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Youths turn to 'godfather' Coach: Tyrone Gaines, founder of the basketball league in troubled Reservoir Hill, offers youths guidance off the court, too.

Cynics say one person can't make a difference. But in Reservoir Hill, a drug-infested neighborhood in West Baltimore, one man is keeping hope alive.

Tyrone Gaines, 42, is the founder and coach of the neighborhood basketball league, but his influence extends far beyond the court.

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"Man, he's amazing," said Tony Atkinson, 11, a sixth-grader at Mount Royal Middle School. "I call him the godfather because he understands your problems."

"He's been extremely dedicated to the neighborhood since he was a kid. It would be a lot worse without him," said the Rev. Thomas Composto, 58, of St. Francis Roman Catholic Church, who is known as the Pope of Whitelock Street.

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Tyrone Gaines was 16 when he started the basketball league. It was 1971, and a 12-year-old friend had just been stabbed to death trying to break up a family feud. "He was gasping for breath in my arms," Gaines said. "This was a guy that had a lot of potential."

Gaines said the community was in an uproar and that he wanted to do something to bring his neighbors back together. On instinct, he staged a pickup basketball game in a narrow alley. Parents brought their own chairs and card tables to watch a handful of youths battle on the court.

The seed was sown, and today more than 200 players ages 7 to 35 play in the Reservoir Hill Rivalry Community Basketball League.

When Gaines enters the John Eager Howard Recreation Center, where the teams practice, a half-dozen kids rush to hug him.

"The kids gravitate toward him because he's so outgoing," said Charles Harrison, 45, director of the center. "So many people love Tyrone because he always gives of himself and asks nothing in return."

Gaines said basketball encourages unity. "I always tell the kids when you spell 'team,' there's no 'i' in team," he said.

The coaching doesn't end on the court. "He said I could do better in school," said Maxine McCroery, 11, a sixth-grader at Mount Royal Middle School. "He helped me a lot. I used to have 'satisfactories,' and now I have all 'goods.' "

After graduating from Douglass High School in 1974, Gaines won an athletic scholarship to Virginia State University. He quit after two years when he was benched. Sports, not education, was his top priority. He hopes children such as Maxine will learn from his mistake.

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Gaines, who also is a full-time informations systems operator at Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., also gives the youths moral guidance. Basketball players who curse are warned. Repeat offenders are suspended. He said his players don't even dream of using drugs.

'Do the right thing'

"He doesn't want any kids disrespecting their moms," said Tony Atkinson. "He tells us not to stand on the corners and to do the right thing."

National Basketball League players including David Wingate, Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Williams once played in Gaines' league, but it is not restricted to a talented few. "Too many times a day, doors close in these kids' faces," Gaines said.

He said he uses basketball to lure youths into his volunteer programs. His "trash-busters" pick up trash in the neighborhood. His Granny Committee of local grandmothers holds food drives and dinners for the neighborhood homeless. His Reservoir Hill Coalition raises money for community parties and festivals.

Gaines' Stop the Violence candlelight vigils are part of his effort to get drug dealers off the street.

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Rodell Bailey-El, 31, was one of Gaines' projects. In his dealing days, Bailey-El was in and out of jail, was shot and lost friends to street violence.

The money Bailey-El made from dealing fed his own addiction. But one day, Gaines gave Bailey-El money for toothpaste, deodorant and underwear.

"It was so heartfelt, to know a person genuinely and unconditionally cared for me, not saying once he wanted to be paid back," Bailey-El said.

Bailey-El, now a recreational activities assistant at the recreation center, credits Gaines with his success. "Mr. Gaines believed in me. He always told me to keep hope alive," Bailey-El said.

Last year, Gaines volunteered 2,000 hours to the community. He works the swing shift at BGE, comes home and goes right to work in the neighborhood.

"I get a couple hours of sleep here and there. I'm like the Energizer bunny: I'm still going," he said.

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Gaines credits three people for his success and drive. First, he names Martin Luther King Jr.

Then comes Charles Harrison, who taught Gaines basketball. "He used to pile eight, nine, 10 of us in his car and take us up to Liberty Heights to play," Gaines said.

Finally he lists his mother. "She was both mother and father to me," he said.

Gaines said his spirituality has been his guide. "God is my leader," he said.

Gaines "always tells me, 'Don't thank me, thank God,' " Bailey-El said. "He's the reason why we are all here."

Recently, Gaines was recognized by BGE as Volunteer of the Year and given $1,000 for the charity of his choice.

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The money paid for professional breakaway rims and backboards for the courts. Not only do the new additions make the youths feel as if they're playing in the NBA, but they cut down on maintenance, Gaines said.

'I'm on a mission'

' Gaines, who is married, has never had children but views the hundreds of neighborhood children as his own. "These kids don't have big brothers or fathers. Somebody has to step in," he said.

"Kids have to distinguish between people who care about them because they want them to sell drugs," Composto said. "A lot of kids have been rescued by him."

Gaines dreams of a day when each neighborhood resident is a homeowner, when children can safely play in the street, sit on their steps at night and leave the back door open "like you used to," and when drug deals happen only in the local pharmacy.

But until that happens, Gaines said, he has every intention of staying put. "Reservoir Hill is my home," he said. "I'm on a mission to save some souls."

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Pub Date: 10/17/96


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