Fallen Rider 

High school basketball phenoms Jason Kidd and J.R. Rider once vied for Alameda stardom. Now, one is playing for an NBA title, while the other's life is in shambles.

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Alameda has grappled with racism over the years. The community's core is so deeply rooted that some refer to it — the island, the city, the culture — as "The Alameda Family." Old-timers fight to preserve the rural enclave established by their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. This means keeping trouble — often equated with the predominantly black sections of Oakland — off the island.

The first wave of African Americans came to Alameda after the Naval Air Station opened in 1942. Most lived at the end of a dead-end street on the island's west side, completely segregated from the rest of town, in the Estuary Projects. By the time the Riders moved into Parrot Village, constructed in 1980 atop the Estuary Projects' ruins, Alameda's racism had receded, but tension still arose from time to time — fights at high school football games, references to blacks as "those people" at city council meetings, and in 1990, a scandal over anti-black racial epithets overheard on Alameda police car radios.

In a first-name-basis kind of town, Parrot Village is an island on the island. The complex existed only because California law mandates that every city have a set number of low-income housing units. The tenants traditionally have been mostly African American and Latino, and the kids who grow up there tend to move to Oakland when they leave home.

"In Parrot Village, you're isolated," said "Papa" Nick Cabral, whose grandmother was among the first blacks to live in Alameda, coming in 1907. "It's a world within itself. Socio-economically, it's so different from the rest of town."

Still, Parrot Village is a world away from East Oakland neighborhoods, such as "Devil's Playground," where gangs and murder are a part of everyday life. "Parrot Village, compared to some parts of Oakland, is condo living," Cabral said. "The kids think they're tough with their sags, their grills, and their caps, but they ain't. It's just show."

At Encinal High — a school so ethnically diverse that its demographics are divided almost equally among blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos — everyone gravitated toward Rider. But after practice, he rolled with his boys from Parrot. "He had two circles of friends," recalled Johns, Rider's high school basketball coach. "He was a follower with the other group."

By his junior year, Rider's name was being tossed around with that of five-time NBA MVP Bill Russell as one of the best high school basketball players ever to have played in the Bay Area. Expectations were high for his senior year. In an early practice, Johns asked the team to state their goals for the season. "We're going to State! We're going to State!" Rider shouted.

But a few weeks later, when the team headed into the locker room to suit up for its first game, Rider stood at the entrance as the team took the court without him. Tears streamed from his eyes: "I'm sorry. I wanted to be there with you guys. This is our last year. I apologize."

Two Fs stood between Rider and the basket. Over the summer, he had reached an agreement to play Division I NCAA college basketball, after graduation, with Kansas State after graduation. But when classes resumed in the fall, Rider didn't turn in most of his assignments. He skipped school and smoked pot. He had a reputation for being a bright and capable student when he wanted to be, but teachers said he expected to breeze through school on his athletic talent alone. California has a simple rule for student athletes: more than one F and you don't play. But Rider continued to practice with the team through the first half of the season. "I'm doing good, coach," he'd tell Johns. "Don't worry, I'll be eligible in four or five weeks when mid-term grades come out."

Benched and temporarily disgraced, he nevertheless attended most of the team's games that winter season. On the road, as he sat in the bleachers behind the team bench, the crowd would often chant: "Ineligible. Ineligible. Ineligible." Around town, stereotypes were evoked: another black kid who can dunk a basketball but can't pass a test. Some of the parents who had resented him in little league seemed to revel in his strife.

"That's when he got that tough skin," said Tim Canalin, Rider's childhood friend. "If you weren't with him, you were against him. He would say, 'If Alameda doesn't want to claim me, I won't claim them.'"

Had Rider bumped just one of his Fs to a D, he would have been crashing the basket. Instead, he disappeared at the end of the school year on a red-eye to Kansas, leaving behind a message in the yearbook:

"1st I want 2 thank God 4 granting me scholarship with. Next I want to thank my brothers Lamont and Dave for being friends too. Mom I Love U and when I make the NBA U will have you house. ... I'm out of here boyyee! Yall will see me again just watch channel 5 or 7 ATP in full effect."

Rider's basketball career was resuscitated in a small farm town in the Midwest. He slam-dunked his GED test, enrolled in a Kansas community college, and made it to class first semester with the help of his coach's son, Eric Crane, who was assigned to pick him up from the dorms every morning. On the court he was unchallenged. All he needed was an associate's degree, and he'd be off to Kansas State.

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