The father sits on his favorite couch. Every father should have a favorite couch. Louis Ford has delivered the mail for another day on the streets of Cambridge, Mass., and his walking shoes have been replaced by slippers. Home again. He is a tiny man with a spike of gray hair under his lower lip. He smokes a cigarette, relaxes. He is still dressed in his blue U.S. Postal Service uniform. The story begins at the end.
"Little Louis had to go to the bathroom," says the father.
Little Louis nods in agreement. He is seven years old and has eyes the size of golf balls. He lies at the foot of the couch, looking up at Dad. He has heard the story a few hundred times, but he does not mind hearing it again. Does not mind at all.
"Three seconds to go," says the father. "Rumeal is on the foul line for the national championship....
November 20, 1989
" 'Daddy, I got to pee.' "
The adopted twins, Tyrone and Ernie, are in another room. They, too, are seven years old. The father sometimes calls them Bert and Ernie. He also calls them the Devil and the Devil's Advocate. They are playing some kind of game. Their arguments can be heard in the distance. Christine, 14, is lying on the floor next to Little Louis. She also does not mind hearing the story again.
"So what can I do?" says the father. "I take Little Louis by the hand, and we go out through the exit. We hurry to the men's room. On the way, though, I see a television monitor. Se-ton Hall has called a timeout to try to make Rumeal nervous. We go to the bathroom. Seton Hall has called another timeout. We get Little Louis zipped up and we hurry back. Little Louis runs to the seat, and I'm just standing there in the exit. I see the first shot. I see the second shot. I see it all. Don't miss a thing."
Let's see. Melvin, 19, is playing basketball somewhere. Donald, 24, is out, but he had better trim those bushes in the front yard soon if he knows what's good for him. Randy, 18, out of high school last spring, is traveling, figuring out what his next step in life should be. Helen, the mother, moves back and forth between the living room and kitchen. Rumeal is back at Michigan.
That's Rumeal Robinson. His picture is on the wall next to the couch. It's a poster, really, a shot of him celebrating the grand moment when the game and the 1989 NCAA championship were won. A videotape of the entire final—Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79—is in the pile of tapes next to the TV. Helen has not watched it very often because she cries every time.
"That was the final blessing," says Louis, lost in the reminiscence. "I took Little Louis to the bathroom, and I still got to see those foul shots."
He shakes his head. Did all of this really happen?
The house is called the Ford Hotel, 11 rooms just off the quiet street. Donald gave it that name when he sat down for breakfast one morning and found himself next to yet another kid he didn't know. What is this, the Ford Hotel? The name stuck. The Ford Hotel. Kids always welcome.
In 1952 Louis came out of the Navy, bought the place for $7,900 and married a woman with four kids. The marriage was fine and easy, but then the kids grew up and the woman died of cancer in 1969. Four years later, Louis married Helen. She had two kids.
Two, of course, was not enough. Helen also liked kids. "She thinks the same way that I do," says Louis. "The door always has been open here. If a kid has a problem, if he needs a place to stay for a while, this is a place to come. We've had a lot of kids stay here for a while, calm down, find that their parents aren't such ogres after all, and go home. If you don't mind sleeping with someone else's foot in your face, you can stay here. We don't have a lot of rules. I don't believe in rules. I believe in talking, in love. Kids are a lot more intelligent than most adults realize. You can talk with kids. You don't have to agree with them, but you have to listen."
Rumeal was one of the first kids to arrive with a problem. He was quiet, shy, confused and only 12 years old. He arrived because Helen found him.
Helen is an active woman, a civic tornado, coaching teams, helping in organizations and working as a security guard at Rindge and Latin High. She heard reports about a child who was sleeping at night in the hallways of a local apartment complex. The kid had left home and was living on school lunches and whatever other meals he could find. He sounded like a character out of a Dickens novel.
Tipped off that he played basketball after school at Martin Luther King Grammar School, Helen appeared one afternoon in the middle of a game. There he was. She was surprised to find that she recognized him. He had played for one of her flag-football teams, but whenever she had looked at the team photo, he was the one kid whose name she didn't know. Who was this kid? She waited until there was a break between games and followed him to the water fountain.
"Hey, I know you," she said.
"I know you, too," the kid said.
"I hear you have a problem," she said. "How would you like to come to my house for dinner? We're having chicken."
