A top reporter and storyteller, Eli Saslow was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature writing two weeks ago for his story about a struggling swimming pool salesman.Today, in the latest installment of our Annotation Tuesday! series, we’re looking at another of Saslow’s pieces, one that he wrote for ESPN The Magazine, about Rumeal Robinson, a former University of Michigan and pro basketball player serving time for basically conning his mother out of her own house. Storyboard’s questions and remarks are inblue, Saslow’s in red. A few questions, to start:
Storyboard: How did you come upon this story and why did you want to tell it?
Saslow: This idea actually came from a very good editor who I work with at the magazine, Paul Kix. When he started explaining the story to me, I knew right away that I wanted to write it. It is surprising and tragic, with loads of tension. So all of that was appealing. Also, it was a chance to write a little bit more of a reconstructed narrative, which I hadn’t done in a while.
You’ve been writing about politics and the economy a good bit lately. What is it like to switch over to sports? Is a narrative a narrative?
I started as a sports writer at The Washington Post, and then I switched to politics/economy/etc., so it is fun to occasionally write about sports again. The truth is, I think it is all pretty much the same. Good narratives are mostly about people, and what they do is pretty secondary. Athletes, politicians, anonymous people—if you can get to a level of intimacy, they are all equally good, worthy topics. I was terrified when I first switched from writing about sports to politics in 2007, but about a year in, I realized the two topics were much of the same: people who were hard to access, and who cared a lot about winning.
What are you reading these days? And what, if anything, do you read to get you in the zone to write?
I’ve been trying to read a lot more fiction lately—a New Year’s resolution, since I’m usually bad at it. My wife reads a ton, so mostly I’m reading whatever she passes my way when she’s done. Lately that’s been The Burgess Boys, the new book by Elizabeth Strout (great characters, so sad); Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (vivid and awesome); Prep (I’m about five years late); and Gone Girl (yes, again, from my wife—and also super entertaining). To get into the mood to write, I go back to some of the same people whose narrative work I admire, and many of whom work or worked at the Washington Post: David Finkel, Anne Hull, Kate Boo, etc. So many great writers to choose from.
What’s the best narrative advice anyone ever gave you?
Stay until you have the story. Good narratives are all about reporting—about observation and detail, and reporting long enough to watch a story play out.
What, if anything, did you learn from doing this story?
I knew this in some ways before, but the court records were a narrative treasure trove for this story. I called down to the court in Iowa, and a few weeks later I had boxes and boxes of transcripts. All of the primary characters in the story had testified, and the details and the dialogue in that box did more to help tell this story than any other method of reporting.
“Bringing Down the House”
August 13, 2012
ESPN The Magazine
By Eli Saslow
HELEN FORD DRIVES to the house from memory, parks along the curb and idles in her car. Past or present tense are always a choice for the narrative writer, as are first, second (risky!) and third person. How did you decide to tell this in the present tense? It is weird, and probably stereotypical, but I tend to default to past tense for newspaper stories at the Post and present tense in magazine stories for ESPN. Not sure why, really. A good friend told me recently, though, that present tense can make a story feel a little more alive. I think that’s right. Also, in this story, starting in present tense helped distinguish reporting done in the present moment, versus all the reconstruction to come. This three-story duplex in Cambridge, Mass., had been her home for 40 years, but now she wonders whether she has the courage to enter. She turns on the radio and takes out a crossword puzzle. “I don’t know if I’m ready to do this,” she says. You’re with Ford, in the car, right? Her return is key to the whole piece, so it’s huge that you were present. How did you make sure that happened? Yes, I was in the car. I timed my trip around her return to the house. She knew she was going to go see it with the lawyer in a few weeks, so I waited until she was going on her own and went with her then. If she hadn’t been going on her own, I would not have taken her there. I feel pretty strongly that you can’t manufacture scene in a narrative story and pass it off as genuine observation. That’s a lie. It’s a little like narrative plagiarism. So, I waited until she was going on her own, and I planned my trip around that.
It has been more than two years since she was last here – two years since her famous son betrayed her and the foreclosure specialists arrived with moving trucks. She fixates on the house during the long nights alone in her one-bedroom apartment, dreaming about all the good memories and waking every few hours because of the bad.
