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Thomas provides beacon of light to hometown; His whole mission, the entire reason he had started 411 All-Star Weekend, was to change the culture little by little

John Thomas took a look around that fateful night and knew something was brewing. What, exactly? He wasn't sure, but you don't grow up where he did and not understand your environment. The East Side had taught him well, and he could sense the mood changing with the crowd filing into the City Grill.

Thomas was there last Aug. 14 for all the right reasons. He had returned home for his annual charity event and was scoping out the joint with Jason Rowe and Rob Lanier to see how the downtown restaurant would handle a party after the men's basketball game.

Someone spilled champagne. It was getting ugly and more rowdy. Tension was mounting. They smelled trouble.

"It just seemed strange," Thomas said. "We looked at each other and said, 'That's enough. We should go.' As we were trying to get out, there was no lane. There were at least 100 people smashed against these glass doors trying to get in. They had to make a lane for us to get through everybody. By the time we got to the car, we got a phone call."

When the chaos unfolded, there were four dead and four others wounded in the City Grill shootings. Thomas, Rowe and Lanier, all do-gooders, were minutes removed from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were the lucky ones.

Danyell Mackin, Tiffany Wilhite, Shawn-Tia McNeil and Willie McCaa were less fortunate.

All four were dead.

So many lives shattered and why? Stupidity. Recklessness. Callousness. Guns. In a flash, convicted killer Riccardo McCray turned one terrible decision into a massacre.

Thomas had a tough call. His head told him to call off the basketball game the next day, but his heart told him to push forward with the main event. Or maybe it was the other way around. It was all so confusing. He wanted to respect the families of the victims gunned down in another round of senseless violence in Buffalo.

But what message would that send the kids?

His whole mission, the entire reason he had started 411 All-Star Weekend, was to change the culture little by little, piece by piece, person by person. It was to remind the kids in his hometown to keep pushing, to pursue, to persevere, to overcome. It was to provide them with optimism and hope, no matter the circumstances. It was to show them the way.

"I thought about canceling the game in honor of those people," Thomas said. "If I did that, all the energy would have been on the tragic. My thing was to combat it by having a positive event. We're coming back a little stronger. Negativity is always going to be around, but who's going to be in the line of positive and stand strong?"

Answer: John Thomas.

He grew up in a part of Buffalo many see only at 35 mph, or on television behind yellow crime tape, with its drug-infested streets and blocks riddled with violence. Thomas kept his eyes and ears open, his mouth closed, as a kid in the Jefferson-Delavan section. He heard shootings by night, watched break-ins by day, kept his head on straight and stuck to basketball.

Thomas is 42 now, living in Atlanta with a family of his own. He became a successful businessman with his own media company, one geared toward helping kids. For the past decade, he has returned home for a week to steer kids from his old neighborhood in the right direction. He's evidence it can be done. He wants to make a difference.

"John always had a heart for his community in Buffalo regardless of whether he lived here or not," said former Masten Boys & Girls Club director Kelly Funderburk, now a parole office. "He's always been that way. He was a remarkable young man. He's always been looking out for his generation and the generation after him. He wants to show them the best route and be a great role model for the kids."

And that's what 411 All-Star Weekend is about, preparing kids for the future and showing them they can be successful so they can pass it along to the children growing up after them. Thomas started the program in 2003. Two years earlier, he came home to visit his family for a few days and ended up staying two weeks after a volunteer skipped out on his sister's sports camp. He served as the basketball instructor.

Now, he can't stop.

"It was my transition, something I needed to do," he said. "I realized there was a tremendous gap between my generation and how we grew up and the kids now. We had kids to look up to. The kids after me, there was nobody tangible to touch. It was television and videos. The hard work was gone. I needed to create something."

Thomas was a former all-Western New York basketball player at Bennett High who graduated in 1987 and earned a scholarship to Samford University in Alabama. He has devoted much of his time and energy over the past 18 years to helping kids. He's working with First Tee this year to help with golf. He's looking for Nike to sponsor his mission next year.

