BOZICH | Former Card Manuel Forrest Chasing One More Rebound
In 1981 former U of L star Manuel Forrest made the McDonald's all-American team with Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. Today Forrest is trying to rebound from several setbacks, one volunteer commitment at a time.
Tuesday, June 24th 2014, 11:14 am EDT by
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The first face you recognize from the 1981 McDonald's all-American team picture is Michael Jordan. He's parked on the far right, arms tucked confidently behind him, exposing his trademark number 23.
Yes, that is Patrick Ewing looming over the middle of the group. You will also notice Chris Mullin, like Jordan and Ewing, an NBA all-star and Olympic Dream Teamer. It was a dynamic squad, maybe the most talented McDonald's all-American team of all time.
Please don't overlook Louisville's contribution to that team -- Manuel Forrest.
If Jordan, Ewing and Mullin are examples A, B and C of how to fly to the Basketball Hall of Fame, Forrest, 51, is here to pointedly remind you that life is more likely to grind you back to the roots of your uneven upbringing, reaffirming that nothing is guaranteed. For Forrest, a drug arrest last September merely magnified the gap from what could have been to what is.
"When I see (that picture) I sometimes get sad thinking that could have been me," Forrest said. "Or it should have been me."
The road from that picture to Forrest's current life has been daunting. For every good, there is bad.
While his McDonald's all-American teammates count their millions, Forrest counts his minutes on a government-issued cell phone, always mindful of a monthly maximum of 250. Call him. He's likely to call you back from a landline. His June minutes were nearly gone last weekend.
Forrest knows the joy of earning a basketball scholarship to the University of Louisville as well as the anguish of losing a series of jobs, including one as a high school basketball assistant coach – and then wanting to end his life.
He laughs about still being able to dunk and sighs about the memories of growing up with an absentee father whom he never met, not one time. He adored his mother, but she died young (42) after having four children with four different men.
A recent visit to the alley behind his childhood home on Hale Street in West Louisville stirred more torment: That is where Forrest said he pretended he was a Roller Derby star or a pro wrestler. That is also where, when he was 9, Forrest was sexually abused.
For anybody who remembers the immense promise Forrest showed three decades ago, when he made The Courier-Journal Super Five and Michael Jordan did not, it's a jarring story, alternately distressing and uplifting. But it is also one that Forrest said he is determined to punctuate with a happier ending. He's more hopeful than angry, more determined than discouraged."I've went through a lot," Forrest said. “Things got to change."
Somehow, Forrest maintains a passionate and nurturing presence while working with teenagers. He's eager to befriend and mentor, especially with those who are as confused as he once was. He wants to know their stories. Maybe when they were 11 their mothers also told them there would be no Christmas. Forrest has banked that memory, too.
Here is the latest struggle: The only consistent work he has been able to get in the aftermath of a September 2013 drug arrest has been volunteer opportunities. There's joy in that, plus it does translate into meals at least four days a week.
At 6-feet-6, Forrest has defied middle age with his exclamation-point body, weighing 190 pounds, 10 less than he weighed three decades ago at U of L. Snacks aren't in the budget.
Long scars twist down the outside of both knees, proof of the toll of the basketball life, several decades of running, jumping and twisting. Still, his high cheekbones dissolve into the same welcoming smile that he flashed at Moore High School 33 years ago. Life has not shaken the humor or optimism from Forrest – no matter how relentlessly it has tried.
What he does not have is money. He's thankful his sister, Tammy, paid his rent for the last five months, through June 30. Family and friends have encouraged him to apply for food stamps. Forrest has refused. Pride? Probably. He never uses the word, but he's broke.
Forrest believes in Jesus Christ – and helping others, more than he expects others to help him. One day, he wants the teenagers that he coaches and then counsels to find something better than his mug shot when they Google his name. He wants them to work toward a goal with the laser focus that he lacked."When I played in the McDonald's all-American game in Wichita (Kansas), everybody wanted to go out after practice," Forrest said. "As we were leaving, we saw all the lights turned off except one. There's Michael Jordan shooting.
"Me and Milt (Wagner, his future teammate at U of L) looked at each other said, ‘Look at this stupid guy out there shooting.' It should have been us out there with him. I should have been out there working on my game. That's the thing I didn't have … growing up, I didn't have any guidance."
If you're willing to listen, and you should, Forrest shares his story at multiple churches and recreation centers around Louisville. He has told it to more than two dozen teenagers whom he works with as a volunteer coach at least three afternoons a week for the West Louisville Youth Space in the St. Anthony's Church gym at 21st and Market.
