A familiar sedan would pull up to 62nd and Elmwood, and the trunk would fly open. Charles Jones, sitting on his stoop, barely a teenager, knew what was coming out. Why wouldn't Jones see himself as the Prince of Southwest Philly? Those boxes of And1 sneakers coming out of the trunk? All for him.
"I used to give all my sneakers away," Jones said, thinking back almost two decades. "I would give them to all the guys in the neighborhood."
A group of ballplayers from the neighborhood used to jump into a car and head for And1's Paoli headquarters.
"And1 was using us as their focus group," said Tasheed Carr, one of those players.
Favorite sneakers those days?
"KGs," Carr said of the Kevin Garnett-endorsed And1 basketball shoes. "Them gray joints."
Charles Jones preferred the black ones.
"And1, it was a cool brand. People were wearing it. People were buying it."
"Of course it faded."
"It was Under Armour before Under Armour."
"They cashed out. Nothing wrong with that."
These two men and several of their friends think now about how it worked, with an eye toward their own brand. Carr and Jones were wearing shirts with the words Born Leader Family. All these enterprising endeavors are in their infancy. That fledgling brand and their evolving agenda go in all sorts of directions, all interesting. Gear and mentoring, training, videos. All the time using their own life hurdles as a guidepost.
Carr, who played ball at Iowa State and St. Joseph's and professionally overseas, won't think twice about calling an attorney asking how you build a non-profit corporation, how you raise charitable support. Jones thinks about how that one video class at Widener, taken as his basketball career was ending, opened a door for him. You'll find him along the baseline at high school games filming the next generation.
"Now that we're older, we know everything they were doing," Jones, 32, said of those And1 days. "It's not a problem. They were using us to build a company. We were just getting free sneaks and free gear. That was good enough for us."
Carr, 31, doesn't tell the young ballplayers his whole story. That's not what they're in the gym for. They want basketball instruction. Carr's voice carries. Somebody in the gym asked: You ever practice yelling?
"My voice is just loud," Carr said laughing, then interrupting the conversation … "The other side! Start over there!"
Chris Arcidiacono, about to be a senior at Neshaminy High, already with Division I offers, was in the gym with Carr on a recent evening. They have been working together for a couple of months on ballhandling.
"He likes to get on you, guard you," Arcidiacono said with a tone of approval.
Carr never mentioned to Ryan Arcidiacono's younger brother that he worked one summer with NBA guard Rajon Rondo. This work isn't about his own past.
"He's always positive," said Joe Arcidiacono, who had given his son a lift to the Girard College gym, where Carr and Jones also have begun working as assistant coaches for Girard's high school boys' program.
"I've known Charles and Tasheed all my life," said Girard coach Bobby Jordan, a former Drexel assistant. "They were one year older than me. We would play at all the same events, in the Sonny Hill league. Charles was on my AAU team, for Sam Rines."
When he got the Girard job, Jordan said, "I had known all this stuff they were doing, with their Born Leader program. They're just working with kids. That was something I thought we really needed. I wanted guys who had played the game, and had the same kinds of experiences some of our guys had had.''
Where to meet? Myers Recreation Center, 58th and Kingsessing, Southwest Philadelphia. The recent warm weather meant a bench under a tree provided a shady place to talk.
"The playground we're at is where I spent a lot of years, every single day," Carr said. "Our hub."
Carr eventually explained why he needed this place, as home and refuge. Why a coach simply bringing a bottle of water meant so much. These men know about staying with it even when the sport doesn't always love you back.
"We feel as though athletes — especially when you're a good athlete, a high-profile athlete — we get enabled," Carr said, talking about when the sport doesn't take you where you want to go. "Many people just can't get up out of it."
Carr went back further, where he believes he fell short.
"What I had to put into it mentally, outside the court," Carr said. "A lot of factors go into that. One is where we come from, some of the ways we're raised, the lack of structure. I made every decision for my whole entire life since I was 14 years old. Many kids don't do that. Picture a place where you have many trials and errors, like many people do, but I just think it puts you at a disadvantage, when you don't have that kind of structure."