The 411 brand, which includes 411 Media Group, has since morphed into a not-for-profit organization in which kids are given opportunities not found on rundown playgrounds and street corners. Thomas has expanded the program to include bowling and golf, complete with volunteer instructors. Any money generated from the four-day weekend goes back to the kids.

"He's not trying to become a millionaire. He's trying to make a difference," Lanier said. "He's a special cat. He's the kind of guy people in the area should be proud of. The more they learn what he's about, the more they will celebrate what he's doing and where he's coming from."

Basketball was his launch pad, but there's no telling where it will lead. Sports, music, art, education? It really doesn't matter. This will be his ninth straight year. He would like to change the life of a thousand kids but one will do. He hasn't stopped because he doesn't know how, which might be his greatest gift of all.

"You realize how strong you are once you come out of that town and go somewhere else," he said. "I realized I was really prepared for the world growing up on the East Side of Buffalo. A lot of those kids don't have an opportunity to see outside of their neighborhood. They don't realize how strong and successful they could be."

Thomas believes he can help if he can build a bridge to Buffalo's youth, similar to one he had in another generation with older local basketball legends such as Curtis Aiken and Ray Hall. They were larger than life in the early 1980s, when the Masten club was an escape from the streets and an incubator for kids finding their way.

Aiken, a smooth shooting guard who played for Bennett High and the University of Pittsburgh, will be given the first 411 Hall of Fame award during a ceremony this week. Hall, a swingman who starred at McKinley High, had his pick of colleges and stayed home to play for Canisius.

Lanier played for St. Bonaventure, coached at Siena and is now associate coach at the University of Texas. Rowe played for Loyola before taking his game to the professional ranks in Europe. Kenny Pope and Joe Brown were coaches while Funderburk did everything while looking after the kids.

All are good basketball men but better people. Kids today are missing leaders like them.

The message this year will include a cautionary tale from Ritchie Campbell, a basketball star gone wrong. Based on pure talent, he was among the best schoolboy players this area ever produced. He was destined for Division I when he was coming out of Burgard High. Some saw him going to the NBA.

Instead, he landed in the New York State penal league.

Campbell was sentenced to a 12- to-25-year prison term for first-degree manslaughter after a 1994 slaying in which he shot 32-year-old Yvette Donaldson to death in his girlfriend's apartment building. He claimed it was an accident. Regardless, he spent more than 17 years behind bars, the price for ending one life and shattering many others, because he pulled a gun. He was released a few months ago.

These days, he visits Funderburk on a regular basis. In a strange but fitting twist, the former counselor is now Campbell's parole officer. Campbell is required to check in once a month but shows up once a week, saying the meetings are therapeutic. He has been trying to put his life back together while promising to redeem himself.

Thomas wants kids to see Campbell so they don't wind up like him. His is a story worth telling, a story worth hearing. Campbell was a lost soul who grew up in the projects and received his education on the streets. He could have had it all but threw it away. It comes down to making good decisions.

Campbell hopes to drive the message home Friday when he addresses kids at the New Era Building during a round table discussion with Aiken, Lanier and Rowe. The annual basketball game will be held Saturday, the day before the first anniversary of the City Grill shooting.

Negativity is always going to be around, like Thomas said, but who's going to be in the line of positive and stand strong?

John Thomas. Rob Lanier. Curtis Aiken. Jason Rowe. Kelly Funderburk. And a long list of others, including Ritchie Campbell. Little by little, piece by piece, person by person.

"If I'm about bridging gaps and sharing success stories, those kids need to look at him," said Thomas of Campbell. "One decision cost this man. Look what one decision can do. I know kids from Buffalo are faced with the same decisions daily.

"This was a man who could have had the world in his hands if given the right guidance. It's about Ritchie being open and honest. And we have a great environment for him to do so."

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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