Ritchie Campbell played an organized basketball game in Buffalo for the first time since 1993 on Saturday afternoon and once again the sport treated Western New York's all-time scholastic scoring leader well.
The now 40-year-old Campbell and former Burgard star received a loud ovation (some even stood) from the estimated 500 at City Honors during pregame introductions for the 411 Legends All-Star Game. He rewarded them by showing off that score-from-anywhere jumper, and the passing ability that helped him assist on a number of former Burgard teammate Marcus Whitfield's baskets when the Bulldogs were an area power during the late 1980s.
Even though he's still trying to come back from an Achilles tear he suffered 10 months ago, he showed some explosiveness on the break.
Campbell nailed five three-pointers and scored a game-high 21 points during his Blue team's 63-57 loss to Trevor Ruffin's Legends White squad. He scored 11 of his team's first 19 points, but the Blue team paid the price for missing too many open shots and settling for too many one-and-done three-pointers (most of them not taken by Campbell).
Ruffin scored 15 points in the second half, including 11 over the final 5:55 after the Blue pulled within 45-44.
"I was so at a loss for words," said Campbell of the ovation. "To be here with all the guys, and seeing the guys after 20 something years, it was remarkable. I didn't expect anything like that."
The game was another step in the process of Campbell getting reacclimated to the life of a free man, and it's understandable Campbell, who scored 2,355 points in high school, wouldn't expect a reception like that considering his history.
He was released from prison last winter after serving 17 years for first-degree manslaughter.
Campbell, who once was considered a legitimate NBA prospect in the same vain as Ruffin and Clifford Robinson, was released for good behavior after serving most of a 12- to 25-year sentence for killing Yvette Donaldson during the early morning hours of April 27, 1994.
On that day, Campbell arrived at his girlfriend's apartment drunk, carrying a handgun he said was given to him for protection. Campbell started singing and creating a disturbance. A neighbor came over and asked him to keep the noise down because her child was sleeping. Campbell stepped outside the apartment and raised the gun toward the woman. It went off.
Two days later, the 32-year-old mother was dead from a gunshot wound to the neck.
Not a day goes by in which Campbell doesn't think about that mistake. It's something that will haunt him the rest of his life, but he understands he has no right to complain about that nor any other obstacles he'll likely encounter down the road.
"I can't forget what that little girl [Aquila] endured for the last 17 years of her life, not growing up with her mother," Campbell said Friday before speaking to a crowd of about 70 youths at New Era during a life-skills presentation during 411 All-Star Weekend activities. "I'm not going to complain. I'm dealing with it to the best of my ability and doing what's necessary."
All Campbell can do now is try to live as productive a life as possible, relying on a support group that includes Buffalo State men's coach Fajri Ansari, his friend Kevin McCarley, his uncles and his son's grandfather to help keep him from straying off the righteous path.
Campbell has a job, an apartment and has spent time the past three months living with and getting to know his son, 21-year-old Ritchie Jr.
He wants to make sure others don't commit the same mistake he did, doing so the only way he knows how -- through basketball.
Campbell spends three days a week working a clinic at the JFK Center -- the same facility and basketball court that gave him a temporary reprieve from the reality of his daily life as a kid -- as part of the center's summer youth program.
He and McCarley set up cones so that children ages 5 and up can work on dribbling skills. They provide instruction on the finer points of basketball, including team play, so that the students can someday become the teacher and aid in the education of future generations of children.
Campbell also makes himself available as a sounding board as to deal with the peer pressure associated with neighborhood life.
"He seems like a genuine person and he's really concerned about the kids in this area because they don't have this. If they do it's because someone wants money from them to do it but he's willing to come in and do it and not charge a dime," said 39-year-old Ericka Browning, the recreation instructor at JFK Center. "I work here through the year and I know how difficult it is for the kids as far as funds go, so I thought it was a good thing letting him come in and do something like this with the kids."
The reasons Campbell does this is quite simple: He was once in their shoes. The poor kid hoping to use basketball as his vehicle toward better surroundings. The at-risk child in need of mentoring so that he wouldn't succumb to the pitfalls (drug and alcohol use and gun play) of his/her daily environment.
"[What he's doing] is not going to change what happened in his past but I know he has remorse," Ansari said. "I think he's recognizing the best way he can make up for a wrong is to do good. He doesn't want people to make the same mistakes and the best skills he has now are basketball and his life experiences."
Yes, people were cheering for him at City Honors on Saturday, but Campbell knows there's still a lifetime of penance still to be done, and even that won't necessarily change what people may think of him.
"I'm just trying to do the best I can to steer these kids in the right way so kids can have something to look forward to as they grow up," Campbell said.
"I know the challenges I was going to face [upon being released] were going to be difficult. I'm not going to complain. I'm dealing with it to the best of my ability and doing what's necessary."