Lowest Point: Ex-NBA Forward `Hawkeye' Whitney Awaits Possible Sentence of Life in Prison
Slavin, Peter, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
"Someday they're going to take the ball away from you and you better have something to fall back on."
- DeMatha Coach Morgan Wootten
When NBA coach Cotton Fitzsimmons saw the story in a newspaper about a player he once coached, he brought it to the locker room and read it to members of his Phoenix Suns. He wanted the fate of Charles "Hawkeye" Whitney to be a lesson.
"I told my young players he had the same opportunity they have," says Fitzsimmons, who coached Whitney when they were both with the Kansas City Kings. "A chance to get out of the ghetto, a chance to do it all - a chance to get a degree in college, a chance to play pro basketball. Unfortunately, for him, it didn't happen. He messed it up. That's what can happen to you."
Whitney, a star at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, had gone on to become a two-time All-American at North Carolina State University and the Kings' first-round draft choice in 1980.
But now, at age 38, the 6-foot-5 former NBA forward is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in D.C. today to be sentenced for armed kidnapping after pleading guilty to the charge in April. He faces a maximum life term in prison and $250,000 in fines.
The sentencing stems from the night of Jan. 26, when Whitney and an accomplice abducted White House lawyer Mark D. Fabiani at gunpoint as he was walking from the King Street Metro stop in Alexandria. Fabiani was returning to his home after representing first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at a grand jury investigation being conducted on Whitewater earlier that day.
Whitney and his accomplice drove Fabiani into the District and forced him to withdraw $1,600 from two automatic teller machines before releasing him unharmed.
Soon after his arrest and the initial news stories, it was reported that Whitney had fallen into the gutter after a knee injury midway through his first season with the Kings ended his pro basketball career and that for years he had abused drugs.
The impression given was that with his career in ruins, Whitney had taken up drugs for consolation, that he was yet one more professional athlete destroyed by them.
In fact, Whitney's life tells a different, more complex story. His drug abuse actually began well before his injury with the Kings. And addiction alone did not bring him down. Drugs and alcohol were only the most visible of his problems.
* * * *
Whitney "had no foundation," says his first wife, Carolyn. "Hawk never knew who he was. He didn't even know how to know who he was. If you don't have a parent to teach you, someone to guide you, you can't learn it."
Few people contacted for this story had anything but kind words and concern for Whitney. Such regard has won Whitney more than his share of breaks.
An engaging kid from "the projects," Whitney received tremendous help from coaches and others, and in his years of struggle as an adult, friends have stepped in with money and once made possible a fresh start. Whitney had done his part, enrolling in one rehabilitation program after another, trying to overcome his addiction. But the demons that drive him have defeated every effort.
In the 15 years since his injury, Whitney's life has been full of contradictions.
When he was 23, he went to court so that he and Carolyn could take in as foster children a 16-year-old boy and his 14-year-old sister after their parents died. But Whitney later abandoned his family to live on the streets. He has had little contact with the two children or his own two sons over the years. Carolyn has since remarried.
Yet Whitney's radiant personality had made him a magnet for young people, a Pied Piper of sorts. He has coached kids and often spoken publicly to them about the dangers of following the road he took. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes enlisted him at one point as a speaker. He has counseled kids in jail struggling with drugs.
In June 1993, after a second marriage had disintegrated, he went to DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten's basketball camp and talked to the young men there. "He would tell them," Wootten recalls, "about setting goals, hanging around the right kind of people, being careful who their friends were, not to be led astray. He was terrific."
At the Christian Life Mission in Kansas City, Mo., in 1989, Whitney made a lasting impression on Bob Webb, who had "tried everything" to beat alcoholism. Whitney was in the mission at that time trying to break his own addictions and spoke there. After sitting up half the night talking to Whitney, Webb entered the mission's long-term program. "He's the guy who led me to the Lord," says Webb, now a district manager for Wendy's restaurants.
Says Carolyn of Whitney, "If God ever frees him, he'll help a lot of people. But he never knew how to help himself."
* * * *
It all began when John Garner, a teacher and coach at Johnson Junior High in southeast Washington, learned that the tall, lanky 12-year-old who played basketball so well had barely attended school all year. Garner tracked down Charles' home, got him going to classes and took him in hand. Others at school helped him outfit Charles with clothes and shoes. "The principal would bring shirts and ties," Garner recalls.
Garner often gave Charles a ride home to the Valley Green Apartments, one of the worst parts of Anacostia. He lived there with his parents, six brothers and sisters, and several other relatives in a basement apartment.
Most units in the building were abandoned, and rats and broken glass were "all over the place," remembers Jack Bruen, then an assistant DeMatha coach. Pete Strickland, Charles' teammate at DeMatha, recalls his shock the first time he visited. Charles opened a kitchen cabinet and asked him if he wanted something to eat. "Everything in the cabinet [was] just infested with cockroaches," he says.
Strickland, who says he visited Charles in his Valley Green apartment many times, says there was real warmth in the home, but things were chaotic. Charles and his brother Anthony kept their room locked. Both his parents were alcoholic and the neighborhood was full of drugs and alcohol, says Carolyn, who has known Charles since high school. But at the time, Charles "never got into it," she says. "All he wanted to do was play ball."