“I have to see it,” she says now. Helen turns off the radio and walks to the house. “The only way I’ll ever move on is by getting back in there.” A blue padlock is on the front door that she had once been too trusting to lock. This sentence says much with little. A sign that reads “Danger: No Playing” is planted in the front yard, where she had hosted graduation parties for her children — four of her own, four adopted and at least 30 foster kids. Cigarette butts and half-empty beer cans litter the makeshift basketball court, where one of those children had turned into a star. You delay identifying the son gone bad. Why? Talk, if you would, about how withholding information can serve narrative. I think sometimes holding back on information for a few beats can help build tension, especially by foreshadowing that “one of those children turned into a star.” Now, I hope, a reader is wondering: Who? Why? What happened? And they are making an investment in reading the next paragraph, and then the next.
Helen’s lawyer, Dennis Benzan, stands on the front steps, waiting to greet her. The house belongs to the bank now, and Helen doesn’t have the authority to enter alone. Benzan punches numbers into the padlock, then turns toward his client.
“Technically, I should tell you that we are going to be trespassing,” he says. Interesting! What qualms did you have about this? I didn’t, really. We were with the lawyer. It had been her house. It felt like a minor offense, but it was interesting to me because it reinforced how much Helen had lost, and how infuriating that must be for her. He asks Helen if she’d wear a mask to protect herself from dust and mold, but she waves him off.
“This is my house,” she says. “I can handle it.”
Helen steps through the door. A blast of cold, stale air stops her at the entryway. “Dear god,” she says. The house is dark. The objects take form slowly, and at first they don’t make sense: clothes, furniture and garbage strewn about the living room floor. Tattered mattresses. Broken champagne bottles. A Fisher-Price basketball hoop flipped on its side. Tiles have been stripped from the kitchen. Graffiti covers the walls. Basketball trophies that were once part of her children’s Wall of Fame are piled in a trash can near the door.
“The squatters got to everything,” Benzan says.
“Yes, I see,” Helen responds.
Only one item remains untouched, high on the living room wall: A poster of Rumeal Robinson in his University of Michigan uniform, dribbling. His lips are pursed. His eyes look downcourt confidently. A message scrawled near the top of the picture says, “Our Rumeal.” Flawless detail. Observation/detail are so important in narrative. Did you know this would be a linchpin when you saw it? I knew right away in the house that the poster would be important, and I knew that this scene would be where I started the story. That inscription on the poster says so much without ME having to say it. My stories tend to work so much better when the reported details tell the story for me, instead of when I’m left to make grand pronouncements or assumptions. I don’t do that too well.
Our Rumeal: Helen’s greatest pride, the boy she took in off the street at age 10, who later earned a college scholarship, hit the winning free throws in the 1989 NCAA championship game, joked with a president at the White House and bought his mother a Mercedes and a mink coat. Lovely collapsing of time—a life in a graf. His success persuaded Helen to devote her life to helping more children. She once petitioned the city to rename her street in his honor, calling it Rumeal Robinson Way.
Our Rumeal: Helen’s greatest disappointment, the child who burned through his millions, broke the law and executed a series of scams that resulted in his mother’s eviction and homelessness at age 65. His failure has left her riddled with self-doubt. She later petitioned the city to rename the street again, to anything else, so long as “they get his name off of it.” This bright side/dark side repetition is so effective and does so much work in such a tight space—how did you arrive at it? I knew the story would be about this contrast, so I knew I had to tease both in this first section. Sometimes parallel structure is a way to do that pretty easily. It also allowed me to play on the poster inscription.
Helen turns away from the living room now and walks out of the house.
“I’ve seen enough,” she says. Did you automatically know that you had to open the piece with this scene of ruin? Play around with any other openings? I knew this was the opening. It was also probably the easiest part of the story to write, because it was present moment, and I had observed it all. I knew I wanted the piece to start in the present moment and then go backward, and having Helen visit the house allowed me to tease out a lot of the big themes in the first 500 words.
It was the fall of 1977. Helen and Lou Ford had recently lost their 2-month-old son to spina bifida when an employee at the local grammar school called to tell them about Rumeal Robinson, a homeless Jamaican boy on the school basketball team. Who better to ask for help than the couple everyone referred to as Ma Ford and Uncle Lou? Lou was a Cambridge letter carrier who also owned a bar, and he knew every adult in town. Helen was a cheerleading coach and a school security guard, and she knew all of the kids. They lived with two sons, ages 11 and 6, and they hosted so many parties at their duplex near Central Square that neighbors referred to the place as the Ford Hotel.
