The Education of Lonnie Lynn
The door of Lonnie Lynn's house stands open. "Make yourself at home," he says. "If you've been here thirty seconds, you are home." A couple of crumpled Budweiser cans adorn a chair on the front porch. Summer evenings will find Lonnie there with his young son, Malone, on his lap, talking.
Lonnie is built like a tree trunk, straight up and down, all 6'9" of him. When he walks, there's a stiffness in his hips and legs, payback for all those years pounding up and down the hardwood floors of basketball courts. "Me and Spencer Haywood and Paul Silas practically invented offensive rebounds," he says proudly, referring to former teammates during his brief stint with the Denver Rockets back in the old American Basketball Association days. "When it went up, it was my ball. I made a livin' on the offensive boards."
Whatever the condition of his legs, his arms still swing freely, ending with long-fingered hands that could palm dinner plates. He is as bald as Michael Jordan, and around his neck hangs a heavy chain with a small, gold-plated basketball--first prize at a 1965 tournament. "I used to have another one, but I gave it to a girlfriend, instead of my class ring. After we broke up, I couldn't remember who I gave it to...so I never did get it back," Lonnie says, then laughs. It is a deep laugh, scraped right off the bottom of the barrel.
The house he invites his visitors into is a cream-colored brick bungalow built after World War I. "This neighborhood has the best brickwork in Denver," he says. Lonnie has an unusual affection for bricks--or rather, what they represent to a man who had it all and lost it all. "Don't bother wipin' your feet to come into this dirty ol' house," he says. The hardwood floors look clean enough to eat off.
In the living room, a large-screen television booms with rap music videos. He's keeping an eye on the Black Entertainment Television channel for his eldest son, Lonnie Rashied Lynn, aka Common Sense. "Reminding Me of 'Sef," a single off Rashied's forthcoming third album, has been getting a lot of play. "I thought the title meant he was going to be rapping about 'himself,'" says Lonnie, as he tries to divine the mysterious workings of the remote control. "But it's a celebration of the life of one of his buddies in Chicago, Yusef, who got shot down in front of a store."
Lonnie admits he wasn't much of a rap fan until Rashied started making music. Too much of it was filled with violence, hatred and guns--things he has been fighting against for the past twenty years. "I'm an old Motown fan," he says. "These old ears couldn't understand what rappers were saying." But now he has a measure of rap fame himself with the single "pop's rap," the last song on Rashied's second album, in which Lonnie talks about nurturing peace on the streets "like it was a six-year-old." And he's excited that a taped conversation with Rashied may appear on the third: Lonnie hopes they keep the part where he wants promoter Don King to set up a boxing match between himself and Jesse Jackson for what he perceives as the civil rights leader's failings. "I'll kick his ass," he announces, smiling wide.
Lonnie sticks a video into the machine and after several false starts finds a version of "'Sef." Eight-year-old Malone hears the song and bounces into the room. He is Rashied's half-brother, and he knows all the words. Malone points out a small part in the video where the cinematographer caught him twirling around on a sidewalk, looking up at Chicago's skyscrapers.
Lonnie settles into a chair in the dining room where he can still see the television but be next to a window through which he can blow his cigarette smoke. He lights up what will be the first in a quick succession of Pall Malls, no filters, which he will smoke down to a nub before extinguishing. A deep, rumbling cough starts low in his chest before erupting in a cloud of smoke. "I gotta quit these, for his sake," he says, gesturing toward Malone, who is now gathering piano music for lessons he takes down the block. Val Nogay, Malone's mother and Lonnie's second wife, died in March 1996 of cancer, and the boy worries about his father's health.
Lonnie lights up another. "I got them nicotine patches, but you're not supposed to use them if you got high blood pressure. Guess I'll have to find another way."
Before Lonnie is a long wooden conference table that serves as the headquarters of the Colorado branch of Amer-I-Can. The national program was started by football legend Jim Brown to teach at-risk youth "the responsibility of self-determination"; Lonnie took over this branch four years ago after losing his job at Lookout Mountain, a state institution for youth offenders. He had worked there thirteen years, creating a gang-counseling session while other bureaucrats--everyone from prison administrators to police chiefs to people in the mayor's office--were still debating whether Denver even had a gang problem. Meanwhile, kids were killing and dying.
Sitting across from Lonnie is a stocky 23-year-old Latino with close-cropped black hair. His brown eyes have an intensity that goes with his reputation as one of the most notorious gangbangers with the Westside Crenshaw Mafia Gangsters Bloods. He doesn't want his name, or even nickname, appearing in a newspaper, he says. He's trying to make a new life for himself as an art student at a local college, and his professors and classmates don't know about his "other life." It is enough, he says, to acknowledge that he is the younger brother of Danny "Bang" Martinez, another CMG Blood who is currently on the run from charges in the first-degree murder, rape and kidnapping of fourteen-year-old Brandy Duvall in May. "Those who know me will know who this is," says Danny's little brother. "But otherwise, I'd like to keep my personal life private."