Charles' father was a retired construction worker, and his mother worked at a dry cleaner's. "They had no idea what to do with Hawkeye," says Garner, and entrusted their son's future to him. Garner had to make a place for Charles where he could study and "sleep in the same bed every night."
Garner steered Charles to DeMatha, a parochial school with a nationally known basketball program. Charles was motivated enough to ride a bicycle 10 miles each way to summer school to prove he could do the work. But he was a year behind academically, so he had to take courses in public high schools each succeeding summer.
During the school year he had to catch a 5:30 a.m. bus to get to DeMatha on time. He worked in the school cafeteria to pay part of his tuition. DeMatha evidently waived the rest.
Garner had become a second father to Charles, and at DeMatha, Wootten and Bruen became two more. He often spent the night at Bruen's home, and Bruen helped teach him carpentry. He spent several Christmas Eves with Wootten's family, and Wootten bought him a suit for Carolyn's senior prom.
DeMatha had four levels of classes. Charles was placed in the lowest level. He finished in the bottom quarter of his class with about a 2.0 average but won a full scholarship to N.C. State in Raleigh.
"Had he not been an athlete, I don't think he would have gotten into N.C. State," says John Moylan, DeMatha's principal then and now.
* * * *
It was at N.C. State that Whitney came to depend on drugs and alcohol. "It started off with beers in bars" after games, says his freshman year roommate and teammate Clyde Austin. From there Whitney moved on to drugs.
He and Carolyn married after their freshman years and moved into an off-campus apartment in a nice part of Raleigh but just a few blocks from public housing. Carolyn, who had dropped out of Tuskeegee Institute to marry, went to work.
Suddenly, Whitney faced not only the need to keep his grades up and his weight down but the pressures of marriage and paying bills. "He didn't know how to deal with all that was going on," Carolyn recalls.
By his junior year he was hanging out with the wrong crowd - young men from the nearby projects. The link, Carolyn believes, was a drug-using N.C. State player from that part of town. Whitney had known guys like these in Valley Green. In fact, says Austin, this part of Raleigh "looks like his home. Identical."
Charles would vanish around midnight and not come home until 6 or 7 a.m. Carolyn feared another woman. She never realized it was drugs until they went to a party in an apartment. She walked into the kitchen and found Charles and others cooking drugs on the stove.
Carolyn doesn't blame former N.C. State coach Norm Sloan for not noticing Whitney's drug and alcohol problem. "Charles did not cause us one bit of trouble," Sloan says. He refused to comment further.
In that era - the late 1970s - the coaching staff, she says, was "probably just as ignorant as I was when it came to drugs. I don't want to point fingers and blame anyone for his addiction."
But Wootten is less understanding. "There's no way in my opinion that a head coach isn't going to know what his kids are doing," he says.
Whitney did not graduate. Austin admits they both "played around" as seniors, figuring they were headed for the NBA and could get their degrees later. "We could have graduated on time, Austin says. "We had tutors, we had study halls, we had everything. We messed up."
But Carolyn sees it differently. She remembers going along when Whitney took a test in his freshman year. Two questions were on the board. Whitney just stared at them. Carolyn thought, "How can he pass the test? He can't even read the questions. You're supposed to get through college and get a degree and you can't even read!"
After they were married, she says, "I used to sit there and watch him mimic and try to pretend he could read. My son, when he was in third grade, could read better than his Daddy.
"What nobody ever knew was that Hawk had a learning disability," she said. His dyslexia was discovered just a few years ago. She is bitter that it was not detected at DeMatha or N.C. State - sure that it doomed his education. Why didn't DeMatha test him? she asks, believing it readied him for basketball more than for college.
* * * *
Whitney's inability to read led to him being exploited as a pro, Carolyn says. He thought he was signing a three-year contract with the Kansas City Kings (now in Sacramento) but it was only for two. He couldn't read well enough to tell the difference. The three-year pact would have included a pension of about $25,000 a year, she says. "So when they cut him from the team, he had no money at all."
In the NBA, he earned about $100,000 a year plus another $25,000 or so in Nike endorsements. His agent handled the money, Carolyn says, giving Whitney an allowance of less than $3,000 a month. He, Carolyn, and their son Marcus lived modestly in a $400-a-month townhouse and drove a small Toyota. According to Carolyn, they never saw any of their money beyond the monthly allowance. But Whitney never demanded an accounting from the agent.
Other young players on the Kings were managing their own money, but her husband, says Carolyn, was not equipped for life off court. Other players, she says, "knew what they needed to do. Hawk didn't know."
He played a little his second season, then was cut. Broke and in debt, he came back to Washington. Carolyn stayed and kept working. Whitney tried out for other teams, making none.
"I remember his coming home after getting hurt," says Whitney's oldest sibling, Roland Young, his half brother and long his voice of conscience. "He came to me and said, `Bro, I should have listened to you.' And he cried."
Fitzsimmons says Whitney could have come back from the knee injury "if he had worked hard, hadn't done any drinking, hadn't done any drugs, and had been conscientious."
