Outside the security line at Midway Airport, two men hugged. One was leaving, one staying.
Jaeh Thomas breathed deeply as Ryan Boatright said his goodbyes last summer.
As his young cousin stepped into the security line, Thomas watched Boatright take his first steps to a bright basketball future with the defending national champions at the University of Connecticut.
Thomas exhaled. It reminded him of all he lost, too. Hundreds of scholarship offers, perhaps a professional career.
In 2000, Thomas became just the fourth freshman starter at West Aurora High School in 24 years for coach Gordon Kerkman. He set the school record for scoring by a freshman and led the Blackhawks to state. The following summer, at the prestigious Adidas ABCD camp, Thomas was selected to play on an All-Star team alongside LeBron James.
Colleges around the country took notice.
But then, Thomas acknowledged, things began to crumble when another player transferred to the school, and Thomas thought he was not getting enough attention.
So he turned to the streets. He was introduced to marijuana for recreation and, eventually, occupation. He also became a father.
Thomas began his senior season of 2003-04 on the bench, suspended for coming to school smelling of marijuana. Hundreds of scholarship offers dwindled to one: Florida A&M. As quickly as Thomas was off to Tallahassee – he made an eye-catching debut off the bench against Michigan State by scoring 10 points in 23 minutes – he was just as suddenly back in Aurora. According to Thomas, his scholarship money was delayed, forcing him to pay for school and food – money he didn’t have.
Back in Aurora, Thomas was arrested for possession with intent to distribute cannabis. And at Highland Community College in Freeport, a second chance at playing ended in injury the spring of 2006, as he twice tore his Achilles tendon. While still in a cast and on crutches, he was locked up on a gun possession charge, his second felony in two years.
Thomas was arrested in 2008 on another felony charge of attempt to distribute after Ryan already was playing at East Aurora. Because of her son’s love for his cousin, Ryan’s mother, Tanesha Boatright, sought out Thomas for a heart-to-heart. “You’ve got to make changes for Ryan to better appreciate what you’re saying,” she told him.
Thomas stepped outside himself for a moment. If he was to guide his cousin away from the streets, he would have to step away, too.
As Boatright’s star climbed his sophomore and junior years, the crowd around him expanded – sometimes the wrong crowd, according to family members. Boatright acknowledged: “Me and my family, we done went through our struggles and stuff like that to the point where you’re like, man, I need to make some money here.”
Boatright may have felt the same pressures Thomas did as a high school star, but he had a massive family to rally around him to provide support. Don’t have a car? We’ll drive you wherever you need go. Need some money? We can’t give you that much, but here’s what we’ve got.
“[Jaeh]’s helped me see the bigger picture, him and my mom,” Boatright said.
Thomas lays his cousin’s ultimate success squarely at the feet of his parents, grandfather and other family members. At the same time, he knows the young star could relate to him.
Thomas has found full-time employment. His son, Jaehshon, 8, is playing against competition two grades older. He says his work with Ryan off the court earned him some insight into fatherhood, and he looks forward to his son’s future.
This summer, as Thomas watched Boatright disappear through the crowd at Midway, he lingered. Then, he slipped into his car and headed home.