Danny's little brother is one of Lonnie's Amer-I-Can success stories, so much so that Lonnie hired him as a facilitator to help other at-risk youth. Seeing his little brother's success, Danny had reached out to Lonnie and Amer-I-Can eighteen months ago. But that was when Val's death sent the program into a tailspin from which it still has not recovered. "Would we...could we have had an influence over what happened later?" Lonnie shrugs. There's no answer to that question.
Lonnie knows he can't save them all. But he believes in the program, believes in it so strongly that it is currently running on his savings and retirement funds. For kids, he says, Amer-I-Can is a second chance. And he should know about second chances.
He was born in May 1943 and named Lonnie after his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. Lonnie's dad was a construction worker who worked hard and drank hard. He and his son's mother split up when the boy was eighteen months old; after that he wasn't around much. "He wasn't a bad character," says Lonnie. "They just didn't get along. He came around every once in a while and gave us minimal support. I wouldn't say he was a bad man."
Lonnie was fortunate to have a strong mother, Mabel. "She was a Libra, you know, symbolized by the scales of justice...and that about describes her right there." He was raised in a house full of women--aunts, cousins--from whom he heard enough about the bad traits of ex-husbands and former boyfriends that he hoped no one ever talked about him that way. "I subscribed to the theory of 'stay within earshot and out of eyesight,' and learned a lot that way," he recalls. "I can't remember wishing I had a full-time dad. I had a good support system. And to tell you the truth, I was too busy to worry about such things."
When he was five years old, Lonnie and some of the neighborhood kids decided to put on a circus. Lonnie's bit was a high-wire act that he performed on a fence rail--until he fell and fractured his skull. He was rushed to the neighborhood hospital, where his weeping mother was told that there was bleeding in his brain and that nothing could be done for him.
"I was given a room to die in," he says, lighting up another Pall Mall. But then an intern who happened to live across the street from Lonnie and his mother intervened and somehow saved his life. "Ever since, I been real aware of how close life and death are to each other. It's a personal burden...knowing I could have been out of here already. A warning from God saying, 'I could have took you long ago, but I got other plans.'"
Lonnie points to a black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall. In it an old man and an old woman peer through the years from the porch of a weathered shack. "That's Millie and Charlie Malone, my grandparents on my mother's side. He's my idol." When he was seven, Lonnie was packed up and shipped off to Covington, Tennessee, to live with those grandparents.
The Malones were sharecroppers. "We raised our own food, planted corn, picked cotton. My grandma made me catch the chickens, then she'd wring their necks and cook them. Something I've sometimes wondered about, considering my work with gang kids, is how animals can sense when one of them is being singled out, and they kind of gather around to protect it. Them chickens used to always gather around the one I was tryin' to get--not that it done them much good."
Living with the Malones, Lonnie learned what it meant to work hard. "I walked behind a mule during plowing season and cut wood in the fall to help get us through the winter," he remembers. But he was no match for his grandfather. "He had what they called a 'rupture' and his intestines would occasionally slip down into his scrotum. Sometimes I'd be walkin' behind that mule and I'd look over and he'd be laying on the ground trying to push his guts back up inside himself....Then he'd get back up and start to work again."
Charlie was already in his sixties when Lonnie came to live with them. He'd been a bootlegger, and on occasion would tell frightening stories about the night riders of the Ku Klux Klan. Besides running his farm and his still, Charlie was also a mechanic who did a lot of work for the white folks around town. His work ethic had earned him a lot of respect. "Still," Lonnie says, "he was a black man and that only went so far."
It was in Tennessee that Lonnie found the great love of his life when he attended a high school basketball game. "I loved the whole scene--the fans, the excitement...and that game," he says. "How could you not love that game?"
The next day, when his friends came over to get him for a baseball game, Lonnie shook his head. "I'm gonna play basketball," he announced, and headed for the playground with an old rubber ball.
When he was ten, Lonnie went back to his mother in Chicago. Home was a three-story walk-up tenement on the South Side, "truly a cement jungle."
There were gangs, but they were the territorial type--duking it out with rival neighborhoods over turf and girls. Most scores were settled with fists, bats, maybe knives or the occasional inaccurate zip gun made out of a piece of pipe and holding a single bullet. The gangsters "with juice" were old-style Italian or Irish or Jewish mobsters who controlled the drugs and prostitution. "We was always the guinea pigs. Brown brothers didn't have no planes to bring shit in from Mexico. It was the Mob. We was just always the buyers," Lonnie says. "In my 'hood, even back then, it was not an oddity to hear that someone's son had OD'd in the hallway. Circumstances was so strong against ever getting away from it. It was expected that you'd have a police record by the time you were fifteen or sixteen."
Unless you had a ticket out, and Lonnie's was a round brown-orange ball. Basketball had been invented in the 1890s by Dr. James Naismith, who used peach baskets to shoot at. In Lonnie's neighborhood, they were still playing with peach baskets nailed to lampposts. Everyone was playing basketball. But few, if any, were better than Lonnie.
Basketball became his identity. He was rarely without a ball and could be heard coming from blocks away because those cheap balls made a "ping-ping" sound on the concrete.
