Frazier stands proud, points to father's influence
There is something Chester Frazier wants to tell you. Not just you, but everyone. It's a story he wants the world to know. It's a story about his father. It explains why Chester knelt beside his father's lifeless body for four hours after lung cancer took his last breath in April. It explains why Chester held his father's hand and kissed his forehead and told him to please, stop this. Please, wake up.
"Here's what you should know about my dad," he says.
Chester hunches forward in a booth at TGI Fridays. Under a disguise of 15 tattoos and tight cornrows, he tries to camouflage his emotions, a personality trait that serves as a blessing and a curse. And he tells a story.
"I threw a rock and broke a window. I was probably about 5. My mom was so mad."
It was the first time Chester can remember crying, he says. It wouldn't be the last. Tears were as common as what-is-wrong-with-people shootings in the east Baltimore neighborhood of his youth, a merciless jungle of violence that robs dreams on a weekly basis.
Chester's was a forgivable offense. He was only playing with friends. It was only a broken window. At the time, his step-brother Moses was still years away from his first jail sentence for dealing drugs. Jordan Brown, a childhood friend of Chester's, still had 16 years to live before he was shot to death two months ago. It was still 10 years before the Hollander Ridge housing project where his mom lived for 21 years was torn down.
But his parents would not allow Chester, one of seven people who lived in the apartment, to travel the path that swallowed his peers, as dark and convenient as it was.
Chester broke a window. He needed a whooping.
"We made it known to him that in order to live underneath someone's roof, you had to do the things they wanted you to do," says Peggy Lynch, his mom. "You don't get into no trouble."
"She told my dad to punish me," Chester says.
Hard to say which Chester had a tougher time with the idea. Chester Frazier Sr. would rather whip himself.
"He told me to follow him upstairs," the son says. The bedroom is split among three brothers. Chester and James shared the top mattress on the bunk bed. Moses, their stepbrother, had the bottom bunk.
Here, the story turns. It turns to show why James Frazier, a 23-year-old Naval officer, refuses to erase his dad's phone number from his own cell phone. It shows why Chester cursed when he saw his father's living conditions on a worksite in Brooklyn. It shows why Chester packages his chicken and shrimp into a to-go box, because he doesn't feel like eating as he tells the story.
"My dad hit the wall and told me to scream," Chester says.
James stayed downstairs, not easily fooled.
"It was the fakest 'Ouch!' and 'Ow!' and 'Please don't hit me!' you ever heard," James says. "I knew our father could never lay a hand on Chester. It was just a fake scream. It was so fake."
And a father's love of his favorite son was so real.
* * *
Here you are, trying to piece together the human puzzle that is Chester Frazier. It's a task not easily accomplished; you hunt for explanations, but each is so often followed by another question.
Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber says Chester, a chiseled 6-foot-3 junior who opens practice Friday for the 2007-08 season, is one of the toughest players he's ever coached.
"He has every reason not to make it," Weber says. "Stories like Chester are the reason you get into coaching. It's an amazing story of how successful he is despite all the things he's had to endure."
But why has Chester shed enough tears in the past year to last a lifetime?
Cigarettes and alcohol created most of those tears, from the 46-year smoking habit that ultimately buried his father to the alcohol-related car accident in February caused by his roommate, Jamar Smith. So how is it that Chester hasn't taken a sip of beer or lit a cigarette in his 21 years?
He survived an area depicted in HBO's "The Wire," a white-knuckle drama of drugs and murder that, by Chester's assertion, is an accurate portrayal. So far this year, eight fatal shootings have occurred in his high school's southeast Baltimore neighborhood, according to news reports.
"You may go in with a big graduating class," Chester says of the dropout rate, "But you might not leave with one."
So what made it possible for his mom to say, "He's the first person in our family to go to college"?
Chester tries to provide you with answers as he pulls up his white shirt sleeves. He reveals the Lord's Prayer tattooed on his left forearm, the Grim Reaper on his right. He looks down as he configures both: eternal life and sudden death. Chester traces back to his youth. He recalls the first memories of his biological brothers – James, now 23, and Josh, 15 – and his stepsisters and stepbrother – Denean, Lestina, Ebony and Moses.
* * *
On a frigid winter Saturday, Chester Sr. packs the three boys into his car. It's a 10-minute drive to a nearby Chuck E. Cheese. James and Chester sink quarters into the Pop-a-Shot arcade as quickly as their father can dip into his pocket.
