Former NBA Prospect Is Now Fighting For His Freedom
The Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center sits on a strip of forgotten land between Interstate 95 and the Delaware River, 11 miles northeast of Philadelphia's downtown. It's a tucked-away part of America's seventh-largest metropolis, home to a sprawling campus of five city jails that much of this city never sees. Attorneys, here to visit inmates, sit in idling cars alongside the road with cellphones attached to their ears. Three rings of barbed wire top the two-story wall of rough-hewn red bricks at the main entrance. At the top of the wall are these words: "Opportunity to change with dignity."
Inside his small, spare, two-man cell, the Prince of North Philly is taking a nap.
A guard walks past the communal area, where a handful of metal tables are bolted to the linoleum floor. The guard strides up to Rysheed Jordan's cell and rouses the 23-year-old. The guard tells Jordan he has a visitor. As the guard escorts Jordan past the fellow inmates he's lived alongside since he was arrested on an attempted murder charge (among others) last year, past the small television hanging from the stairs where he watched the NBA Finals a few days before, the man people once called the Prince of North Philly wonders who will be waiting for him inside the 5-by-10 white cinder block room next to the guard station. He guesses it's his attorney. And if it is his attorney waiting on the other side of that door, Jordan is ready to give him a piece of his mind. The attorney had been trying to get Jordan home on house arrest so he can help his sickly mother and six younger siblings, but more than a year after his arrest, he's still inside here, still awaiting a trial, still uncertain whether the outside world has forgotten him.
Inside here, Jordan stays up at night, wondering how it all went so wrong. Two-and-a-half years ago, he was starring for the St. John's basketball team, second on the team in scoring and first in assists while playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. He was a former top-20 recruit in the same heralded recruiting class as Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. He was a big, shifty, tough-nosed point guard who had innate court vision and played tenacious defense. An NBA career seemed just around the bend. Now he's inside here. And inside here, instead of being excited about his upcoming NBA season, Jordan is excited for something much more mundane: He got a new job cleaning the jail's gym during the morning, which means if he gets his work done quickly, he can lift some weights, run some sprints and put up some shots.
Inside here is no pleasant place. Inside here are accused rapists and murderers and gang members among the 100 men in his cellblock. Inside here is the constant sense of danger, the very real threat that if Jordan crosses the wrong person, he could be attacked, like the inmate he saw stabbed in the neck the other day. Inside here are meals Jordan doesn't find fit for a dog and phone calls to family that last 15 minutes before he's cut off and long stretches of boredom and depression.
Those stretches are interrupted by small, painful reminders of what his outside world was like: reading a magazine story about NBA lottery pick Kris Dunn, a friend who was one of Jordan's contemporaries as a collegiate star and NBA prospect in the Big East. Talking with another inmate who raved to Jordan about his nationally televised game in 2015 when Jordan scored 16 points in the first half of St. John's close loss to eventual national champion Duke. Sitting in his cell all day on his 23rd birthday because the jail was on lockdown and knowing that his family was throwing him a party on the outside, watching Jordan's old highlight videos on YouTube and eating red velvet cake, his favorite.
A guard opens the door to the visitor's room, and Jordan, wearing an orange jumpsuit, a full inch of beard growth and 10 extra pounds, walks in. His face brightens. It's not his attorney. It's his mother.
They hug over a wooden divider. What is there to say? Nothing. And everything. They speak of when Rysheed's mother taught him to make fried chicken when he was nine years old, so he could feed his younger siblings when his single mother was at work. They speak of the new apartment his mother, Amina Robinson, moved into a couple weeks before to get far away from their rough old neighborhood. They speak of one of Jordan's younger brothers, Nieeam Edwards, a budding 15-year-old basketball player in Philadelphia who grew up idolizing Jordan, and who Jordan worries may be tempted by the streets. They speak about life behind bars, a life Jordan had never experienced until his arrest in June 2016.
"Every day is a depressing day," Jordan says. "Sometimes I wake up and it feels like a dream that I'm still here. Other days I can't sleep. I'm worried about my mom's heart stopping, and there's nothing I can do."
And they speak about the strange allure of the tough streets of North Philly, and how hard it can be to leave the 'hood behind.
At that point, Jordan turns to me. I've accompanied Jordan's mother to the jail, which is why we're in the private official visiting area instead of the large communal one where he's allowed only one visiting hour a week. (Jail officials would not permit a notebook or a recording device, so quotes from Jordan were recorded from memory immediately after the visit.) "North Philly gets you," he explains. "It's like Chicago. I love Philly, but Philly's not good for me. There's no life here. There's nothing left here for me but family."
"If God gives me another chance," Jordan says, "I'm going to go far, far away."