By the time he was fourteen, Lonnie was already a basketball legend in the schoolyards of the South Side. Older boys from the neighborhood would come looking for him when they wanted to challenge a rival neighborhood to a game of hoops. "You'll have to ask my mother," he'd say, and they'd be off to beg her. "He's crazy...he thinks he's gonna be a pro," they'd say. "But we need him." Lonnie's mother would protest that they were too old, that he couldn't be hanging around them. But often as not she relented, just so long as they knew they would have to answer to her.
Oddly, it was the older guys with police records who kept Lonnie clean. "You got a chance to be something, don't mess it up," they'd tell him.
"They protected, insulated the athletes," Lonnie says. "It was like if someone made it out, a little piece of each of them made it out, too. Everyone couldn't, so sometimes one person's dreams had to be enough for everyone."
But Lonnie took care of himself, too. When he was ten his mother had had a boyfriend, Eddie, who'd beaten her up and stabbed her in the arms with a penknife. That ended the relationship, but it got Lonnie thinking about revenge. Four years later, he got his chance.
Lonnie was walking down the sidewalk toward home, his pinging basketball announcing his imminent arrival. An aunt ran out of the building to head him off. "Lonnie, Eddie's visiting, and your mom don't want no trouble," she warned.
Lonnie didn't move. When he was ten, he'd been too small to do anything about Eddie, but at fourteen, he stood 6'1" and was unafraid. He began collecting pieces of brick and had quite a pile by the time his mother and Eddie came down the stairs a few minutes later. She was leading the way and when she saw her son, she yelled, "Go on now, boy!" But Lonnie ordered her to get out of the way. As she retreated, he hurled the first brick.
"It frightened me how good it felt to hear those bricks hit him," Lonnie says. "Thunk. Thunk. Last I saw of him was elbows and asshole disappearing down the street."
Danny's little brother nods knowingly. It feels good to put your enemies to flight, to protect your own. The public, he says, has the misperception that rival gangs go around shooting each other indiscriminately because of the colors they wear. "Those guys are my old enemies," he says. "They're the ones who gave me a hard time when I was a little kid tryin' to go to school. They beat up my sister because of who I was. They shot my uncle.
"I never shot nobody I didn't know."
Lonnie Lynn knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was going to play pro basketball. He would be a great star and the world would be at his feet. His dream wasn't entirely selfish--he saw himself reaching back to help other underprivileged kids, and he wanted to buy his mother a real house of her own--but basketball was all that mattered. As a result, his schoolwork suffered. "I thought it would be a hex, a jinx, to put my eggs in more than one basket," he says. "It would be like I doubted myself."
Lonnie played for legendary Jean Baptist Du Sable High School. The school had produced a number of basketball legends. The first black to sign an NBA contract, Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton, came out of Du Sable. "Sweet" Charlie Brown. Julian Hammond. Kevin Porter. Maurice Cheeks.
Lonnie pulls out an old album filled with tattered newspaper clippings. He turns to one page and stabs a clipping with a finger. "I can talk about that game all day long," he says, then proceeds to do so.
It was 1961, the semi-finals of the city championship between Du Sable and archrival Crane Tech. The game had seesawed until, with one second left to go, Crane Tech led 62-61. The Crane Tech fans were cheering and congratulating each other; on the other side of the gym, the Du Sable fans were in tears. It was Du Sable's ball out of bounds beneath the Crane Tech basket, and Lonnie stepped forward. Earlier that season, Lonnie, who played center, had taken an out-of-bounds ball and promptly thrown an errant pass that was picked off by the opposition, which then scored the game winner. Afterward, he had been told by his coach to never, ever take the ball out again. But with one second and his team captain screaming, "Gimme the ball," Lonnie disobeyed. Looking up, he saw his teammate Willie Williams streaking down the court. He loaded up and let fly.
In an ordinary high-school gym, the arc he put on the ball would have been too high; the ball would have hit the ceiling. But this game was being played in a larger arena. So as everybody in the gym watched, the ball soared over all the other players and fell into the hands of Willie Williams, who never broke stride as he laid the ball up.
Lonnie closes his eyes to relive the moment. "The ball hit the back of the rim...then the left side." His head tilts back, then left. "It rolled around. The referee was hopping down the court on one foot...his hand was behind him, two fingers extended..." Lonnie's right arm stretches behind his back, two fingers extended. "It seemed like forever, then the ball dropped through. I screamed at the ref, 'Put 'em down. Put 'em down,' and he did and the place went crazy."
Du Sable won, 63-62.
"They still talk about that game," Lonnie says quietly. "I think it was my finest moment ever in basketball." He takes a last puff on his cigarette before killing it; his eyes remain on the smoldering ashes. There were supposed to be many such moments. Bigger and better games. At last he looks up, fingering the small gold basketball that hangs from his neck. "That game taught me a lot," he says. "Never give up. Never give in. Even when it looks hopeless."
Legendary coach Adolph Rupp invited Lonnie Lynn to be the first black to play for the University of Kentucky, Lonnie says, but he took himself out of the running. "I didn't have those Jackie Robinson qualities," he explains. "It was clear that the only integration would have been on the basketball court. Time had pushed them into inviting a black...it wasn't 'cause they wanted to do it. That first brother was going to have to be perfect and that wasn't me."
