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Great Expectations

It's a surprising family in an unlikely place. Jack O'Brien plays coach and father to a group of boys from Boston's toughest streets. A thrilling season with the team from Charlestown High shows that he needs them just as much as they need him.

Part 1 of 3

The Dodge Caravan stutters along Washington Street in Roxbury as Jack O'Brien slows down at each intersection to squint at the street signs.

"Is this the turn?"

"Nah, the next one, Coach." Lamar "Spot" Brathwaite had been O'Brien's first pickup on this Saturday morning in September. The high school senior from Dorchester has a Hollywood smile and a nickname owing to the oval-shaped birthmark on the right side of his head and the threat a former teammate once made to "smack that spot onto the wall." He is wearing jeans, an extra-long white T-shirt, and a black nylon do-rag.

"This one?"

O'Brien lives in Medford, in the house he grew up in. For the last dozen years, he's coached the Charlestown High School basketball team, which in post-busing Boston has no players who actually live in Charlestown. So O'Brien drives his white minivan, with the Evergreen air freshener dangling from the mirror, around the black neighborhoods of Boston that other middle-aged white guys from the suburbs long ago decided to avoid.

He turns up Townsend Street and pulls in front of a cluster of freshly built town houses painted in the hues of spring. The new Academy Homes. A fresh start. The original, a warren of flat-roofed concrete buildings, was one of Boston's most treacherous housing projects.

O'Brien beeps his horn, and out saunters Jason White. He's wearing a blue baseball cap with the manufacturer's 59 Fifty label purposely left on the brim and an oversized black quilted jacket. It's 72 degrees out. Jason, who has corn-rows and goes by the nickname Hood, grew up in the old Academy and then shuttled among several apartments during the years it took to raze and replace it. He shakes hands with O'Brien without saying anything and climbs in.

On the drive back to Washington Street, O'Brien spots a pair of kids, maybe 10 years old, shooting jumpers at a broken hoop. "Jay, I want you to get me the names of those kids," he says, chuckling. "They're working on their fundamentals. Most kids in the inner city just wanna play games."

O'Brien looks back at Hood and Spot through his rearview mirror. "You guys got your contacts in?" They shake their heads. So does he. He'd arranged for them to get fitted with contact lenses, made sure they made it to their appointments. The only thing he can't do is put the lenses in their eyes. He laughs. "Imagine how good we'd be if our players could actually see."

As always, O'Brien is wearing Charlestown team gear. The 47-year-old has collected plenty of it during his time at Charlestown, where he's accomplished something unprecedented in the history of boys basketball in Massachusetts. He led his teams to four state championship titles in a row. That was before the excruciating end to the 2004 season, before talk began in Boston basketball circles that Charlestown's days of dominance were finally over.

Less talked about is O'Brien's other winning record. In between hoisting red-and-white championship banners in the school gym, he helped nearly every one of his players who stuck with his program through their senior year to get to college. Most of them came to him as the sorriest of city students. Most of them made it to college without the benefit of a big-time athletic scholarship. Most years, at least one of his kids would get a full ride to play ball at a Division I school. Lots of glory in that. But it was finding a path for all the others kids that took the most work.

O'Brien, a phys ed teacher who graduated from Salem State, was never much of a student himself. Still, he's learned what it takes to get kids to the next level. Among other things, it requires lots of Saturdays like this one.

To understand O'Brien and his program is to see how his success doesn't really spring from his punishing practices or the way he moves magnets around his basketball clipboard during huddles. It has more to do with the amount of time and emotional energy he invests in his players' lives off the court. Demoralized reformers of urban education would do well to examine the Charlestown basketball experience, where athletics and academics are intertwined. Except replicating it elsewhere would first require finding someone as fanatically devoted as O'Brien, who's never been married and whose only kids are the ones who cycle through his life every four years. Someone willing to be both a shoulder and scold to his players. To ride them about their homework and drive them to check out colleges. To arrange for doctors' appointments and rearrange their class schedules. To run them hard, until every muscle aches, and then stop by the Foodmaster to get them the plastic produce bags they prefer for icing their sore joints.

