He can’t remember all the houses, all the neighborhoods. Queens, Brooklyn, there were a lot of them—eleven foster homes from the time Omar Calhoun Sr. was 5 years old until he was 11. His mother had vanished; it wasn’t until Calhoun was an adult that he learned she’d been in and out of jail and died in her early thirties. Adoption gave him a new last name but couldn’t fill other profound holes. “When you get adopted, you’re supposed to have a mother and father,” Calhoun says, “but the father was never there.”
What’s still plenty clear, even in his halting descriptions, is all the pain. When talk turns to his childhood, Calhoun, 38, looks out the nearest window; he discloses a few personal details, then wishes he hadn’t—he’s not asking for sympathy, and he’s worried that his kids will be embarrassed. He spent his teen years in a small apartment on 6th Street in Park Slope, before the neighborhood was choked with $700 strollers. The one constant in his life was basketball. “You got a tremendous run right over there, in 51’s lot,” Calhoun says, pointing toward the middle school’s yard. “Or at 282, a little further up. Or Dean Street.” He grew to become a strong, fast, six-foot-three-inch shooting guard at Murry Bergtraum High School in lower Manhattan.
It was in the Bergtraum gym that he met Semara Breland, from Bedford-Stuyvesant and a cousin of Mark Breland, the welterweight boxing great. Semara was just as good at basketball as Omar, though she played with a different style. “A slasher, about five-ten, five-eleven, and she went to the basket very well,” says Ed Grezinsky, the Bergtraum coach, then and now, who turned the girls’ team into a public-school powerhouse. “Good kid, too.” All these years later, Grezinsky remains puzzled why one of his best players at the time suddenly lost interest on the verge of what should have been a triumphant senior season. “She could have had a college scholarship, but she kind of dropped out of the picture,” he says. Then I connect the dots for him: When Semara Breland played what turned out to be her final basketball game in March 1993, she was one month pregnant. Omar Calhoun Jr. was born in November 1993, during his mother’s senior year of high school, when she was 17. “Wow,” Grezinsky says. “I’ve seen her kids play. But I never put it together.”
The 35-year-old Semara Calhoun is strikingly elegant in simple slacks and a turtleneck, her dark-brown hair pulled tightly back behind her head. She finished high school on time, then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Brooklyn College, and somehow she makes all the hard work seem like no big deal. “I certainly didn’t envision my life being the way it is,” she says. “But I’ve always been a positive person, and I knew as long as I stayed disciplined, my life would be great. I didn’t have a particular plan. I just knew that I wanted more.”
Omar Sr. spent a year at Monroe, a Bronx junior college, then attended St. Francis in Brooklyn Heights, graduating with a degree in economics. But his basketball life was a casualty. In his single season on the St. Francis squad, Omar Sr. appeared in two games, grabbing one rebound and missing his only shot. “He was a talented kid who never really put it together,” says Glenn Braica, then an assistant at St. Francis and now the school’s head coach. “Kids having kids, they’re not prepared to take on that level of responsibility, so for him and Semara to stay together from such a young age and be able to raise their kids the right way, it’s an amazing story. And Omar Jr. is very good.”
The Park Slope Armory started as a training ground for World War I soldiers and became a refuge for homeless women. These days it’s also a gleaming YMCA, and on a mid-December Tuesday afternoon, the redbrick building feels like a basketball cathedral. Sunlight streams through a trio of mammoth windows at one end, while overhead yellow-white lights hang from riblike girders stretching across the arched 75-foot ceiling. The drill floor, resurfaced in sparkling rubber during a $16 million makeover, is empty and eerily quiet, except for the echoing thwomp, thwomp, thwomp of a single basketball.
Omar Jr. dribbles to the far right corner of the court and hits ten jump shots in a row as casually as if he were swiping a MetroCard. Then ten from the left corner. Followed by a dozen free throws. Calhoun, who is six-foot-five and rippled with muscle, pivots around an imaginary defender, plants his right foot, and soars toward the rim, gliding up and under the basket before reverse-dunking with both hands, jamming the ball with such ease that a passerby strolls over. “That basket is a little low, right?” the balding middle-aged man says. “It’s under ten feet.”