He ended up playing for Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. Wilberforce was one of the first black colleges in the United States, but there wasn't much publicity for its basketball program, and its players weren't expected to make the pros. Still, Lonnie wanted to turn pro and was drafted in the sixteenth round by the then-St. Louis Hawks. "I had no idea that generally only the first- and second-round choices made the team," he says, then laughs. "I thought I was going to be in the starting lineup."
At Wilberforce, Lonnie had met Ann Brown, the woman who would become his first wife. She was petite and so smart that she made the dean's list every semester. "She chased me," he says. "And like my momma always told me, 'Love them who loves you ... don't go lookin' for nobody.'" Ann was going to be a teacher back in their hometown of Chicago, but for a time she put her career on hold while Lonnie pursued his dream. But it was a dream that never quite materialized.
Sure, there were a few seasons with farm teams at $125 a game, including one in which he set a scoring record in the Eastern Basketball Association, the precursor of the Continental Basketball Association. "They can't never take that away from me," he notes, "because it doesn't exist anymore." And in 1969, there was a thirty-game run with the Denver Rockets, which netted him not only a contract for $14,500, "which was lucrative in them days," but also a lifelong friendship with rising star Spencer Haywood.
But in 1970, Lonnie was out. He took it hard. "Suddenly, I was being told I wasn't good enough for something I had always been good enough at." Blaming his failure on racism and politics, he returned to Chicago, where Ann had a job teaching. "I had no skills. No job. Everywhere I applied they said, 'Oh, Mr. Lynn, you made too much money last year, you wouldn't be happy here.' Or, 'You'll be back in basketball and we don't want to waste the time training you.' I stopped believing in the red, white and blue. I couldn't even stand to watch a game on television; I'd break out in a sweat, watching my buddies play, and just want to throw a brick through the tube."
Lonnie brought with him not just a chip on his shoulder, but a drug habit. Trainers had always thrown out pills by the handful--pills to help athletes sleep, pills to give them more energy. "They shot you up if you were hurtin'...like a racehorse," Lonnie recalls.
Remembering, Lonnie passes his hand over his smooth head. "You hear people say they 'experimented' with drugs. Well, I was dissipatin' drugs, dissipatin' heavy...and drinkin'."
Ann chose not to notice, or at least never said much. And in 1972, Lonnie Rashied Lynn was born. For months before the birth, they'd debated possible names. There was no question that a boy would be the next Lonnie, but they also wanted a name that meant something. They thought about African names. "But they always seemed to be named for a place or time of year," Lonnie says, "and I couldn't see 'Lake Michigan Tuesday.'" Finally they settled on Rashied, an Islamic name that means "Guide to the Right Path."
"I will always believe that God sent my son to save my life. I was a dead man. Then one morning, when Rashied was still too young to talk, I looked across the table and into his eyes. He was askin' me for protection and truth."
But Lonnie wasn't ready. "I was raised without a father, and from what I had seen of him when he was drinkin', I figured it would have been worse if he had stayed around," Lonnie says. "I decided it would be better for everyone if I wasn't around. You don't mess up three people's lives or whack out your kids with your bad habits.
Lonnie pauses. "I left." He stares out the window and reaches for the pack of Pall Malls. Then he sighs. "Years later, Ann told me, 'You should have never left. Whatever problems you were facing, you should have never left us alone." He pauses again, the match a heartbeat from his cigarette. "I want to believe she said that with love in her heart."
However much he credits Rashied with providing the impetus to start reclaiming his life, Lonnie didn't get clean right away. First there was the nice apartment and the nightlife: "Big cars and fast women, as we used to say."
For a time, he lived off his basketball reputation. "People would drive by and honk. 'There's Lonnie Lynn, he played pro ball.'" He was a celebrity, which meant free drugs from dealers who wanted to trade on his status. But soon he was just another addict who would have sold his soul for another hit.
"I lost everything," Lonnie remembers. "My car. My jewelry...any sign that I had ever accomplished anything. I was thirty years old, and I was a zero." He had to move out of his apartment and in with his mother. He took menial jobs, including mopping hospital floors, all the while talking about how he'd get another chance at basketball fame. That lasted until one night when he was getting high with a couple of old high school friends. One was a woman who still called him 'Schoolboy' because he was the only one from the neighborhood who had made it to college. Something he said angered her and she lashed out, "Schoolboy, you ain't gonna play no more basketball. You got a habit."
"To prove her wrong," Lonnie says, "I went home and threw out all my drugs....That's when I found out that I did have a habit. I couldn't wait until the sun came up so I could go out and spend some money."
Often as not, the money had to come from his mother. He would sneak off to another room to call his dealer, whispering, believing that his mother didn't know what was going on. Then he'd come out and ask to borrow $90.
The only positive thing in his life anymore were his visits with Rashied. Ann was good about letting him see the boy on weekends. "Still, I didn't really know what to do with him," Lonnie says. "I mean, what do you do when you're an addict on a Saturday morning? Take him to visit my drug fiend friends?"