The legend of the tough-nosed Philly point guard is integral to the basketball history of this city. A Philly point guard's never-back-down mindset comes from streetball, from teenage basketball phenoms' desires to prove their mettle against bigger, older men on the playground courts, the tough guys who loved to throw an elbow to cut the young bucks down to size. The legendary playground courts at 16th and Susquehanna in North Philly, where Wilt Chamberlain and Hank Gathers used to play, are a mile from where Rysheed Jordan grew up. The Philly mentality comes through in native sons like Kyle Lowry and Pooh Richardson, the 10-year NBA veteran Jordan was often compared to. Kobe Bryant's hyperconfident Black Mamba persona is the distillation of Philly streetball. A DraftExpress scouting report on a 5-star point guard out of Philadelphia who is heading to Kentucky this fall raves about his "Philly demeanor," and coaches instinctively know what that means.
Jordan's Philly demeanor came from playgrounds and gyms all over North Philly—from outdoor games at the Athletic Recreation Center a few blocks from his home, to rough-and-tumble games at the Hank Gathers Youth Access Center down the road, to high-profile games at a streetball showcase called the Chosen League.
The first thing college coaches noticed about a young Rysheed Jordan was his build. He was a tall point guard with "spider arms," as one collegiate recruiter told me, a powerful and athletic body that would grow to 6'4" by the time he graduated high school, the frame and raw athletic talent to make him an elite recruit. Some recruiting rankings, including Rivals and ESPN, put Jordan above future lottery picks like Joel Embiid and Zach LaVine, above future first-rounders like Tyler Ennis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
The second thing coaches noticed was his toughness. He was a Philly streetballer down to his bones—ruthless on defense, getting far down in a defensive crouch and daring other guards to challenge him. "Philly guards, they're just tough," says Tony Chiles, who got to know Jordan when he was an assistant coach at Drexel University in Philadelphia and later was his main recruiter for St. John's. "These kids come from tough spots. The only times in their lives they didn't have to worry about anything, when they can just try to be a kid, was when they were on a basketball court."
As a three-year-old, Jordan played on a court using trash cans as makeshift hoops. When he got older, he cut the bottom out of plastic crates and hung them from light poles. Soon, he was biking to neighborhood playgrounds, one hand on the handlebars and the other cradling a ball. By the time he was playing at Vaux High School, the public school just on the other side of the Athletic Recreation Center, he was a star. "He was the Pied Piper, a legendary high school player," says Kamal Yard, Jordan's summer-league coach. "He'd walk in the gym, and 100 people would follow him." The notoriety only grew with time. Jordan won a state title and was named the city's top player as a senior. The city clamored for him to stay close to home and star at Temple.
His game resembled Derrick Rose's, and so did the love between Jordan and his neighborhood. It was important for him to play at the underfunded and overlooked neighborhood school instead of some faraway prep school where he could develop his skills with other elite high school players. Jordan was a North Philly kid who wanted to stay in North Philly.
Once they got to know him, the third big thing coaches noticed about Jordan was this: The teenager was intensely loyal, both to his family and his neighborhood. His mother had seven children. Jordan was 15 years older than the youngest. He grew up as the man of the house. "He loved it, just wanted to be everybody's father," his mom says. When Jordan was in high school, he'd get out of school at 3:30 p.m., pick up his siblings at their bus stops, get them started on homework, make them sandwiches, then rush back to school for 4:30 p.m. basketball practice. "He relished that," Chiles says. "Everything about his being was taking care of family."
The loyalty and maturity was admirable. But the flip side was that he could never fully commit to a basketball career with these pulls of home.
When Jordan narrowed his college choices down to three, each represented a different life path. If he went to Temple, he'd be the hometown hero, the big-time recruit in the same neighborhood where he grew up—but susceptible to the influences of the streets that had brought down so many before him. If he went to UCLA, he'd be aiming for a new life where he could focus just on basketball—but he'd be a continent away from the mother and siblings who needed him. He chose a middle ground. St. John's was far enough that he wasn't playing in his own backyard—but close enough (a 120-mile drive up Interstate 95) that he could come home when he needed.
But when he left for St. John's, home kept tugging at him.
He was in Paris on an overseas trip with the team before his freshman year when he learned his cousin had been killed in a police-involved shooting. He sat in a marble hotel lobby and cried. When he got back to campus, he was so homesick he'd throw up. That subsided, but then shortly before his freshman season, his mother had emergency open-heart surgery. He dashed home to Philadelphia. The next day, he was in the hospital room when she woke from her induced coma.
Three, four, five times a week, he'd drive back to Philadelphia. His mother was at her sickest—high blood pressure, epilepsy, diabetes, blood clots—and Rysheed felt he needed to be home as much as he could. He'd be late to practice. He'd be tired from the long drives. During one game against Villanova, there was a commotion behind the St. John's bench. Jordan's family just learned his aunt had been shot and killed. Coaches and family broke the news to Jordan after the game.
