersection of Walnut Street and Shaw Avenue. His identity and details on his condition were not available Saturday night.

Late Wednesday morning, as Sims' body lay in a white casket, Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard To Say Good-Bye To Yesterday" played over the speakers of the church. Young men wore sunglasses indoors to shield their tears. Local pastors talked about how it seemed like the devil was winning, assuring the congregants that wasn't the case, and quoted from Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

Mother, mother

There's too many of you crying

Brother, brother, brother

There's far too many of you dying ...

It is with this backdrop that Cynthia and her husband, Reggie Smith, will leave for London on Aug. 3 to watch Swin Cash try to bring home a second gold medal to McKeesport.

This time, when she comes back, Cash hopes that instead of putting her name on another building, she'll eventually get to fix up the one that already exists in Harrison Village. There today, kids play basketball on tile better fit for a kitchen, on a court too small for true 3-point lines.

Cash has spoken to former mayor Jim Brewster, now a senator, and current mayor, Michael Cherepko, a former classmate of hers, about what more she can do. But the deaths of the last month have brought the humbling realization that she is going to need support from others -- and a lot more of it -- if things are ever going to change back to the way they were.

"We started Cash For Kids, and we didn't really make a lot of noise about it," Cash said. "We tried to do grassroots, but now it's to the point where we need help.

"We want to help the kids in the city of McKeesport. I'm trying to make a change, but I need help to make a change. Anybody that wants to help, I'll come back. I'll be there. Whatever I have to do."

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J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published July 22, 2012 4:00 AM


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