O'Brien has turned down offers to coach college in favor of his $6,000-a-year gig. But he is no saint. A saint gives without expecting anything in return. O'Brien needs his players and their problems as much as they need him.

The minivan hugs the coast now, winding past the majestic estates of Beverly Farms and gliding onto the campus of Endicott College. The small liberal arts school, coed for only a decade, has been building up its athletic programs in the hopes of attracting more males. O'Brien is an eager supplier. He's already sent three former players there, and the basketball coach is interested in seeing more. As a Division III school, it offers no athletic scholarships. But athletics can help students get admitted, and the poor backgrounds that most of O'Brien's kids come from often translate into nearly full financial aid.

In an office off the gym, the Endicott coach speaks about his team's winning record and its up-tempo style of play. He talks up the college's internship program and asks Spot and Hood what they want to major in. When Spot says "electrical engineering," the coach winces. So does O'Brien. Endicott doesn't offer engineering. Spot says later that it was the first thing that popped into his head.

"We see you guys fitting in here really well," the coach says.

By the end of this Saturday afternoon, it's clear they don't agree. They stay for the first half of an Endicott football game. Around them, the bleachers are a sea of white.

O'Brien points left and right as they drive off the campus. "Look it, everything is right here for you - your dorm, the gym, the library. You won't have to take no more trains and buses to get to class."

"It looks boring," Hood says flatly.

"The problem is you want to stay home," his coach says. "Not for anything, but you'd get here faster from your house than it takes you to get to Charlestown."

A few minutes later, the minivan is back on Route 128, passing a sign that reads "Boston 28 miles."

"You can always go back to Boston," O'Brien says. "This is your future we're talking about here."

As they get closer to the city, another question pops into O'Brien's head. "Hey, Hood, with your new apartment, will it be easier to get to school on time?" His current route takes more than an hour.

"Nah, harder," he says. "The 42 never runs."

"Why can't you take the 22?" O'Brien asks, recalling the bus route one of his former players took.

"That's not my neighborhood. That's Jackson. I can't go there."

"What do you mean? It's only five minutes from your house."

Hood stares straight ahead. "I'd get killed."

On a Wednesday in late September, they arrive. One by one, a dozen coaches in polo shirts walk into the Charlestown High gym, striding over the picture of the Bunker Hill Monument painted on the floorboards and settling into the bleachers to the right of the four state title banners. They've come from as near as Northeastern and as far as the University of Toledo. A good showing, but Division I Toledo's Stan Joplin is the only head coach in the bunch. O'Brien says later: "If the head coaches aren't here, they're seeing somebody else."

To comply with league rules against off-season practices, O'Brien can't be involved in the event, and the gym must be open to everyone in the school, even kids with no hopes of playing high school basketball, never mind college. No matter. The coaches all have their eyes fixed on the same kid.

Ridley Johnson is a 6-foot-3 wire whose graceful jump shot and vertical leap put him on the radar of college recruiters but whose soft voice and reputation as "the nicest kid" have endeared him to even the most hardened high school teachers. O'Brien had made him co-captain with Hood, which was a bit of a gamble. They're completely different kids and, while respectful of each other, not very close. Ridley, with an open expression and a gentle slope of a profile, is known for his finesse and perimeter shooting. Hood, a muscular 6-footer with piercing eyes, favors fearless drives to the hoop.

Ridley has more than his game going for him. He is in the best academic shape on the team. O'Brien had spent the last weeks of summer working on his and the other players' course schedules. When Ridley, a steady if unexceptional student, had protested a fourth year of science, saying he only needed three, O'Brien cut him off. "That's just the requirement to graduate. Colleges want to see more than that." The riskiest choice on Ridley's roster is his advance placement history class. O'Brien knows colleges will reward ambition but penalize failure.

Ridley sits across the gym from the college coaches, lacing up his white Nikes with the red soles. "I'm nervous," he confides. "One mistake, man . . . ' He didn't have a great season last year. O'Brien loved his friendly ways off the court but kept telling him he had to get a lot meaner on it. Yet ever since he excelled at a couple of invitational tournaments in the off-season, Ridley's cellphone has been ringing with college scouts telling him they liked his game and asking him what he wanted to major in.

