Skip to main content
Original Issue


Larry Nicholson, a skinny and soft-spoken 17-year-old high
school basketball player from Philadelphia, says he doesn't know
what made him throw a punch at a referee in the middle of a game
last week. All he knows is that when his fist connected, he lost
something he'd been working on for years.

Since eighth grade Larry had wanted to win the city
championship, and with his 18 points and eight rebounds a game,
Murrell Dobbins Tech High had a chance to do just that this
year. He had also wanted to put himself in position to get a
basketball scholarship from a good college and study
architecture. And while punching a referee in the face--and
getting hauled away in handcuffs as the ref was taken to the
hospital with blood on his face and a swollen eye--probably
isn't enough to scare off all recruiters, who have never been
the most discerning people in the world, it certainly didn't help.

But if you want to feel sorry for someone, there are more worthy
candidates than Larry Nicholson. The poor ref, Ron Palmer, for
starters. He gets clocked for doing his job and ends up with six
stitches under his eye and stars in his head.

And how about Larry's teammates? "Yeah, they're mad at me," he
says. To the school district's credit, Larry was thrown off the
team, ending his high school career midway through his best and
most promising season, and unfortunately dimming Dobbins's title
hopes. He also was suspended from school for five days, and a
criminal complaint--of assault and reckless endangerment--waits
to be heard next month.

You can feel sorry for his coach, too. Rich Yankowitz does more
than run his kids around in shorts. For 26 years he has also
been tutor, motivator and family counselor at a school that sits
in a neighborhood of shut-down factories and 24-hour drug
operations. A lot of his former players have disappeared into
the shadows, one had his face riddled with bullets in a drug
hit, and four have gone on to the NBA. "It's a shame that a kid
with Larry's potential had to make a mistake like this,"
Yankowitz says of the baby-faced senior forward.

Then there's Larry's grandmother, Elizabeth Counts, who has
raised him the past 10 years, devoting herself to making sure
Larry goes somewhere in a city filled with thousands of kids who
never go anywhere. He let her down too. "Oh, god, did it ever,"
Counts says when asked if Larry's outburst surprised her. She
paces the edge of the living room of her two-story brick row
house, where a photo of a peacemaker, Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr., is framed on a wall. "I've worked with him, talked to him
about life--the things you do, the things you don't do. He's a
good kid. He doesn't drink or smoke." She lets it trail off, not
sure where to go with her thoughts.

Meanwhile, Larry, a 6'4" set of hinges and limbs, is folded on
the sofa, watching the NFL playoffs on television. Maybe it was
something he saw in there--in that blasted box. Dennis Rodman
head-butting a referee. Roberto Alomar spitting on an umpire.
Robert Horry throwing a towel in his coach's face. We pamper our
athletes, pay them millions and forgive them their sins, all of
which sends a message. How about it, Larry?

"That's not it," he says politely, refusing to accept the crimes
of others as his excuse. "I'm not a follower."

Well, then, maybe it's the neighborhood, which isn't the one the
Beav hung out in, unless Theodore Cleaver was dealing crack and
sticking up PTA moms when we weren't looking. Larry's North
Philadelphia neighborhood is a place where old-fashioned
fistfights, of which he has had a few, practically bring a sigh
of relief from parents. Semiautomatics are the weapons of
choice, and Larry has had friends who went that way.

But he insists that it's not the neighborhood, either. That's
not what made him punch Palmer in the mouth after arguing a
no-foul call and drawing two technicals.

And here, now that we've peeled away all the possible alibis, is
Larry's lesson for a finger-pointing, excuse-making society of
victims: He blames no one but himself. He did a stupid thing,
he's sorry, and he stands ready to be held accountable and
expects no special treatment because he's an athlete. "I just
lost control," he says, still disgusted with himself for such an
ugly, boneheaded stunt. "All I can do now is grow, try to learn
from it."

They say you've got to sin to get saved, and on Monday, Larry
sent a letter of apology to Palmer. Without basketball, he says,
he'll have more time to work on his grades, which are nowhere
near as impressive as his scoring average. You can be appalled
by what he did, or applaud him for the way he's facing the
consequences, or both. But don't feel sorry for him.

Steve Lopez is a news columnist and novelist in Philadelphia.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM MACMILLAN/PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS A remorseful Nicholson makes no excuses. [Larry Nicholson]