La Salle great Kareem Townes, former inmate: Big Five Hall of Famer?

Former South Philadelphia High School and La Salle University star Kareem Townes shoots during an over 40 basketball championship game at the Feltonville Rec Center November 21, 2017. His friends are trying to get Townes into the Big Five Hall of Fame, which might be tough.

Who’s to say when sufficient time has passed to maybe forgive, not so much forget, but move on? Knowing that some might never be able to do one or either. Kareem “Rab” Townes gets that. And at this point, he’s pretty much OK with it, too. He is, after all, responsible for the enormous detour his journey once took. He knows it will always be part of the narrative. Often the leading part.

Yet there are moments when he wonders whether that damage can ever be at least somewhat mitigated.

The questions aren’t easy. Neither are the answers. That’s just the way it’s been. And how it could remain.

“I thought in our society, people allow for a second chance,” said the former La Salle guard, who averaged 23.8 points a game in his three seasons (1992-95) following a legendary career at South Philadelphia High. “They can hold it against me forever if they want. The thing is, I didn’t get in trouble while I was in college or high school. I got my college degree. I still have records. But some people have been beating me down since the incident.

“I mean, I’m not God to judge nobody. There’s not a person on this planet who hasn’t made a mistake or done something wrong at least once in their life. I regret ever putting myself in the position to get arrested. By the same token, they gave me time to do and I did it. I’ve been home going on eight years. Things happen for a reason. It just makes you evaluate who’s really in your corner and who isn’t.

“When everything’s going right, there’s so many supporters. And a lot of them disappear when it goes the other way.”

Townes was 27 in December 2001 when his universe changed. He’d almost made the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent. Instead, he ended up playing two seasons in Italy and another in Greece. He had a contract to go back overseas. Then he and a friend got arrested for selling a pound of crack cocaine to an undercover federal agent in South Philadelphia. Those who know him best maintain he got caught up in something for “15 minutes” and paid a steep penalty. He spent nearly nine years of a mandatory 10-year sentence in several correctional facilities around the country. He’s been out for a while now. He has a job. And a fiancée. He’s there for his three sons. At 44, he’s part of his community again. And, he still plays.

Obviously, though, it probably can never be quite the same.

Camera icon MIKE KERN / Staff
Kareem Townes holds up his framed La Salle jersey.

“It just shows you your freedom is everything,” the soft-spoken Townes said, during a lengthy conversation in the living room of his mother’s house in Point Breeze. “Nothing compares to when somebody is telling you when to go to sleep, when to take a shower, what you can eat, what you can wear. I’m a grown man taking orders. But I never pointed a finger at nobody. I was smart enough to know to make a better decision, think everything out.

“I left in 2000 and came back in 2010. I remembered the neighborhood. I made my adjustments. It wasn’t too difficult. I didn’t get burnt out in prison. My body was there, but my mind wasn’t. The only thing I focused on was getting out.”

Only seven La Salle players have scored more points than his 1,925. Three of them are Lionel Simmons, Michael Brooks, and Tom Gola. All played four seasons. Just one Explorer scored more in three. That was fellow South Philly product Simmons, who had 2,370 going into his senior year en route to 3,217.

In late June, there was a daylong event at St. Joseph’s Hagan Arena featuring many former prep hoops stars. Some coaches were honored. So was Townes, who was given an award for being a Big Five Hall of Famer, which he is not. But friends and peers think he should be.

Based on the numbers, they’re right. Of course, his story is about much more than stats.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Former South Philadelphia High School and La Salle University star Kareem Townes drives during an over 40 basketball championship game at the Feltonville Rec Center November 21, 2017. His friends are trying to get Townes into the Big Five Hall of Fame, which might be tough.

“It’s funny,” said Townes, who didn’t play in his first season at 20th and Olney. “I’ll kid Donnie [Carr] all the time that he only has like 150 more points than me and he played one more year than I did.”

In his first season, 1992-93, he averaged 22.5 points a game. That broke Simmons’ first-year program record of 20.3, set six years earlier.

At Southern, he averaged six points as a sophomore, 30 the following season and 41 in his last. Only Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 47 in 1954-55 as a senior for Overbrook, had a higher season average. Townes also broke Simmons’ Southern record for points in a game by getting 59.

Unfortunately, yet understandably, a lot of that tends to get lost in the discussion.

Marvin O’Connor was one of the people responsible for putting together the event at Hagan five months ago. The Simon Gratz product played three seasons on Hawk Hill after transferring from Villanova. He finished his career with 1,776 points, with a high average of 22.1 as a junior in 2000-01, when he scored 18 in the final minute of a 91-90 loss to La Salle on March 3 of that season. He too still plays, many times with or against Townes in recreation leagues throughout the city.

O’Connor got into the Big Five Hall of Fame in 2013. He wants Townes to join him one day.

While he realizes why some wouldn’t necessarily embrace that, he believes it’s simply the right thing to do.

“Let’s keep it real here,” O’Connor said. “If you’re ranking players, he’s got to be one of the top guys coming out of anybody’s mouth. He was that good. So it’s pretty easy on our part to feel that way, coming from the urban community side. Because when you look at all of us, we got in some kind of trouble. Maybe not carrying guns, or drugs, or anything of that nature, but coming from that area, trouble was just lurking. It’s not something you want to be involved in, but it’s there. He did something wrong, and was punished. Look at him now. We have to get past that.