His dream school had always been Boston College, and the crowd today includes an Eagles assistant. But his appearance seems more out of courtesy than strong interest. In early fall, most programs are still chasing players who are probably out of their reach. Standing beside the bleachers, C. J. Neely, an assistant with Division II Stonehill College, says, "We'd love to get Ridley, but I think he'll go higher." And how about Spot and Hood? "I'm not sure they're ready to play at our level."

Ridley makes no mistakes.

One month later, 5:50 a.m. Ridley rolls out of bed. His room is near the front entrance of a first-floor apartment in a gray three-decker that abuts the Franklin Field housing project in Dorchester. He shares the place with his mother and the others she takes in when no one else will, who at this point include a pair of young brothers and a former neighbor in his 70s who couldn't afford his rent and now sleeps on their living room couch.

Ridley heads down the hall, past the dining room that his mom decorated by hanging 24 framed plaques her boy had collected over the years, from basketball awards to perfect-attendance certificates. Returning from the bathroom, Ridley grabs the Right Guard, chooses a pair of Jordans from the stack of a dozen Nike boxes near his bed, and pulls up his jeans over his nylon basketball shorts. He showers at night, to make the mornings less brutal. By 6 a.m., he is outside with his black hood over his head. He walks 15 minutes in the dark to catch the 21 bus on the other side of Blue Hill Avenue, which will take him to the Orange Line at Forest Hills, which will take him to the 93 bus in Sullivan Square, which will, if everything goes well, deposit him a block from Charlestown High, an hour and 20 minutes after his commute began.

Just an ordinary weekday, but this one is different. As he walks in the middle of quiet side streets, he talks about the trip to the University of Toledo that he made over the weekend. He liked what he saw of Toledo's computer engineering program. (His teammates all have PlayStation 2 consoles in their bedrooms, but no computer. Ridley is the opposite.) He liked the campus. But most of all he liked what Toledo was offering, a full four-year Division I scholarship worth well over $100,000.

There are two "signing periods" when the NCAA allows Division I programs to get their recruits to commit, one in the fall and one in the spring. O'Brien usually advises his players entertaining high-level offers to sign early and settle their heads. But with Ridley, he sees no clear favorite. He doesn't know much about the Toledo program. BC is noncommittal. And the other Division I school showing the most interest, Robert Morris University outside Pittsburgh, already has three of O'Brien's former stars competing for playing time. So he recommends that Ridley wait until the spring, to see what opens up.

Ridley is nervous. What if he gets injured? What if he has another lackluster season? He calls Toledo and tells them he will sign. "I knew that scholarship would go to someone else if I waited," he says as he crosses Blue Hill Avenue, "and I didn't want that to happen."

The coach's screams are as rapid-fire as the bursts of his whistle. "Get low!" "We don't pass with one hand!" "The sea-zun's STAHTIN!"

It's the Monday after Thanksgiving, the first day that high school basketball teams in the state are allowed to practice. O'Brien has watery brown eyes and a large forehead accentuated by his brushed-up-and-back hairstyle. When he is in nurturing mode, which is most of the time off the court, he is generous with smiles and supportive nods. When he is in distress, which is most of the time during practices and games, he scrunches his face so tightly that lines blanket his forehead and shoot out from the corners of his eyes.

Two days later, 28 guys - the new varsity and JV squads - sit in Room 319, a chemistry classroom. "This is the most important meeting we'll have all year," O'Brien says. "We're going to talk about how we're going to live for the next three months." He tells them to report here, on time, after school each day for the hourlong mandatory study hall he runs. The newer players won't get to pick up a ball until they've shown the coach their completed homework.

"Five bricks for every minute you're late, by my watch." Bricks, the veterans explain to the freshmen later, are the worst physical punishment in Coach's arsenal. Offenders have to hold a brick in each hand as they slide between the hash marks on the gym floor; 16 slides in one minute count as one brick. If they don't make 16, they have to start again.