Young says success had gone to his head and made him feel "untouchable." All his other brothers and sisters had put him "on a pedestal," says Young, because of his success. They had encouraged him to enjoy life in the fast lane.
* * * *
After a year, Whitney returned to Kansas City. He worked here and there, coaching, selling luggage and clothing, painting. Carolyn had to help him fill out job applications. She says he wouldn't have known how to interview for more than an entry-level job. Carolyn kept supporting them. "Whatever little money he was making evidently was going into drugs," she says.
He tried a 30-day drug treatment program twice but relapsed each time. "He wasn't ready to quit," says Carolyn.
He started taking things from the house to sell when Carolyn was at work: phones, the washer-dryer, her jewelry. "I thought I was losing my mind," she says. "I would come home and stuff would be missing." Once he traded her car for drugs.
After two or three years, he moved out into the streets. Perhaps, says Carolyn, it was because of guilt over drugs. "He would always go back to the environment where he had grown up - the projects, the worst part of town."
At the Christian Life Mission, Webb had learned from Whitney that he "was in and out of crack houses, staying in abandoned buildings for two, three, four days at a time" and "drinking out of bottles on the side of the road."
Whitney would come home for a while, then leave. Once Carolyn picked him up at a McDonald's and found the man who had weighed 240 pounds was now "a skinny rail," so hungry he ate a banana "like an animal." By then, she says, he was addicted to crack.
He apparently was selling as well as using drugs. Strickland says Whitney told him that "he went through $175,000 in one year alone."
Late in 1989 Whitney entered the mission's long-term program. He did exceptionally well for several months. When Kings fans learned where he was, they asked him to speak to youth groups, and the staff reluctantly agreed. Whitney was "so excited about showing what God had done in his life," explains mission executive director Dan Doty.
But, says Doty, Whitney started using cocaine again and left the program. The staff suspected the public appearances came too early and distracted Whitney from rehabilitation.
* * *
By then, the marriage to Carolyn was over. Whitney flew to North Carolina, reuniting with Stephanie Kelly, a woman in Durham he had known in college. He did very well at first, even returning to N.C. State to work on completing his degree. He and Stephanie married the next year. She had a 5-year-old daughter, who called Whitney "Daddy Hawk."
But he couldn't stay away from drugs. Things began to unravel. It was a replay of Kansas City in many ways. Hitting on friends for money. Running with the same guys from the projects as he had in college. Dropping out of N.C. State. Living for weeks in his car. Stealing from Stephanie.
"You have no idea how hard I worked to protect his image," Stephanie says. "He's been a legend around here.
"All of us have enabled him [to keep using drugs]," she adds, referring to friends and family who gave him money in recent years. "I'm sure they knew what the money was going toward."
She blames herself most.
The last straw came in June 1993 when, she says, Whitney "almost ran me over" while taking her car. She got a protective order against him. With nowhere else to go, he took a bus to the District. An old DeMatha friend, Mike Brey, paid his fare and gave him $100.
Whitney later asked Stephanie to join him in Washington. She told him no, not until he was free of drugs. Carolyn lent Stephanie moral support. The two women, ex-wife and wife, had grown close while trying to preserve Whitney's ties with son Marcus.
Wootten and Strickland helped get Whitney a job as an assistant coach and dormitory counselor at Christchurch School, about 50 miles east of Richmond. "We all thought it would be perfect for him," says Strickland. Whitney would be away from the city and working with kids.
Whitney lasted until the Christmas break. Boys in his dorm accused him of borrowing money and not repaying it and borrowing a gold chain that he "lost." They intimated that he had stolen $200 from one student and set up another to take the fall. Whitney left after borrowing the car of another coach, who never saw it again.
Whitney went back to Washington, probably early in 1994. Little is known about his life when he returned to the District except that he has lived on and off with two sisters in Anacostia, worked odd jobs, hustled money from his friends, and done some volunteer work with inner city kids.
"This is the worst time of year for him," Stephanie says. "Basketball season." She recalls that the NBA playoffs "would trigger his desire to use." She suspects that Whitney continues to dream about the NBA. He couldn't move forward. His "mistress" - her term for his addiction - wouldn't let him.
"The drug is his crutch, the drug is his escape, his out, and he doesn't want to give it up," she says.
Stephanie says Whitney has two identities, though he is not schizophrenic. Sometimes, she says, people see Charles - the responsible, good-hearted but insecure little boy who never grew up. At other times, they encounter Hawkeye, the crazy and carefree adolescent, the athlete living in the fast lane, the drug abuser.
"When you refer to him as `Charles,' he responds a lot differently than he does to `Hawkeye,' " she says. "It can," she says, "be scary."
Stephanie believes Whitney has only one chance: that Charles grows up and emerges and Hawkeye fades away.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Lowest Point: Ex-NBA Forward `Hawkeye' Whitney Awaits Possible Sentence of Life in Prison. Contributors: Slavin, Peter - Author. Newspaper title: The Washington Times (Washington, DC). Publication date: June 20, 1996. Page number: 1. © 2009 The Washington Times LLC. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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