"Chester would try to get the high score every day," says James, a third-year Navy man stationed in Norfolk, Va. "He got the high score; I can't lie about that. That flimsy backboard, he would just throw it as hard as he could and it would go in."
James and Chester are the closest of the siblings. Almost inseparable, those two.
"He's like my twin," Chester says.
They claim to have fought once, when James saw Chester wearing his sweatshirt at the bus stop on his way to the third grade. The older brother exacted revenge the next day by slipping on Chester's favorite sweatshirt.
"A gray Russell hoody," James says.
Daddy – all the kids called him Daddy – told James and Chester never to fight. Not with each other, and not with anyone else. Years later, it's the same thing he told James' wife, Jennice, when the newlyweds argued. She called her father-in-law for advice while James was on a training op at sea.
"An argument is not good for a relationship," Chester Sr. told Jennice.
If money was a problem, the kids didn't know it. Mom worked so many jobs she lost track. She worked at a catering company, a bakery and a book-binding plant. She worked at the local hospital. She built centerpieces for weddings. She has, over time, fixed dinners for her six children. Chester flew to Baltimore two weeks ago and found a pan of homemade macaroni and cheese and a bowl of pears waiting on the counter.
"I came home from work, and I was looking for me a pear," Peggy Lynch says. "I said, 'Who ate all the pears? They said, 'Chester ate all the pears.' That boy can eat, I tell you."
Chester went home to see his nieces, Jamee, 14 months, and Jamea, 2 months, the daughters of James and Jennice.
He's a joy with kids, James says. Just like his dad.
"My father had a name for Jamee," James says. "He called her 'my heart.' He would say, 'Where's my heart?'"
"He had a soft spot for kids," Chester says. "He would take a child and hold him in his arms and the kid would just fall asleep."
On Friday nights, Moses, James and Chester used to wait for the slam of a car door outside Hollander Ridge. Their father spent weekdays as a mechanic in New York and New Jersey, Chester says. The kids got him on the weekend.
Chester Sr. worked as an electrician, a pipefitter, a welder, a do-it-all handyman. He could fix anything, their mom says. When the neighbors' air conditioning failed, he fixed it. When Chester's kiddie four-wheeler lost a wheel, he fixed it. The kids rarely asked questions about Daddy's work.
But in the summer before his freshman year at Illinois, Chester returned from a basketball tour in Europe to spend the night at his father's worksite in Brooklyn.
"I remember leaving. I remember being hurt," Chester says. "He lived in a trailer. I was like, 'Damn. How could this man sleep here?' "
Menial paychecks didn't stop Dad from spending on the kids. He bought them Timberland boots in the winter, bright-white Nikes in the summer.
"I would always be upset because their dad used to constantly buy them things they really didn't need," Peggy says. "I'd be saying it was too much money. But he always made a way to buy it for them."
One year, days before Christmas, he took her on a last-minute tour of Baltimore toy stores. He needed a present for Chester.
"He went all over the city because all over the city they were sold out," she says. "I was so tired I just wanted to go home. I said, 'Please, can't we just give up?' He said, 'No. I've got to find my baby a Teddy Ruxpin doll.' "
Her voice trails off.
"The last one we went to was a Kmart. He bought it. It's still upstairs. It don't play no more. It sang a song. It don't play anymore."
Finances and arguments shattered the marriage. Chester Frazier Sr. and Peggy Lynch separated about the time Moses dropped out of school. Moses is an athlete, Chester says. He was the athlete Chester wanted to be.
"Then the streets got him," Chester says.
Chester was at home one day when a friend knocked on the door, a sound he would learn to fear. The friend told him Moses had been shot. He was shot in the leg but recovered by wearing a walking boot. Years later, Chester returned home for Christmas wearing a walking boot, though his injury came from playing college basketball. It's a telling sign of the two roads the brothers have traveled.
The shooting didn't deter Moses from a life lived on the street corner. His record reads like a list of what their parents told the kids not to do. Drugs. Guns. Theft. Moses is home now after an 18-month jail term, James says. He bought Chester's plane ticket to Baltimore in September.
"It was normal to me," Chester says. "(Moses) wasn't making much money selling drugs. If you add up all the hours he got robbed or got locked up, he was probably making no money. His father wasn't really in his life. Then my father left my mom.
"(Moses) wanted some better things, some nice things, and the only way he knew how to get it was by selling. You can't turn it down. Walk up the street, drug dealers here. Walk to the basketball courts, drug dealers here. Everybody sold drugs. That's all they knew."
James says, "My mom and dad, they kept us with a straight head. We had a good sense of right and wrong. Other guys, from the time they were born to the time they die, they don't know right from wrong."
