Before he was wrongfully incarcerated as one of the “Central Park Five,” Kevin Richardson had a dream for his future: playing basketball for Syracuse University’s Orangemen and playing the trumpet in the school’s marching band.
As a child in the 1980s, Richardson and his friends were big fans of college basketball. He admired Syracuse players such as Dwayne “Pearl” Washington and Billy Owens, and he dreamed about escaping New York City to go to college upstate.
Richardson’s goal of attending Syracuse was shattered in April 1989, when he and four other African American and Latino teenagers were wrongfully accused of brutally raping a white jogger in Central Park. Richardson served about seven years in prison before the true assailant, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime in 2002.
“I thought that it wasn’t possible that I would ever go [to Syracuse]," Richardson said, “because once I got out of prison, I’m no longer at the age to play college basketball.”
Last month, however, Richardson stepped onto the campus as a visitor for the first time and was honored at a reception for a scholarship in his name to help black and Latino students with unmet financial needs. Although he did not get to attend Syracuse himself, the scholarship enables Richardson to leave a legacy there for future generations.
The Central Park Five — now known as the Exonerated Five — gained renewed attention in the summer after Netflix released “When They See Us,” a four-part series about the group that was the streaming service’s most-watched series for at least 12 days after its May 31 premiere.
Out of that publicity arose an opportunity: Richardson, 44, mentioned his childhood dream of attending Syracuse during a segment of The Oprah Winfrey Show that aired in June. Suddenly, black and Latino alumni started calling the university to ask what they could do for Richardson.
Rachel Vassel, assistant vice president of multicultural advancement, took up the cause. She said she got in touch with Richardson through a mutual acquaintance at the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that seeks to exonerate people who are wrongfully convicted. Richardson told Vassel what had appealed to him about Syracuse, and Vassel built a campus visit around his interests.
Arriving on campus Sept. 8, Richardson said, made him feel “like I was 14 years old again” — the age when he was wrongfully arrested.
“When my feet hit the university, it was a bittersweet situation,” he said, “because it felt great being there initially, and as I was walking around I just thought, ‘That could have been me here.’ ”
Richardson participated in a flurry of events over the next two days: a play called “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” a visit to the basketball practice facility, and a nearly sold-out panel discussion about criminal justice at which students gave him a standing ovation. Richardson and his wife even got to take photos on the campus’ “kissing bench,” Vassel said.
At a reception for the university’s Our Time Has Come Scholarship program benefiting black and Latino students, Vassel announced the Kevin Richardson Fund to provide a minimum of two annual scholarships for students with GPAs of at least 2.5. A university alumna contributed $25,000 to start the scholarship, and the university hopes to raise $75,000 more. Students who receive the funds also will get leadership training and support while at the university.
“It means everything to me,” Richardson said. “It makes everything that I went through as a teenager up until now — it makes it worth it.”
To welcome Richardson into the Syracuse family, Vassel said, the university gave him a trumpet donated by Yamaha, and a custom jersey with his name and No. 44, a retired number worn by some of the university’s greatest athletes.
Vassel, a New York City native, said she remembered thinking in 1989 that something was amiss when the teenagers who would become the Central Park Five were arrested. The five — Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray — were found guilty on some of the charges in 1990 trials and spent between six and 13 years in detention centers and prisons. Their sentences were later vacated, and the men reached a $41 million settlement with the city.
“I just could relate to [Richardson] and what his family was going through,” Vassel said. “So just all these years later, being in a position to host him and give him some joy back and some of what he missed, it was just wonderful.”
Thousands of people have signed a petition urging the university to give Richardson an honorary degree. Ellen James Mbuqe, a spokeswoman for Syracuse, in a statement declined to comment directly on whether the university would do so, but pointed out that the university senate is responsible for awarding honorary degrees.
The university hopes to continue its relationship with Richardson, who lives in New Jersey and advocates for criminal justice reform.
“It won’t be the last time that he’s visited,” Vassel said. “It’s just the start of our connection to him and his connection to us.”