The sun already down, three hours before tip-off, Ayesha Cosby-Roundtree left the family rowhouse just off Lindbergh Boulevard in Southwest Philadelphia to make the short drive over to the Wells Fargo Center to see her oldest son, Dhamir, play his first college basketball game for Villanova. Velous was on her car radio: "Shooter, shooter, knock it down, fade away (yeah, yeah) …" Fabolous chimed in to explain: "My Warriors gotta Curry up …"
So even the radio had hoops on its mind. For this big occasion, her son's official Villanova basketball debut, Mom had told Dhamir she would show up festively — "Face Paint Friday!" She told him she'd switch to a cheerleader's outfit for another game.
"You've got to mess with your kids," she said in the car.
The jokes don't disguise Ayesha Cosby-Roundtree's commitment. (No face paint, this time). She knew Dhamir and his Villanova teammates were going to walk through Xfinity Live at 6:30. She planned to get there by 6.
Racing the clock starts early. Most weekdays, she is up at 4:50 a.m. before dropping her 5-year-old twins off at before-care at 6:45, hitting 7-Eleven for coffee, getting to the lot where she picks up a bus or van and starts picking up schoolchildren around the city, knowing the back ways when the Schuylkill gets clogged.
"I picked up in South Philly, Grays Ferry, University City," she said of that morning. "I kept on picking up my little munchkins."
Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree had been part of a team before he even began playing organized basketball, eventually landing at powerhouse Neumann-Goretti High in South Philadelphia. Team Cosby-Roundtree just played for higher stakes. Mom didn't make a big deal of the fact she'd struck out on her own at age 16, or that going back for her GED was important if she was going to keep emphasizing education to her own children. She saw Dhamir didn't need to be steered too hard, remembering the year when hoop team or debate team was a debate in itself, before he picked both.
They don't talk a lot about the dark fate of Dhamir's father, which, Dhamir will tell you, caused him to grow up even quicker.
"She thinks I'm going to be a lawyer," Dhamir said about his mother. "She says to approach life how you approach basketball. Don't just be a basketball player."
Ayesha Cosby-Roundtree thought she might get more emotional going to see her son playing hoops in the biggest building in the city, but she found she was all right. She'd expected to get teary-eyed taking Dhamir to his new digs out on the Main Line, but he's still so close. Next time she gets out there, can she bring some toothpaste?
A car ride to the arena, with a stop to grab some cash from a machine on Snyder Avenue, was enough to explain things. This evening, traffic backed up under the 25th Street viaduct and a car just ahead created its own lane.
"Oh yeah, I have road rage," she said, heading for the ATM. "Look at this fool."
A 6-foot-9 guy who got to the sport a little late made Jay Wright want him. How? Include Dhamir's mother in the equation. His late father, center for a Public League championship team at Simon Gratz High, brought something to it, too. You also might want to know why Dhamir's academic struggles as a high school freshman made Villanova's coach, upon further investigation, want Cosby-Roundtree even more. "I was blown away, in terms of being impressed," Wright said.
Dhamir's family is along for this ride — his younger brother Justin was in the car, too — but they know this is his deal. His aunt, who played at Overbrook High, will call her sister at halftime with thoughts on how he can establish better rebounding position, but the whole family is cheering for Dhamir more than living through him.
They all have their own things going on. Justin goes to Motivation High, a magnet school at 59th and Baltimore Avenue. Dhamir's mother doesn't just drive. In the last couple of years, Ayesha Cosby-Roundtree added part-time work teaching drivers how to operate commercial vehicles. This summer came another gig, driving for Uber and Lyft a lot of Friday and Saturday nights, picking up a little more cash. (Her nephew was watching the twins the night of this game.)
Those three jobs are a cut in hours from when Dhamir was a freshman at Central High and Justin was in middle school and the twins Kaci and Keenan were in diapers. That's when Ayesha had a little meeting with her older sons. When she needed their help, Mom put it to her boys plainly.
"Either I go to work or we don't have anywhere to live and we can't eat," Ayesha Cosby-Roundtree remembers saying.
At the time, Dhamir was a freshman at Central High. It was a big deal that he had tested into the school. His commute, however, was another test, easily an hour. Take the 36 trolley up to Market Street, get on the El, switch to the Broad Street line up to Olney Avenue.
This family really knows the city's transit system. That year his mother was working "like 16 hours a day — I mean out of the house that long, leaving at 4-something," she said. She was driving for a paratransit company that worked with SEPTA, so the big talk was about how Dhamir and Justin had to get the twins ready for day care.
"I was watching them before school," Dhamir said, "watching them after."
"He would pick them up or drop them off," his mother said. "He and Justin would try to rotate."
The summer before had been the first that Dhamir had played organized ball. Playing for Central, however, wasn't going to work. Even getting to school in time for first period didn't always work.
"I missed a couple of days," Dhamir said. "At Central, missing a couple of days is missing a lot. Being that I was a freshman and not being challenged in middle school, being at Central was like an incredible jump."
"I wanted it to be easier for him," his mother said. "Looking at his grades, it wasn't super bad, but it wasn't who he was."
Dhamir understood, though. His mother needed him. The twins needed him. Often, he was the only one who could get Kaci to sleep.
"I felt as though it was a very grown-up thing to do," Dhamir said. "I grew up in that short amount of time — to help my mom with the twins, to give up something that I loved to do."
