Friendship: The Promise

The strange sort-of love story of two South Philly basketball stars

HALF A DOZEN YEARS AGO, two 12-year-old boys met on a basketball court in South Philly. They were playing summer league in a magical summer, the one where the Sixers faced the Lakers in the NBA finals. It was a season of hope and possibility: You gotta believe!

Both boys had been born to teenage moms who named them for the fathers: They were Antonio Jardine Jr. and Richard Jackson Jr. But their moms and dads had drifted apart, and Antonio and Rick sought solace on playgrounds, with basketballs in hand. They were as different as two kids could be. Antonio was all hip-hop, cornrowed, trash-talking. Rick was quiet and dignified. Antonio hung with a bad crowd and flirted with danger. Rick steered clear. “We didn’t say much to each other,” Rick recalls of the boys’ first meeting. “We just played ball. And then, sometime, we started to talk.”

What they went on to forge in that hot blacktop summer was a bond that would defy all reason. What they found in one another was the sort of soul mate that’s the stuff of myth: David and Jonathan, Batman and Robin, Frodo and Sam. They swore they would stick together, no matter what. They pledged that when they were old enough, they’d try to get into Catholic League hoops powerhouse St. John Neumann High School. Sure enough, they both were accepted at the start of ninth grade. And that was when Antonio and Rick made The Promise.

It was Antonio who told the Neumann coach, Carl Arrigale, about it. “Me and Rick are gonna go to college together,” he announced their first year. And Coach … well, Coach has seen a lot of kids with hoop dreams. “I thought it was silly,” he says of the pact the boys made. Arrigale knows the way the world works. Basketball is a way out of the wasteland for maybe one boy in a million. What were the chances it would prove the way out for two?

THE WAY ANTONIO tells it, which is volubly, the same way he tells everything, he got his nickname, “Scoop,” within minutes of his birth. “When I came out,” he explains, “everybody was standing around, and Grandma was there, and my mom looked at her and could tell there was something wrong. Something wrong with my head. Grandma said, ‘His face looks like an ice-cream scoop.’” He likes telling this story. “I had my nickname before I even had a real name.”

There are souls who come into this world needy, and that’s what Scoop did, as concave as the kitchen utensil he was named for. Because of the fierce need inside him, he looks outward for acceptance and approval. Praise makes him bask; criticism crumbles him. As you watch him practice, he glances at you after every one of his shots: Did you see that? Scoop’s heart is on his sleeve.

Rick doesn’t have a good nickname story. He doesn’t even have a good nickname. You know because you ask him: “Do you have a nickname?” And he lowers his large head and meets your gaze and says, very patiently, “Rick is a nickname.”