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Through it all, a Ray of hope

Freeman never lost dream of playing college basketball

AMHERST -- All of the kids were special to her. In the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Schenectady, N.Y. -- a place Daisy Smythe unabashedly calls "a hood" -- all of the grandchildren and cousins had a unique place in her heart. So, too, all of the foster kids, the parade of runaways and castoffs she brought in and showered with tough love. They too were children of God. They deserved a chance.

But the really tall one, the frequently frustrated, sometimes angry boy with the big heart and the beautiful singing voice -- this one was destined for greatness. Rashaun Freeman, her second-oldest grandson, was going to represent them all. He was going to go into the world and do something big. She knew it. She was not going to have it any other way.

So when the report from the neurologists came through in his early teenage years, she just shook her head.

So what if this was "the worst case of dyslexia they'd ever seen"? Who cared if they thought he would never "read above the third grade level"? Let them state emphatically that "college is out."

She knew better.

Fast-forward a few years to last Wednesday night for Daisy's validation. Seated at the Mullins Center before the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team tipped off against La Salle, Daisy was brimming. "Ray-Ray" was about to play his final home game as a senior tricaptain. He had become a star college player, the No. 5 scorer and No. 3 rebounder in school history.

But proud as this day was, it paled before the one she looks forward to in a few months.

"The day he graduates," she said, savoring the words as if they were hot bread out of the oven, "will be the greatest day of my life. I'll probably cry through the whole thing."

For as long as Rashaun Freeman can remember, his grandmother was the center of the family. He never knew his father. His mother, Dametress Mayers, was a zesty woman who could sing birds out of their nests, but she struggled to navigate some of Schenectady's obstacles. There were times she was lovingly present; other times her seven children with five different last names were raised by Daisy Smythe. "My mom raised 15 kids, plus her own," said Mayers, also on hand at Senior Night, shaking her head in wonder, the alternating brown and blond braids swaying down her back. "I don't know how she does it."

There was never much money in the house, few material possessions. Ask Freeman about it, though, and he describes a place of remarkable riches. "Even though we didn't have every thing," he said, "we had everything. We had love. We had whatever a kid needs."

At least three times a week, Daisy would haul the brood down to the Refreshing Spring Pentecostal Church. All the kids got involved in the youth programs. Everywhere there was music. That's where Freeman picked up the piano and the saxophone. That's where he became a demon on the drums. And that's where he developed the soulful singing voice that seemed to come from such a deep, inner place. He didn't have any choice but to sing well in the choir. After all, Daisy was the director.

At home, she cooked up a nonstop diet of discipline. One of her foster children told her she was tougher than God: "He had only 10 commandments, but you have 25, and you expect us to follow them."

"I insist that you follow them," Daisy said. "Otherwise, you have chaos."

Rashaun, she recalls, was a bit of a bully as a youngster, something he acknowledges. As a result, he often wound up in her doghouse, otherwise known as the kitchen, where Daisy routinely cooked for the masses and made church suppers. (Doing the hard time in the kitchen would become a boon for UMass players years later. He frequently cooks for teammates, and roommate Tiki Mayben reports that he can "really chef it up.")

School was a monumental challenge. Freeman's dyslexia turned the letters on a page into swirling minnows. He often stuttered and shriveled in embarrassment. He had trouble concentrating.

"I have a severe, severe, severe learning disability," Freeman acknowledged. "I don't really know what holds me back, but there is something there."

Often his frustration got the best of him.

Schenectady special education teacher Mark Sausville watched Freeman often throw his pen in disgust or crumple up a piece of paper and hurl it across the room. Always, though, he would gather himself and try again. "He would always stay with it," Sausville recalled. "He refused to give in to it. He refused to fail."

As the varsity basketball coach, Sausville also saw Freeman's hunger in another context. He was a determined presence in the low post with tremendous speed for his size, a ravenous desire for rebounds, and a soft touch with his left hand. Still, when things didn't go his way, Freeman sometimes erupted and got tossed out of practice several times.

At the end of practice, Sausville would find Freeman waiting, puppy-like, in the locker room. A self-described "in-your-face kind of coach," Sausville would lay into Freeman. The star player would take it all in, nodding, listening -- really listening. Beneath the tempest were piles of sensitivity and depth. It was just a matter of unlocking Freeman's gifts, Sausville knew. Besides, it was impossible for the coach to do anything but like the kid. He sang on the bus and played his tail off on the court.

During his junior year, Freeman helped lead Schenectady to a New York state championship.

