The Yale campus was only a two-hour ride away, but the symbolic distance from the hard streets of Roxbury was almost unimaginable. When Onaje Woodbine headed to New Haven in 1998, he left his mother's home in the Warren Gardens Housing Co-op and didn't look back.
Basketball gave him the opportunity. As a sophomore, he led the Yale Bulldogs in points per game and was named to the All-Ivy team. Yet by then, the game seemed far less important than it had when he was a boy. Startling his coaches and teammates, Woodbine announced his decision to leave the men's basketball team to pursue his studies in religion and philosophy.
"I believe that there is a higher purpose in life," he wrote in a letter to the Yale Daily News at the time. "Deep within I know that I will not help the most people by putting the ball in the basket."
Now, at age 36, Woodbine has found a way to serve others — by telling the stories of those who put the ball in the basket in inner-city neighborhoods like Roxbury. His first book, "Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball," is an ethnographic study of the game as a form of "lived religion," focused on his own experience in Boston and the city's rich tradition of summer memorial games to honor the deceased. His work on the book inspired him to write a play by the same name, which premiered in late May at Phillips Academy in Andover, where Woodbine teaches.
"All we had were our voices, our bodies, and our imaginations," says one street baller in the play. For boys and girls like Woodbine's peers from Roxbury, basketball can provide a safe haven from the hardships of the ghetto, and a sacred space to mourn the losses of friends and loved ones.
"What happens when you die?" Woodbine asked on a warm afternoon recently, back in the neighborhood to meet up on the court in Malcolm X Park with some of his fellow street-ball survivors. "Those are the questions people like Russell have been asking in these spaces."
Russell is Russell Paulding, organizer of the 10-year-old Community Awareness Basketball Tournament, one of several summer tournaments around Boston's black neighborhoods often dedicated to victims of gang violence and other premature deaths.
Paulding, a burly, bearded dude in knee-length shorts, a navy blue polo shirt, and a fresh Red Sox hat, is known as a "glue guy" — a peacekeeper who brings rival neighborhoods together. He's a year younger than Woodbine, but he's "my big brother by size," Woodbine said with a smile.
Paulding said that he believes in a higher power, but sometimes wonders why. The street violence he grew up with left too many questions unanswered.
"Who do you blame?" he asked.
Another of Woodbine's old friends from the neighborhood leagues, Jerome Brown, stood on the edge of the court and quietly explained how his mother died when he was just 15. He was raised by his grandmother after most of his elders fell into drug addiction.
"Basketball saved my life, basically," said Brown, whose friends call him Rome. He briefly attended George Mason University in Virginia to play, but soon returned.
"It wasn't for me," he said. "I'm more of a Boston boy."
Roxbury has produced several notable players, including former Detroit Piston Will Blalock, onetime Celtic Wayne Turner, current Orlando Magic guard Shabazz Napier, and University of Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr., who threw down an impressive dunk during this year's March Madness tournament. (It was immortalized in video by his uncle's raucous celebration dance, which went viral. The uncle, Anthony Pitts Jr., was wearing a huge clock around his neck, like Public Enemy hype man Flavor Flav.)
Pitts was on hand in the park, greeting old friends with good-natured jabs. The basketball court was the closest thing these men had as a rite of passage, said Damen Kelton. Besides Woodbine, he was the only one of the group wearing a tie; he's an assistant director of student services in the Somerville school system.
Like Woodbine, Kelton was a Metco student, riding a bus to Newton for high school. (He went to Newton North; Woodbine attended Newton South.) They both credit much of their success to the late Manny Wilson, a Boston police officer who was killed in a car crash while on duty in 1992. A beloved youth basketball coach, Wilson challenged the boys beyond the gym.
"He'd make us read an article before we could get on the court," recalled Kelton. "He filled a huge void. He was transformative."
For Woodbine, who now coaches the girls' junior varsity at Andover, he's come to realize that the game itself can be transformative. After graduating from Yale, he enrolled in the School of Theology at Boston University, where he earned his master's degree. Inspired by the renowned Nigerian professor Wande Abimbola who was teaching at BU, he traveled to Africa to study Yoruban culture and ritual. In the course of his studies there, he was struck by the ritual of the divination basket, in which the spirit of the dead is conjured.
"You see into the basket to see back in time," he explained. "It's a feedback system."
Likewise, when basketball players honor their loved ones in the memorial games, they're often blessed with uncanny performances. In the book, he cites a legendary high school game in North Carolina, in which future NBA star Chris Paul scored 61 points — one for each year of the life of his grandfather, who had just been murdered in a holdup.
That kind of emotional outpouring on the court is a necessary catharsis, Woodbine said.
"The way they tell if the ancestor is present is if the ball goes in."
At Yale, though, the game felt like a burden to Woodbine.
"I was so caught up in other people's expectations," he said.
In their own ways, both his parents prepared him to take his own path. His mother, Robin Offley, a ballet dancer who now lives in Worcester, impressed upon Woodbine the importance of his education.
Equally critical, he was introduced to meditation practice as a teenager when he reconnected with his estranged father, Robert, a tai chi instructor and naturopathic doctor who was living in New York.
"The importance of that was, I no longer felt I needed to receive confirmation from others for my own self-worth," he said. "From that point forward I didn't care what other people thought."
In Nigeria, Woodbine met his future wife, Sade, with whom he has a young son, Sowande, and another baby on the way. They live on the Andover campus.
Sade and Woodbine's father were his co-writers on the "Black Gods" play, which will travel to South Africa this month for a special performance at Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls. It's been a big year for the family: Woodbine's half-brother, the actor Bokeem Woodbine, just had a breakout role in the FX series "Fargo."
It took years for Woodbine to get over what he calls his "survivor's guilt" — being the one who found his way out of the neighborhood. Many never had the chance.
"When I'd go back, I would feel anxiety," he said. "My heart rate would go up — I'd remember the trauma I'd experienced. I never was injured, but I saw people injured and was very close to it."
Now, though, he thinks of himself as a bridge between cultures. At BU, one teacher posed a question that has stuck with him: When you think of the word religion, what comes to mind?
"I couldn't help but think that the most sacred place I had been was on the basketball court," he said.