News accounts have said that Rumeal was "abandoned" by his natural mother, but Louis says that term is too harsh. Rumeal was born in Jamaica and lived there with his grandmother for his first seven years while his mother worked in Massachusetts. His parents were separated before he was born. By the time his mother sent for him, she had become a stranger, and even now the circumstances of her life remain a mystery to him. He had grown used to a lenient lifestyle at his grandmother's house. His mother wanted a stricter environment. They fought. He left to live with foster parents. He came back. He and his mother fought again. He left again.
He evinced a determination, even at that tender age, that seemed unique. He knew what he wanted. He was fearless. He did what he thought was right.
"We had some cross words once, maybe a couple of months after he came to live with us," says Louis. "I don't know what we were arguing about. It was nothing. But he says to me, just like this, 'I'll leave if you want.' I said to myself, Whoa, back off. This kid is different."
The Ford Hotel was exactly what the kid needed. He fell into the old house's rhythms, especially in sports. He played basketball on the dirt court in the front yard, where the rim was attached to a large oak tree. The kids didn't do much dribbling because of the rocks, so everybody charged at the hoop for layups. Donald would scream to his mother to come out and watch. Then he would roll past the new kid and dunk. Soon, the new kid started working on that.
Days and weeks and months accumulated at the Ford Hotel. The kid never left. He grew more confident and open as time passed. He drew a picture of Dopey of the Seven Dwarfs one day in the kitchen and presented it to Helen. She put it on the side of the refrigerator and has never taken it down.
"Finally, we decided to adopt him," says Louis. "I sat him down and explained what we wanted to do. He asked if he would have to change his name. I told him no, that he had a fine name. He said he liked it, too, but if we wanted him to change, he would. We said no."
In Cambridge, basketball was important during much of this time because Patrick Ewing was from the neighborhood. First he was leading Rindge and Latin High to one state championship after another, and then he was at college, leading Georgetown to the NCAA title. Everyone was playing basketball. Helen knew Ewing, and sometimes she would visit his mother. Sometimes she would bring along Rumeal. He would stare at the trophies.
When Georgetown won the national championship, in 1984, she talked with the mayor of Cambridge and suggested that the town hold a Patrick Ewing Day, with a parade. The mayor asked her to plan the festivities. "I became the Cambridge expert on parades," she says. "How was I to know that someday I'd be planning one for my own son?"
There were signs. When Louis headed to work every morning at 5 a.m., 15-year-old Rumeal would be coming through the front door, back from running—along the Charles River, through the courtyards of MIT, around the fringes of Harvard, all the while wearing a 40-pound vest. He played basketball nonstop. Rindge and Latin would win another state championship, this time with a guard, not a seven-foot center, as its star.
"All of us say we want to do something," says Louis. "We have dreams. We just don't have the determination to follow them out. This kid always did."
The press conference was held at the Seattle Kingdome the day before the Final Four began. Rumeal spoke amiably about Michigan's grand rise through the tournament under interim coach Steve Fisher; about Illinois, the Wolverines' semifinal opponent; about basketball. Following the session, he stood among a group of inquiring reporters who wanted to know more. "Where do you come from?" one of them asked.
"Cambridge, Mass.," replied Rumeal.
"What does your father do for a living?" the reporter asked.
One question brought another, and somehow the whole tale was told: sleeping in the hallways, moving into the Ford Hotel, being adopted. Dozens of fingers typed. Wasn't this wonderful? Columnist Michael Madden of The Boston Globe finished his account by describing how Helen (and Little Louis) would be sitting in the Kingdome, watching the games, while Louis would be back home in Cambridge, on his couch in front of the television, because the family didn't have enough money to send him across the country.
The phones at the Globe started ringing. A lawyer from nearby Hopkinton called the Globe. He had read Madden's story and wanted to send Louis to the Final Four. Another man called from Wellesley. Another from Dedham. Another from Cambridge. Soon the paper had received six offers to send Louis to Seattle. A copyboy put the six men on a conference call, and they decided to split the cost. The lawyer also found Louis tickets to the games.
Trouble was, it was Saturday, and the semifinal against Illinois was that afternoon. Louis had heard none of these plans. Where was he? The Globe contacted his supervisors at the post office, who found him out on his route. They plucked him off the street, stopped at the Ford Hotel long enough for him to pick up a bag Christine had packed while Louis was being found, and hurried him to the airport. He missed one flight at noon but caught another an hour later. He was in a happy cloud.
