There are two games going on tonight inside this raucous Brooklyn high-school gym. The first, obvious one is pretty great all by itself: The underdog Bishop Ford girls’ varsity basketball team uses a high-energy attack on offense and defense to scramble out to a twelve-point halftime lead. Then, in the final minute of the second half, the girls of Christ the King, a perennially elite hoops school from Queens, claw back to within two points. CK’s star is Sierra Calhoun, the best sophomore girl basketball player in the city and one of the top twenty 15-year-olds in the country. With 40 seconds remaining, the six-foot-tall, broad-shouldered Sierra muscles her way to an offensive rebound and lays the ball in to draw her team closer. Now, with 9.2 seconds glowing red on the scoreboard, Sierra is fouled and steps to the line with a chance to tie the score.
The second game is taking place just off the court, and it’s no less intense. College-basketball coaches hunting for fresh young talent line the front row of bleachers. Their presence is communicated most vividly by the young woman seated right at midcourt. She’d stand out in this predominantly black crowd simply because she’s conspicuously blonde-haired and blue-eyed. But Megan Duffy is also wearing a bright-red shirt with St. John’s in giant white letters across the chest. The Red Storm assistant coach wants the girls on the court to know she’s here and why. There are players on both teams who would be useful to college programs, but Sierra is the only game-changer. Duffy is a strict observer of the NCAA’s byzantine recruiting rules, so she politely refuses to discuss whom she’s scouting. Other coaches in the crowd, though, openly salivate. “Sierra has it all,” one says. “Everybody wants her.”
So it doesn’t matter that Sierra misses the pair of free throws and that her team loses. The coaches make sure to chat up the tall, imposing man in the navy-blue hoodie who is also sitting courtside. He is Sierra’s father, Omar Calhoun. He is friendly but inscrutable, a man determined to stay on good terms with everyone but show his cards only when ready. Sitting a few rows back and observing this dance is Calhoun’s wife and their son, Omar Jr., a senior at Christ the King and the best 18-year-old boys’ basketball player in the city. For the past two years, Junior was pursued by top college coaches, with Villanova, Maryland, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia offering scholarships. Last summer, he chose the offer from the University of Connecticut, which had just won the 2011 NCAA championship. The Calhoun family has a lot of experience with the recruiting circus. The parents also have a special understanding of the stakes in the larger game their kids are playing.
The anxiety is constant for any good city parent: Get your kid into the right play group, the best middle school, a prime internship. For the tiny fraction who are raising elite teenage basketball players, the pressure goes up exponentially: They’re staring at the small but very real chance of winning a multimillion-dollar lottery. So Omar Sr. and his wife, Semara, have had to become agents as well as parents, shielding their kids from the worst of a system that’s designed to exploit young athletes while simultaneously maximizing the chances of a huge payoff. The splashiest recent New York success story is Kemba Walker—who, like Omar Calhoun Jr., went from a Catholic high school and the Gauchos AAU program to UConn. Last spring, Walker led the Huskies to a national championship, then was picked in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft and signed a $5 million contract with the Charlotte Bobcats. Yet far more city high-school stars are waylaid by the temptations and expectations, or they flame out in college. Even the rare few who grab the big pro money are often warped by the process. Coney Island’s Stephon Marbury is the prime cautionary example. The last hope of a poor, sprawling family, Marbury made millions but was miserable as he bounced among five NBA teams before eating Vaseline in an online video and later fleeing to China.
Omar Sr. played with Marbury as a kid, as well as other future pros like Felipe Lopez, and still believes he too could have made the NBA. Part of him is the classic sports dad living out his dreams through his kids. A larger part of what drives both Calhoun parents, though, is something deeper and more important than providing the basketball opportunities they never had.
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.”
Omar Sr. rebounds the ball and bounces it back to his son. “It’s the right height,” he rumbles in a voice deep as a late-night FM D.J.’s, then tells Junior to take a short water break. When the workout resumes, Junior misses a layup and winces as he lands. “You hurt?” Senior asks. “Nah, it’s mad cold in here, and I’m not loose.” “That’s your excuse?” Senior says. “There’s no excuses, man. If you can do it, you can do it.” Junior dribbles, launches, dunks so hard the ball bounces six feet in the air. “Good!” Senior says. “You should have attacked the rim like that from the beginning!”
The street agents, the middlemen, the shoe-company hustlers—they started sniffing around Omar Jr. when he was 11 years old. Omar Sr. listened and did something radical. He said no. “You hear all that stuff: ‘I can get you a job,’ ‘Do you need cash?’ ‘Do you need a car?’” Omar Sr. says. “I just tell them, ‘We’re not interested in anything extra. Just what we deserve.’ To me, a college education is invaluable. If you can educate my guy, and he’s playing something that he loves, that’s enough. The NBA, he’ll make some money, if that’s where this game takes him. I’m a true believer that your dedication, your love for stuff, will come through. I had a lot of obstacles in my life, and for me to be blessed to watch my son play in high school, my daughter play, I’m truly fortunate. I’m not supposed to have a kid when I’m 20 years old, my wife when she’s 17. But when he was born, I held him up and named him the Dreamcatcher. He’s going to be the one to fulfill all his dreams.”