It was a one-year enterprise.They switched up a lot of things up after that year, because of that year. Dhamir transferred to Neumann-Goretti, much closer to the house. His basketball career was just beginning to take off. His mother told herself, "I've got to find a different job. I started working at the school bus company. I could pick up the twins from day care myself."
"She's a special, special person," Dhamir said. "She's very supportive. It was hard for her my freshman year. But as the twins got older, she was able to find more time in her work schedule. She put everything into me playing basketball. She found a way to let me focus on that, let me do what I loved."
Sometimes a little too much, she said. One tournament in King of Prussia, her son took a hard foul, she remembered, and stayed on the ground. Get up, get up, she thought. And to herself, Keep quiet, keep quiet. But her boy wasn't getting up. Finally, she ignored her own advice, jumping out of the bleachers onto the court. "Son, you all right?"
"Mom, I'm cool."
"I had to check on you."
Love of the game
Ask anyone about Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, and the words "team player" typically are part of the conversation. His toughness is a given. He played much of last season with a stress fracture in his tibia, keeping any pain to himself as Neumann-Goretti missed a Catholic League title but won a state title.
Carl Arrigale, the coach at Neumann-Goretti, called Cosby-Roundtree the most improved player he'd ever had in terms of development from freshman to senior year.
Villanova assistant coach Ashley Howard remembers how Villanova was in the gym to recruit Neumann-Goretti guard Quade Green, now at Kentucky, but kept noticing how the big guy in the same class was getting better and better, catching and finishing and blocking shots. Then he began to make free throws and make the right passes, making moves in traffic without traveling. His versatility defensively is really what sold Villanova.
"A lot of the things that are really valuable to us," Howard said, adding, "At the rate he has improved, he has to love basketball."
By the time he was 6 years old, Cosby-Roundtree had spent a good amount of time with his father, Steve Kennedy, a former Gratz center. Basketball was their bond, until it was shattered, the news given to Dhamir directly by his grandmother, a Philadelphia police officer. Her son, Dhamir's father, had been murdered, shot multiple times. A longtime friend was convicted of the 2004 crime, sentenced to life in prison. There was testimony about a beef over money, that the friend had told a third party that Kennedy had "burned him out of $200." Ayesha Cosby-Roundtree said she thought the money was owed the other way, to Kennedy, but she said she's unclear on the details. If any of that was not meant for the ears of a 6-year-old, Dhamir still will tell you, "I had to grow up much faster."
Kennedy's former Gratz coach, Bill Ellerbee, knew Kennedy had been murdered and has seen Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree play basketball, but he had no idea Cosby-Roundtree was Kennedy's son.
"He's got someone else to root for him," Ellerbee said of Cosby-Roundtree. Of his father, the coach said of him on the court, "Very aggressive and active." Off the court, "he was very sociable." Ellerbee told about how Kennedy loved to breed dogs. Testimony said some dogs were in the North Philadelphia house with Kennedy when he was shot.
There is a maturity about the son. When Cosby-Roundtree began playing seriously, he studied NBA greats, current and retired, looking at their moves, practicing them on his own. He talked about ballplayers from Southwest Philadelphia being "humble and hungry … A lot of Southwest kids, they want to be better than what they are. They want to change their situation. Nobody wants to stay in Southwest Philadelphia."
He said his mother kept him away from the rougher aspects of the neighborhood — "shielded me from it."
Jay Wright spoke of how other schools recruiting Cosby-Roundtree were telling him how Villanova wouldn't have much of a role for him, that he was an afterthought. Cosby-Roundtree asked for a meeting to ask directly about his role. Wright left the meeting wanting this guy more than ever. He said Cosby-Roundtree is like a 25-year-old in terms of how he approaches things.
Asked what he sees from Cosby-Roundtree now that he has him, Wright said, "He has the ability to be a really special player in our program, because we like our forwards to be able to get out on the perimeter and handle the ball and defend and still have the ability to play inside." When Cosby-Roundtree reaches his full potential, the coach added, "he's going to be good and we're going to be good."
No simple journey
The light changed.
"What are you waiting on?" Ayesha Cosby-Roundtree said toward the car in front of her, offering a helpful honk.
She was realistic about what she'd see later inside the arena.
"I don't expect him to get too much time in," she said of her son. "I told him, 'Whatever time you get, go hard. Do what you're supposed to do, and turn up."
She usually leaves the technical stuff to her sister but does plead guilty to snapping at referees. "I threw my glasses on the court once," she said with the suggestion, "I think you need these to see."
On South Broad Street at this point, the Wells Fargo Center in sight, she was asked if her name would be on a parking list. She didn't know, she'd ask.
The possibility of free parking made her think of the college basketball scandal that broke recently, with big dollars allegedly thrown around being directed toward a recruit from a sneaker company. She said she told her son, "I guess you're not that hot after all, huh?"
The thought made her crack up: "Why'd no coach ask if I needed $150,000? Nobody knocked on my door."
Turns out her name wasn't on the parking list either.
Ayesha Cosby-Roundtree, who had once worked as a parking attendant briefly herself before finding out how hot it can get in those boxes, told the Wells Fargo attendant her son must not be that good. You wondered if she might get her revenge with a little face paint or a cheerleader's outfit. She'd talked of reserving another day for "swishy sweatsuit day."
"I ain't playing with him," she said of her son the basketball player. "He's going to be scared."
In fact, he laughed.
"She's crazy," Dhamir said about his mother. He just made it sound like a compliment, since he knows no journey is simple, even from 15 minutes away.