For nearly 20 years, Brian Mack has been trying to pay back a debt.
He’s spoken at nearly every middle school in Mecklenburg County. He’s talked to rooms full of future lawyers and judges. He’s worked with inner city youth basketball players, trying to keep them out of trouble.
“I can never pay it back; all I can do is try,” said Mack, 41.
He grew up in west Charlotte and was a talented basketball player at Garinger High School with an offer to play in college.
He was also in a gang.
In 1989, when he was 18, Mack was convicted for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. He spent more than four years in prison.
Since getting out in 1993, he has tried to make up for those bad decisions he made as a teenager. His ongoing goal: “Try to help the next kid.”
When he was released from prison, Mack had an unlikely pair helping him: The prosecutor in his case, Robert Conrad Jr., who is now U.S. chief district judge in Charlotte, and Greg Forest, a vice officer when Mack was in the gang. He is now the chief U.S. probation officer for western North Carolina.
Getting another chance
Mack said it wasn’t easy to get back on his feet after being in prison because there aren’t a lot of people eager to help an ex-con. Throughout the process, he looked to Forest and Conrad for support.
“Greg has been with me through all the years when I felt like giving up, felt like nobody was going to give me a chance no matter what I do,” said Mack. “He and Judge Conrad have always been those positive forces behind me to keep fighting.”
Mack went to college for one year at North Carolina Central University but couldn’t afford to continue. He eventually became a barber, a trade he’s continued for 16 years. It was sometimes hard to find opportunities in the city, and some suggested he start fresh somewhere else.
Mack wanted to stay.
“I felt that if I couldn’t make it here, where I did my dirt at, it means nothing for me to go somewhere else,” he said. “If I can’t make change in the city that I did my harm to, what good is it going to be to help somebody else’s?”
Mack started speaking to students about drugs and gangs. And Conrad has Mack speak at a class he teaches at Wake Forest University School of Law.
Mack impressed Conrad with his charisma and mental sharpness, even when he was on the opposite side of the aisle in the courtroom.
“I think Brian is exceptional,” said Conrad. “He has a lot going for him and then he has this sense of a community minded spirit.”
A basketball connection
Conrad and Mack had a common interest in basketball. Conrad’s sons, Ryan and Branden, played basketball at Providence Day with Mack’s nephew, Jeremy Goode.
Mack came up with the idea for the Southeastern Cup youth basketball tournaments, which he started last October. He decided to create the series after watching his 12-year-old son, B.J., play in tournaments with bad facilities or uneven competition.
“I wanted to try to create something where kids, no matter what level you’re on, you could come in and play and feel like you’ve reached some success,” Mack said.
More than 300 teams have competed in six tournaments in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee. Teams play in three different divisions based on their skill.
The tournaments also partner with local organizations. A tournament in Charlotte in early June raised $4,000 for recreation centers in the city, including Ivory Baker, Bette Rae Thomas, Tuckaseegee and Wallace Pruitt.
“I’ve been around and seen that there are a lot of talented kids here that just don’t have outlets, especially in the inner city and in a lot of these rougher neighborhoods,” Mack said.
Mack has also helped the Charlotte Rivals youth basketball organization as a coach and trainer.
George Adkins met Mack when his son, Mason, started playing with the Rivals. Adkins said Mack has a commanding presence with his loud voice and his 6-foot-5 frame, but he also has a gift in connecting with the players.
“He’s really inspirational,” said Adkins. “When he says something, they all listen.”
Aundre Speight with the Charlotte Rivals said Mack is exactly the kind of person they need.
“He’s very passionate about basketball and teaching kids basketball the right way,” said Speight. “He doesn’t want to see these kids ... blow their opportunities hanging out with the wrong people and doing the wrong things.”
Mack speaks from experience. But despite the opportunities he’s lost, he keeps working to find new ones.
“There’s a lot of guys out there like Brian, but they would have given up a long time ago,” said Forest. “That’s what makes Brian different. He hasn’t given up.”