If this kid could just have had a six-month run where nothing would go wrong in his life, he could be rich beyond his wildest imagination. He would have been a borderline lottery pick. — Tony Chiles, assistant coach who recruited Jordan to St. John's
The chaos of his childhood had traveled with him to St. John's.
"The basketball court was Sheed's sanctuary. He was most at peace on the floor," former St. John's head coach Steve Lavin says. "With the ball in his hands, he had command of the game and control of his life. It was between the practices and games when Sheed struggled. He'd get anxious and clearly was torn emotionally when separated from his family and Philly."
The challenge at St. John's was this: Focusing solely on basketball could turn that raw talent into the refined skills of an NBA millionaire. Could the coaching staff make Jordan realize that staying away from his family and his neighborhood now—staying away from the drama of North Philly and the family that looked to him as its rock—would be best for his family later?
"If this kid could just have had a six-month run where nothing would go wrong in his life, he could be rich beyond his wildest imagination," Chiles says. "He would have been a borderline lottery pick."
Nieeam Edwards is 15 years old. He's a shade over 6'0" tall, but he hopes he keeps growing—6'4" would be nice, 6'6" even better—because he wants to become a big-time college basketball player just like his older brother, Rysheed. He has the wispy sort of mustache you'd expect from someone who just finished ninth grade. He listens to the Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill because Meek Mill speaks of the gritty street life. Nieeam knows the perils of street life. His cousin and one of his best friends, an 18-year-old aspiring rapper named Samir Fortune, was killed in a shooting earlier this year.
"When you're growing up in Philly, you have close friends die," Nieeam says as I drive him from his mother's new apartment back to the old neighborhood. "It's dangerous. A place you don't want to grow up at. It's not a good place for anybody. It's a bunch of warring going on. My cousin got killed in his house, shot up through the windows. They were going for him."
Hearing these words come out of the mouth of a 15-year-old kid is jarring. So is hearing him talk about his older brother, who basically raised him, making him sandwiches and taking him to the park and showing him around Madison Square Garden. They had a special handshake, just for the two of them. They still do it when Nieeam visits the jail.
"He's my older brother, but he's more like my dad," Nieeam says.
We pass the leafy campus of La Salle University. I ask him about growing up without a dad: "It wasn't hard because I always had Sheed. He always was there." We cross Broad Street, pass a cemetery, pass the amphitheater where Rysheed graduated from high school. As we cross into the Brewerytown neighborhood where Nieeam and Rysheed grew up, it seems like every other house is boarded up.
I ask Nieeam to take me by their old home. When I ask if we can get out and walk around the block, he says no. It's too dangerous. He tells me about when Rysheed was sitting on their stoop and almost got shot by a stray bullet. We watch a mother toss water balloons at her two little kids. We drive to the Athletic Recreation Center where Rysheed used to play ball. We get out and lean against a fence. I ask Nieeam about his brother.
"I just try not to think about it," he shrugs. "I go to the gym to clear my head, get stuff out of my mind. Take my anger out on the court. There's a lot of anger. But nobody would ever know. Sheed was the same way."
At the end of Jordan's sophomore year, Lavin, who had become his father figure, left the school. Jordan was devastated. His godfather, Rodney Vesey, says Jordan took a while to build rapport and trust with Lavin, but once he did, that bond was rock-solid. Starting over with a new coach seemed impossible.
Jordan considered entering the NBA draft. Then he changed his mind and decided to return to St. John's. But his academics had slipped, so he likely would have been ineligible his junior year. He was drafted by the Delaware 87ers, the Philadelphia 76ers' D-League affiliate in 2015. They played in Newark, Delaware, right near the old neighborhood. After 11 games, Jordan was released.
On Memorial Day weekend in 2016, Jordan was outside the Athletic Recreation Center. According to reports from CSN Philly and Philly.com, two people approached him and his friends, who were inside a car, to buy marijuana, and things erupted between the two groups. Jordan's group allegedly tried to rob the other two men, and when the two men fled, one was shot in the arm, with Jordan alleged to have pulled the trigger.
A few days later, at 2:03 a.m. on June 1, Jordan ran a red light, according to reports. He jumped out of his car and ran. Police arrested him after a chase. He was charged with robbery, criminal conspiracy, weapons charges and attempted murder, among others.
He'd tried to leave. But the neighborhood had pulled him back in.
As Nieeam stands next to the scene of his brother's alleged crimes, he speaks about his own ambitions. He wants to go to college too—play basketball, move far away from Philadelphia. He echoes his older brother: He loves North Philly, but North Philly is no good for him.
"You can't trust nobody here," he says. "You ever seen a bunch of live crabs in a basket? One of them tries and get out, and the rest of them pull each other down. That's exactly how it is. Nobody wants to see nobody doing better than them."
