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.

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Steve Jackson