That the Calhouns have raised two basketball stars who are also sane, thoughtful kids with high-school grade averages in the nineties is borderline miraculous. “Forget about basketball,” says Joe Arbitello, the Christ the King boys’ varsity coach. “I want him to raise my kids. Senior had a plan, and they’ve stuck to it.” The kids weren’t allowed to listen to hip-hop when they were small; they don’t have Twitter or Facebook accounts today. Relatives who are teachers tutored the siblings in science. Underlying everything is a sense of urgency, of not wasting any time. “You can spend two hours getting a tattoo,” Senior says, “but we could spend that two hours reading a book, or getting up shots, or with your family.” In 2008, Omar Sr. was laid off from his job as a broker at a midsize Wall Street financial firm. He and Semara decided to try to scrape by on her salary as a second-grade teacher at P.S. 39 in Park Slope while Omar Sr. devoted himself to the kids’ basketball lives, training them after school and on weekends, fielding the recruiting calls from colleges, and navigating the maze of travel teams and all-star tournaments.
“My parents keep me humble and driven,” Junior says. “You saw at the workout, when I made an excuse—Dad is quick to jump on me and say that’s a weak mind-set. It molds me, helps me get stronger.” Above his bed in the family’s cramped two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment Junior has hung a quote from Aristotle: “Excellence is not an act but a habit.” There’s a palpable joy when the family is together, and the siblings are particularly close. Both radiate low-key charisma and magnetic self-confidence, though they have distinct personalities. The son, in his serene demeanor, takes after his mother; the daughter is the fiery one, her temperament similar to her father’s. In December, when Sierra missed those free throws and her team lost to Bishop Ford, her big brother, whose nickname for Sierra is “the Beast,” knew to wait until the next day to quietly offer a tip: “You rushed those shots.”
Omar is averaging about 24 points per game this season and should soon break the career scoring record at Christ the King, a school that has enrolled a wealth of basketball luminaries, including Lamar Odom. But Sierra may well turn out to be an even better player than Omar. She’s currently averaging twenty points and nine rebounds per game. “The WNBA, a big house for my parents, making a lot of money, living in a nice warm area,” she says, closing her eyes and imagining a perfect future. “Oh, and I’d have a dog.” Many college recruiters assume Sierra will also end up at UConn, which has a dominant women’s team, but say they’re rooting for both kids—as long as they aren’t playing against one of them. “They’re a good family,” says Brandin Knight, a University of Pittsburgh assistant coach who wooed Omar Jr. “The dad is very guarded, but for all the right reasons. I see a lot of parents who are all about ‘What can I get?’ The Calhouns are not out selling their kids.”
Jim Calhoun, the UConn head coach—who is no relation to Omar’s family—sees his newest prize recruit playing significant minutes as a freshman and following in the footsteps of Kemba Walker. “As a player, Omar is the total package,” Jim Calhoun says. “And a high-character kid, because of his upbringing. Some parents have no ideas of the ups and downs—I know you love your son, but there’s more to it. His parents, they get it.”
A cold January Friday night in Fort Greene. The gym at Bishop Loughlin High School is shaped like a butter dish and not much larger. Bleachers press right up against the basketball court’s sidelines. White brick walls and a low metal ceiling amplify the crowd screams and cheerleader chants to headache-inducing volume. It’s a fantastic place to watch a game. Now, with Loughlin ahead by one point and ten seconds left, the home team’s fans turn up the noise even higher by banging on heat pipes as Omar Calhoun steps to the foul line.
Christ the King had blown a seven-point lead in the final two minutes, so with 30 seconds remaining and his team down two, the ball of course went into Calhoun’s hands. He started left, jab-stepped, then flew down the center of the lane, above nine mesmerized players, before laying the ball delicately into the hoop. Tie game, until Loughlin sinks one of two free throws. Down one, the clock melting away, Calhoun starts left again, drives the lane again, rises—but this time is greeted by a wall of Loughlin hands. No matter: He instantly spots a teammate wide open underneath and hits him with a pass … only to have the teammate blow a wide-open three-foot shot. No matter: Calhoun is in perfect position for the rebound. He’s fouled as he grabs the ball, which is why he’s now on the foul line, with two shots, a chance to win the game, and the decibels climbing. He dribbles twice and, as calmly as if he’s stepping onto the team bus, hits both free throws, the final two of his 24 points. Loughlin can’t get off a final shot. CK wins.
Afterward, Calhoun emerges from the locker room in street clothes looking, it must be said, pretty dorky, a knit cap on his head and his bulging school backpack strapped to his chest. Reporters are hustling over, wanting a few more quotes, even though it’s nearing midnight. Then Sierra, who has been waiting patiently to go home, whacks her brother on the butt. Hard.
Additional reporting by Matthew Giles.
Omar Calhoun Sr. in a team photo.
Sierra Calhoun, whom her brother calls “the Beast.” Photo: Jeff Bachner/NY Daily News
Omar Calhoun Jr. will attend UConn next fall. Photo: Brian Branch Price/New York Daily News