Just as the brothers don't shame their brother or friends for submitting, they don't blame their father for his missteps. Chester Sr. faced separate charges of assault and battery, though the state chose not to prosecute.
Here, again, is where the story turns: Those who fall to the streets are the ones who make sure Chester doesn't.
"I don't even think Moses would let me do it," he says. "My dad would have whipped my (butt) if I did. I know my mom would have."
In this household, there are rules. The boys have a curfew. When the street lights blink on, they better be in the house.
"Chester has always been the one that listened to you. He's followed every rule that was in the house," his mom says. "There was very bad stuff going around. So far as him being in the streets, that wasn't Chester."
James tattled on Chester.
"When he got in trouble, mom gave him a beating. Or he'd lock himself in his room. He wouldn't open the door."
* * *
It's Feb. 10. The Illinois team bus is pulling into Assembly Hall for a game at Indiana.
Chester's cell phone vibrates in his pocket. A text message from James reads: "You need to call me."
James relays a message. Chester feels his stomach drop.
"He told me that our dad had cancer. My first reaction is that I started to cry. That was the first time I knew he could die."
The 17,316 fans inside Assembly Hall have no idea. The national audience watching on CBS has no idea. Most of his teammates have no idea. Chester tells only Jamar Smith, his roommate.
"I didn't want to cry in front of those guys. I didn't want them to start thinking about it."
He plays 34 minutes and has a team-high 10 rebounds in a narrow defeat.
"I don't know how he's even playing," James says.
* * *
It's Feb. 12. Just before midnight, Chester sits in his second-story Savoy apartment as a blizzard barrels into central Illinois.
"I knew something was wrong when Jamar stuck his key in the door, but then he knocked."
Chester opens the door.
"He had blood splattered on his face. I thought he was in a fight. He kept saying, 'You've got to help me.' I didn't even ask him at first if he was alone. So I'm putting my clothes on, and he's trying to drag me out of the house and I'm half-naked. I got basketball shorts on. He kept saying, 'You've got to help me. You've got to help me.' Then he says, 'You've got to help Carlwell. You've got to help Carlwell.'
"And here's when I knew he was messed up: He's calling Brian Carlwell's phone. And B.C.'s in the car! I don't even think he realized the severity of what happened at the time. I tried to calm him down. I tried to get him to relax and tell me what happened."
Chester says Jamar can't remember what happened in his drunken haze. Smith tells Chester he can't remember driving his 1996 Lexus when it smashed into a tree and left Carlwell, a freshman on the team, with a severe concussion and Smith with a DUI guilty plea. Chester says they didn't call the police because of the chaos of the situation. The police arrived after a neighbor called 911. Teammates pulled into the apartment complex. Assistant coach Wayne McClain took Smith to the hospital.
What hurts Chester the most, besides seeing Carlwell in a hospital bed the next morning, are the accusations that sling wildly as details surface. Details even Chester wasn't certain of until days later.
"We didn't know what was going on. Jamar didn't know what was going on. I saw a lot of stories that said I walked past the car. I would never in a million years walk past my teammate if he was hurt. I would never do that. You know me. I didn't know he was in the car. I didn't know at all. When those stories came out, I was like, 'damn.' It was 20 inches of snow. He didn't even park it in front of the apartment. It still hurts.
"How can you say something about someone when you don't know?"
* * *
Chester locks himself in his bedroom for two days after the car accident. It's an old habit. He shoves a dresser in front of the door so it can't be opened. He skips practice and turns off his cell phone.
Weber, the Illinois coach, tries in vain to summon Chester from his room. He pleads with Chester to come with him; to practice, to his office, outside, anywhere.
"We had to break the door down," Weber says. "I couldn't get into the apartment. I started really worrying about his own well-being. We broke the doors down. We had to. I couldn't get in.
"Finally, I just had to go to practice. I went to practice without him, but I told him I was going to come back. I told him I was going to bring him food, and he was going to come out of the room."
The coach returns with chicken tenders and french fries.
Chester comes out of his room. This time, he breaks down.
"Lots of tears. Lots of hugging," Weber says. "Lots of talking."
Chester admits the emotional barrier he builds in times of distress is not the best solution. But that's how he has always been, isolating himself even as others extend a hand. He already lives the answer to this newest crisis: Chester says he has never drunk alcohol, a claim supported by friends and family – but even this solution is followed by another question.
