SCOREBOARD Felton’s death finally brings closure

Tragedy of former Marist hoop star, dead at 27, makes everyone wonder ‘What if?’

It was the summer of 1999 and word had filtered down that James Felton, the former Marist High School All-State standout, had worn out his welcome at St. Peter’s College, after he failed to even show up for a final exam that was set up by then-SPC head basketball coach Rodger Blind.

Felton never played a minute for the Peacocks, but there were signs that he was about to turn the corner and put his perennially troubled and disturbed life on the straight and narrow. Felton was attending classes on a regular basis. He was doing well with his grades, even though he was going to school just a few blocks from the Booker T. Washington housing projects where he was raised.

Felton seemed to have put a severe drinking problem behind him, even though he once showed up for an unsupervised workout under the influence, an incident that ended with the troubled tower actually taking pokes at an SPC assistant coach and head coach Blind. It was also believed that the 6-10 Felton had solved his propensity for getting into trouble, clearing up an arrest warrant against him for trying to sell stolen property at a West Side Avenue pawn shop.

But all the demons that strangled James Felton for his entire life came storming back when he lied to Blind about taking that final exam, when in reality, Felton never even bothered to show up.

That was his last straw at SPC. Felton was sent packing, just like he was when he was given his walking papers after attending St. John’s and Florida State before ending up at Harvard on the Boulevard. After his brilliant high school career, one that earned him All-America status, one that saw him ranked among the top 50 players in the entire country, Felton attended five colleges in six years and couldn’t stick at any of them.

After that, there was an impromptu meeting on Montgomery Street between the tower of talent and the sportswriter who once coached him when he was a growing fifth grader.

“Hey, Mr. Hague, how are you doing?” Felton said, throwing his arms around me like he had done perhaps a hundred or so times before.

“James, I have to say I heard about what happened at St. Peter’s,” I said. “And that’s not good. How many more chances are you going to get?”

I then relayed a very cryptic prediction.

“You know, you’re a leader in the projects and they kill leaders,” I said. “Plus, with your size, you stand out like a sore thumb. Guns don’t care about size, James. Some little guy with a gun is going to take you out. I’m not going to be surprised if I open the papers one day and read your obituary. I tell you, I won’t be shocked.”

Felton then offered the same reply he always did, like the message didn’t register once again.

“I’ll be alright, Mr. Hague,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

Unfortunately, anyone who knew James Felton always worried about him.

And unfortunately, the prediction came true last weekend when James Felton was found dead in his Jersey City apartment. He was only 27 years old.

The cause of death wasn’t a gunshot. In fact, we may never know what actually caused Felton’s early demise. His wife found him dead in his bed Saturday night.

It could have been a diabetic episode. He might have drunk himself to death after apparently being depressed over the recent death of his grandmother. Felton was known to binge drink and drink heavily.

But we all knew that, for some reason, James Felton wasn’t long for this world. You wanted to be wrong, but you just knew that wasn’t going to be the case.

System let him down

Because this was a kid who was troubled for his entire life – and he never received the proper care and treatment that he deserved, all because he was a talented basketball player first and a sick kid second.

The system let James Felton down, back to the days when he was attending public school in Jersey City. He wasn’t properly diagnosed when he was a grade school student, just simply categorized as a special education student, and as emotionally disturbed. But some psychologists who were close to Felton believe that he was either clinically depressed, that he suffered from bipolar disorder, or that he was schizophrenic, suffering from multiple personalities.

Considering that I knew James from the age of 10, I believe the latter.

Although I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination and have no clinical degrees to make determinations, I truly believe that James had three different personalities – the affable, lovable smiling kid who embraced you and loved you unconditionally; the street-tough product of the projects who could turn on you in a second and become downright belligerent; and a pathological liar who would lie for the sake of lying.

But that mental illness wasn’t diagnosed when he was in grade school or when he enrolled at Dickinson High School, in a district that has hundreds of child psychologists and psychiatrists. He got pushed through the system because he could push an orange orb through a metal ring.

When Felton left Dickinson for Marist, the parochial school wasn’t equipped to determine Felton’s illness. He played basketball at Marist and played well, but he had his share of problems along the way.

While Felton was a senior at Marist, leading the Royal Knights to yet another HCIAA championship, he was scouted by then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino.

“I remember Rick Pitino telling me that James was one of the 10 most talented players he ever saw,” said Felton’s high school coach, Mike Leonardo. “Everyone would take the healthy and happy James. We spent a lot of time preaching to him what was wrong and what was right, and we definitely had our peaks and valleys.”

It had to be so frustrating to realize that this talented kid with the brightest of futures was going to do something to mess it all up.

“He had unbelievable potential,” said Darren Savino, who was an assistant coach at Marist and then helped to recruit Felton to attend St. John’s University. “As far as his basketball ability, he could have been an NBA player. He had size, skill, playing ability. He had it all.”

