Off the streets at last, on a fast break for hope
Mentors and new programs provide support for athletes that had been sorely lacking
As dusk fell one evening last May, Alex DoSouto was walking alone down a grim Dorchester street, headed toward home, which meant headed toward trouble.
Then he heard a sound he knew only too well.
From a passing car, two assailants with semiautomatic weapons opened fire. One round ripped into DoSouto’s leg, marking him as the fourth brother in his family wounded by gunshots - one died of a bullet to the heart - in the ongoing street war among Boston’s most violent Cape Verdean factions.
At 18, DoSouto was a jail veteran and high school dropout running with the so-called Cape Verdean Outlaws. When the bullet struck just above his court-ordered ankle monitor, he slumped to the pavement, steps from where his brother was fatally wounded three years earlier.
“It changed my life,’’ DoSouto said. “I could have been killed. I said, ‘I can’t keep living like this.’ ’’
In crisis, he turned back to the Boston Public Schools. Back to something he loved, interscholastic basketball. Back to the dream he’d abandoned, of college.
As city leaders confront gang violence, a high school dropout rate twice the state average, and the high cost of incarcerating youths rather than educating them, DoSouto embodies the spirit of a collaboration among the schools, youth-oriented nonprofits, and the new Boston Scholar Athlete program aimed at providing student-athletes, even last-chance students like DoSouto, the resources to succeed.
Five months removed from a jail cell, DoSouto enrolled last fall for his senior year at English High School, the bullet scar on his leg still fresh. School officials say he is on pace to graduate in June, with a chance to land a college basketball scholarship.
“Whatever happened in his life, Alex is filled with buoyancy,’’ English headmaster Sito Narcisse said. “We’re very excited about his prospects.’’
Community leaders hope DoSouto serves as an example of how education and sports can help divert at-risk youths from the streets. He is one of many student-athletes in Boston schools who have been perpetrators or victims of violent crimes.
“Not too long ago, Alex couldn’t picture any of this,’’ said Anthony Robinson, a street worker who helped DoSouto return to school and stick with it. “He was hanging in the streets, causing trouble, and trying to protect himself from the elements. Now he can see prosperity happening in his life.’’
DoSouto’s greatest supporters include two ex-convicts - older brothers Milton DoSouto and Mike Fernandes - who bear scars from a 15-year feud among Cape Verdean crews in Roxbury and Dorchester. Milton DoSouto, 28, who walks with a cane after suffering 11 gunshot wounds in two separate ambushes, and Fernandes, 26, who took a bullet to his leg, said Alex has a chance to reshape their family’s legacy.
The older brothers first landed behind bars as adolescents - Fernandes as a seventh-grader - and neither finished high school. Their criminal histories, including convictions for assaulting police officers, date to the 1990s.
“We don’t want Alex to follow in our footsteps,’’ said Fernandes, who was identified by the Boston Police in 2003 as one of the “impact players’’ in the Cape Verdean gang culture.
“Milton and I didn’t have an older brother to give us good advice,’’ Fernandes said. “We’re trying to teach him the opposite of the way we grew up.’’
Swept up in a deadly cycle of violence, the older brothers said they have buried at least one young relative or friend every year since the ’90s. Fernandes took issue, however, with law enforcement’s characterization of the family-affiliated Outlaws as a gang. He is one of 10 children raised by Alfredo DoSouto and Luisa Fernandes on Hamilton Street in Dorchester.
“One thing people fail to realize is that we are all blood family, blood brothers, and cousins,’’ Fernandes said. “You will never find someone in our group who is outside the family. If they want to blame us for protecting each other and fighting for each other, I don’t know what to call it.’’
Fernandes, who runs a memorabilia business, and his brother, Milton, a barber, indicated they are transitioning out of the street life, a difficult challenge given their deep-rooted conflicts with rival factions.
The two older brothers have attended nearly all of DoSouto’s basketball games since he gave up the streets for school. So has another brother, Steve DoSouto, 25, who is waging a personal campaign against the mayhem in their neighborhood near Bowdoin Street and Geneva Avenue.
Last November, Steve and Alex DoSouto arrived for a night basketball game at the Marshall Elementary School just as a gunman opened fire in the gym and shot one of their friends. The 22-year-old victim, whom police have not identified, fled to his nearby home, where the DoSoutos found him lying on the floor, bleeding from both hands.
Alex, who recently testified before a grand jury about the incident, said he used his shirt to bandage the victim, then rushed upstairs to inform the victim’s mother.
For Steve DoSouto, the attack became a tipping point, one senseless casualty too many.
“I decided to see what I could do to stop the violence,’’ he said.
He launched the Boston Peace Basketball League at the Marshall School. With grants from the Boston Foundation’s StreetSafe program and Robinson’s nonprofit Youth in Crisis Inc., the league provides a free alternative to the streets for dozens of at-risk youths. The Boston Police support the program by staffing the games with two officers to provide security.
“I was afraid kids would stop coming to the gym because they were scared,’’ Steve said. “I didn’t want them to think everyone who comes here is carrying a knife or a gun.’’
Alex plays in the league, coached by Milton, who recently made his own attempt to save children from the dangers of the streets. Meeting with students from the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain, where a 13-year-old boy was charged in December with stabbing two other 13-year-olds in the school gym, Milton spoke about the toll of youth violence. “If you want to be out running the streets,’’ he recalled telling the students, “you’re going to end up burying your best friends, your cousins, your brothers.’’