Still, college seemed a major reach. During his senior year, Freeman went with Sausville for a new battery of neurological tests and the results were not encouraging: "You'll just never play college basketball," Sausville remembers the neurologist telling Freeman. "It's just not in your future."

Opportunity seized
Before enrolling at UMass in 2002, Freeman had a long talk with his grandmother. She knew that he understood the stakes. This was his one chance, and he needed to make the most of it.

Ineligible to play or practice that first year under NCAA academic guidelines, Freeman operated out of the public eye, but with a sense of resolve. From Day One, he set the tone of arriving 15 minutes early to all his meetings with tutors and professors, said Matt Komer, the assistant director of academic support. Freeman's attendance was perfect. For hours, he would sit before the Kurzweil computer programs that scanned textbooks and read them back out loud. "You can never tell him he can't do something," said Komer.

Longtime strength and conditioning coach Bob Otrando saw a young man on a mission. One broiling day on the track, Freeman threw up repeatedly after doing 10 sprints of 100 meters. Otrando says he told him to stop, only to get waved off by Freeman, who proceeded to do 10 more.

The following year he returned to the court to play for former UMass coach Steve Lappas. The staff and the UMass fans could sense how much it mattered to Freeman. He played the game with a visceral yearning, demanding the ball in the low post, attacking the glass, shaking his head vigorously after each basket. By season's end, he earned Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year honors, leading UMass in scoring at 15.4 points per game.

His telltale animation provided a memorable moment early in his sophomore year. In the waning seconds against seventh-ranked Connecticut, he scored a basket to put UMass ahead, 61-59. Believing the game was over, he sprinted into the stands in celebration of the upset. There were, however, 4.3 seconds remaining. His potentially Bucknerian moment became a laughable afterthought -- and the lead on ESPN's "SportsCenter" -- when Denham Brown missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Again Freeman led the team in scoring, this time earning the first of three All-Atlantic 10 first-team honors.

By the time Travis Ford took over as head coach, Freeman had become a far more polished presence off the court. The stutter was gone. The inner depth began to flow. "He says some really profound things," said Ford. "He is one of the most insightful players I have ever had."

This season, Ford says, Freeman has hit even another gear with his effort. He wanted to help lead UMass back to the postseason for the first time since 2000, ideally back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. At least the first part of this quest seems assured as UMass put together a 23-7 regular-season record, sharing first place with Xavier in the A-10 at 13-3. Going into tonight's A-10 quarterfinal against Saint Louis, UMass has the bigger prize in mind.

Throughout the season, Freeman has seemed at once hungry and serene. He has talked a lot about the preciousness of this year, wanting to get everything he can out of it. He has admitted to losing sleep over basketball in recent weeks.

Big plans
Off the court, having completed his general education requirements, Freeman is finishing up his degree in individual concentration by creating a plan to one day build a unique sports facility -- one that would cater to troubled youths, giving them a refuge. That plan, which carries the clear fingerprints of his grandmother, will be enacted after a likely pro career, perhaps overseas. Preparing for it, he has been working with kids in area schools, including a student teaching stint this semester at Amherst Regional High School.

Looking back, he admits a deep sense of satisfaction. "I made it through the fire," he said, but it's not without some mixed emotions. "When you really see what you wanted to accomplish come to life, it's kind of scary. It's like you have what you want -- and then what?"

Still, he finds himself at peace. "I'm blessed," he said. "Regardless of what happens, I'm not going to forget the fact that I've been fortunate to have the career that I had here."

Those around him are enjoying the ride. Mayben, who grew up not far from Freeman in Troy, N.Y., says he is presented on a daily basis with "the best example." He adds that Freeman's accomplishments are "a big thing back home in our environment. Everybody roots for Ray because everybody knows what Ray's been through."

On Senior Night, Freeman walked out to center court accompanied by his mother and his grandmother, both of whom struggled to contain themselves.

"This is wonderful to see that it's paying off," said his mom, Mayers, who now works as a nurse in Schenectady. "It's wonderful to see it all come together. He really deserves to be where he is. He beat a lot of odds."

Mayers and Daisy Smythe then lost all control when Rashaun surprised them by singing the national anthem, breaking out that beautiful voice from church. It was a taped version from two days earlier just to make sure he could maintain focus on the game (which he did with a game-high 20 points and 12 rebounds in a win over La Salle).

No one in the crowd was more proud, of course, than his grandmother: "He's going to be a very positive image to other children in the community who have been told the same thing: 'You're not worth much. You're not going anywhere. You're not going to do anything.' He's going to bring a message back to the community that says, 'Yes I can. I did it. Yes you can.' "