THE ROAD OUT

The Baltimore Sun

Richmond, Va.-- --The things he saw as a child - appalling things - have numbed Maryland forward Bambale Osby as a young adult.

He talks about the drugs he carted around in a wagon when he was a kid as if he traded baseball cards instead. He discusses murders from his neighborhood, and gangs he dodged, as routinely as couples discuss their workdays over dinner. Some of his stories are horrendous - nauseating even - but he tells them without flinching.

Osby - a fan favorite more for his wild hair and enthusiasm than for his 5.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 12.7 minutes per game - didn't always avoid trouble. But he did use basketball to pull himself out of it.

"If you were an athlete or a coach, and [gang members] know who you are, as long as you don't take sides you're cool," said Kent Greenway, Osby's father figure and skill development coach. "Everybody knew who Bambale was."

Now, most everyone at Comcast Center knows who he is, too.

Maryland is the third and final stop of Osby's college career - an improbable ending for a young man whose path began with the troubling transition from a gang-infested neighborhood to the rich, white world of private school. It was a move as odd and as significant as his leap from a no-name college athlete to a recognizable face at a storied program in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Osby's statistics at New Mexico and his junior college were unimpressive, but the Maryland coaching staff saw something in his game it felt worthy of giving an opportunity.

It was all he needed.

Saving his mom

His mother, Komba Basosila Osby, said her son saved her life.

"Somebody was ready to kill me," she said.

She was on her porch, ready to unlock the door after a day of work. A man grabbed her from behind, said he had a gun and demanded her purse. She screamed. Osby, who was in high school at the time and inside watching TV, heard her and chased the man on foot. He got the license-plate number and called the police.

"That was nothing," Osby said. "One time she was leaving to go to work, and somebody shot out her back window."

Osby spent his earliest years in Jefferson Village, the projects on the south side of Richmond, where walking out for the morning paper was once interrupted by a drive-by shooting. Climbing into trash containers was something the neighborhood kids considered fun, until one day Osby stumbled into one already occupied with a lifeless body. The first thing he saw was the arm.

"I poked him and tugged on him, but he didn't move," Osby said. "I'm like, is he asleep? I'm like 4 or 5. I go back home and said, 'Mom, some kid is knocked out in the trash can.' She called the police. Next thing you know the yellow tape is up. He was dead."

So was "Wolf," a boy Osby knew down the street. Wolf's hands were tied behind his back while his throat was slit, Osby said.

Around 1994, when Osby was 8, his family moved to the north side of town, into its current home on Garland Avenue. It's a cozy, two-story Colonial, filled with Bible verses his mother wrote on pieces of cardboard. Before he died, Osby's father put an adjustable basketball goal in the yard. Were it not on the dividing line between the Washington Park and Brooklyn Park gangs, it might be easy to sell.

According to Richmond police, there were 11 homicides, 61 aggravated assaults and 52 robberies in the Washington Park and Brooklyn Park neighborhoods in the three years before Osby's departure for the University of New Mexico in 2004.

"When you grow up around it," Osby said, "it just doesn't bother you."

Instead, he became a part of it.

Osby and his crew, a group that called itself the "Boulevard Knights," stole bikes and got into fights, he said. It escalated. They broke into houses, and "stealing a car," Osby said, "that wasn't too bad because you weren't going away for that. ... And you could usually outrun the police."

Osby said he was paid a few bucks to move $200 to $300 worth of drugs in a little wagon. On his walk to school, which went between North Avenue and Brooklyn Park Boulevard, there was an unnerving corner he passed where drugs were sold, and grown-ups were always "strung out."

The first time he was threatened while making a delivery was also the last drop-off he ever made.

One of the tragedies that finally hit home was the murder of his friend, Matthew Wallace, who lived right behind the Osbys, and across the alley. Osby, a senior in high school at the time, was standing on his front porch when he heard a shot. He jumped into his Crown Victoria and found Wallace on the sidewalk - a hole in his head the size of a golf ball.

"This neighborhood ain't no joke," said Greenway, who said he rushed to the crime scene to find Osby waiting in a detective's car. "He was pretty shaken."

According to Greenway, there were six shootings during the month before Osby left for New Mexico.

"How many times did we try to tell you to move after that happened?" Greenway asked Osby's mother.

"Just buy me a house and I will go," she said.

"If I had the change, Komba, I swear I'd do it."

'Why I Want to Die'

When he was in the 11th grade, Osby wrote and recited a poem titled "Why I Want to Die."

It quickly caught the attention of his high-society classmates at Benedictine High School, a Catholic school for boys. Until then, the other students hadn't really paid much attention to the new black kid who could play basketball.

It was a radical change in environment from Thomas Jefferson High, a city school where Osby and his older brother, Levi, had played basketball together. Osby entered a rigid, military-style atmosphere, where he wore a crisp white uniform and was made to cut the Afro that Maryland fans have come to identify him with.

"I just felt out of place," he said.

That changed, as did Osby. The classroom was quiet for five minutes after he finished reading.

"From that moment on," he said, "everybody in the school took a liking to me."

Osby averaged 16.5 points, 16.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks as a senior, leading the school to a 25-6 record and its second consecutive Virginia State Catholic League championship.

Benedictine turned out to be "more fun than public school."

"I made some really good friends," Osby said. "It was just a blast."

Death of his father

It was also an escape.

