COCOA, Fla. - Each night at sunset, when the warm breeze gently rocks the palm trees outside his second-story apartment, Daryl Dorsey, if he chooses, can stand on his front porch, gaze at the purple skyline and soak up the sweetest sound in the whole world.
"It's funny," Dorsey says, "but I was just thinking, in the two years I've lived down here, I haven't heard a single gunshot. Back home, you hear them all the time. You almost get used to it. But here? Never."
About 4 1/2 years ago, "home" was a brick townhouse in Northwood, just a few blocks from Morgan State University, where Dorsey spent countless teenage afternoons with a basketball in his hands. It seemed nobody could take it to the basket the way he could. Dorsey would drive the lane like a tornado, his braids whipping in every direction, his body somehow finding the smallest crease between defenders as he laid the ball softly off the boards with his left hand.
He was so quick on the court and so fluid with a basketball, the older kids dubbed him "Lil' Magic," and the nickname stuck. When he got to Dunbar, where he blossomed into a football and basketball star, he even had "Magic" tattooed on his right arm, and from then on, nobody called him Daryl anymore. Big-time colleges like Florida State and Miami were recruiting him to play football, and the whole neighborhood could see he was destined for something big.
"Everybody always said, 'You're the one that's going to make it out, Magic,' " Dorsey says. "The guys selling drugs on the street corner, they never messed with me. They always said, 'Magic, if you get to the NBA, make sure you save me a couple tickets. Or get me a jersey or something. Because I know you're going to make it.' "
A 17-year-old high school junior, he was definitely going places. No one figured it would be a jail cell, but that's exactly what happened Oct. 17, 1998, when Daryl Dorsey was arrested and charged with murder.
It all seems like three lifetimes ago now.
These days Daryl Dorsey, 21, is a sophomore at Brevard Community College, and he's also one of the best junior-college basketball players in the country. Daunte Culpepper, the quarterback of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings, has become a mentor and a close friend. The two met a year and a half ago through Culpepper's childhood friend, Larry Tucker, a former Morgan State football player who was wowed by Dorsey playing pickup games at Morgan State. Tucker just happened to run into Dorsey with Culpepper at the University of Central Florida, and the three have remained close friends since.
"I would do anything for Daryl," says Culpepper, who grew up in nearby Ocala, Fla., and lives there in the offseason. "When he came down to Florida, he was basically down here by himself. I just kind of took him under my wing and tried to make sure he did something positive with his life. Make sure he goes to class and stays on the right track. He's got so much talent, I just want to see what he does with it."
The last two semesters, Dorsey has done plenty. He made the dean's list at BCC for his fall course work in sports management, and just last week, the skinny 6-foot-2, 170-pound point guard was named the Southern Conference Player of the Year in the Florida Community College Athletic Association after averaging 28.3 points a game.
"He's a warrior," says Ajac Tripplet, the basketball coach at BCC. "He's a leader and a complete basketball player. I think he's going to be tremendously successful wherever he goes."
Schools such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, Auburn and Nevada-Las Vegas have been recruiting him, and in the next few weeks, Dorsey will decide which program he wants to play for. There are even coaches and scouts who feel that, with a little luck, Dorsey could play in the NBA someday. Once again, he is definitely going places.
"I feel like I've been through so much already in my life, nothing is going to stop me," Dorsey says. "I know I'm going to make it somehow. If I don't play in the NBA, I'll play overseas. But I know I'm going to make it somewhere."
"I look at Daryl and I'll tell you, I think he could play [at any college] in the country right now," says Don Smith, the athletic director at Brevard Community College. "He's that talented. And who knows where he'd be right now if somebody hadn't given him a second chance?"
Not even Dorsey can answer that question. His life has had more twists, turns and heartache than most people see in a lifetime. Dorsey has no memory of his father, after whom he is named, because Daryl Hudson has been in and out of prison since he was born, Dorsey says. He does not know where he is and has little interest in finding out.