Needless to say, Jersey City native Savino was overjoyed when the coaching staff at St. John’s was able to secure the services of Felton. Imagine the Red Storm getting a player that Kentucky wanted. Felton was an amazing talent – a superb defensive forward with no peers, the ability to run the floor with ease and grace and having the soft hands of a masseuse.

But with the good came the bad – as it always did with Felton. In his first months at St. John’s, he missed the team flight to Puerto Rico for the season opening tournament. He then invited his friends to a team practice at Madison Square Garden, only to see the so-called “posse” ravage through the Knicks’ locker room, stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down.

The final straw came a few weeks later, when Felton sat on the floor of the Garden while the rest of his teammates were practicing hard. St. John’s head coach Fran Fraschilla asked Felton why he wasn’t practicing.

“I didn’t feel much like practicing today,” Felton told the coach.

He was shown the door before practice was over.

The next day, Lenn Robbins of the New York Post had an article quoting Felton that said that Felton was dismissed from the school for “failing a drug test.” Everyone who knew Felton, including yours truly, knew that James didn’t do drugs.

So the phone call went to the projects.

“James, what kind of drug test did you fail?” I asked.

“Marijuana,” he said.

Felton had no idea that the NCAA or St. John’s didn’t even test for marijuana, only cocaine at the time – and now steroids.

“Well, I didn’t want anyone to know the real reason,” Felton said.

So he lied to a reporter and told him that he failed a drug test? Instead of the fact that he was just a troubled kid? That was mind-boggling.

A few months after his dismissal from St. John’s, Felton resurfaced at Florida State, where he was so totally beloved by the head coach there, Leonard Hamilton. But the love affair between Hamilton and Felton didn’t last long. A VCR was missing. It was tied to Felton. Some players complained that money and things were missing from the locker room. Again, tied to Felton. Hamilton sent Felton back on a plane to the Jersey City projects.

From there, Felton was advised to enroll at Essex County Community College, just so he could get into another Division I school. It became St. Peter’s, but as we know, that didn’t work out.

The long and winding road of James Felton’s college basketball career ended in Teaneck, at Fairleigh Dickinson, where he finally got a chance to play. The head coach at FDU, Tom Green, gave Felton a last chance in a lifetime of last, last, last chances. Even there, Felton wasn’t without controversy. He was suspended by Green for the portion of one season and missed part of his second season with an injured foot.

But Felton managed to play 24 games in two seasons at FDU, seven one year, 17 the next. In 2001-02, Felton averaged 20.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per contest, earning the distinction of being among the best college players in New Jersey. He scored a career-high 41 points in a game against Long Island University, which was the single-game high for any New Jersey collegiate player that year.

It wasn’t the All-America status that he was destined for, but it was relative success, finally.

Incredibly, Felton told me after his stint at FDU that he had a chance to play professional basketball, that the Denver Nuggets were interested in his services. The first thought was that it was just another typical Felton lie. I shrugged it off, until I saw that Felton had sure enough emerged out of a free agent camp to attend training camp with the Nuggets.

Felton survived with the Nuggets for almost a month, before getting his release. However, his stint with the Nuggets drew attention from European scouts, who wanted to offer him a contract to play overseas. But Felton could never accept the contract to play in Europe, because he couldn’t secure a passport, due to an outstanding warrant for a prior robbery charge.

Felton’s basketball career ended there. He got a few jobs in recent years, including serving as a substitute teacher in the Jersey City school system, but the diabetes and drinking problems never subsided.

The tragic story came to an end last weekend and made everyone wonder, “What if?”

“I prefer to think of James with the bright smile and how he loved to laugh,” said Leonardo, who has now buried three of his former players before the age of 30. Roscoe Harris was murdered in 2001 and John Bennett was killed in a car accident year later. Now Felton.

“When things were right, he could carry a team,” Leonardo continued. “I always regretted that he never reached the expectations we had for him. He never got to where he could have been. He made a lot of bad choices in life, but he also made good ones. It’s just a time to feel such sorrow. I just pray I don’t get calls like this, because it brings such a deep level of sorrow. People always have asked me about James over the years, and I prayed he was alright.”

“It’s just awful,” said Savino, who is currently an assistant at Rutgers University. “Every time I think of James, I think of his potential. It’s a sad ending to someone who I truly thought could have made it to the next level. It’s always a tragedy when someone dies at a young age.”

FDU’s Green issued a statement through the school’s sports information office.

“I was totally shocked and disheartened after learning of the death of James,” Green said. “His wife and children certainly have my deepest sympathy.”

In this corner, the disheartened feeling is certainly there, but I can’t say that I was shocked when I received the call last weekend. I just wish I had been wrong this time. Way wrong.

And if there is any solace that can come out of this long, drawn-out tragedy, here’s to hoping that someone will recognize the wrong that was done to James Felton when he was a youngster and realize that he still might be with us if his illnesses were properly diagnosed and not swept under the rug because he could play basketball.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group