"I was hoping to get there for the second half," he says. "But the plane was delayed a little. The pilot put the game on the radio. Illinois was leading."
Louis walked off the plane and didn't know what to expect. A man was waiting with a sign that read LOUIS FORD. Louis said that he was Mr. Ford. The man led him to a white limousine the size of an ocean liner. Louis started to sit in the front seat. The man offered him a seat in the back. Louis had ridden in a limousine before, but nothing like this.
"There was this music playing on the radio," says Louis. "I suppose I should have asked the man to turn to the game, but he was so far away I don't think he could have heard me. There even might have been a television in the back. I didn't know. I was new to all of this."
He arrived at the Kingdome as the crowd was leaving, still wearing his mailman's uniform underneath a Michigan jacket Rumeal had given him. He asked the people who were leaving who had won. Someone said, "You're wearing the right jacket."
"I was lost," says Louis. "I didn't know what to do next. I had a couple of bucks in my pocket, but I didn't even know where the hotel was. The limo was gone. I was just standing there, and I heard this voice. It was Helen."
By the time the final against Seton Hall began, two nights later, the tale of Louis's trip had spread. Helen had been made an honorary member of the Michigan cheerleading squad. Louis was a face for the CBS cameras. What is the network term—the story line? Helen and Louis were a big part of the story line.
They sat with Little Louis and watched the game go back and forth, always close, on the Kingdome floor. Rumeal was one of the ringmasters of the show, the point guard, in absolute command. He would finish with 21 points and 11 assists. Early in the second half he unloaded a dunk that would have looked fine on the dirt in Cambridge. Take that, Donald. The night before, Helen dreamed that the championship game would come down to the final seconds and Rumeal would cut through everyone to dunk for the winning basket.
"Only, I had it wrong," she says. "The game came down to Rumeal. But he was shooting foul shots."
Seton Hall's John Morton missed a jumper with 12 seconds left. Glen Rice of Michigan grabbed the rebound and passed to Rumeal. There was never a doubt in Rumeal's mind about what he was going to do. Determination always has been his strength—and, his coaches sometimes say, his weakness. He will do what he is going to do. He dribbled the length of the floor. Driving toward the hoop, he collided with the Pirates' Gerald Greene. Charge—Robinson? Foul—Greene? Referee John Clougherty pointed at Greene. Rumeal was on the line. Three seconds remained. One free throw to tie, one more to win.
Helen began to cry and said she could not watch. Little Louis tugged at his father's sleeve.
The street was known as Norfolk Place when Robinson first arrived. It has been renamed Rumeal Robinson Place by the city of Cambridge. Looking for the Ford Hotel? It is located at 2 Rumeal Robinson Place. The parade has been held. Rumeal has shot free throws in the White House Rose Garden, re-creating the moment. He made one shot and then gave the ball to the President.
"Did you see that?" says Helen. "Bush threw up a brick. Lefty. And it went in. He was so happy."
Four starters are back at Michigan, and Rumeal is the name at the top of the marquee, the senior leader of the national champions. Memories of his freshman year, when he was scholastically ineligible to play, are long gone. He needs only 18 credits to graduate with his class with a degree in sports management and communications. He undoubtedly will be chosen in the first round of the NBA draft.
Helen plans to go to Ann Arbor for some games, but she will also be at Rindge and Latin to watch Melvin, a senior. Melvin is also adopted. Louis is back on the job, of course, delivering another day's mail, and now he wears Rumeal's NCAA championship ring on his left hand. Rumeal's high school championship ring is on his right. He never removes either, not even when he sleeps.
"How do I feel about these rings?" he says. "How'd you feel if your son ripped out his heart and handed it to you?"
The sentimental glow of the events of last spring does not go away. "I've always thought that if you do good for other people, then sometime the good will be returned to you," says Louis. "Well, I've had mine. That was my reward. Nothing could be better—nothing."
Louis also says the Ford Hotel is becoming a little too quiet. He would like to hear the sounds of an adopted baby. A baby would give the place some life. Helen doesn't know whether she wants to adopt again.
"We'll talk," he says. "You'd like a baby. Just one more."
Helen says they will talk.