And then came the day when Ann wouldn't let Lonnie see Rashied at all. "You don't know when the police will come through your door," she told Lonnie. "I won't have him there when they do."
It was six months before he saw his son again--and only after he had beaten his habit. "Me and mom were sitting around one morning drinkin' coffee when she looked up and said, 'You know, you're gonna be all right.' I asked her what she meant and she said, 'Well, I been watchin' you and you ain't been sneakin' off to make telephone calls, then coming out and askin' to borrow $90. So I know you're gonna be okay.'"
Lonnie still had a long way to go. The drugs were gone, but the disappointment over his basketball career remained. Then, in early 1975, he got a call from Spencer Haywood, Rashied's godfather, who was now playing with the Seattle Supersonics.
"We need a rebounding forward, and I suggested you," Haywood said. The team would be in Chicago the next week to play the Bulls. Why didn't he come down and introduce himself to coach Bill Russell?
Lonnie needed no second invitation. Russell shook his hand, but it was his assistant coach who laid it on the line. Lonnie could come to Seattle for a tryout. "But we hear you got a drug problem, Lonnie," he says. "Don't bring it to the team."
Lonnie had no problem with that. He was clean, and Ann was even talking about getting back together. But to prove he was serious about turning over a new leaf, she'd insisted he come up with the money to make a down payment on a house.
He set out to whip himself into shape. He began lifting weights to get his strength back and started running along the Lake Michigan shoreline in combat boots to build his legs. "I remember the sound of my boots in the sand," he says, closing his eyes. "It sounded like Rashied's voice saying, 'Run, Daddy. Run, Daddy.' I was running to get my boy back, my woman, and my dreams. But I blew it."
Haywood had told Lonnie it might be a good idea to show up at the Seattle tryout with his family, to prove that he had indeed settled down. Now Lonnie packed all his worldly belongings into the back of his old car and went to pick up Ann and Rashied, but he didn't tell them where they were going. "I got a house I want you to see," he said instead.
As he drove north toward the interstate that would take them to Seattle, Ann began to complain that this house was too far from the school where she taught. So Lonnie finally explained where he was headed. "It's my last chance," he said. "As soon as I introduce you, you can get on a plane and come back."
They made it as far as Madison, Wisconsin, where Lonnie pulled into a motel to get some sleep. He woke up surrounded by police officers. Ann had reported him for abducting her and their son. Publicity over the arrest preceded Lonnie to Seattle. There would be no tryout.
Cigarette smoke hangs around Lonnie like a bad memory as he looks up at the ceiling. "I'll believe 'til the day I die that I would have made the team."
Lonnie returned to Chicago in defeat. He had come full circle. He had started with nothing and now he was a nobody, working nowhere jobs, standing on corners waiting for a bus. Now he was ashamed when someone would drive by and honk his horn. "'There's Lonnie Lynn, he used to play pro ball.' But damn, they never stopped anymore to pick me up."
Ever since his childhood brush with death, he felt God had plans for him. But if not basketball, what were they?
Lonnie's mother died in 1977, leaving behind a $3,100 Social Security check that arrived after his father's death nine months earlier."That's all he had to show for seventy years," Lonnie says. "I paid the people she would have wanted me to pay."
Then he again packed his few belongings, rented a car and, with the $500 he had left from his father's legacy, he drove to Denver for a fresh start. His mother had always thought Denver would be good for him. He liked the city, which had provided one of his few moments in the limelight. And a cousin who lived here had offered him a place to stay.
Lonnie returned to town a common laborer, doing jobs he would have been too ashamed to take in Chicago. But no one knew him here. He was just a tall, black man covered with dirt. One of those jobs was knocking down drywall for people remodeling homes; Lonnie was envious. He had never made good on that promise to buy his mother a house or put a down payment on one for Ann and Rashied.
"I used to go to Simms Landing and sit in the bar where I could look down and see the lights of Denver," he says. "I'd say to myself, 'Lonnie, you don't even own one of those lightbulbs. You need some bricks to call your own.'"
Even though he was a thousand miles away, Lonnie was determined to be a father to Rashied. Just before his first Christmas in Denver, he took his last paycheck to a sporting goods store and bought a Broncos jacket to send back to the boy. He was buying something, anything, so as not to lose contact. But he didn't know if the coat would fit Rashied, or if he'd like it. In fact, he didn't know a damn thing about Rashied's life.
From that point on, Lonnie saved his money so he could call his son every Saturday. "I made it a point to really talk to him about what I was feeling, what I was doing. I asked him about what he thought and about his life. Not the way adults usually do with children, in one ear and out the other, but because I really wanted to know him and have him know me."
A few months after he arrived in Denver, a friend told Lonnie about job openings with the state. One of them was as a youth counselor at the Lookout Mountain Youth Center. Lonnie, who'd worked for the Boys' Club in Chicago trying to keep kids off the street, arrived at his interview expecting the worst; his only knowledge of juvenile detention centers came from those in Chicago. "Which were every bit as bad as adult prisons," he says. "Rapes. Killings. You name it. I got to Lookout Mountain and it was like a college campus. There was this little six-foot fence and these little cottages with names on them like Aspen and Cedar and Evergreen."
