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Academic coaches boost player

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


TAMPA -- From the moment he came into the world, all 22 inches of him, there had been little doubt.

Basketball would be Terrence Leather's life, his calling, his glory.

When he was an infant, his mother bought him his first basketball. When he was 3, his brothers introduced him to the neighborhood court.

With legs tall as seedling palm trees, he towered over other boys. With hard work, he outshone them.

He became a star at Robinson High School. The undisputed king of the basketball team.

Colleges came calling. They all wanted him. Join us, they said. We can do for you what no other school can.

If.

NCAA Division I basketball teams would have him only if he pulled up his grades and scored well on the standardized college exam.

It was a challenge he would take on with the support of a coach, the urging of his mother and the help of a stranger.

But it would be a big if.

It wasn't as though he hadn't been warned that a day of reckoning would come. All his life he'd heard his mother preach the virtue of school.

"My mama, she always stressed education," recalled the 19-year-old, flashing a brilliant but bashful smile. "Y'all finish school, she always said."

She knew. A high school dropout herself, she had struggled to raise nine children alone in the Central Park public housing complex after Terrence's father was killed 17 years ago.

Five of Terrence's eight older siblings hadn't listened. Two landed in jail, three eked out livings after dropping out of high school.

For years, Terrence ignored her warnings too, worrying little about academic mediocrity.

The boy who coasted through middle school with B's suddenly found C's blanketing his high school report card. Classes required actual work, and he didn't care for that.

Basketball had hold of his heart.

His 6-foot, 9-inch frame wowed high school coaches. He played on junior varsity for a year and a half before being bumped up to varsity. He excelled his senior year, averaging 27 points and 9.6 rebounds a game.

He ranked nationally. Dozens of colleges were interested, seven promised full scholarships.

He was soaring -- until word came that college basketball was out until he pulled up his grades and college entrance exam scores.

Enter Coach Steve Smith, an earnest 32-year-old with a firmly set jaw and intense gaze.

The newly appointed head coach outlined a plan. Terrence would earn B's. Every time the standardized ACT exam was offered, Terrence would be there, searching for the magical score of 17.

"A lot of people were telling me that I was wasting my time, but I had faith in him," Smith said. "I thought he had the potential to be very successful."

With Smith's backing, Terrence was soon pulling a string of B's, even a sprinkling of A's in his classes.

The ACT, though, would be different.

Terrence studied for the test, memorizing vocabulary words, cramming his head with math problems. In October, the scores came back. Terrence had earned a dismal 14 out of a possible 36 points.

Smith, a math teacher, was undeterred. He and Terrence committed to working together after school on ACT math problems.

But the verbal part of the exam -- the portion where he had stumbled most -- still loomed.

Enter Laura Neiheisel, a 17-year-old cheerleader with a bubbly laugh, blond ringlets and a knack for analogies, his least favorite questions on the ACT.

Terrence's history teacher, who was Laura's cheerleading coach, suggested the pairing.

Laura was eager to help. Terrence had reservations.

"It was kind of weird because it was like: "I'm Terrence, I don't need the help,' " he said. "But I did need the help."

The two worked over lunch hours. She showed him shortcuts to analyzing analogies and taught him tricks for dissecting long reading passages.

For a month, they practiced.

The day of the test, Laura and Terrence went to McDonald's for breakfast. He munched on a sausage, egg and bacon muffin; she played booster.

"Do good," she called to him as they entered separate exam rooms.

Afterward, Terrence thought he had nailed the test. He'd had the same feeling the time before.

Two weeks went by, then four.

At 2:45 p.m. on the last Friday in April, Terrence left the Robinson gym after shooting baskets. He took a back passageway and unexpectedly ran into a teacher with a giddy smile and a simple command: Go see Coach Smith.

He ran.

"You did it! You did it!" Coach Smith told him, grabbing him in a bear hug.

Tears streaming down his face, Terrence watched his coach write the numbers on the blackboard: 22 in science reasoning, 28 in math, 17 in reading, 25 in English.

The scores averaged to 23, three points above the national average and far more than he needed for basketball.

Laura got word and rushed over. She found Terrence spellbound.

"He was just standing there staring at the scores," she said.

He bent down and embraced Laura, who scored just two points above him.

Then he placed a phone call.

"I passed the test, mama," he said.

"Baby," she said. "I always knew you'd be the one to make it."

* * *

Terrence will enroll at the University of South Florida this summer, a full scholarship and a place on the basketball team waiting. He plans to major in sports management, his backup in case basketball does not work out.

Laura is off to Florida State University to major in mass communications.

Coach Smith will hope for another Terrence.

Terrence's mother, who leapt to her feet when Terrence's name was called at the Robinson High School graduation Tuesday, will count her blessings.

"I'm so happy, I don't know how to express it," said the 51-year-old. "When I think about it, I laugh a few minutes, and then I cry. My baby has made me so happy."

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