The door clicks open. A guard walks in. Abruptly, their time is up.
The Prince of North Philly wipes a tear from his eye and gives his mother a hug. Jordan leaves the cinder block visiting room out one door while his mother leaves out the other. She retrieves from a locker the purse he had given her as a Mother's Day gift. She freshens up in the bathroom and walks into the steamy June day.
"I gotta get out of here," Amina Robinson says. She takes a big swig of her iced tea. She's lightheaded. "I feel like I'm going to vomit."
We drive back to her new apartment. There's not much inside the apartment now. Two lawn chairs are all the furniture in the living room. Boxes are still packed. Rysheed's state championship trophy looms large in the corner, along with photos of Rysheed with NBA players: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, John Wall. Amina isn't thrilled with the new place—the stovetop doesn't work so well, so she's been setting off fire alarms while making fried chicken—but it's clean, it's safe, it's only $1,200 a month, and it's far away from the old neighborhood. After Rysheed's arrest, she needed to get her younger children away from that neighborhood.
Amina is someone who can talk for hours. On the drive to the jail, she looked at the big houses dreamily. That one has a two-car garage, she marveled; this one has beautiful red bricks. She speaks of Rysheed getting out of jail and resuming his basketball career, and then the family moving to a ranch in Texas, a big compound of houses where the family could all live together, undisturbed.
On the drive back home from the jail, she is silent. Going to jail depresses her. She keeps thinking of something Rysheed said to me shortly before our visiting time was up.
"When God gives you a talent," Rysheed had said, "you gotta run with it." For a while, he was running with it.
She blames herself—her sickliness that distracted her son so much during his college career, her inability to coax him away from the influences of the street—for him wasting his talent.
She wanted her son to be able to run with that talent again. He wanted to, too.
The maximum sentence for attempted murder is 20 years, but Amina has already written a letter to the judge in her son's case, which goes to trial September 20, nearly 16 months after his arrest. The judge is also from this neighborhood. Amina is hoping for leniency.
"We're asking the judge for her to put pressure on him, to let him know that, 'I'm letting you out to become this ballplayer, that I'm not letting you out to run the streets of Philadelphia,'" she says. "This is what I'm asking her in my letter to do. I want her to give him the ultimatum of jail or up, up, away, on a plane. There's nothing here for him in Philadelphia. So much violence, so many people getting killed. I love my boys. And my boys are made to be something, to go somewhere."
That's what Jordan says he wants, too. Maybe he can move to Atlanta or Los Angeles to train with former teammates and friends. Then maybe he can get a second chance at the NBA's developmental league. If not there, maybe overseas. His agent was working on a contract for him to play in China when he was arrested last year.
We pull up to her new apartment. Jordan's mother mentions that she was happy to hear her son say Philly wasn't good for him. Maybe he really will get away this time. As I say goodbye, Rysheed Jordan's mother grabs my hand. She has an intense look in her eyes. "Please," she begs. "Please. Don't forget us. Don't forget Rysheed."
As she speaks, the Prince of North Philly is less than 10 miles away, surrounded by brick walls and chain-link fences topped by barbed wire, in a place where people do become forgotten. Jordan doesn't know how long he'll be behind bars. Maybe the trial goes his way and he is set free on time served—on with this life that once seemed so full of promise, and perhaps still is.
Or maybe he gets convicted on the worst of the charges, attempted murder, and spends decades behind bars.
If that happens, he would be remembered in a very different way: as a cautionary tale of how the pull of a neighborhood, the drama of a family's troubles and the pressure to become that family's ticket out can all add up and sink a talented young man.
If that happens, we must not write off Rysheed Jordan as just some thug who was never going to amount to anything anyway. That would be both callous and untrue.
Jordan was once a good and innocent boy. He was also a hugely talented basketball player whose gift could have changed his lot in life, and his family's as well. Perhaps he is still all of those things, perhaps none of them—you can never truly see inside a man's heart. Through the fault of his circumstances and the fault of his actions, the person he once was has changed, perhaps irrevocably. You don't come out of prison the same man who went in. But when you sit face to face with him behind those jail walls, or you speak with his mother about how he was her rock as much as she was his, you sense there's still something good inside there. And that good can grow. Those are the words printed on the jail wall: "Opportunity to change with dignity." A man who made it through the worst circumstances and came out in the end as a better person for it all.
That's what Jordan wants: another chance at life. Another chance to run with the talent that God gave him. Another chance to improve his lot in life, and his family's.
He wants to not be tossed away and forgotten. And whether as a cautionary tale of potential wasted, or as an eventual tale of redemption gained, he shouldn't be.
Date Posted: Wednesday, September 6th, 2017 , Total Page Views: 1499