Modie Cox has given more than 350 motivational talks to young kids over the past several years. So my first question was simple enough. How do you manage to keep it fresh?
"It's the truth," Cox said. "And the truth speaks for itself. I pretty much tell my story. I let these kids know what I've gone through personally and let them into my life. I don't have to make anything up. Watch their faces when I talk. You'll see the impact."
Yeah, the truth works. Cox, the former LaSalle and UB basketball star, gave two speeches Monday at Pine Hill Educational Center, an alternative school for at-risk Cheektowaga students. He addressed the middle-schoolers, then the high school kids, as part of his "Winning Because I Tried" program.
Both groups were naturally restive at first, but Cox quickly won them over. I watched their faces, which went from practiced, teen-aged indifference to rapt, silent attention. Most had never even heard of Cox, who played his last game for UB in 1995. But most of them recognized his story, or parts of it, as their own.
Cox grew up in Niagara Falls without a father. "I know that pain, that empty void," he said. You could see those words -- pain, void -- hitting home with many of the young faces in the room. His mother was a drug addict, swept up in the early crack wave of the 1980s. At age 14, he was adopted by Sil Dan, a youth basketball coach.
"How many of you have seen the movie, 'The Blind Side?' " Cox asked. Half the kids raised their hands. "Well, in 1989 I lived my own Blind Side. I moved in with a white family in North Tonawanda."
He endured a lot of racial taunting in those days, even among players he considered friends. One day, Cox decided to pack up his things and walk all the way back to Niagara Falls. Dan talked him out of it.
"He said, 'If you run now, you're going to run for the rest of your life,' " Cox said. He stayed and became the News' Western New York Player of the Year. He was the first high-profile Division I hoop recruit at UB. Part of the profile was failing to qualify as a freshman under the old Proposition 48 rules.
Cox became a solid student at UB, a point guard and leader who led the Bulls to a winning season in '95. We talked about it before his senior season. Cox was proud to have made it, to show that an athlete could rise above tough circumstances.
Even then, at 21, he talked about passing it on. "People need to tell young people these type of things," he said in '94. "You are smart. Go about it a little harder. You can do it."
Two years later, he nearly lost it all. In 1996, Cox and a friend were arrested at the Junius Ponds rest area on the Thruway and charged with transporting eight kilograms of cocaine. Cox, who said he had no idea the drugs were in the trunk of his friend's car, spent eight months in jail. He was released after pleading to two misdemeanors and agreeing to testify against the friend, who was on parole on a previous drug charge.
"I don't know if eight kilos of cocaine resonates with you," he told the kids. "At the time, it was the second largest bust ever on the New York Thruway. Essentially, what I did was the same as killing a cop. It was an A-1 felony, the toughest charge you can get in New York.
"I had an opportunity to quit," he said. "I decided if I give up now, I'm giving up on the rest of my life."
Cox made the most of his second chance. He played pro basketball in England, Italy, South Africa and Portugal. He played for the Buffalo Silverbacks, the short-lived minor league hoops team. Cox also worked for the team's youth mentoring outreach program. When the team folded, he wanted to keep it going.
"It changed my life," Cox said. "I knew these kids were holding on to what I had to say. I didn't want it to stop because of what happened with the team. I got most of the sponsors to come over and continued it when I left the ABA team."
He reached out to John Wallace, a friend from his AAU days. Wallace, a Rochester native, starred at Syracuse and spent seven seasons in the NBA. He had a similarly troubled youth and a desire to bring hope to kids in difficult circumstances.
Wallace gave moral and financial support to the "Winning Because I Tried" venture. Cox is president. Wallace vice-president. Last winter, they spoke in Syracuse schools. A year ago, Wallace was in Buffalo for a Kids Escaping Drugs appearance. Last fall, they were in Toronto to kick off a Slam Dunk literacy campaign.
"We want to get kids to read more, to be literate," Cox said.
Cox said he never had a passion for books until he went to jail. That's when his education truly began. It's about making choices in life.
At Monday's seminar, Cox gave out bracelets and pledge cards. He asks the kids to recite the pledge. Promise to make a new start. Never quit. Stop making excuses and blaming other people for your failures. Stop being so critical of yourself.
This is Allen Wilson's story, too. Allen, my late colleague, was working on it when his leukemia returned with a vengeance last summer. He and Cox spoke often in his last days. Allen grew up without a father. He had a soft spot for athletes who came from similar circumstances.
"We were talking on the phone and Allen asked why it meant so much to me," Cox said. "There was silence for about 45 seconds. I started crying on the phone.
"It's because I see myself in these kids. Some of them don't stand a chance. They don't get a break in this world. When Allen asked me that, it struck a nerve. It felt good, like I was doing the right thing. I never had a feeling like that go through me."
It's a powerful thing, listening to him speak. Dedric Johnson, his assistant, said it's like he's doing it for the first time. "He's an amazing dude," Johnson said. "He wants to do positive things for these kids."
There are times, no doubt, when an exhilarating feeling goes through those teenagers, too. Again, you look at the faces. On Monday, a junior named Joshua Jones seemed mesmerized by Cox's talk. He didn't seem to move a muscle the entire time.
"I don't know my dad," said Jones, clad in a Cheektowaga football jersey. "My mom, she's around, but I don't stay with her. I live with my aunt. I'd do anything for her. She didn't have to take me in. I owe her everything. That's why I come to school.
"So I can relate to [Cox]. He makes me want to become something more."
Cox wants them to understand the power of trying. Sure, he had athletic ability. But talent only takes you so far. Life will knock you for a loop. It's your choice to get up.
"Failure is part of life," he said. "You've got to be shot down, flatlined, to see things are possible. They've been through some heartache, some problems, some disappointments. What I talk about may be similar, maybe not. But one thing we can all identify with is struggle. That's universal."