O'Brien tells them the words he doesn't want to hear - "me," "I," or any swearing - and those he does - "thank you," "please," "we." He knows he will be steering many of them to largely white colleges, and it's unavoidable that people there are going to talk about them. So let those people talk about their politeness. On this point, Coach leads by example, always having a "How we doing - everything good?" for the custodians and bus drivers, and never swearing in front of his players.

Then he tells them that every player in the room is expendable. "There aren't too many kids here better than Lamar," he says, causing Spot to flash his smile, which fades when he realizes where the coach is headed. "He was a starter his sophomore year, on a team that won the state championship. I threw him off five games into the season."

Spot's offense? Causing trouble in class. Coach warned him. The teacher complaints kept coming. He was gone.

O'Brien surveys the room. Calendars featuring photos of all his championship teams hang on every wall. There was a lot more height on those squads than the one seated before him. Besides a laid-back 6-foot-5 sophomore named Troy Gillenwater, it's not a tall team.

"I guarantee it," the coach says, "somebody here is going to get thrown off this season."

He invokes two names, the same ones he will ask Jesus to watch over during the lockerroom prayer O'Brien leads before each game. Richard Jones had made it out, got a Division I scholarship to a college in Buffalo, was going to be an architect. He dropped dead on the court his junior year, from an enlarged heart. Paris Booker had just started the climb. He was 6 foot 3 in the eighth grade, destined to be a star. A month before starting his freshman year at Charlestown, while riding his bike in Dorchester, he was hit by an SUV and dragged 30 feet. The driver fled. Paris's mother buried her boy with a Charlestown jersey in his arms.

"Those guys would do anything to change places with you," O'Brien says.

Twenty minutes into the meeting, a chiseled 6-foot-4 sophomore with high cheekbones walks in. Terry Carter wears a brown-and-tan leather jacket. Instead of calculating his penalty in bricks, O'Brien smiles warmly and extends Terry his hand. He knows he has a good excuse. Terry had just been released from Massachusetts General Hospital. The morning before, outside the Spanish market a block from school where all the guys stop for their breakfasts of meat patties and Mountain Dew, Terry had been stabbed.

The ghosts of Salem. O'Brien is smiling on a dreary night in December as he leads his players into Salem High School. But it is a distracted smile. Charlestown won't actually be facing Salem for another two months - tonight's season opener against Peabody is part of a tournament. But just being in the Witches' gym is reminder enough that this place was once his, before he was forced out of his job.

O'Brien is wearing his game-day uniform - white dress shirt, black slacks, black loafers, and a stretched-out red Charlestown sweater vest. Walking beside him is his wiry, kinetic assistant coach, Zach Zegarowski. A former player of his at Salem, Zach still insists on calling O'Brien only "Coach," never Jack, even though he is now in his 10th year as his partner on the Charlestown bench.

The reasons for O'Brien's ouster in 1992, after seven years in which he won a state title and posted the best record in Salem hoops history, are still a little hazy. Though popular in town, he had a vocal group of detractors. Some were the parents of kids he'd cut or benched. Some resented his decision to fill his roster with so many kids from the city's poorer Hispanic neighborhood. Some felt he pushed his players too hard; others suggested he bent the rules. The superintendent admitted he had no proof of wrongdoing but felt the complaints had become too distracting. He decided O'Brien had to go.

"He got too big for the town," Zach says. "It's still painful for him, but he believes things happen for a reason."

If so, Zach is still searching for the reason behind the painful end to last year's season. How the surprise loss early in the playoffs left that year's captain, one of the toughest kids ever to come out of Mission Hill, crying in the locker room. How the team that ended Charlestown's four-year reign just had to be from Salem. How the Salem fans couldn't resist chanting in the final minutes of the game, "Over-rated!" and "Sit down, Jaack!"

But with the new season set to begin, O'Brien is struggling with more immediate questions. Would Ridley play tougher? Would Hood find more control? Would Spot, whose outgoing manner and handsome face masked a potent insecurity, manage to keep his confidence up when his sweet shot went south?