“He’s one of the more mild-mannered guys around. Myself, I was a big talker. Still am. But Kareem was laid-back, which is unusual for South Philly. It’s almost like the game was easy for him. He was so smooth. And he’s always been humble. He lets his game speak for him.

“No one’s perfect. I went to a Catholic university, where they talk about forgiveness. When do you put that in play? That is Christianity, in a nutshell. If Kareem was a repeat offender, or had this resume that was full of negatives, I wouldn’t vote for him. But we’re talking about an isolated incident. I just want to shed some positive light on what he’s done. …

“I think as much as he’s been through, it would really bring a tear to his eye, that somebody could look beyond his faults and recognize him for what he did between the lines,” he added. “I think it would be huge for the city. I think La Salle wins. It’s time to bridge the gap. You don’t have many players of this level. They say time always helps. Sometimes.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Townes shoots and scores a three-pointer during the Feltonville Rec Center game.

A candidate has to be nominated by his school. La Salle athletic director Bill Bradshaw wasn’t here when Townes played for the Explorers, or when he went to jail. He was the AD at his alma mater from 1978-86 before taking the same position at DePaul in Chicago for 16 years and then running the department at Temple from 2002-13. Any recommendations need to go through his office. And so far, Townes’ name hasn’t come across his desk. Even though his coach, Speedy Morris (who’s been at St. Joe’s Prep since 2001), thinks he’s “deserving.”

“He’s a good kid,” Morris said. “He never got in any trouble. He made a mistake. He’s being a good person. He’s made a comeback. I think it could be a positive story, no question about it.”

Maybe. But there’s always going to be the other side of that story to deal with.

“No one has brought it up to me, so I don’t have the answer,” Bradshaw said. “To be honest, I didn’t know about his story. You have to do a whole background on everyone. Would it be a factor? It probably would.

“You’d have people on both sides. In the end you say, ‘What’s best for the university?’ The reality is, it could be looked at as a negative story. That’s natural. But again, I don’t have the answer.”

There isn’t supposed to be a clear resolution to such an uncommon situation. And Townes is smart enough to recognize what he’s up against. Not that it keeps him up too many nights.

“I try to let it go,” said Townes, who got the nickname of Rab (short for Rabbit) from his grandfather when he was a toddler because he never stopped running. “With social media now, it’s crazy. If my peers respect what I did, I’m happy with that. My body of work is what it is. But I can’t force my way in. It’s not my call.

“It’s funny. I really love to pass. And I could dribble. But once you’re a scorer, everything else gets overshadowed. In my neighborhood, Nate Blackwell and Jody Johnson were my guys. I felt if I could play in South Philly, I could play anywhere. I wore 11 because Isiah Thomas was my favorite.

“I was always easy to find. I’d be playing ball. Right now my life is work, family, and basketball. I’m at ease. If I wake up every day, that’s good. You always think about how things could have been. But I don’t kill myself with that. It was going to go the way it was going to go. Everyone wishes they could change something. I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on my worst enemy. You feel like you let so many people down, the ones who mean the most to me.”

Townes works for a window-cleaning company, which he says isn’t fun in the winter. Yet it’s a life he can live with. His oldest child, 23-year-old Kyseem, lives with a grandmother in Grays Ferry. Kyree, 18, just entered Morehouse College in Atlanta. And Kamir, 16, lives with his mother and attends Masterman High.

“I explained everything to them when I was away,” Townes said. “I told them, ‘Listen, there’s a reason why you’re coming to see me and why I’m wearing these clothes.’ There was never any confusion. I’ll do anything possible for my kids, and I think they know that. I didn’t mean to hurt them.

“I’m not mad. Nobody put a gun to my ear and forced me to do anything. And now I’m doing the things I love. I know plenty of guys who got in trouble. I don’t judge them. It’s not like my life was based on being a criminal. It’s been the opposite. I can’t be crucified my entire life for it. If you walk through the neighborhood, you won’t hear anyone say anything bad about me.

“People will be like, ‘I can’t believe you were locked up.’ Some things can’t be taught. My mom did an awesome job of raising me. [His father left the house when he was in sixth grade.] She could be as tough as a man. And there were other people who stayed on top of me. I just messed up. That’s all it took.”

It’s a harsh lesson. And there’s no going back. But can it ever be fully behind him? Or, more to the point, fully behind everyone else?

In the meantime, all Townes can do is the best he can.

“There’s a difference between the streets and the basketball court,” he said. “Sometimes things are out of your control. You think fast and just like that it’s too late. Basketball’s been my life forever. The guys that seen me grow up, we’ll just talk about life. To them I’m still just old Rab.

“Once I started getting back in the flow, it was almost like I hadn’t been away. I was never questioned about it. You went away and you’re back, and everybody accepts that.

“I can’t be bitter. I could be, but I’m not going to gain anything out of it. I’m satisfied with what I have. I laugh too much, and smile too much. You go through things. It’s how you handle them. I never take my situation and put it on somebody. If I have a bad day at work, once I get in my car, it’s over with. I don’t take it home with me. The time that I’m here, I’m going to enjoy it. It’s so good to be able to go on to the next thing. …

“I won a lot of basketball games,” he noted. “I lost a lot, too. I’ve got another one coming.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Kareem Townes leaves with friends and teammates following the over 40 championship game.