His mother, Klennetta Dorsey, was sent to prison when he was 5, and though they exchanged letters for a while, he lost contact with her nearly a decade ago. Court documents show Klennetta Dorsey is serving a 14-year sentence as a habitual felon in the North Carolina Correctional Institution For Women in Raleigh. She won't be eligible for release until 2013.
"They've both basically been locked up my whole life," Dorsey says. "I don't really know the stories as to what happened to them. ... Growing up, I had a lot of anger inside me because they weren't around. Most of my friends had parents to tell them to be home at a certain time or to tell them right from wrong. But all through elementary school, I didn't have that."
He bounced around in different relatives' houses, moving along sometimes because the people he was living with had to move, or because, like his mother, they were sent to prison. But at the age of 9, Dorsey got his first real chance at stability. He moved in with his older cousin, Earthel Garris. She had two daughters of her own, a steady job at General Motors and love to spare.
"It was supposed to be just for a few months," Garris says. "His mother was in some kind of predicament. I didn't volunteer, but she begged me to take him for a while. It turned into 12 years."
Everyone called her Auntie, but when Dorsey talks to her now, he calls her his mother. She cooked wonderful meals, and made sure he went to school every day and to church on Sundays. Garris wasn't a softie, however. She made sure Dorsey knew he had a 10 p.m. curfew, and breaking it was not an option.
"She raised me to be the person I am today," Dorsey says, proudly showing off a tattoo of Garris' initials on the side of his neck. "I owe her a lot. More than I could ever thank her for."
Thin as a rail, but quick as a cat, Dorsey soon became the target of every rec league football and basketball team in the area. Garris found the money and signed the permission slips, and off he went. Before long, he was a star.
Garris said he never once asked if his mother was coming back.
Gunshots and charges
Police reports say Shey Mario Allen, then 20, and Daryl Dorsey, then 17, argued over a woman in the hours before Allen's shooting and death on Oct. 15, 1998, but Dorsey says that's hardly the truth.
Yes, they'd both dated the same girl, but not at the same time, Dorsey says. They knew of each other, but had never met. Dorsey says the first time they crossed paths came the night Allen took a swing at him on the corner of Argonne Drive and Tivoly Avenue, although Dorsey didn't know who it was until later. Police reports say that while Dorsey was walking home from playing basketball at Morgan State, Allen walked up behind Dorsey and hit him, but as far as what happened next, theories differ.
"I didn't know who it was; I just thought someone was trying to rob me," Dorsey says. "I just took off and ran. After a while, I turned around and I didn't see nobody. Some people who were hanging out on the street said, 'Hey Magic, what you running from?' I told them, 'Man, somebody is trying to rob me.' They yelled back, 'Oh, don't worry, you straight, you straight.' ... I don't know who it was. It was dark, cold, and I just wanted to get out of there."
Dorsey says he kept running until he got to his house. He was determined to make it home by his 10 p.m. curfew. It was there that he heard gunshots.
"Honestly, I was so used to hearing gunshots at night, I didn't think nothing of it," Dorsey says.
The next day, he says, he woke up and heard from a friend that Allen was dead. Only then did he begin to put things together.
"I'm sure [one of his friends] was telling him, 'You know Magic is trying to get back together with your girl,' " Dorsey says. "I didn't even know it was Shey until the next day."
But Baltimore homicide detective Martin Young didn't buy Dorsey's story, and more than four years later, he still thinks Dorsey knows what happened.
Police originally believed Dorsey joined up with some friends who chased Allen and gunned him down behind a strip of rowhouses. They came to Garris' house, arrested Dorsey and charged him with first-degree murder.
"It was one of the most horrible times in my life," Garris says. "But I knew he didn't do anything. I knew he was just trying to get home for curfew."
But Young says the only police witness lied about several things, and when her credibility became an issue, they could no longer pin Dorsey to the shooting.