Lonnie hadn't noticed any signs of criminal gangs on the streets of Denver, and he didn't see any at Lookout, either. What struck him about the kids put in his care was the amount of abuse they had suffered at the hands of their families. One of the kids, a frail white boy from Grand Junction, really got to him. "I don't even remember what he was charged with," Lonnie says. "His mother had married five times since leaving his natural father, and he'd been physically, sexually or verbally abused at every step along the way by his stepfathers. I thought, 'What could this kid know about justice and fairness? He'd never experienced it himself.' And yet society expected him to follow the rules, obey the laws."
Back then, Lonnie says, Denver's gangs were the territorial type, like those he had known in his boyhood. "They defended their neighborhoods," he remembers. "But there were no weapons, at least no guns. They were the sort to duke it out." And they had names that seemed almost innocent, like BOYZ, Southside Steel and the 38th Street Specials.
But all that was changing by the mid-Eighties. Cocaine was hitting the streets in quantity. "Cocaine bought the guns," says Danny's little brother.
"Cocaine makes the guns necessary," Lonnie adds. "I saw the rise in drug sales on the streets and knew it was just a matter of time before it got into the hands of kids. Dealers would say, 'Here, go sell this. If you get caught, all you'll get is juvenile time.'"
It wasn't long before those kids were arriving at Lookout Mountain "talkin' that gang stuff and flashing signs. But the administrators were oblivious to the whole thing....They still had all these people with degrees talking about whether someone was a red personality or a green personality. And all this stuff is going right over the kids' heads."
The debate over whether Denver even had a gang problem ended abruptly in 1985, when Cameron Smith got shot off his bicycle because he was wearing a red baseball cap. After being shot once, Cameron had fought for his life until a younger gang member had picked up a gun that had been dropped in the scuffle and finished him off. Two Crips were charged in the slaying. The older of the two was sent to adult prison; the younger went to Lookout, although Lonnie didn't know it for almost a year.
Cameron's death hit Lonnie hard. He knew Cameron's mother through acquaintances and saw firsthand the suffering that gang violence caused. The kids arriving at Lookout seemed to get tougher by the day, and the grounds had changed accordingly. The cottages were now prison-like dormitories. A sixteen-foot fence with electric sliding gates surrounded the facility. And the kids who weren't real gang members when they arrived at Lookout were by the time they left, if for no other reason than self-protection. There were no programs that reflected the changing times.
One night Lonnie sent his charges, including a thirteen-year-old boy who'd arrived that day, to their rooms to get ready for their showers. One at a time, he let them out to head to the bathroom. "When I opened the new kid's door, he was standing there in Donkey Kong pajamas...the kind with the little feet," Lonnie remembers. "Sometimes these kids were so tough, and some of them had done such heinous things, you'd forget that they was just kids. But there's this guy in his PJs.
"Rashied was about the same age, and that night as I looked at that kid, I made a silent vow that I would work with these kids the same as I would want someone to work with Rashied if he made a mistake and ended up in an institution. That if they'd allow me, I'd give them 100 percent."
Soon after, Lonnie started his "gang group," an informal meeting of gang members on Saturdays. "I was almost forced into it," he says. "Sometimes things would be about to boil over...they'd be flashing signs at each other, insulting each other, setting up fights. We'd have our meetings Saturdays when there were no administrators or teachers around. The teachers would come back Monday to a nice, safe environment with no idea how close it had come to being otherwise."
At those meetings, Lonnie tried to find common ground for the members of different gangs, pointing out that at Lookout they ate the same food, drank the same water, had the same-sized rooms--no one was better than anyone else. He worked out an agreement that whatever their differences, they would leave them on the streets.
He set up a basketball league in which he would assign members of rival gangs to the same team. "I'd have three Crips explaining to a Blood, 'This is how Lonnie wants us to run the offense.' They felt safe with me; in the gym, nothing bad was going to happen. If something was about to blow, they'd come up to me and say something like, 'Lonnie, those guys over there are causing us problems, and we're gonna have to kick their asses.' Which to me was saying that they didn't want to fight and wanted me to intervene. They've never been taught how to deal with problems except one way. I was tryin' to give them another."
One of his players turned out to be Cameron Smith's killer. A police officer pointed out Clemmy "Domino" Nevels as the boy who'd finished him off. "I didn't know how to react," Lonnie says. "I liked Clemmy. I once caught him and Pernel 'P-Loc' Hines, a Blood, eating out of the same bowl of noodles together, something they would have never done on the streets. When things got tense at one of our meetings I said, 'Wait a minute, I saw you two sharing noodles.' It took the steam right out of them. I mean, what could they do after that except laugh?
"But now I was confused. I didn't know whether to hate Clemmy or what. At last I decided that there was nothing I could do to bring Cameron back, but maybe I could have an influence on Clemmy so that when he got out, he wouldn't shoot anybody again."
From a distance, Lonnie watched for any signs that Rashied might be getting involved with gangs. He'd managed to strengthen his relationship with his son over the years; after their divorce, Ann had started letting the boy come to Colorado to visit his father. And every year, Lonnie and Rashied went to the NBA All-Star Game together.
