Thursday, March 26, 2009
Fisher creates his own path to success
By Dana O'Neil
They called him Radio because his mouth never stopped -- a constant chatterboxing of trash talk on the courts outside the Patterson Projects in the South Bronx.
He could shoot it but he was best known as a defender, always with his forearm out in front to protect, always more than willing to settle a game with his fists instead of the ball.
His skills never got him further than the playground, but Guy Fisher became a New York City legend anyway.
In 1970s Harlem, when the neighborhood was burgeoning with African-American pride, swagger and purpose, Fisher was a celebrity. The first African-American to own the famed Apollo Theater, he drew top talent to the cultural mecca after he reopened it in 1978 and had as much star power as the acts he booked, driving around town in his convertible Rolls Royce.
He gave turkeys to the poor at Thanksgiving, started basketball tournaments for the young kids and enticed the older guys at the Gauchos Gym with meaty bets, offering a few grand for the team he picked to win.
Fisher also was one of the most notorious heroin dealers the city has ever seen, a member of "The Council," a consortium of ruthless dealers led by Nicky Barnes that profited off the underbelly weakness of the same neighborhood it publicly built up. Their intertwining stories and that of rival Frank Lucas were the basis of the movie "American Gangster," and Fisher's life also was profiled in a BET series with the same name.
His glory days ended in handcuffs 26 years ago this month, when he was indicted on federal charges of racketeering, drug trafficking and conspiracy to commit murder.
Since then The Apollo floundered and was reborn, closed after Guy's arrest but since preserved as a national landmark. Harlem followed the same trajectory, its population dwindling to a little more than 100,000 by 1990 but then slowly rebuilding itself in the past 15 years.
But basketball remains, a constant rhythm on the same playgrounds that Guy "Radio" Fisher called home. For some it is a salvation; for others nothing more than a diversion.
Basketball couldn't keep Guy Fisher out of trouble, but two generations later his hard-won wisdom and the game he loved did rescue his great-nephew and namesake.
At approximately 9:57 Thursday night, Anthony Guy Corey Fisher -- Corey to his friends -- a sparkplug sophomore guard for Villanova, will step back into the bright lights of the NCAA tournament as the Wildcats face off with Duke in the Sweet 16.
His uncle will be in the Brooklyn Detention Center, where he's serving 25 years to life. ESPN.com tried to contact Guy but was denied an interview by prison officials.
"I'm lucky and smart," Corey Fisher said. "Where I grew up, it's a game. You're going to play basketball or you're going to sell drugs. I knew my uncle went the one route, so I went the other way."
|Guy Fisher and his Apollo Theater were at the center of Harlem culture in the 1970s.|
He cried before he walked into the place -- that's what Corey Fisher remembers of the first time he met his uncle in person. He was maybe 11 or 12 when he went with his mother, Kiesha, to visit Guy at Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex, a maximum security prison just west of Harrisburg, Pa.
For years he had walked around the neighborhood and heard the whispers, "That's Guy Fisher's son" or "He's related to Guy."
Corey had no idea who or what the whispers were about, but finally he had had enough. He went home and asked his mom who the man was whose name he shared.
Kiesha was never ashamed of Guy. On the contrary, he was her favorite uncle, the one she remembers spoiling her rotten as a little girl and the one she remembers sobbing over when he was sent away to prison.
She had hesitated to tell Corey too much before he was old enough to handle it.
"The first thing I said, the man he is not a role model," Kiesha said. "And then I told him the truth. His eyes got all big. He couldn't believe it."
Naturally Corey was intrigued by the drama of his uncle's life. But when he met Guy, he didn't find a gangster trying to impress with old stories. He found a wise man determined to stop someone else from making his mistakes.
In 40 years, not much changed for the Fisher family. Corey grew up in the Morris Park section of the Bronx, an area as riddled with crime, poverty and drugs as Guy's Patterson Projects. Kiesha went on food stamps when Corey was 14 to help provide for him and his younger brother, Ivon.
|These days, Corey Fisher is signing his name for kids. When he was a kid, though, he was never quite sure what that name meant.|
But Corey had one thing Guy didn't have -- the strong trunk of a family tree. Corey Wilson -- Corey's father -- and Kiesha constantly harped on education, and when their message didn't get through, Guy was there to hammer it home.
"I didn't want him to do the same things as everyone else," Kiesha said. "I told him, 'Don't listen to everyone you hear. Listen to your family.' His uncle was always in his head, just like his father. He wanted better for him."
Guy's father was an abusive alcoholic, rarely there to help raise Guy and his four siblings. The streets provided simple solutions to complex problems and when the small-time street hustler was approached by the legendary Barnes, the man who would boldly pose for a New York Times Magazine piece headlined Mr. Untouchable, the temptation of easy money was too hard to ignore.
Barnes brought Fisher into his circle and together they built up a multi-million-dollar drug trade.