“Maybe you can do something for this boy,” the school employee said.
The next day, Helen drove to the elementary school and met with Robinson after basketball practice. He seemed unusually serious for a 10-year-old, she thought, and he spoke dispassionately about his problems. He told Helen that his mother had moved to the United States when he was a toddler, leaving him in Jamaica with impoverished grandparents who often let him roam unsupervised and sleep on the beach. They had recently put him on a plane for Boston to be reunited with his mother. When he arrived, she had yelled at Rumeal for being in her way; he had chafed at her strictness. “I can get by on my own,” he told Helen. “She doesn’t want me.” Narrative journalists often talk about how to handle recreated dialogue. What’s your working philosophy? Do you take the interviewee’s word for what was said or use quotation marks only if you’ve double-sourced the content, or does it vary from story to story? Or something else? I only use quotation marks if I have double-sourced the content. Usually, I’m lucky, and I’m writing observed narratives where I am only quoting things that I heard. But in this story I had to use some recruited dialogue. In this case, the dialogue from Rumeal was double-sourced with newspaper stories from earlier in his life, and with Helen.
He had been sleeping in the halls of the Peabody Terrace apartment complex for the past two weeks, wearing the same sweater and subsisting on leftover school lunches and dry cereal. Winter was approaching, and the hallway was drafty at night. He missed the warm evenings on the beach in Jamaica. “It gets a little cold, but I’m fine,” he told her.
Helen had been a victim of an unstable childhood herself. Lovely handling of the exposition of Helen’s past, which gives us a deeper sense of her motivation. Her mother died during the birth of one of Helen’s younger siblings, and Helen was rotated from one relative to the next. She had embarked on motherhood with the motto “Children need stability.” So on that day, without a moment’s hesitation, she took Rumeal back to her house, made him fried chicken and called the police to explain the situation. She told Rumeal he would share a room with her eldest son, Donald, and that he would stay with them for a little while.
Rumeal was polite and grateful but at first kept mostly to himself. Within a few weeks, though, in his bedroom he began to create whimsical drawings of his new family; the pictures would then appear on the family fridge, where everyone could see and praise them. Soon enough, Rumeal went from calling Helen “ma’am” to “Mrs. Ford” to “Ms. Helen” and finally, just before the holidays, “Mom.” Another great time collapse—and oddly visual. For Christmas, she bought him an entire wardrobe: 6 sweaters, 13 pairs of pants and 3 pairs of basketball shorts. “I’ve never gotten this much before,” he said. A short time later, Helen and Lou decided to adopt Rumeal.
The Fords liked the laughter and energy created by a crowd of children. Soon, they wanted more. Helen registered to become an emergency-placement foster parent. For most of the next decade, she and Lou cared for a dozen foster kids at a time, toddlers and teenagers, some who stayed for a few days and others who never left. Lou bought the other side of the duplex and knocked down the center wall to double their space. He tore out the carpet in the living room so the kids could ride their bikes and skateboards inside the house during the winter. He attached a basketball rim to the old oak tree in the front yard, where dribbling was optional during pickup games because of the uneven dirt. They bought other hoops for inside the house; scuff marks covered the walls. “It’s a house for kids,” Helen would say. “Let them have their fun.” How did you report this story? You spent how much time with Helen Ford—and what else? I spent a lot of time with Helen, but I also visited with lawyers, many of Rumeal’s friends and several of Helen’s other children—the people who lived in the house during this time. And then, for the second half of the story, the court records were a massive help.
Lou filled one bedroom with four refrigerators — one for milk, one for juice, one for meat and one for produce — so the kids could always help themselves. Great detail—did that come naturally in her telling? I don’t remember exactly, but I am sure it came from asking pretty pressing details about that time in their lives. Sometimes, during an interview like this, a subject can be confused as to why you want so much detail, so I tell them: I’m trying to do justice to your story by writing it exactly as it was, and it is the details that make it real to people. Explaining why you want to know something gives you a little more latitude to press again and again for specifics. It can also make a subject feel like a collaborator in a small way in the reporting, and they work hard to remember and recall details. Also, Helen and I spent a lot of time looking at old pictures of that time, which was useful mainly because it jogged her memory, and got her talking about certain stories or moments she would not have recalled otherwise. Helen cooked for 15 every night, adding water to her soups Great acute detail. and preparing five pounds Ditto. of meat at a time. Guests were given two instructions: Announce yourself when you come in, then make yourself at home.