But while Rashied had his share of teenaged troubles--fights and staying out late--he was an honor student with a real gift for language, which he began to apply to rap music. Lonnie attributed his son's growth to Ann, who had gone on to get her doctorate and was now a principal at a South Side high school.
"She is a good woman, strong," says Lonnie. "I never doubted that she would get her Ph.D. She was the first principal in the city of Chicago to put public school kids in uniforms so that they would stop killing each other over gym shoes or sports jackets. That was twelve years ago, way ahead of anyone else."
Ann had remarried, and in 1987, Lonnie found someone else, too. He fell in love with Val Nogay, a young special education teacher from a small town in West Virginia who was working at Lookout. "She was a square," he says. "Not really. But she was naive. She would wander around on the campus like she was at Disneyland. I mean, if I was a woman, I wouldn't have worked there; in fact, if I wasn't as big as I am, I would have thought twice. But she didn't; she believed in kids. To be honest with you, I pursued her. I flirted for a couple of months and had to ask a couple of times before she would go out with me."
Lonnie's hands shake as he lights another cigarette. "I wasn't lookin' for a permanent relationship," he says, "but I thank God for giving me a second chance." Still, when Val announced that she wanted a child, he balked. He had been to a doctor and the news wasn't good: He had heart problems. "I told her that I might not be around much longer to help her raise a child," he says. "Two months later, she told me she was pregnant."
Malone was born in 1988 and named for Lonnie's grandparents. Lonnie tried to get his affairs in order in case his second family had to go on without him. "I thought I would be gone soon," he says, biting his lip. "Isn't it ironic how God works?"
In 1992 Rashied released his first album under the name Common Sense, something he laughingly told an interviewer his mother had tried to instill in him. Critics hailed Can I Borrow a Dollar? for Rashied's "lyrical genius," the album's smooth, jazzy background and the positive alternative Rashied offered to most gangsta rap.
The year began well for Lonnie, too. Lookout Mountain's new director approved an award that the staff and gang group wanted to give Lonnie: "In recognition of your dedication and caring for the growth of the students at LMS, a special thanks from the teachers in helping create a safe environment. Also a special thanks from the gang group for caring about them and taking time to show it."
Lonnie digs the plaque from his mementos and places it on the table. "Six months later, I was fired," he says. He'd been experiencing chest pains and difficulty breathing; his doctor attributed the symptoms to work-related stress. Lonnie's request for time off caused a serious clash, and the director eventually let him go.
But Lonnie wasn't idle long. Jim Brown, who had met Lonnie through Spencer Haywood, suggested he take over the fledgling Colorado branch of Amer-I-Can. The non-profit, which runs on foundation and corporation grants, as well as fees charged to institutions and schools, had already met with success in twelve other states.
Amer-I-Can targets at-risk youth and young adults, although it generates the most headlines for its work with gang members. It focuses on teaching decision-making and life-management skills--from how to prepare for a job interview to taking personal responsibility for one's actions. "There is no 'we,' there is only 'I,'" Lonnie explains. "No 'my homeboys did this or said that.' Only what 'I' say or do. There are no excuses. No blaming racism. No saying, 'Someone didn't give me the job because they don't like that I'm a Muslim.' No saying, 'I committed a crime because my dad used to whup me.' Okay, so you got obstacles. Now, how are you going to overcome them?"
The gangbanger who comes into the program complaining that he doesn't want to work for minimum wage when he could make a hundred times that selling cocaine gets a quick economics lesson from Lonnie: "I tell them, 'Okay, let's look at this. Nobody goes on a lifelong crime spree. Sooner or later you get caught. Then the IRS comes in and seizes your BMW, your house and your boat. Then they put you away for three years--so how much a day are you earning there? Nothing?'"
Much of the program is geared toward analyzing motivations. "We try to get them to understand that you do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. And it is its own reward."
The message sounds simplistic, but that is exactly how these kids need to hear it. They never got that message at home, Lonnie says. Nor do they get it anymore at Lookout Mountain, which he accuses of "warehousing kids, preparing them for graduate school down in Canon City. The only problem is, they got to kill someone to get there."
The Amer-I-Can handbook expands the group's message into Ten Commandments for parents, including:
--I shall teach my child respect for all other persons.
--I shall impart a desire to love and honor this country and obey its laws.
--I shall teach, through my example, the importance of participating in community affairs and local government.
But the Denver Amer-I-Can program hasn't done as much for the community as it might have over the past two years. Not because Lonnie doesn't work at it, but because funds are limited. Competition with other programs that claim to work on the gang problem is heavy, but Lonnie refuses to participate in any backbiting. Perhaps he's ill-suited for begging corporations and foundations and school districts for funding when he thinks the need is clear. "I will not crawl on my knees when all they have to do is look at its success in other states," he says.
But to be honest, as Lonnie is fond of saying, after Val's death he didn't have the heart to pursue those contracts. "I try not to question the will of God, but I was puzzled for Malone's sake," he says. "I am still puzzled by his loss. For a long time, all I wanted to do was lay on that couch and do nothing. But I got to thinking about Val, about how strong she was, even when she knew it was over. She had a calming effect on me and was always telling me to change the things I could and not worry about the rest. So I got up."