As always, Charlestown begins in a full-court press - pressuring the ball for the entire length of the court in the hopes of causing turnovers - and keeps it up for the entire game. O'Brien tried this approach five years earlier, and it brought him his first state championship. He's stayed with it ever since. Few teams press like this, because it's exhausting. That's why O'Brien keeps his bench in perpetual motion, cycling 10 players in and out.

With a few minutes left in the game, and Charlestown leading by 30, Terry Carter enters the game. Two Band-Aids on his arm are the only visible reminder of his stabbing 10 days earlier, when, as he explained it, a couple of drug addicts mistook him and his friends for dealers, words were exchanged, and he chased them down an alley. By the time it ended, he'd been stabbed in the stomach and the arm. Watching from the stands is Terry's guardian, a gray-haired court clerk named Harry Landry. He's had his ups and downs with the chiseled teenager. But Landry's gut tells him that learning discipline from O'Brien this year will put Terry on the right road for good.

More blowouts the next two games, but still O'Brien feels his team is not clicking. Then, a few days before Christmas, Charlestown's home opener against East Boston lets everyone else see what he means. Eastie, Charlestown's bitter rival in the Boston City League, has returned four starters from last year, is sitting above Charlestown in the newspaper rankings, and is convinced this will be its dragon-slaying year. The team quickly embarrasses a flat Charlestown squad, roaring at one point to a 24-point lead, eventually winning by 10. Eastie leaves flying high.

O'Brien settles into a funk. He isn't sleeping well. He knows what's wrong, but he doesn't know how to fix it. Hood is too erratic. Spot is drowning in self-doubt. And Ridley is still too soft. After one Charlestown win the day before New Year's Eve, O'Brien spends his entire locker-room talk railing at Ridley, who'd posted a game-high 21 points. Ridley stares straight ahead, showing no emotion. What he's thinking, he admits later, is this: "Why you keep yelling at me?"

After four years, Ridley is still getting used to Coach's counterintuitive approach to locker-room speeches. O'Brien yells loudest when his team has a wide lead or has just coasted to victory. He is measured during close games. After losses, he is supportive and never yells. Wins offer his guys enough public support, so he tries to bring them back to reality. But defeats can be especially cruel in Boston, where the kids you see in your neighborhood and on the T are more likely to be from a rival school than your own. O'Brien knows most of his players don't have strong family support systems ready to buck them up when they're most down. Losses are no time to make things worse.

His first season in Charlestown, O'Brien lost every game but one. He nearly quit. He was so unprepared for what it takes to coach in Boston. Suburban coaches have to contend with meddling parents upset that their kid isn't getting enough playing time. They wish the parents would just go away. City coaches get to see what it's like when that wish comes true. It's pretty lonely.

What has sustained him all along is the bond he forms with his players. As 2005 begins, O'Brien reminds himself of that. Slowly, he emerges from his funk. For four years, he has worked closely with his veteran players, helping them through troubles at school and home. In addition to Ridley, Spot and Hood, there's a fourth returning senior by the name of George Russell. A stocky 6-footer, George can't jump high or run fast, but he's loyal and disciplined and a good rebounder, so the coach made him a starter. O'Brien often ends his days with a call to one player or another, making sure everything is all right. But he can hear the clock ticking. "I have to start enjoying this more," he tells himself. "Before you know it, they'll be gone."

In terms of basketball strategy, he begins contemplating the unthinkable. But he will wait a few weeks before acting on it.

In the meantime, he makes a few smaller changes. Going into a big January 4 showdown against undefeated Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, he takes Spot out of the starting lineup. He hopes it will remove some pressure from Spot, allowing him to find his groove again coming off the bench. But no senior likes to begin a game sitting down, especially a senior who had been starting as a sophomore.

Spot does not have a good night, but the rest of the team comes alive. Before an electric Cambridge crowd, the Charlestown guys dive for every loose ball, contest every rebound, and leave with a 58-51 win.

In the locker room, O'Brien is beaming. "I feel like we turned the corner today," he says as applause erupts. Then he walks over to Terry, puts his arms out, preacher style, and yells, "Do you feel it?"