Even still, Young believes Dorsey knows who shot Allen. Dorsey has always maintained he has no idea who was involved.
"He told me he doesn't know, but I'm not totally convinced," Young says. "Even if he didn't know, I think he could find out. But that's one of the hardest and most frustrating things about my job. Someone could get shot on a street corner with 500 people watching, and you'd be lucky to get five to tell you what they saw. People just don't want to get involved. You can imagine how frustrating it is for the victim's family."
Dorsey says he'll stand by his story for the rest of his life.
"I could see why they would say I knew who did it, because it's my neighborhood," Dorsey says. "But it was dark out, I was running as fast as I could and I didn't recognize the voice. I'm sure someone in the neighborhood knows what happened, but they're not going to talk about it.
"The way I see it is, somebody is always getting robbed in our neighborhood, and the drug dealers don't like that. They work hard selling drugs 24/7, trying to make money. And if someone is trying to rob someone, that's just like an enemy coming into their territory. Someone saw what looked like another person getting robbed and they took care of it."
A month in jail
Despite Dorsey's denials, the police weren't about to let him go. He spent nearly a month in the Baltimore City Detention Center. The first night he was there, the other inmates heard his cell door slam and they began whooping and shouting at him through the darkness.
Who's that down in Cell 13?
What you in for, homeboy? Murder? You kill my boy?
You better pass down those Timberland boots of yours, or you'll be sorry.
But when the lights came on that next morning, Dorsey could hardly believe it.
"I knew half the guys in there," Dorsey says. "They were all like, 'Hey Magic, that you? Hey everybody, this guy is cool. Don't nobody mess with him. He's definitely on my basketball team come rec time.' "
Even in jail, everybody wanted to see the kid from Dunbar play. So he pulled out his best moves and watched the crowd go wild.
"The first rec period we had, it seemed just about everybody was there watching me play basketball," Dorsey says. "Everyone was lined up around the court to see the game. The [correctional officers] were slipping me sunflower seeds and extra Snickers bars and telling me they hoped I got out soon."
Except, he didn't get out soon. The days dragged on until they turned into weeks. Dorsey passed the time by helping illiterate inmates read letters from home, and then tried to show them how to write back. One night he prayed so much, he broke down in tears for the first time in years.
"Even with all the stuff I've been through, I never cry," Dorsey says. "But for some reason I did that night. My aunt told me to pray and to really mean it this time. She told me if I didn't do anything, then God would work it out. I prayed so hard, and I told myself that if I got out of there, I was going to take advantage of the second chance God gave me."
Says Garris: "I could tell he was scared. I just told him what my momma always told me: Believe in prayer and that God is real. If you know you're innocent, God will take care of it. I think he finally accepted that."
Dorsey's luck was about to change. Well-known Baltimore attorney Warren A. Brown heard about the case and agreed to defend Dorsey free of charge.
"My first love is my wife, but my second love is the Northwood youth football program," Brown says. "I've done a lot of coaching in the league, and one of the parents told me there was a former Northwood football player, now at Dunbar, locked up and charged with murder. They said he was incredibly talented, so I went out on a limb for him."
Dorsey was being held without bail, but Brown had it reduced to $5,000, then paid it out of his own pocket. He soon convinced prosecutors they had no case against Dorsey if he wasn't the shooter, and they released him after 28 days.
"I told him when he got out, 'You got a taste of that nasty jail. Now make sure you don't ever end up back there,' " Brown says.
On Dec. 29, 1998, the charges were dismissed, Dorsey's record expunged.
"I was so happy," Garris says. "But I told him, don't thank me, thank God. He was by your side."
Young says the case is now considered inactive.
Passing on the goodwill
Dorsey quickly learned how hard it is to catch up after falling behind in life. The month in jail had wrecked his grades at Dunbar, so he transferred to Southern, where he played basketball and got his grades up, then transferred back to Dunbar.
