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Raising her game -- and her life; NCCC basketball player finds hope after overcoming violent years on the mean streets

The trouble started for Heather Richards when she was 13.

She felt uncomfortable at school, out of place. She would ditch classes at Buffalo's Burgard High School to drink vodka or smoke marijuana on street corners or in abandoned buildings throughout the city. Often when she was high, which could be three times a day, she would attack men and women on the street to get their cash and clothes, even earrings if she liked them.

"The only thing I didn't do was join a gang," said Richards, now 18. "I was my own gang.

That seems like such a long time ago.

A year removed from the chaos of her pre-adult life, Richards is now living at the Wyndham Lawn Home for Children in Lockport and attends Niagara County Community College.

While she has left much of her old life behind, she is taking at least one part of it with her -- basketball.

Since February, Richards, who had never before played on an organized sports team but was more than familiar with street courts all over the city, has been meeting and practicing one-on-one with NCCC women's basketball coach Kirk Zinermon.

"If there's any reason whatsoever she can be around a basketball, she's the first one here, and I guarantee you she will be the last one to leave our practice every day," he said.

During a recent practice, Zinermon handed Richards a practice pinnie and told her to put it on. It was the first time she'd ever worn a jersey.

"It made me feel like actually I was doing something right," Richards said.

When friends, family members and her coach describe her, they use words like "caring" or "outgoing." It's difficult to imagine the person they describe doing the things Heather Richards did.

"Even a year ago, what I was doing, it's just like, what the heck happened?" she said while sitting on a bench at the basketball courts at Cazenovia Park in South Buffalo. She thought back on the last few years and shook her head. She turned around and waved her hand toward the house on Seneca Street where she grew up. "Thank God. Leave that back there."

Heather Richards used to be a product of her environment. She describes her life growing up as "chaotic." Her mother said Heather was different from her siblings.

"I don't think she liked the traditional raising like how my mother raised me," said Heather's mother, Christine Richards, who has five other children. "All of my kids, if they're going to be somewhere after 8 at night I want to know the address and phone number, and I'll randomly check on them without them knowing. I still do it to my 21-year-old. Heather didn't like that."

Heather Richards was more comfortable with the rules of the street. Even school was a welcome escape.

"School was always an outlet for me," she said. "I still liked going to school because my grades were good. It felt good to get good grades."

But school was about more than just classes, and Richards struggled as a minority at Burgard.

"I was the only white girl there, so then I tried to do what everyone else wanted me to do so I could fit in," she said. "I would constantly get into fights, so I got kicked out of the school."

In November 2008, Richards was placed at Hopevale in Hamburg, a residential home that offered services to troubled teens. Though she continued to run away, Richards said Hopevale was where she first realized the importance of surrounding herself with the right people.

"My clothes were always not as good as everyone else," she said. "We shopped at Salvation Army while [other kids] go to the mall. I always got picked on for being the bum. Going to Hopevale, we had to wear uniforms. They started judging me for who I was, not what I was wearing. I started having friends and started realizing that really, I'm not a bad person."

When Hopevale shut down in December, citing funding problems, Richards was put into foster care.

Moving home with her parents was never an option.

"It's not healthy for me," Richards said. "I don't ever want my mom to think she didn't do a good job. It was just something she couldn't give me. It's not like she did a bad job. I just know if I lived there, I'd start getting in trouble again."

After two months and several disagreements with her foster mother, Richards was sent to Wyndham Lawn in January.

"It's one of the best things that ever happened to me," she said. "Before then, I never thought I was going to go to college. I never thought my basketball was going anywhere. I just thought, 'I'm going to play street ball, and that's it.' I'm glad where I'm at."

At Wyndham Lawn, a staff member who was a former NCCC men's basketball player noticed Richards on the court, recognized her talent and put her in touch with Zinermon. Richards wasted no time making a strong first impression.

"If she had an appointment to come out for the tour, she was here an hour early," said Zinermon. "You like to have that kind of that enthusiasm in a player.

"Usually a person who says they haven't played in any organized-type setting, I'm usually a little cautious about," Zinermon said.

And Richards not only had never played organized basketball, she had never played with girls.

That didn't bother Zinermon.

"She plays with boys, and normally your better ballplayers do play with boys or play against boys regularly," he said. "Usually they're a little more physical."

Zinermon said he expects Richards to be an important part of his team this season.

"I can see Heather being that defensive stopper and being that person who's going to keep everybody's head up. She's going to have a key role this year."

Richards believes she can use her past to help others, especially kids. She's working toward a human services degree at NCCC and hopes to be a social worker someday.

"There's nothing that somebody can come up to me and tell me that I haven't been through," Richards said. "I already help kids and make them feel better about themselves. That's what I want to do. The only thing stopping me right now is that degree."

She has volunteered her time working as a counselor at the vacation Bible school and soup kitchens at Lockport Baptist Church.

"She has always showed people that no matter what happens in life, you can push forward, and I think she was able to show that to the kids in the youth group," said friend Caitlin Boyles of Lockport.

Christine Richards said she sees something in her daughter that had been missing for years -- hope.

"She seems that since she's started basketball, she's more hopeful," the mother said. "It seems like she sees more in the future. She's actually got more to hope for. She's seeing that things are possible and life isn't always horrible.

The days aren't always easy for Heather Richards.

"I can say I was addicted, and even to this day, I kind of struggle, but that's why I'm glad I have basketball to help me," she said.

"Basketball does the same thing drugs do -- raises your adrenaline. Now that I play basketball every day with my coach, I don't think about drugs as much," she said. "As long as I'm playing basketball -- as long as I'm doing what I have to do and as hard as I'm supposed to do it -- it's the same thing."

Watch a video on Heather Richards at