By nearly all accounts, Alex avoided criminal activity until his brother, Luis DoSouto, was shot to death at the age of 25 in front of their home in 2006. Alex, then 16, saw his brother dying in the street.
“My brother’s life came down to a single moment and in that moment I felt a part of me slip away like the smoke that quickly rises and disappears after the flame on a candle has been put out,’’ Alex wrote last fall in his college admissions essay.
Alex, when asked during an interview at the Marshall School to reflect on how his brother’s death affected him, rushed home and returned with his essay, saying it expressed his genuine feelings about his personal history.
He wrote that he became “fearless’’ after his brother’s death, “not caring if I was shot or killed.’’
“He didn’t want to listen to anyone,’’ Steve said. “He went downhill pretty fast and kept getting locked up.’’
In February 2008, Alex was a junior at Dorchester High School and a star on the basketball team when his street life cost him his freedom. Still on probation for a 2007 marijuana offense, he was charged with driving a getaway car while accomplices robbed three individuals at gunpoint in separate assaults in Quincy.
Jailed for violating probation, Alex began a yearlong cycle in which he repeatedly was released from custody, only to land back behind bars on additional charges. In the most serious case, Alex allegedly punched a 46-year-old man in the Back Bay, knocking him to the ground before a gun-wielding accomplice robbed the victim and a companion of their wallets and a shoulder bag.
Alex, who pleaded not guilty to the armed robbery charges in Quincy and Boston, could face prison time or probation if he is convicted. With the cases pending, he declined to discuss his alleged criminal activities, other than to acknowledge, “I got caught up in the street life and went around starting trouble.’’
He wrote in his college essay that he recognized “the poor choices I had made, how far they had taken me from my childhood dream, and how I was responsible for being so far away from all that I was capable of.’’
In all, Alex spent nine months in jail for probation violations and pretrial detention. Then, two weeks after his last jail stint, came the ambush in front of his house that inspired him to step out of the firing line.
“I didn’t want to become another hole in my mother’s heart,’’ he wrote in his college essay.
At Alex’s request, a judge assigned Robinson to help him turn his life around. Robinson, 49, who grew up in the Bromley-Heath projects in Jamaica Plain and played basketball at English, had several counts in his own criminal history and had spent years working with youths across the city. He is known on the streets as “Big Time.’’
“I’ll always have love for him because of what he has done for my little brother,’’ Milton said.
(Robinson also embodies the risks of backsliding into trouble. He was arrested in November on charges of assaulting a police officer after a domestic altercation with his wife, and is awaiting trial.)
At English High, Alex has received intensive individual support, particularly from Rene Patten, the basketball team’s academic coach. Under the Boston Scholar Athlete program, every boys’ and girls’ basketball team has been assigned an academic coach and must participate in mandatory study halls, many staffed by volunteer tutors from area colleges. Mayor Thomas M. Menino launched the program last year after a Globe series detailed pervasive inadequacies in the city’s high school athletic system.
Patten said the extra attention has proven especially helpful for students like Alex.
“We have a lot of at-risk youths who are dealing with similar things,’’ she said. “It’s important they find somebody in the school to work with them because it gets overwhelming dealing with court dates and absences and trying to make up the work.’’
Narcisse, the English headmaster, raised expectations for the school’s student-athletes this year by increasing the minimum grade-point average to play interscholastic sports to 2.0 from the citywide standard of 1.67. Alex has posted a 2.16 GPA, Patten said, and is on track to improve that mark while carrying a full course load, including honors biology. He also is studying for the SATs.
“He’s a really bright student who picks things up quickly,’’ Patten said. “That works in his favor as he closes the gaps in his education.’’
Worried about Alex’s safety, Patten drives him to school every morning. She said he could be in danger riding a school bus, a concern Fernandes shared as he waited to drive Alex home from a basketball game.
“We could walk out the door right now and something could happen,’’ Fernandes said. “And if trouble comes, it won’t be a fistfight because they don’t come to fistfight.’’
Longtime English basketball coach Barry Robinson said Alex shares a characteristic with many street-hardened youths who have passed through his program.
“Does he still have a rough edge?’’ Robinson said. “Yes, he does. But he may need that rough edge to survive.’’
Alex has proven vital to Robinson’s team, emerging as one of the city’s top point guards. Beyond his exceptional court vision, passing ability, and leadership as a team captain, the 6-footer has given the undersize English roster a boost in scoring, logging 30 points against New Bedford, and 20 or more in several other games.
English is 13-7 (10-4 in the Boston City League) and bound for the state tournament. “Thank God for that young man,’’ Robinson said. “I don’t think we would have won too many games without him.’’
Alex has drawn interest from several colleges, including North Carolina A&T, a Division 1 program. His next challenge - while dealing with the court case - may be winning over admissions officers.
“My experiences in life . . . have all come together and taught me how to face adversity,’’ he wrote in his college essay. “This has not only made me a better person but has prepared me to face the challenges of my future as a man and college student.’’
A community is counting on him.
“I know he’s going to college,’’ Fernandes said. “He’s going to let a lot of people down if he doesn’t.’’
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.