By Steve Coulter
To escape the streets of Baltimore, Dulaney High School senior Isaiah Lamb knows he needs to keep his concentration airtight.
His focus persistent on the game he’s been playing all his life (basketball); on obtaining good grades at school; and on what lies ahead of him— a potential Division I scholarship, not on the poverty he has suffered through in the past.
It won’t be easy.
“In Baltimore a lot of guys have the skills but don’t make it,” says Darron Wheeler, who’s been mentoring the 6’5” guard this fall. “They don’t have the focus and as you move up levels in this sport — or any sport, that’s what you need because it becomes more of a business.
“Schools are not going to invest in kids who don’t focus — who don’t care enough to get good grades,” he added. “Isaiah understands that and he knows to really reach his goals he needs to stay dedicated in the classroom — without the class work, basketball will be basketball and then that’ll be it for him.”
After being profiled by Sports Illustrated as part of their “Homeless Athletes” cover story in October, Isaiah and his parents, Donald and Valerie, have settled in to a small ground-floor apartment in Cockeysville, Maryland — a middle-class suburb of Baltimore.
His grades are strong — “all A’s and a B,” but he knows they can be even better.
“My goal is to have straight A’s for a quarter,” Isaiah said.
“That’s not it,” Mr. Wheeler chimes in. “He wants to finish in the top 5% of his class and he can definitely do it.”
As for goals on the court, they are just as high.
“All Conference team, play in the county’s All-Star game, lead his team to the Baltimore County championship — hopefully win a state championship,” Mr. Wheeler said.
The duo hopes that hitting all of these objectives will allow them to cross off the final item on their checklist.
“Division I scholarship,” Mr. Wheeler explains. “Once you’ve seen him play, you know he can make it.”
The next level
Mr. Wheeler spotted Isaiah playing earlier this year in a fall league game while watching his nephew play on another court.
A former coach with connections to Baltimore-based Morgan State, he asked Isaiah’s head coach if he had committed to play anywhere in the fall of 2015.
Surprisingly, he found that the lengthy teenager — despite some interest from D-I schools — hadn’t committed yet.
“I passed his name off to the coach at Morgan and he came to check him play,” Mr. Wheeler recalled. “Coach told me, ‘Wow, that kid can really play, but he’s a level above our level.’”
“They didn’t think they could get him,” Mr. Wheeler explained.
He met Valerie in the stands of one of Isaiah’s next games and talked to her for the entire contest. Valerie introduced her son to the man after the game and a bond was formed.
“I had only seen him play — I had never met him before,” Mr. Wheeler said. “I asked him what his dream schools were and that’s when we began interacting and sending out stuff to colleges — I didn’t want to shut anyone off, so we sent stuff to a lot of schools.”
While Morgan State was the primary target, Mr. Wheeler pushed to land a bigger fish.
“The University of Maryland was in the gym on Monday,” Mr. Wheeler said of a Nov. 17 practice. “Isaiah visited them last Friday and saw them play Wagner — there is some legitimate interest out there in him and I think that’ll only continue to grow when he suits up and starts playing games.”
His first one was Friday, Dec. 5, a 62-60 win against St. Paul’s — a local private school.
When asked to describe the best parts of his game, Isaiah doesn’t take much time to answer.
“Slashing and attacking the hoop,” he said. “I’m athletic and can jump well but I also think I’m a good leader — I’m the team captain this year and I want to live up to that trust that my coaches have put in me.”
Outside of basketball
Isaiah doesn’t want his past to define him — or others like him, who have had to live out of their parents’ car or study at a local laundry mat to keep grades up in school.
Since the article, he’s received several donated beds, which he has in turn given to other kids who don’t have one.
“I know I’m not the only one going through this, trying to figure it out,” he said. “I want to find ways to help others like me.”
Championing a cause like this doesn’t typically fall in the hands of a teenager — especially one who’s already busy juggling the responsibilities of leading his basketball team, getting good grades and applying to colleges.
However, Isaiah has a strong support system that recognizes that this effort is as important to him as anything that happens on the court.
“I don’t know how we’ll go about it but we want to go into the schools and let him talk about his whole experience,” Mr. Wheeler says. “His message is simple: you don’t have to be ashamed and embarrassed by it.
“Hopefully him talking to kids will give others like him that avenue to express what they’re going through.”
“We want people to pay attention to it,” Valerie adds. “You can’t recognize it — you can’t feel what homelessness is like — unless you walk in those shoes, but it can happen to anyone and it can happen in the blink of an eye.”
She acknowledges that most kids won’t speak up about being homeless — similar to the way her son did last year.
“It was tough,” Isaiah admits about keeping his family’s situation a secret. “You’re playing sports and you have a lot of friends who want to get to know you but you have to keep you’re personal life a secret.
“A lot of people going through it don’t talk about it and that’s what I’d like to see change,” he adds.
The Lamb’s secret was so protected that Mr. Wheeler says that he didn’t know the family was homeless until he saw the article on the front of Sports Illustrated earlier this fall.
“Two weeks after I met the family, my brother comes up to me and says Isaiah is on the cover of SI,” he recalled. “It took me for a loop — nobody would look at Isaiah and know that about him.”
The reaction in the halls of Dulaney High was about the same.
“Before SI nobody really knew,” Isaiah says. “A close group of friends knew, but they didn’t know it was that bad.
“It’s tough talking about your personal life,” he added.
Can’t waste time
With his goals set for his final year of high school basketball and a mission driving him off the court, Isaiah knows the formula he must follow to be successful.
“I know I can’t be wasting any time — I can’t be going out and doing what others are doing, I have to stay focused,” he said.
Mr. Wheeler isn’t too surprised to hear this from his wise and mature mentee,
“It’s been instilled in him through his parents,” he said. “He’s a real student of the game — of history; he knows what he needs to do and he’s not afraid to go out there and achieve it.”
Valerie recognizes the obstacles her son has had to overcome and couldn’t be more proud now that his aspirations of being a Division I basketball player are close to becoming a reality.
“We’ve been through a lot and homelessness leaves a scar in your heart,” she said. “It’s left him with a sense of humbleness that we pray he keeps forever.
“It’s something that people need to be aware of and hopefully do something about,” she concluded.