"I lost seven years and nine months of my life behind bars for making one really bad decision," he said. At 20, Dennis was on his way to play basketball at a college in Florida. After spending some time in his old neighborhood, he got caught committing a robbery and ended up in prison.
"Guys I hung out with in my grandmother's neighborhood used to call me 'schoolboy' and I hated that," he said. "I wanted the respect that came with the streets, and I ended up losing everything behind that."
"It's all about choices," said Richard James, a youth football coach in North Philly. But sometimes those choices go against deep bonds with lifelong friends and even family.
"I tell my kids to be mindful," he said. "But it's hard to tell a kid, 'Hey, stop hanging out with your cousin.' "
Yes, it is. Even after my family moved out of the Bronx, we'd go back every once in a while to visit. My father was overprotective and I was a bit of a scaredy-cat, but like Dennis, part of me wanted to show I could hang - especially with cousins who were way more street smart than I was. One day, a huge fight broke out on my aunt's block and my cousin ended up getting his leg nearly sliced in half when some guy stabbed him.
As I held his leg together while waiting for the ambulance, one of the cops who responded to the chaos took one look at me and said: "What are you doing here? You don't belong here."
I didn't, but man, part of me really wanted to. And to this day, I still have a lot of guilt about getting out, and worse, of not being able to find a way to move forward and still stay connected to the people and place that helped define me.
"In a lot of ways, it's a catch-22," said Stan Laws, a longtime local high school basketball coach. "There is a tendency to not want to give up the relationship with the streets, for the cred you think comes with it, for the relationships you've made on them - even if you know it can cost you."
But when it comes to the whole Jackson mess, Laws sees a much bigger problem: elevating sports figures and entertainers to role models, even when they aren't trying to be.
"These kids have a much better shot at being doctors than they do professional athletes, but we have a whole generation of kids shooting to be the next pro athlete or big-time rapper."
The definition of success has gotten twisted, Laws said.
"Success used to mean making some money and moving away from the drama," he said. "When did we lose sight of that?"
Of all the reactions to Jackson's dismissal, one struck me most. In one way or another, several people have said that Jackson's dismissal is an example of "when keeping it real goes wrong."
That's bull. Keeping it real isn't hanging on a corner with your old crowd - especially when that crowd is up to no good. It's not televising your arrested development by flashing gang signs during an NFL game. It's not risking everything you've worked for, and earned, to prove you haven't lost your cred, even if you only want to prove that you haven't forgotten where you came from.
There are much better ways to prove that.
"Keeping it real is about coming back when you've made it and showing other kids who are less fortunate that there is a way up," Dennis said. "It's about giving back to the community and to kids who look up to you.
"That's keeping it real," Dennis said.
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