When Barnes went to prison in 1977, Guy took over the business, but his time at the top was short-lived. Three years into his own life sentence, Barnes flipped, convinced that Guy was having an affair with his mistress. Armed with evidence they culled on their own, federal agents indicted Guy in 1983, and when Barnes took the stand in 1984 to turn on the man he once called a brother, Guy Fisher's fate was sealed.
He was convicted on January 12, 1984, sentenced to 25 to life. He was just 36.
I'm lucky and smart. Where I grew up, it's a game. You're going to play basketball or you're going to sell drugs. I knew my uncle went the one route, so I went the other way.
-- Villanova guard Corey Fisher
The same choices that came at Guy -- easy street or hard work -- were available to Corey, especially once people learned he was related to Guy and his own basketball skills developed.
A crazy climber on the monkey bars, Corey might have stayed that way if the city hadn't put a court down in his neighborhood when he was 9 or 10.
Basketball was in his blood. Along with Guy, Corey's dad and uncle were also passionate about the sport.
It didn't take Corey long to follow in the family footsteps. Cat-quick and fearless, he honed his game on the playground and in the rec leagues, his reputation growing as he got older. By the time he graduated from St. Patrick High School Academy, Corey was the New Jersey Player of the Year, a kid who gained fame when he dropped 37 on O.J. Mayo in a televised game.
Long-lost relatives suddenly appeared out of nowhere, telling Corey they knew Guy back in the day and reminding him how important it was to take care of his own family. They'd hit him up with messages after catching a YouTube video or stop him if they saw him on the playground.
"You should take this or do that, that's all I heard," Corey said. "It's hard to do the right thing, but life is hard. You have to keep your head on straight."
Corey admits he didn't stroll right down the straight and narrow. He said he was never into anything illicit or illegal, but he was as his own mother called him, "a little bad ass."
He had a short fuse and quick fists, the same one-two that saddled his uncle early in life -- "He fought so much I was going to put him in boxing," Kiesha said.
Near the end of junior high school days, two guys jumped Corey on the street corner, cutting his face enough that he needed eight stitches.
That was it for Kiesha. He wouldn't be going to high school in the city. They scouted prep schools and private schools, eventually settling on St. Patrick in Elizabeth, N.J.
The school is 30 miles from Corey's home in the Bronx and to make the first bell at 8 a.m., he would leave home at 4:45 a.m., take a cab to the subway, the train to Penn Station, a NJ Transit train to Elizabeth and then the 24 bus to the school.
With basketball practice or games after school, most days he didn't get home until close to midnight.
It was exhausting and challenging and ultimately the single most important commitment Corey ever made. When he graduated, he cried tears of joy and pride, amazed that he had survived and overjoyed that he had succeeded.
"I wanted to do something on my own, make my own choices instead of relying on my mother and father to do it for me," Corey said. "My uncle talked to me about that a lot. He told me if you really want to do something, you've got to put all of your effort into it. I didn't see a choice. I had to do it."
|It was a long commute each morning, but Fisher became a prep phenom across the river in New Jersey.|
With a lifetime behind him and a lifetime in front of him, Guy Fisher found himself facing another choice.
Sent initially to Marion Federal Prison, a notoriously tough facility where inmates are kept in 23-hour lockdown, Guy turned away from the thug culture that determines the social hierarchy of prison.
Instead he started writing.
He has penned four novels and one cautionary tale, "The Reality from Within." The book is a collection of essays written by Guy and other inmates, geared toward deglamourizing the gangster life and instead shining a harsh light on life behind bars.
He also has embraced education, completing his associate, bachelor's and master's degrees. In May of last year, Guy Fisher received his Ph.D. in sociology.
That is the Guy Fisher that Corey knows, the one whose successes inspire him far more than his mistakes scare him straight.
Corey plans to visit his uncle next month, but right now he has a little more business to take care of himself -- Villanova is in its fourth Sweet 16 in the past five years.
|During his 25 years in prison, Guy Fisher has earned multiple diplomas and written several books and screenplays.|
As the Wildcats continue another second-weekend run through March Madness, Corey is drawing more than a few comparisons to Kyle Lowry, the sophomore fireplug that gave Villanova its edgy attitude on its Elite Eight run three years ago.
Corey averages 10.9 points per game, but it is his aggressiveness that changes the game for Villanova. He gets to the rim faster, stronger and better than anyone on the Wildcats' roster, his dribble penetration opening up the offense for everyone else.
In the second round against UCLA, Fisher made a play -- driving the length of the court, spinning in the lane in traffic and tossing up a high-arcing layup into the net -- that made it quite clear the Bruins had absolutely no one who could guard him.
As he turned up the court, Corey ran by UCLA's Josh Shipp and said, with a smirk, "You're going to see a whole lot more of that today."
For a split second it was as if Radio was back, playing some ball.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Fisher contributed 13 points and five assists in Nova's second-round win over UCLA.|