Published: Sunday, May 23, 2010, New Haven Register
By David Borges, Register Staffdborges@newhavenregister.com
DEEP RIVER — This afternoon on the bucolic University of Rhode Island campus in Kingston, R.I., Keith Cothran will walk across the stage and receive his diploma, culminating an inspirational rise from the streets of New Haven’s roughest neighborhood to basketball stardom and success in the classroom.
The future could offer even more success for the Hillhouse High product — tryouts with the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks are scheduled, and if all else fails, Cothran will likely play overseas (possibly in Japan). Still, as far as he is from his past, one which saw him arrested eight years ago and sent to the Mount Saint John residential facility for 14 months, reminders of it are never far away.
When Cothran returned home from school about a week ago, he got a call from his 21-year-old cousin, William Wilkins.
“He asked me if I was in town, (are) you going to come by the house to see me, stuff like that,” Cothran recalled. “A couple of days later, his face is in the newspaper for a murder.”
Indeed, Wilkins was arrested on Wednesday in the Easter Sunday killing of 18-year-old Radcliff Deroche in Newhallville.
Knowing the violence and perils of the inner city first-hand, and understanding he is a shining example of overcoming those obstacles, Cothran returned to Mount Saint John on Saturday evening to speak with kids currently enrolled in the program.
“It’s amazing to be able to come back here,” Cothran said. “You take that ride down that road, and it brings back memories ... It’s great to come back here and talk to the kids to tell them, ‘There’s more out there than being here in this situation. Set your goals high, and if you believe them, you’ll be able to achieve them.’”
Cothran was 15 when he was arrested for possession of a handgun while driving a stolen car with a bunch of friends. Had he been a few months older, at 16, he might have been sent to the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, a high-security detention facility for males ages 14-21. Instead, Cothran was remanded to Mount Saint John, a sprawling, private, non-profit facility in scenic Deep River that aims to provide young men with the skills necessary to return them back to their community.
Realizing he was fortunate, Cothran was a model enrollee at Mount Saint John, according to Nick Stavola.
"He was a very quiet kid,” recalled Stavola, who was the assistant supervisor in the residential unit where Cothran lived during his time at the facility. “He was young, he stuck to himself. He stayed out of trouble here. He used to talk about the streets, his friends getting into a lot of trouble. He’d say, ‘I don’t want that life. I don’t want to be in prison the rest of my life.’”
Cothran even picked up a new hobby at Mount Saint John. He had never played a whole lot of basketball before, but by the time he had left the program, Cothran was on his way to stardom at Hillhouse, then the Winchendon School and, ultimately, at URI, where he capped a standout four-year career this past winter as the most valuable player of the NIT semifinalist Rams.
He’s even more proud of the degree in sociology he’ll receive this afternoon.
“School wasn’t really my strong point,” he recalled, “so to be able to go to a higher level of learning and to be successful, I’m at a loss for words to be able to walk across the stage (today) with my name being called. I’m just happy for the situation I had at URI.”
Now, Cothran is happy to share his success story with kids at Mount Saint John — kids who can relate to him and see him as an example of how they can turn their lives around.
“Anybody can do it,” Cothran insisted. “It’s really up to you to make that decision, to set your goals high and not go back to the same situation you were in before. I’m happy to be here to be a presence around these kids. I can relate to them, to their situations.”
His message certainly hits home with Anthony Berthiaume, a 15-year-old from Enfield who was sent to Mount Saint John after breaking into a home.
“He was in the same situation as us, and he felt that there’s no point in acting up,” Berthiaume pointed out. “He acted good, and he turned his life around and now he’s doing good.”
As he shot hoops in the Bishop Daniel P. Reilly Gymnasium with Cothran on Saturday, a 16-year-old boy revealed he had even more reason for inspiration from Cothran’s words. Like Cothran, the boy is from New Haven. The boy (whose name could not be released, per Department of Children and Families guidelines) said he’s followed Cothran’s career for a long time.
“He makes me want to do something with my life,” he said. “If he can do it, I can do it.”
But Cothran knows that many of these kids will continue to face huge challenges and obstacles once they leave Mount Saint John — or even before that. Kids in the program are allowed to make home visits during their tenure, once clinical services deem them eligible. They start with day passes, then overnight, and finally entire weekends.
When Cothran got to that level, he would often run into potential problems with kids from the neighborhood trying to steer him back down the wrong path.
“It’s a hard step,” Stavola said.
Although many of the kids he used to run with were no longer around when Cothran went on his home visits (“they were already in jail,” he revealed), the temptations were always lurking around the corner.
“There was one time, I went home on the weekend and a couple of guys were in the car and they wanted to go to some club,” Cothran recalled. “I already knew what the situation was about. They were going across town where there’s a lot of gang activity. For y’all to want me to go over there to a party, it’s looking for trouble. You’re not going over there to party, you’re going there looking for something. I didn’t get in the car with them, I went home.”
“Come to find out,” Cothran continued, “it was a situation that happened that landed a few of the guys in jail for 35 years.”
Lesson learned for Keith Cothran — a lesson he hoped to impart on the kids at Mount Saint John on Saturday.