For most people, the phrase “R and R” means “rest and relaxation,” fun in the sun. For Maushae Byles, it has a slightly different meaning.
REDEMPTION AND RESOLVE. OVERCOME THE PAST. KEEP BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE.
How does a 23-year-old IUPUI basketball standout redeem a past as an 11-year-old drug seller? By being resolute: be a 23-year-old bone marrow donor who is the only match for a Minnesota woman dying of leukemia, and be ready-and willing-to risk your last season of college ball to maybe save her life.
But to the well-built, 6-foot-5, 200-pound Byles, it's the least he can do to honor the people whose helping hands pulled him out of desperate times, and gave him a fighting chance to succeed-people like his foster parents and his eighth-grade basketball coach. Thanks to them, he's a college graduate with a degree in general studies and an open road to wherever his dreams-and his resolve-take him.
Bleak days of youth
In some respects, that early brush with the law, selling crack on the mean streets of Racine, Wis., seems like another life to Byles. Mean streets? Racine? In America's dairy land? It's not exactly Scorcese country. DeNiro'd fly over it and never look back. Tony Soprano couldn't find it if you spotted him an atlas and flipped it to the "Ws."
But to an 11-year-old whose father has long since hit the road and whose mother is addicted to crack, sitting in jail under arrest for selling the drug himself to keep the family in food and clothes, Racine can be a cold and lonely place. It may not be the end of the world, but as the old saying goes, you can sure see it from there.
"A lot of people think it's crazy to think about Racine that way," says Byles, one of 12 children in his family. "But it's rough. There's lots of violence, lots of drugs. It's a trap for a young black man. Even the guys with jobs hang with the dope boys."
The memory of life on those streets never really goes away, he says. A lot of childhood friends and buddies are dead. Others are in jail. "What worries me is that my 4-year-old son, Sadarien, lives there," says Byles, a single father. "I really want to get him away from all that, to give him a better chance." The kind of chance the Smiths, his foster family, gave him while his mother, Sherry McGlorn, began the difficult task of kicking her addiction.
For Byles, the path from Racine to the IUPUI campus was a long and winding one. He spent time in Mississippi, reconnecting with his father and learning about his basketball ability. Back to his mother in Racine, he became a star football and basketball player, helping his high school win a state championship. But a major ACL injury in football his senior season cost him his entire basketball season. It was just another chance at redemption, this time rebuilding his standing as a basketball prospect. He made his way to Howard College in Texas, then to Kennedy-King Junior College in Chicago.
He didn't know it at the time, but his life began to change in Texas. While watching the college post-season conference tournaments in 2003, he watched the end of the Mid-Continent Conference title game. He saw Jaguar guard Matt Crenshaw hit the game-winning shot to beat Valparaiso, then saw head coach Ron Hunter celebrating with the "floor dance" that CBS, ESPN and other networks replayed on end.
"I was laughing at the time, but I knew that I wanted to play for a coach that had that kind of passion," Byles says. "A couple of years later, I was talking to recruiters up in Chicago, and suddenly realized that one of the guys I was talking to was the guy from the floor."
One signature later, Byles was on his way to IUPUI. His first year, he played a key role in the Jaguars' winning season; this year, he earned the Mid-Continent Conference award as the Sixth Man of the Year and helped lead Hunter's team to a share of the league's regularseason championship.
But even in the glow of accomplishment, Byles confronted obstacles that had to be overcome. The first was the discovery that his blood type matched that of a woman with leukemia; the second was another knee injury that required early-season surgery.
The first event drew Byles into the national spotlight. A blood donation he made while in Chicago led to a nationwide search that led back to him. When asked, he never hesitated, despite the fact that the procedure can be painful and would almost certainly require him to miss games during his last college season-perhaps the last of his competitive career.
"I couldn't not do it," he says quietly. "After everything so many other folks have done for me, to help me, how could I say no. My mom and I talked about it, and she said it was a blessing to be able to do something like that."
Ironically, the issue of missing games because of the donation never came up during the season, due to changes in the health status of the prospective recipient. But the second issue-the injury-did force him out of the Jags' lineup for seven games.
"I never really did get all the way back," he says, a tad philosophically. "I was never as quick or as explosive as I usually am. Toward the end of the year, I wore down; I just wasn't quite on my game in the (conference) tourney."
The road ahead
Byles has yet to line up a job for his post-college career, but he knows where he wants to do it: in Indianapolis.
"I love it here," he says. "I feel close to the people who are here, and I'd like to see how things go for the guys who will still be here next year." Besides, he adds with a grin, where else would he have had a chance to play pickup games against NBA players like Ron Artest and David Harrison of the Indiana Pacers.
He'd like to coach and teach, hoping to have the same kind of impact on young lives as the eighth-grade coach who helped him on the road of life.
"I coached a middle school team a while back and had a ball," he says. "My kids won the championship, even though it took 'em awhile to figure out what I wanted them to do. Once they did that, they were out there laughing, having fun, enjoying the game. It was such a great thing to see, and made me feel great."
And that may be the greatest redemption of all.