When Ray Kingston showed up on the first day of basketball practice this season, Northwest Cabarrus High coach Daniel Jenkins had one question for him:
"Are you committed?"
Kingston had started the previous two seasons as a member of the Trojans' varsity team. But for personal reasons, he did not complete either season.
Admitting he might have a soft spot for Kingston because of the senior's challenging circumstances, Jenkins was content to accept his word.
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At times over the past three years, life has been a whirlwind for Kingston. It bottomed out when he faced legal troubles and detached himself from his birth family.
But he also experienced the highs of being adopted by a nurturing family, playing the sport he has a passion for and giving himself a good chance to attend college.
Advocate saw potential
Kingston credits his turnaround to one man who, when things were at their worst, saw potential in the wayward teenager.
Kingston's family, including his mother and several relatives, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Gastonia in summer 2008. The change of scenery was for his benefit, he said; his family had seen him "going down the wrong path."
He was indifferent to the change, however, and his path worsened shortly after the move. He was arrested and kicked out of school for an incident he said was related to assault and communicating threats.
Kingston spent three weeks in juvenile detention. It could have turned into a three-year sentence if an advocate in the criminal justice system had not "cut a deal" with him because of the potential the advocate saw.
The advocate, whose formal title escapes Kingston's memory, told Kingston he could either do the jail time or submit himself to the care of the Church of God Children's Home in Concord.
Part of the family
Kingston moved to the children's home in October 2008 and enrolled at Northwest Cabarrus High, where he tried out for the basketball team.
Jenkins liked what he saw in the 6-foot-4-inch sophomore. Kingston became a key role player for the Trojans.
But he fell victim to the state athletic association's guidelines for school attendance. At the semester break, it was determined Kingston had missed too many days of school, some of which occurred while he was trying to transfer to Northwest.
Early in the season, Kingston had befriended a junior point guard on the team named Jordan Brand. Kingston said his behavior at the children's home was rewarded with certain perks, including getting to visit Brand and his family, which includes twin sisters Kayla and Kinsley, now 7, and their mother, Shelby Pearson.
"I always wanted a brother," Kingston said. "I was an only child and never really had a father figure.
"Jordan was just different. I just feel like blood wouldn't make us any closer."
Brand, now a student-athlete at Massanutten Military Academy, and his mother became so attached to Kingston that Pearson became a certified foster parent. She adopted Kingston in June 2009.
Key to Trojans' success
Now they consider Kingston a permanent member of their family.
"I never asked him to call me 'Mom,'" Pearson said. "It just started rolling off his tongue. I said, 'OK, I'll take that.'"
Kingston made the basketball team again as a junior but quit after only a few games. He needed to concentrate on school work, he said, and also was uncomfortable with what he described as a lack of team chemistry.
As an A-B Honor Roll student, Kingston would have had enough high school credits to graduate early when the fall semester ends next month. But he decided to give basketball one more shot. He still hopes there's a chance he could play in college.
Jenkins and Kingston agree that his leadership role will be a key to Northwest's success this season.
"I think we're going to do real well," Kingston said. "I see a lot of potential in us as a team if we do the little things."
That's the same thing someone said about Kingston a few years ago. And he was right.