Dorsey's brilliance during football season - when he accumulated 3,500 all-purpose yards and scored 17 touchdowns - was overshadowed by the fact that he couldn't score higher than 840 on the SAT. With his grade point average, to qualify for the Division I-A football scholarship Florida State had offered, he needed a score of 920.
After attending prep school at Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., (where he played on the same basketball team with Phoenix Suns rookie Amare Stoudemire), he got a call from Tripplet at Brevard Community College. The quiet campus and the city of Cocoa (population 18,400) were a drastic change from Baltimore, but it was a full scholarship offer, and he would play right away. He gave it some thought, talked it over with Garris, his friends and some high school coaches, then signed.
"I knew I would miss him, but I think I'd be more worried if he were home," Garris says. "The streets here are so rough, and he was so focused on making it, I knew he'd be traveling back and forth to play basketball every night."
It wasn't long before his past followed him to Florida. Occasionally kids would come up to him at Brevard and say, "I heard you were locked up for killing somebody," and Dorsey's blood would boil. He didn't let them see his anger, however. He just focused it toward the basketball court.
"Daryl is one of those kids you want to see make it so badly," says Jacquelyn Pointier-Smith, Dorsey's student adviser at BCC. "With some students, you just get close to right away. He's one of those kids. I know he might have had a hard time adjusting at first, but I think one of his strengths is positivity."
And soon enough, people were soon clamoring to watch him play again. As a freshman, he averaged 21.4 points and 8.4 assists, then spent the entire summer working on his jump shot. Tom Cirincione, a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks and former assistant coach at BCC, admits even his hardened critical eye sees some NBA potential in Dorsey. After all, Steve Francis and Shawn Marion were once junior-college studs, and not everyone thought they'd make it.
"He's got tools," Cirincione says. "How far he goes depends on the next level of coaching and how much pride and effort he puts into it. He has potential. Whether it will come out all depends. He's got a strong NCAA Division I mind. He reads and thinks at the same time. You can't teach someone that."
Looking in the mirror
There are times when Culpepper and Tucker hear things like that, and they can't help but think of themselves.
"I've seen so many guys whose talent just went to waste because they got in trouble," Tucker says. "I don't want Daryl to go that route. That's why I'm there for him, offering advice. I know he's put that past behind him."
Culpepper can remember when people spoke of his potential, but wondered if he'd ever make it. Culpepper was born while his 16-year-old birth mother was incarcerated for armed robbery. Emma Culpepper, a woman who met Daunte's birth mother while working at the state juvenile girls home, adopted him and raised him along with 13 other children. Culpepper says he never would have made it without her, so by passing on the goodwill, it will be like saying thank you.
"I really feel like there is a reason I met Magic," Culpepper says. "We have a lot in common. I never knew my dad. The woman who raised me isn't my birth mother. I had some tough times as a kid. But I'm living proof you can rise above that and do something positive with your life. That's what I want for Daryl. I want to see him get his degree and play in the NBA. But even if he doesn't play basketball again, he'll still be my boy. I'd do anything for him."
And Dorsey, in turn, believes it's his responsibility to keep the cycle going.
Last year, his cousin and childhood friend Devon Valentine was walking down the street in Dorsey's Northwood neighborhood. Like Dorsey, he was a point guard at Dunbar. Two guys in ski masks jumped out of their car and put a gun to Valentine's head. They held him hostage for eight hours until his brother agreed to pay them ransom for his release. As soon as he heard, Dorsey persuaded Valentine to live with him in Florida in his university-provided apartment. It was a way off the streets, and for the moment, that was what mattered most.
"I knew I had to get him out of there," Dorsey says. "I told him he could easily walk on the basketball team here and earn a scholarship, and that's exactly what happened. Coach saw him play and gave him a scholarship.
"So like Daunte helped me, I tried to help Devon. Maybe he'll be in position someday to help someone else, and maybe it will keep going. Maybe that's why I got a second chance with my life, so that a few other people could have a chance at one, too."