When Osby was 15, his father died. William Joseph Osby was 57.

For months, Osby was in denial. After he lost his job in urban development and planning management at Virginia Commonwealth University, his father had popped in and out of their lives so often, the finality of his death didn't immediately register. It seemed to be just another one of his disappearing acts. William Osby's cell phone would often get shut off, just like the water in the house when the bills were left unpaid. He couldn't keep a steady job. His father is the reason Osby despises alcohol abuse.

His father was a different person than his older sister, Yevette, knew.

"She said my dad was like Bill Cosby," Osby said. "He was there, he was flamboyant, everyone wanted to be around. He was laughing and joking. Everything was hunky-dory. The dad I knew was nothing like that. It was a different story."

His parents met in the Congo in 1978, when William Osby seemed to have it all together. He was working for the Rockefeller Foundation and was an associate professor at the University of Zaire. In 1981, Komba followed him to the United States, and two years later they were married. She speaks Swahili, Lingala and French, and she learned "a little bit of English" while at Eastern Michigan.

He has been nicknamed "Boom" for as long as he can remember, but Osby's real name, Bambale Mbulatale Emmanuel Osby, means "two are better than one" in his mother's native Congolese dialect.

She replaced numerous windows in her home because Osby broke so many playing basketball inside, but she smiles now at the memory. The sport led him to the Amateur Athletic Union coaches from Squires Richmond Boys' Basketball, influential men who pointed him in the right direction and became like family. Greenway probably knows Osby better than anyone else does.

"He feels like a son," Greenway said. "He's my friend."

'The wrong fit'

Osby's love affair with basketball ended at the University of New Mexico, where he tangled with the head coach and averaged 1.6 points and 1.9 rebounds as a reserve.

"He just wouldn't play me for whatever reason," Osby said.

Greenway had his theory.

"Out there it was a combination of immaturity and the wrong fit," he said. "I don't think he was ready for it, and when the coach put [those limitations] down for him - he wanted to be a more expanded player. ... It just was not the right time and the right place."

Osby said he wasn't invited to rejoin the Lobos for the 2005-06 season. Instead, he made a move typical of players who don't want to sit out a year because of NCAA transfer rules and enrolled in Paris Junior College in Texas. He averaged 6.0 points and 5.0 rebounds there, and again clashed with the coach.

"I was doing everything he asked and still not getting in the games," Osby said.

It wasn't until an all-star game at the 2006 Final Four in Indianapolis that former Maryland assistant coach Rob Moxley approached Osby.

"He saw me and said, 'We want you,' " Osby said. " 'This is going to be the best situation for you.' "

Maryland coach Gary Williams and his staff recognized the muscular, 6-foot-8, 250-pound prospect as a player who could beef up an athletic but otherwise thin frontcourt. Osby gives Maryland a low-post scoring option who likes to play with his back to the basket.

"You get a guy who weighs 250, 260 and it's an advantage to have a wide body," Williams said. "We've had some really good players with that body type - [Lonny] Baxter, Obinna Ekezie - people like that. I just thought he could be like that. He adds to our front line. It changes the look a little bit."

Some outside the program questioned why the staff recruited a non-impact junior college player, and Osby was aware of it.

"I got on the Internet and people were saying, 'Why is Gary bringing in a junior college guy who can't average any points ... why would they bring him in? What is he going to be worth?' " Osby said. "I said, 'I'll show them guys.' "

He had been stuck for weeks in a mental rut, but Osby showed what he is capable of Wednesday, when he scored a career-high 15 points in 18 minutes, helping the Terps to a 73-55 win over Florida State.

"Coming in, people were asking, 'Can you play here? ... Can you perform at this level?' " Osby said. "Doing this for myself is a confidence booster, to say, 'Yeah, you can do it. Just keep doing it.'"

At the expense of injured forward Ekene Ibekwe, Osby earned his first start Nov. 28 at Illinois. He scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds in 24 minutes. Osby also started against Missouri-Kansas City, but said he started to feel some pressure at that point and began playing mind games with himself.

That led to a few instances when Osby experienced the wrath of Williams on the sideline - like when Clemson's Cliff Hammonds used his rear to bump Osby out of the way for an easy basket. Osby immediately returned to the bench. Turnovers have gotten him yanked, too. For the most part, though, Williams has been pleased - especially considering the lack of playing time Osby has had in his previous two seasons.

"If you look at his numbers when he was at junior college, he didn't do a lot," Williams said. "To step in at this level ... he's had some games where he's played really well and has really helped us win big games. It's been very good having him here."

Constant reminder

Osby, a junior who is majoring in family studies with a minor in communications, called his opportunity at Maryland the "luck of the draw."

Every time he left the court at Comcast Center last semester, Osby would glance over his shoulder at a sign on the protective pad under the basket that read "MARYLAND BASKETBALL."

"It always gave me chills," he said. "It's like, this is where you're at. The newness is gone, but the excitement of, 'Look where you're at, look what you're doing,' - it's never been stronger."

It's one of the few things he has seen that seems to have left him stunned.

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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A photo caption was omitted from the first page of some editions of the Sports section yesterday. The main photo showed an abandoned home located a few blocks from where University of Maryland basketball player Bambale Osby grew up in Richmond, Va. The accompanying photos were of Osby; his mother, Komba Basosila Osby; and their home.The Sun regrets the error.
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