Forrest is given a free meal – pasta with chicken, green beans and a slice of pineapple one recent night -- that he usually carries out between two Styrofoam plates.
Sometimes Bill Green, the group's director, slips Forrest gas money for his 2001 Cardinal red Acura. It's a reliable car, even if it is saddled with more than 138,000 miles and a two-foot gap in the trunk where the right rear taillight was smashed by a hit-and-run driver. Sometimes, Forrest's car and wallet are both empty so he calls St. Stephen Church for a van ride to make his next appointment.
"He doesn't ask for one thing," said Green, who retired from a career in the Kentucky juvenile justice system but continues to help teenagers. "But sometimes I give it to him because it's only right. You see the way these kids respond to him. They love him."
You can also find Forrest talking to teens while they unload a Dare To Care food truck delivery for Rev. Larry Coleman's Feed The City program on South 26th Street every Tuesday afternoon. Consider it another volunteer effort. Forrest interacts with troubled kids who have been assigned community service by the judicial system.
His first question? Why did you mess up? His first bit of advice? We all mess up. Don't let it define you. His pay? A free lunch, including dessert.
Adults pay attention to The Manuel Forrest Story, too. They remember who he was – and who he was supposed to become. They wonder what happened. He shares it during an addictive behavior recovery class with about a dozen members at St. Stephen Church's Hotel California facility every Thursday evening. There's usually a meal there, too – a package of bologna, cheese, bread, a two-liter bottle of soda one week – and an occasional tear.
Forrest said his new friends in the class were the first ones to remember his birthday, which almost went unnoticed March 5. "Meant the world to me," he said. "It was the first time I thought everybody was going to forget my birthday."
Forrest said that he was embarrassed by the negative publicity stirred by his arrest for possession of drugs last September. He considered killing himself.
Friends intervened – like Neal Robertson, who has known Forrest since they competed as high school basketball rivals, former Louisville police officer Steve Kelsey, James Taylor, Grale and Linda Barker, a Mormon couple from Southern Indiana, Green and others, like former U of L assistant coach Wade Houston. Along with his sister, they have also provided meals, cash and hugs. Sometimes they pay for his haircuts.
"He needed help," said Grale Barker, whose son, Reece, played for Forrest at Rock Creek Community Academy in Sellersburg, Ind.
"To his credit, it was hard to get Manuel to accept help. He was never telling us things for us to feel sorry for him or help him. We would ask questions and he would answer them. "I didn't grow up in Louisville so I knew nothing about his basketball history until I started talking to him."
What a story it is. Played four seasons, from 1977-1981, at Moore for coach Tommy Finnegan. Scored 3,226 points, still more than Darrell Griffith, Allan Houston or any other Jefferson County player, and 11th best in Kentucky High School Athletic Association history.
Turned down a scholarship from Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV to play for U of L. Lost his Mom, Lurlene, to a brain tumor before his sophomore season – and then lost his way. He missed his mother so terribly that Forrest found comfort in alcohol and drugs, climbing the fence at Greenwood Cemetery after dark and using a cigarette lighter to find his way to her grave. He would sit, sob and then use that lighter again to get high.
Forrest battled through four challenging college seasons on bad knees, leaving U of L in 1985 after averaging 12.8 points as a senior for coach Denny Crum. He had a solid career, but Derek Smith, the McCray brothers and Billy Thompson always overshadowed him. Considering the hype that surrounded him in high school, many, including Forrest, expected more.
Strangers would tease him about being a guy whose U of L career fell between the 1980 and 1986 NCAA championships, as if his performance was the reason for the gap.
Their words stung. Forrest still talks about a newspaper article that he says quoted Rajon Rondo, then a player at Eastern High School, saying that unlike Manuel Forrest, Rondo was going to make it to the NBA."Yeah, it hurt me," he said. "I'm sensitive like that. People say don't listen to what people say. For me, it's important. It hurt me a lot."A lot of people are confused. Life is more than playing in the NBA or being a rapper or things like that. Only so many people can do that."
Bypassed in all seven rounds in the 1985 NBA Draft, Forrest played parts of 18 professional seasons in Argentina, averaging as many as 25 points per game, making the all-star team nearly every season. At his peak, Forrest said he earned $10,000 per month, plus expenses, which enabled him to save $100,000.
It's all gone now. Forrest lost most of it, he says, because of a bad relationship that ended in a broken engagement and economic turmoil that shrunk the Argentinian economy by 28 percent from 1999-2002. He said his fiance took some of the money. Most of the rest was frozen in a bank account after currency inflation devalued his savings.