"Why do people waste opportunities? Jamar, that broke my heart. He's like my little brother. But it's not even about me. I put everything on the line. I know I'm not the best player. But I'm going to play harder than any other player on the court. Jamar's one of the most talented players in the country, and to just throw away your opportunity like that was too much. It's almost like I couldn't take it any more. I just wanted to go home."
He calls Gerald Brown, a friend from Baltimore who plays at Loyola (Md.). Brown asks if Chester, who wants to be there for his younger brother Joshua, is serious about transferring back home.
Chester says no.
* * *
You call Herman Harried. He was Chester's basketball coach at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School. He coached the Lakers to a state championship in 1999. That team featured Teoine Carroll, who went on to play ball at Wagner. Over his 11 seasons at Lake Clifton, Harried says Carroll is one of two players he considered his favorites.
"The other one is Chester."
You reach Harried's voicemail. He calls back three times before you get in touch.
"You said you wanted to talk about Chester Frazier," he says on a message. "I would walk through fire for that boy."
He tells you how he operates his program, how the players are ordered to sign a sheet in his office to start each school day and wear ties on game days. He tells you how they run cross-country before the season as a training exercise, and how Chester ran on a twisted ankle when he wasn't supposed to.
He tells you about the game at Douglas High when Chester drove into the lane and got clobbered.
"He got half his bottom lip ripped off," Harried says. "There's blood all over his face, all over his jersey. I take him to the bench, sit him down. And he wants to go back into the game! I tell him, 'Chester, don't argue with me. You are going to the emergency room.' He says, 'No I'm not. Put me back in the game.'
"I wouldn't let them start the game until he left the gym."
Fifteen stitches tied together his bottom lip. Harried told Chester he wasn't playing in the next game. Chester threw a fit and got his way. He dived for a loose ball on the first possession.
"He only runs on one battery. He doesn't have an off switch," Harried says.
Every two years or so, Harried says, he loses a player with college potential to the streets. You ask him how Chester avoids the same fate.
"Coming from the area he came from, it can't be easy. To come through all that smoke and survive, that can't be easy," he says. "The situation with drugs is where a lot of bad things come from. You walk through it on the way to school. You walk through it on the way home from school, to the basketball court, to the store. That's a lot of smoke. It suffocates people."
He says the same trait that saves Chester weighs him down in difficult times. Chester isolates himself from the poison. But he isolates himself from the help.
"He tries to be a strong man, but that isn't always good. Chester does not allow a lot of people in his inner circle. It's a very small group."
Harried is in Chester's inner circle. When Illinois plays at Penn State in late February, he drives over from Baltimore to State College, Pa.
"It brought tears to my eyes when I saw him in that uniform for the first time. I cried because I knew the background he came from. I knew what he has gone through to make it here. He survived."
Harried is there to drive Chester to Baltimore to see his father. In five weeks, his father would be gone.
"We all knew he was sick," teammate Trent Meacham says. "It was just surprising how fast it happened."
* * *
In the months that led up to the 62nd birthday he never saw, Chester Sr. kept his illness a secret. James learned it was cancer when he read the doctor's note that detailed the symptoms. He couldn't make it back in time for the funeral, stuck in a Madrid hotel room during a Naval training operation.
"It's like he didn't want me to say goodbye," he says. "It's more like, 'I'll see you later.' "
It was weeks, Chester says, before he stopped seeing his father in his dreams. He broke down when he spoke at the funeral. He says he wanted to leap into the casket with the man who loved him so much he shared his name.
"And I wasn't even his first son."
* * *
"It was early in the day, maybe 11 o'clock in the morning on the third of April. I flew to Baltimore that day," Chester says. "I was hoping I could get home before he passed. I got home and went to the house. The whole family was there.
"He was laying on the bed. My first reaction was 'Wake up, Dad. Wake up.'
"He was dead. I sat by the bed for probably four hours. I held his hand. Kissed him. I just cried. I said some prayers for him. Then they took him away."
At that moment, Chester feels like the story's over. He sees his father's body carried away. This was not how he pictured Daddy. He pictures him as the strongest man in the world. He pictures him as himself.
"Look at the obituary," James says. "They used a picture of him when he was 19 or 20 years old. It's a spitting image of Chester. The hairline, the whole face, everything. It's Chester."
You wonder if this is where the story ends. No, not yet. Chester is working on the ending. He invited his 15-year-old brother, Josh, to stay with him in Champaign for three weeks over the summer. Josh met Chester's teammates. He met Coach Weber. Chester wants to be to Josh, who calls him 'Pops,' what his father was to him.
"Josh is my son now," he says.
Chester has a story he wants him to know.