His upbringing includes West Philly and Southwest Philly. His mother had a crack addiction, he said, and ended up in jail for four years. His grandparents took him in, "which saved my life, in my opinion." But his grandparents were older, he said, so deciding to leave University City High and go off to a powerhouse basketball prep school in North Carolina, Mount Zion, was all up to him.
"I didn't have parents to sit down with," Carr said.
If you're assuming he blames his mother for this — actually, he speaks of her integrity.
"My mom was in prison for drug charges," Carr said. "She was on crack on and off her whole life. She got mixed up with some guys, got found with a huge amount of drugs in the home we were all living in. As a result, she served time. Pretty much to not endanger us. It would have been easy to walk away by giving these guys up, and she chose to keep our family safe, and did time for that. It's tough. I tell you one thing, that whole situation, just her standing up for our family, is a big part of where I get my integrity from. My mores and and values. Born Leader Family, we move a certain way. We always put the kids first. We always put what's supposed to be most important first."
Walking up to join Carr at the rec center, Jones starts his own story with the night of his last college game. He left campus that night — "I literally packed my stuff up, went home," he said.
He didn't quit school. He drove back from Southwest Philly for classes. College life was just done for him. Jones figures it took him three years to get moving after that.
The constant question: "What the hell am I going to do?"
Even for ballplayers who find professional opportunities overseas, Jones said, "they chase the overseas thing, and they chase it, chase it, chase it, even not making much money, to continue a basketball career. Everybody doesn't make it, and that's a tough time to find out, nobody's got your back when you don't make it."
As as example of an entitled ballplayer, Jones comes up with … himself. He started in Division II, at Shippensburg, then Millersville. There were gaps in between, self-inflicted gaps. The fact he believed he had D-I skills, he said, was actually part of his problem.
"I was a young kid who was still in la la world, used to getting everything free, running around doing what I want, no real consequences behind the things I was doing because I was a talented basketball player. Especially playing Division II — I was a valued player at that level so I was able to get away with things."
Then Jones got to Widener and all of a sudden bills were showing up for a few thousand dollars.
"In a sense, I'm paying to play basketball," Jones said. "That was a big turn."
He meant toward adulthood. His goal now, he said, is to get young guys in the neighborhood thinking past that hoop, even if they're getting to the rim easily, even if they're scoring. If they don't think he can relate, try him. He can tell them about living earlier in his grandmother's house at 57th and Greenwood, pretty much his entire family in those four bedrooms. His mother shared a family room with him. His cousin and her father were in another room. Other cousins had another. He can tell you about a father who was in and out of jail, but a father who also helped him get a construction job after college. A job he quickly realized he did not want.
He can also tell you about how he thought he'd been a failure at basketball because he didn't make it big, until other ballplayers kept pointing out that he won championships everywhere he played, every level.
Jones pointed to his son, Charles Jr., with the ball in his hands now, working out with him at Girard.
"Second shot," Jones said of the 10-year-old dribbling between his legs. "My second chance."
Born Leader Family. You see the name around local basketball. Carr has it tattooed on the inside of his arms. What is it? A work in progress. Emphasis on the work.
"What knowledge do you have?" Jones said. "How are you going to apply it?"
This summer, they said, they did a "bikes up, guns down" event at Bartram Gardens.
"We wanted to promote the nonviolence," Jones said. "We wanted to promote to the kids you don't have to be a street person, be into the drugs or typical things that go on around here, to be successful."
"We ended up having a hundred kids on bikes that day." Carr said. "We provided bikes and food. … We always have free [basketball] clinics."
They're also working with a local auto body shop, "getting eight to ten kids, showing how to build a car from scratch. Showing how you can have a trade."
They think of Born Leader Family as a brand that can leave the neighborhood and eventually the city. Lavar Ball has his Big Baller. These guys respect that. Their message is just different.
"All the guys who are down with our movement, we want to just really put the brand out there, put the gear out there," Carr said. "Our goal is to have the whole world know about Born Leader Family, what we're doing and our agenda."