In 2002, Forrest reluctantly returned to Louisville. He lacked nearly three semesters of work to earn his degree. He enrolled in a U of L program for athletes who have completed their eligibility. Forrest said he could not handle 12 hours of course work – and dropped out after less than a semester. Nobody has been able to persuade him to try again.
Over the last decade, Forrest has tried nearly everything -- selling cars (he disliked pressuring older customers), high school security guard (only a temporary position), furniture mover (hard on his bad knees), factory worker (looking for more than factory work), an assistant manager's position at a chain restaurant (not really qualified) and recreation director at a community center (the center ran out of funds).
Everything had been a struggle and short-lived – until Forrest began work as an assistant basketball coach and teacher's aide at Rock Creek, about 12 miles north of Louisville, in 2010.
"The kids all loved him," said Grale Barker, whose son thrived under Forrest. "Every kid I know that went there, they all just loved Manuel. My son really trusted Manuel and respected his coaching."
That changed last Sept. 11, a month after Forrest said he had finally earned a full-time job at Rock Creek and had firm plans to move to his own apartment.
According to a police report, Forrest was driving North on Logan Street, weaving from left to right without signaling. Forrest said he was trying to dodge a truck. Two officers stopped him. They asked Forrest if he had anything illegal. Forrest said no.
A search of the vehicle uncovered a baggie of marijuana under the driver's seat and a "small corner baggie containing crack cocaine in the cup holder of the center console." He was arrested and taken to jail.
Forrest was dismissed at Rock Creek. He stopped answering his phone. Friends could not find him. He would not answer Barker's calls or return his texts. Robertson, who now works for Louisville Metro Government, searched several neighborhoods determined to find his friend.
His plan was to overdose on sleeping pills, but Forrest was unable to fill the prescription. He drove around the block searching for the pharmacy several times. No luck. Couldn't find the store.
Robertson finally found him and delivered a message that still resonates: You'll miss the amazing things God has waiting for you tomorrow, if you don't make it through today. Robertson, Forrest's sister and other friends persuaded him to persevere.
Forrest says that he has not used drugs for several years and that the marijuana and cocaine belonged to a friend who had borrowed his car. Forrest said he accepted responsibility because the friend had a prior drug conviction and was at risk of serious prison time. Chris Brown, the head coach at Rock Creek, said Forrest never had an issue at the school, but the drug charge made it impossible for him to stay.
Kelsey, now a retired police officer, is trained as drug a counselor as well as the minister at Spirit Filled New Life Church Ministry. He encouraged Forrest to enter a drug treatment program in advance of his December court date, regardless of Forrest's insistence that he was innocent.
The charges of reckless driving and marijuana possession were dismissed last December. The cocaine charge was amended to a second-degree misdemeanor -- possession of controlled substance with two years of probation. Even the $135 court costs were suspended – as long as Forrest stays clean for two years.
So far Forrest has. He was downtown Saturday, shaking hands and posing for pictures at the Hoop It Up! three-on-three basketball tournament. When Forrest learned the event needed another referee, he pulled on a striped shirt – and earned $18 per game. Gas money."I'm no drug addict," Forrest said. "I ain't smoked in awhile. I'm 51 years old now."
But what Forrest has not been able to do is find consistent paying work. For now, he volunteers. Last week, he added two more assignments, one at another downtown church, another handing out backpacks to children in the West End for LG&E. He attends Bible study at Kelsey's church every Sunday, focusing on teenagers."He's a very vital, important piece of our church right now because he mentors a whole lot of our youth," Kelsey said. "He has a heart where he wants to give back to the community. His message is always the same: 'You make sure you use basketball and don't let basketball use you.'"
Forrest shares his story with kids like Jemari Williams, an eighth-grader at Crosby Middle School, who plays for Forrest's team at the West Louisville Youth Space.
"He's a pretty cool guy," Williams said. "Interesting. He told us he got in trouble and that's what messed up his career. He told us to do the right thing and get good grades. I've gotten better grades because of him – four As and two Bs. He's why a few of us are here. We like to learn from him."
Teens like Williams and adult friends have encouraged Forrest to write another twist to the story that basketball fans in Jefferson County first heard when he started filling the basket as a Moore High School freshman in 1977.
He'll never be the boy smiling from the McDonald's all-American picture again. He won't rival Jordan or Ewing for fame and money.
But success can be delivered in other ways. For now Manuel Forrest is determined to succeed again, one volunteer commitment at a time.
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