Lonnie pulls out four posterboard charts that he made while still at Lookout Mountain. They're covered with newspaper clippings about gang shootings and arrests--and snapshots of boys who are either dead or soon could be.
"There's Pernel Hines," Lonnie says. "He's wanted by the Denver police for murder.
"That's Duran. He got out and was beat up by two guys in Pueblo. They put him in a coma. When he recovered, he killed one of them."
"And there's Clemmy," he adds. "He was killed three weeks after he got out. His mother called me screaming. She said he should have never stopped being a gangster--that he let his guard down and that's why he died."
Lonnie pauses a moment, then says, "He still had his baby fat on him."
Danny's little brother stares at the posters. One photograph shows a homeboy, Peanut, with his throat slit by the Crips. "I've kept this from him because of that," Lonnie says.
The gangster tears his eyes away. "I've seen stuff that bad before," he says. "I'm a lot closer to this than other people."
Lonnie first met Danny's little brother when the boy's mother asked him to talk to her sons about the direction they were heading. "He was just a shorty then, a wannabe," Lonnie recalls. "The next time I saw him, they were leading him across the Lookout campus in shackles. A real hard-core kid." But over the next few years, he saw something else in Danny's little brother: a desire to make something of himself. So after the young man got through the Amer-I-Can program, Lonnie gave him a job teaching. A second chance. Which, Danny's little brother says, is more than the police ever gave him.
"They knew I was a gang member when I was thirteen...that I was over my head. But never once did they show that they knew I was having a difficult time getting to school. Never once did they offer a ride so I wouldn't have to be afraid. They just wanted to wait until me and my brother got older so they could arrest us.
"Lonnie gave me a job when I'd never had one before. He showed me another way."
And he's come a long way from there. "He's working two jobs," Lonnie says. "He's going to college. He's a single parent taking care of a little girl."
But make no mistake, Danny's little brother adds, "I am not a 'former' gang member. When I talk to kids, I try to point out that the decisions you make when you are young will be part of you for the rest of your life.
"I can't go to a mall with my daughter without lookin' over my shoulder. I can't go to a concert without five or six other guys. I can't take my girlfriend out without carrying a weapon. You can't just walk away once you made the wrong decision. I see some dude who shot at me on the street, he thinks he's out of it, but he don't know what I'm thinking. I'm remembering that they shot at me...and they're not safe."
He looks again at the photograph of Peanut, a childhood friend, and looks away. There is no picture of his brother Danny, on the run and accused of participating in the rape and murder of Brandy Duvall, as well as of orchestrating the hit that led to the shooting of Venus Montoya last summer.
This past April, Lonnie went to visit his son in Chicago. Rashied had come under fire from other rappers, who said one of his songs accused them of taking rap into the sewer, and Louis Farrakhan had called a meeting to bring about a truce.
While Rashied took a shower, Lonnie listened to the "beats" of a song for which his son was still writing the lyrics. As he listened, Lonnie began to sing: The growth and education of Lonnie Lynn. The growth and education of Lonnie Lynn.
"He came out saying, 'What's that, Pops? What was that you said?'"
Soon after, Rashied recorded the song "G.O.D. (Gaining One's Definition)." "The education of Lonnie Lynn began, began with time" it starts out, and it concludes with this chorus: "I've lived, I've learned. I've taken, I've earned. I have laughed. I have cried. I've failed and I have tried. Sunshine. Pouring rain. I've found joy through my pain....I just want to be happy, being me."
The interior of Lonnie's house is almost a Lynn museum, filled with memorabilia ranging from posters for Rashied's albums to the photograph of his grandparents to souvenirs from his basketball days, including a picture of him in a Rockets uniform, next to one of his buddy Spencer Haywood. They've been in touch a lot lately about the thirtieth anniversary ABA reunion coming up in Indianapolis later this month. "I've been getting calls from people I haven't talked to for nearly thirty years," Lonnie says. "They're tellin' me to bring my memorabilia so I can sell it. But I ain't destitute ... that stuff's Malone's."
On the garage out back of Lonnie's house hangs a dilapidated old peach basket with the bottom knocked out of it. It's a reminder of where he came from and what is owed to the past. "All old players ought to have one," he says. "I got a bunch more in the garage, just in case."
The garden by the garage is overgrown. He tried to keep up with it, but it was Val's project. "She would have had it perfect," Lonnie says. "I still find it hard that she won't be coming home. That she won't be here to share a laugh or a story when we get old together. But if I learned anything from her, it was change what you can and get on with the rest."
Before she died, Val asked that their son be allowed to get to know her folks in West Virginia, so that's where Malone spends the school year in the company of cousins and grandparents. Lonnie will miss Malone, but while he's gone he'll put his energies into building the Amer-I-Can program back up. The more Amer-I-Can programs there are, the safer his sons, "all of my sons--black, brown and white," will be.
Lonnie spots Malone on the front porch. "Hey," he says, "why do you do the right thing?"
Malone looks up and smiles. "Because it's the right thing to do."
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