Behind the story: Following the Flint basketball players

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FLINT, Mich. — A classic Western aired on the big television, flashing light across the dark living room. The volume blared at full blast so that Dennis and Linda Rushing could listen to the movie, but the problem was that now we couldn’t hear what they had to say.

Luckily, Los Angeles Times photographer Robert Gauthier and I had gotten used to the soundtrack of the Rushing cinema experience as we tried to capture a story filled with both despair and hope. And we were grateful Dennis and Linda had let us back into their home.

The Rushings, who are in their 70s and now count great-grandchildren among their flock, shared a Flint story. Their ancestors migrated from the South, looking for work in the auto shops. At one point, Dennis and his father worked at the same Buick plant.

Nearly a year after the Times decided to pursue a project about Flint, Rob and I found ourselves with the Rushings on a gray, brisk March evening because their grandson Taevion had become a key subject of our reporting on the depressed city, told through its once-envied basketball scene.

Tae was the best player on the Flint High Jaguars, the last high school basketball team left in a city that used to stock four squads with Division I talent. As we got to know Tae, it became obvious that he was the type of kid the Flint basketball machine would have developed into a surefire college prospect.

Maybe he wouldn’t have been Glen Rice, who led Michigan to the 1989 national championship and was an NBA All-Star, or Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell, the “Flintstones” who took Michigan State to the 2000 national title. Maybe he would not have been a high-major conference player at all. But he would have had every opportunity to be mentored by quality coaches, play against the best competition without leaving the city limits and receive attention from college scouts at every level.

In six visits over nine months, we got to see him flourish as a senior with a new coach who finally invested in him. But there was frustration too. Tae and his teammates would accomplish something unexpected, and yet Flint didn’t seem to care. Why did this town, which so desperately needs some wins, let the kids down?

We thought Dennis and Linda may have some answers. We had met them on a previous trip, and now it was our last night in Flint before wrapping up, and we sought them out once more with a defined purpose.

Dennis said watching Tae’s existence is hard for him. Dennis spent almost four decades at the same Buick plant; now his children and grandkids wouldn’t have those kinds of opportunities.

“One thing about our clan,” he said, “never been shy from work. Never was any loafers that just decided they was gonna live off somebody else’s being. I don’t want him to end up like that.

“If we have one flaw, it’s the fact that we take from ourselves and give to our grandkids, because a lot of times their parents can’t step up to the plate. When he ask for another T-shirt or jersey or something, I’ll mumble and grumble…”

But Dennis will give in, he said. He seemed disappointed in himself just as much if not more than in Tae, who spends a lot of his free time hanging out on his grandparents’ broken-in sofa, engaged with his iPhone.

As of March, Tae’s graduation was in question. Playing junior college basketball — Flint coach Demarkus Jackson’s hope — would not be possible if he didn’t graduate.

“You ain’t trying hard enough,” Dennis lectured Tae.

“My teachers hate me,” Tae said.

“I done seen your grades, you are not college material.”

“You think I care about a 3.0?”

“You should!”

Kyren, Tae’s cousin and best friend, interjected, “I don’t need to go to school because Bill Gates quit school.”

“Lord have mercy!” Dennis said. “I need to go to bed now.”

“I’m saying Tae gotta make it through hoop,” Kyren said.

“What if the next game he plays he takes his knee out?” Dennis said.

“I’ll take care of him,” Kyren said. “I’ll be the next Bill Gates!”

“The mindset you’ve got, you’ll be Boo Boo the Fool!” Dennis said.

The Flint water crisis grabbed the nation and shook it in 2014. A state government made a financial decision that ended up poisoning a city that’s 54% Black, becoming a brazen example of systemic racial injustice in America. Long after the news trucks pulled out and societal watchdogs found fresher injustices, we wanted to observe the impact downstream, by getting to know the hearts of the people and families that once made this place a model for industrial cities.

We found a willing heart in the Jaguars, who would band together almost in spite of the dispersed community around them. We found a fascinating family in the Rushings, who wanted Tae to achieve success but didn’t quite know how to get him there.

This family talk was one of those moments that make following a story over the course of many months a privilege. It was like we weren’t there as they suddenly plunged into an important conversation that said more than they knew.

Tae and Kyren were now hysterical after Dennis’ “Boo Boo the Fool” barb. Dennis had enough. He moved gingerly up the stairs and stopped about halfway.

One more thing.

“You’re talking to a 76-year-old man who worked for 39 years for General Motors,” he said, “who all through high school worked at the beer and wine store from 6 in the evening to 2 in the morning, walked home every night and never missed one day of school … ”

Staring down at his family’s future, Dennis looked helpless. He could see that they had tuned him out, the constant laughter acting as a fortress.

With his grandfather disappearing from view for the night, Tae’s eyes turned reflexively back to the glowing phone screen, where there was surely a notification waiting.


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