They are still officially called the Charlestown Townies. It's an odd moniker for an all black team playing for a school that is now only 8 percent white. It evokes the 1970s, when Charlestown was the seat of the white working class's red-hot anger over busing. Charlestown High was 70 percent white back then. But the Townies are gone now. Yuppies bought their old town houses, restoring the flower boxes and hardwood floors, sending their kids, if they have any, to private schools. Black, Hispanic, and Asian kids from Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester walk the school corridors now. In his 12 years at Charlestown, O'Brien has had just two white players, and only one actually from the town.

Few people besides sportswriters call the team the Townies these days. The players don't think of the nickname as racially loaded. They just don't think of it at all. When Hood leads his teammates in their pregame ritual - a rapping, swaying huddle chant they call "rocking the boat" - he yells "Charlestown!" and they yell "Riders!" It just sounds better than Townies.

O'Brien's occasional attempts to speak his players' language can make them wince. In a recurring locker-room lament, the middle-aged Irishman will yell, "You're chillin' out there!" - leaning his shoulders way back and putting both hands out, all casual and cool. No matter how often he strikes that pose, with O'Brien, it never looks casual or cool.

More remarkable, though, is how little race seems to intervene in their relationship. Guys who've been with him awhile can tell he cares about a lot more than just what they can do for him on the court. They can see how he'll think nothing of driving 20 hours in a weekend to cheer on one of his former players in a college game.

O'Brien is also careful to find ways for his guys to make the program theirs. Charlestown High's traditional colors are red, white, and royal blue. But each year, O'Brien lets the seniors choose what color they want the team jackets, sweat shirts, and sneakers to be. They almost always opt for black. At all of Charlestown's sparsely attended home games, a DJ named J-Rome sets up in the corner of the gym, spinning hip-hop tunes during breaks in the action. He never fails to play "Disco Inferno," by 50 Cent. When the Charlestown cheerleaders hear the refrain - "Shake sh-sh-shake that ass, girl!" - they break from their formation and do as 50 says.

The annual weekend getaway. Playing in a competitive tournament. Staying two nights in a Hilton. Having all their meals covered. It doesn't matter that this mid-January journey leads them to Springfield, a city that even the Chamber of Commerce would have a hard time pitching as a "getaway." The players know the name on their jerseys carries weight in basketball circles across the state. They hear how people reach for the same word to describe the Charlestown program. "Powerhouse." They like hearing that.

So does O'Brien. At most away games, a couple of strangers will walk up to him and introduce themselves. They suspect there's glamour in coaching a powerhouse program. They don't know that O'Brien pushes a gray mop across the Charlestown gym floor before each practice. And counts to make sure he has all six warm-up basketballs before getting on the bus. And keeps a nervous eye on the water cooler outside the gym, hoping it doesn't run out before the end of the month in a school where lead levels make the drinking water undrinkable.

O'Brien uses the Springfield weekend as leverage to get the players caught up on school work. The seniors had been through this before, and had heeded his warnings. The sophomores may have been contributing on the court, but they were still trying to slide by in school. So while the upperclassmen relax in the Hilton jacuzzi, the sophomores like big men Terry and Troy sit for hours in an over-heated conference room doing homework. Troy is lucky to be there at all. O'Brien had suspended him a week earlier for a bad attitude.

Once the actual game rolls around, the Charlestown players look groggy. They're lucky to escape with a 5-point win, thanks largely to Hood's fierce drives in the second half. As the players file off the court, Terry locks eyes with a cheerleader for the other team and slowly mouths, "You're gorgeous." She blushes, letting her pompoms fall by her side.

After a downbeat post-game talk, O'Brien and Zach stand outside the locker room replaying the low points. Although Spot, who'd sunk a trio of 3-pointers, feels he turned the corner, his coaches are stressing about how much more they need to see from him.

Just then, a young blond guy in a polo shirt comes bounding over. He introduces himself as an assistant coach for Springfield College and says to O'Brien, "I was wondering about No. 1."

