The dozen or so children at the Delevan Grider Community Center are restless and the featured speaker hasn't even tapped into the heart of his lecture. And Modie Cox certainly has a story worth listening to.
Some of the fidgeting stops when Cox says, "I was born to a drug-addicted mother and I didn't have my father." A few more giggles die down after he says, "I had to live with a white family."
Then Cox really gets their attention.
"To make matters worse, I spent almost a year of my life in jail."
No more fidgeting, no more giggling. All eyes are now fixed on Cox.
"These kids want reality, they want the cold hard facts," he said. "I'm not here to play games with these kids. I'm giving it to them straight up."
"Do Your Best, Never Quit" is the message delivered by 34-year-old Maurice "Modie" Cox, the former University at Buffalo and LaSalle High School point guard who is now winding down his basketball career with the Buffalo Silverbacks. The message is near and dear to his heart.
The program was started by Silverbacks owner Todd Weir last year as a way not only to promote his struggling American Basketball Association franchise, but to give back to the Western New York community by offering hope and inspiration to youngsters.
"This thing," Weir said, "has become bigger than the basketball."
When given the opportunity to run the program Cox attacked as if he were on the court.
"I just fell in love with this thing," he said. "I didn't think it would get to this magnitude."
He has conducted at least 130 of these life development seminars throughout Western New York in the last year. Praise generally follows.
During a recent trip by Cox to YMCA Buffalo Niagara, directors Susan Lumandue and Krystle Feind wrote that during the seminar: "A young female child wanted to sit on the sidelines and watch the other children shoot baskets because she couldn't do it. The basketball player walked over to her and explained to her that she would never learn how to shoot baskets if she didn't keep trying. She resisted at first, but relented when he offered to help her. . . . I was excited to see that the idea of not quitting was getting through to the children."
After all he's been through, Cox wasn't going to allow the child to give up that easily.
>Life on the streets
There was a time before high school when the streets of Niagara Falls were calling Modie Cox. He lived with his grandmother until her death when he was 14, and then he went to live with his mother, Shirley. But the streets already had its hooks into her.
"She was experimenting with drugs and during her era, they kind of did that stuff," Cox said. "She had a tough time battling it. She gets a little upset when the stuff comes out [in public] and I tell her, 'It is what it is.' "
Cox said his mother has been clean and sober for the last 10 years. Asked about his father, he said, "I met him once or twice." When asked his name, Cox merely shrugs his shoulders.
When he was 10, Cox had been a star at the 19th Street Boys Club in Niagara Falls and caught the eye of Sil Dan, a basketball junkie whose son, Chris, was the same age as Cox and often guarded him in tournaments.
Cox and the Dans became close. He loved the home-cooked meals, the family atmosphere, the love. Soon he was sleeping over on weekends. Weekends became weeks. Weeks became months. Eventually, Cox was adopted by Dan, now the boys basketball coach at Cardinal O'Hara High School. Cox's mother didn't object.
"My mother didn't abandon me, I made the choice to leave," he said. "It was her decision not to fight for me."
Life with the Dans was good, but it wasn't exactly "Diff'rent Strokes."
"A black kid in 1993 living in North Tonawanda? That was tough," Cox said. "Every time we went into a restaurant people were looking at us like, 'Why is this black kid with this family? Who's the black kid?' " Even though I was part of the family, it was like I wasn't at times. It was hard to look at a white woman and say, 'That's my mother.' I was 13 and I was kind of already set. But it was a great experience because I was exposed to some things. Coming from where I came from, it was good."
But where Cox was headed was hell.
>Time behind bars
In November 1996, not long after he graduated from UB, Cox and a friend were arrested and charged with possessing nearly 18 pounds of cocaine.
He was arrested at the Junius Ponds rest area on the westbound Thruway. Troopers were investigating a car with an expired registration parked in a no-parking area at the rest stop near Geneva, about 45 miles east of Rochester.
A drug-sniffing dog from the Seneca County sheriff's office led officers to the drugs in the car. The cocaine carried a value of $200,000 but by the time it is cut and sold the value was upward of $1 million.
Cox, who didn't have a criminal record, was facing a 25 year-to-life maximum or 15-year-to-life minimum until he pleaded to misdemeanor drug possession and misdemeanor conspiracy charges.
"You have to put yourself around quality people," Cox says now. "You have to understand, more importantly, patience. I was trying to do something because I wanted it to happen quicker than what it was supposed to."
It was 10 years ago this month when Cox was released after spending eight months in Seneca County Jail. Eight months with food pushed through a slot and into his cell.
"I was like it happened yesterday," Cox said. "Twenty-four hours of just sitting there. I couldn't just go and come. Unfortunately when I went in there it was during the winter months so we couldn't go outside. You had to sit there, watch TV, play cards and just try and entertain yourself for 24 hours."
The inmates treated him well, almost with reverence.
"Once they realized I was a pretty good basketball player and I was a good person, they started treating me well, almost like a mini-celebrity," Cox said. "I was trying to do my time and go home."
Cox said he's a better person because of the experience.
"I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the experience," he said. "I don't ever want to go through that experience again, but if I had to go through it again in order to give the message I'm giving today and prevent some kids from going through what I went through, I'd do it again."
>More stories to tell
Modie Cox doesn't look much older than he did when he starred at LaSalle and UB. He has the body fat of a slice of lettuce and his friends joke about how he's built like Bruce Lee.
The prospect of the Silverbacks returning for a third season is iffy but even if they don't Cox will continue with the "Do Your Best, Never Quit" program.
There are more stories about turning negatives into positives. More stories about growing up. A lot of people figured Cox would never overcome his missteps, that he didn't deserve the opportunity. That was 10 years ago. Now he's a man. A father. An esteemed motivational speaker.
Modie Cox has many more stories to tell.
"If there was a person who wanted to quit, it should have been me," Cox said to the group at the Delevan Grider Community Center. "You have to have the ability to look adversity right in the eye. You have other options. You don't have to go down the same path that I did."