Herman Costley doesn’t play much basketball anymore, not with a balky left knee, blown out in the spring of his senior year at Westminster High School while competing in track and field, and a surgically repaired neck.
Many of his 46 years on this planet have been challenging, and Costley knows why. He’s honest about some poor choices he made in his youth, choices that cost him a chance to flourish after leaving Westminster as one of most dominant basketball players in the state. But roll a ball in his direction, and Costley knows just what to do with it.
It starts with him palming the ball. Then Costley flips it over his head and off the backboard for a few easy lay-ups. When the ball gets away from him for a moment, Costley grabs hold of another opportunity and starts taking short-range jump shots.
He doesn’t miss too much.
“When I started playing rec ball, I was always the best kid,” Costley said, standing near the Westminster City Park basketball courts on which he grew up playing. “No matter what, I was always the best. I was always a little bit taller than everybody else, and I was always better than everybody else. Best player on the team and the best player on the court, no matter where. From the time I was in elementary school to the time I stopped playing on these courts outside."
Costley’s words carry bravado. His basketball skills and resume help him make his case.
The kid from the city park courts became a 6-foot-4 superstar at Westminster, and the rest of the region took notice. Costley earned three first-team all-county selections, and was the Times’ Player of the Year in 1991. Costley averaged 30.6 points and 12.7 rebounds per game as a senior, and scored 47 points in a game against Frederick. He scored 30 or more points 11 times, and led Carroll with 790 that season.
Costley finished his high school career with 1,487 points, the Carroll boys basketball scoring record that stood for 20 years (it’s still second best among public-school players). Playing basketball gave Costley a chance to shine. Not playing led to his life taking an altogether different path.
’I took the wrong turn'
Costley said he was at Allegany Community College (now Allegany College of Maryland) in Cumberland, unable to compete because of his left knee injury — Costley suffered it doing the long jump, he said — and trying to learn how to cope with idle time as a college freshman.
“Me sitting out that first year ... I took the wrong turn,” Costley said. "Me taking the wrong turn … I started selling drugs. Sold drugs for a couple of years and then I started using drugs. It’s just one of those stories that you always hear. A guy that can play basketball, gets hooked on the drugs and gets to selling drugs, and you wind up going to prison. I did six years.
“It ruined my life. I regret it. But that’s part of life.”
Costley said his troubles made him a better person as an adult. After getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, he said he came home after being released from prison and found work. He visited the city park courts, where he once played in front of crowds, and said he didn’t shy away from telling people his story.
“It’s a learning experience,” Costley said. “I try to tell the little kids around my way, Center Street, Charles Street, Union Street, that I talk to … don’t get involved with them drugs. It’s not worth it. I had a great opportunity to do something with my life, and I took the wrong path. It me made a stronger person, too, though.
"I did what I did. it was wrong.”
A complete player
Dave Byers’ knowledge of Carroll basketball goes back to 1960, and the former longtime Westminster coach can’t come up with another name to top Costley as the county’s all-time best. Byers saw Costley’s raw talent as a middle-schooler, then turned it loose at the high school level and the Owls thrived.
Costley, usually a forward, had the ability to play each of the five positions on the court. Byers said for every game Costley fueled Westminster’s offense, and there were plenty, he many times took pride in delivering passes to teammates and playing strong defense.
“He was extremely competitive. No moment was too big for him to take a shot. He was a great player,” Byers said. “He had the whole package, he really did. The tougher the opponent, the better he was.”
Costley said he heard the disses from opposing teams and their fans, but usually the outcome of the game changed their minds. And he gave back as much as he got.
“I talked a lot of trash," he said, "because I could.”
Byers didn’t mind the chatter, even if Costley tested him at times.
“It was never dull when you coached Herman Costley,” the coach said.
A hall of fame debate
Byers coached at Francis Scott Key and Westminster high schools before being enshrined in the Carroll County Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. The Hall which celebrated its 25th year this year, features its share of basketball players and coaches.
Costley isn’t in that group, and he said he knows why.
“I should have been in 20 years ago,” Costley said. "You bypass me for people that haven’t even done nothing? I truly thought I was going to get in this year. Me doing what I did … and you’re still not going to put me in there? And then the people that you did put in there? Come on, now. You’re telling me [it’s] either because of my skin color or because of my past. Or both.
“I can’t get mad, because I chose that lifestyle. But don’t take away credit from what I did in high school.”
Back to basketball
Costley finds his hands on the basketball once more, and he’s dribbling and stepping back for more jumpers. On this hot, humid recent late summer morning, Costley works up a bit of a sweat while flashing some of his moves on the court. Off comes his black T-shirt, and now Costley is under the hoop in a gray, sleeveless undershirt, and sunglasses.
And he’s talking the entire time, about his childhood, his playing days, his life choices, and his current status. Costley said he’s earning a living working for Area Refuse, and enjoys being out on his own with a steady trash route.
He might not play much basketball these days, but he’s never too far from the sport. And he’s planning a comeback of sorts — Costley wants one year to get himself into playing shape before returning to those city park courts and proving to the younger guys he still has what it takes to dominate.
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“If I was in shape and if my body was halfway decent, at 46 years old, they still wouldn’t be able to guard me,” Costley said. “And that’s the God’s honest truth. You still wouldn’t be able to guard me. That’s just how good I was."