O'Brien, who looks surprised, considering how he felt Spot had played, says, "He's available."

"Great," says the assistant, handing O'Brien a recruitment information packet. "Could you give this to him?"

It's a Friday in early February, and the guys are feeling good. Spot had come alive on the court the night before, posting 23 points, and Hood had scored his own 23 in the game before that. But they didn't have much time to look back. Tomorrow would be their big rematch against Eastie. During lunch period, instead of settling for the cafeteria's cardboard-flavored pizza, they order out. Spot, wearing loosely laced Timberlands, slyly exits the caf for his rendezvous with the delivery man. A few minutes later, he's sitting across the table from Hood, pulling grease-stained paper bags from his pockets. Twanda, a friend from the girls basketball team, stands in front of Hood to block the view of the cafeteria monitors as he devours his tasty cheeseburger dripping with ketchup and mayo.

As far as rebellion goes, it's pretty mild stuff. During middle school, Hood's hair-trigger temper got him suspended so often that the assistant principal took to keeping him in his office for the whole day leading up to a basketball game so he would remain eligible to play. But a lot had changed since then for Hood. His father, who had blown in and out of his early life, had been back home for a couple of years, and they were beginning to reconnect. That made Hood just about the only guy on the team to have both parents at home. And his coach, whom he had stared at coolly during one-on-one meetings as a freshman, was now someone he trusted. One awful night last season, when he learned that his mother, whom he adores, had lung cancer, Hood had turned to O'Brien, sobbing uncontrollably on the phone. O'Brien could understand. He never had much of a relationship with his own father and remains extremely devoted to his 75-year-old mother, with whom he lives.

Hood now trusts O'Brien enough to let him into his world, past the icy looks and clipped responses that keep most other adults at a distance. O'Brien treasures this access, because, unlike with the sociable Spot or the even-keeled Ridley, Hood makes you earn every bit of it. O'Brien began the year determined to see him get an acceptance letter and a good financial-aid package from a solid Division III college. But as the season went on, and Hood's game improved and the bond between them grew tighter, O'Brien put a new challenge on himself. He wants to help Hood score an athletic scholarship. Those are harder to come by and available only from the bigger college programs in Divisions I and II. That would mean a lot more work for O'Brien. And for Hood. He's a smart kid who writes well but whose grades fluctuate greatly, depending on the class and his mood.

The next night, the Eastie gym is packed and thumping. Yellow "do not cross" police tape is stretched along the perimeter of the court, to keep spectators off it. After its loss in the last Eastie game, Charlestown had won 11 in a row. But that was the easy stretch of the schedule. The next batch of opponents includes some of the top-ranked teams in Eastern Massachusetts.

As Hood leads his teammates onto the court for their rock-the-boat huddle, he knows this rematch could set their course for the rest of the regular season. He knows they've been practicing hard, and he is feeling confident that Coach's surprise shift in defensive strategy will catch Eastie off guard.

Jack O'Brien, who rode the full-game, full-court press to four straight state titles, will be switching to man-to-man.

Hood can see that his huddle is thinner by one big man. Terry, two months after his stabbing, had disappeared, and no one has been able to find him.

But Hood knows other teammates are ready to pick up the slack, especially Spot. Tonight marks his return to the starting lineup.

As he scans the bleachers, Hood takes comfort in the familiar sight of his father, sitting there wearing the Charlestown T-shirt he'd had printed up with his son's number on it, snapping pictures of him with his Canon T70. He had been a fixture at the games for several years now, and for a long time the only Charlestown dad in the crowd. But something unexpected had been happening as the season unfolded. Spot and Ridley, whose fathers had both been distant figures - strangers almost - for much of their lives, had begun seeing their dads in the stands at every game. And neither player knew what to make of it, or how long it would last.

Next week: "Fathers, Sons, and Surrogates."

Neil Swidey is a member of the Globe Magazine staff. He can be reached at

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Charlestown High basketball
 PART TWO: Fathers, Sons, and Surrogates (5/1/05)
 PART THREE: End Game (5/8/05)
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