“If we had a castle and unlimited money,” Helen says, “we probably would have had 100 kids living in there.”
There was Randy, Helen’s son from an earlier marriage, who became a record-setting track star. There was his high school rival, Lazar, who had a falling-out with his parents and needed a place to stay. There was Dawn, a white girl from the neighborhood who showed up at school with bruises on her arm. There was Louis Jr., the state’s player of the year in basketball. There were Tyrone and Ernie, the rambunctious twins from New York. You may have covered this in the how-reported answer but were you able to use foster care records or other documents? Yes. I was able to get those, and they were a big help. I don’t think I’ve ever written a story that relied this much on records.
Then there was Rumeal, the budding athlete, the center of the Fords’ orbit, the emergency-placement case that led to all the rest.
EVERYONE NOTICED HIS WORK ETHIC before anything else. On weekday mornings during high school, Robinson would strap on a 40-pound vest and run five miles along the Charles River. His coach at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, Mike Jarvis, challenged him to do 100 pushups and sit-ups each day; he did 500 of each instead. He went to Michigan on a recruiting trip and spent most of his time working out with the track coach, quizzing him about ways to improve a vertical jump.
“He worked as hard as any player I’ve known,” says Jarvis, who went on to become a head coach at four colleges. “I can think of two other guys I coached, Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan, who were in Robinson’s class as far as work ethic.”
Rumeal already looked like a professional athlete by his sophomore year of high school in 1984, with his broad shoulders and barrel chest. He played with a different style from most other point guards: less calculation and finesse, more brute strength and aggressiveness. Did you watch tapes? I did watch tapes. I also talked to several of his old coaches—and people who coached against him. Helen sometimes gave him coaching advice at the dinner table: “Go hard to the hoop and stop shooting from so far away.”
Helen and Lou saved money to send their son to five-star basketball camps. Helen rearranged her schedule to attend his games. Rumeal’s birth mother came to one of them during his senior year. She made such a scene in the stands — Helen remembers her repeatedly yelling, “That’s my son!” — that a security guard removed her from the game. Rumeal sought out Helen at halftime, scoreless and distraught, desperate for counsel. “Don’t worry about her,” Helen told him. “Focus on what you have now, on your family and basketball.”
And so he did. He averaged 18 points as a senior and led Rindge & Latin to a high school state championship. In the spring of 1986, he accepted a basketball scholarship to Michigan.
During the 1988-89 season, with Robinson a top scorer and team leader, the Wolverines made it to the Final Four in Seattle. Lou and Helen couldn’t both afford to go, so Helen traveled to the West Coast alone. The next day, friends started up a collection for Lou, picked him up in the middle of his mail route, took him to the airport in a limo and paid for his ticket to Seattle. *sniffle* He arrived in time to see Helen onstage at the pep rally before the championship game against Seton Hall, leading 2,500 Michigan fans in a cheer. *sniffle*
Helen and Lou watched Robinson score 14 of his 21 points in the first half. Then with three seconds left in overtime and his team trailing by one, Robinson drove hard to the basket, just as Helen had always instructed. Seton Hall’s Gerald Greene bumped the point guard’s shoulder, resulting in a two-shot foul. One shot to tie. One more to win.
Seton Hall called a timeout to try to force Robinson to consider the stakes. Robinson had been in a similar situation earlier in the season against Wisconsin and missed both free throws, so he had taken at least 100 foul shots during every practice since. Now he blew the sweat off his fingers Great detail—how’d you get? CBS showed this in the “One Shining Moment” video that year, so I watched that a bunch, which didn’t really feel like work. Who doesn’t love watching One Shining Moment? and stepped to the line. Helen and Lou held hands. Also great—how’d you get? Helen’s recollection, and news articles from the time of the game.
Swish. Robinson raised his right fist in triumph. A referee threw him the ball again. The arena was silent now. Robinson lofted his second shot. Swish again.
Seton Hall’s last-second attempt hit the backboard and nothing else, and Helen and Lou jumped from their seats as confetti fell from the ceiling. Gorgeous sentence. They fought through the crowd to hug their son. They listened to his postgame news conference; when a reporter asked what he had been thinking about on the free throw line, he said simply, “I was thinking of my parents a lot.”
A few months later, Cambridge organized a city parade in Robinson’s honor. The mayor declared it Rumeal Robinson Day. The high school hung his jersey from the rafters. Hundreds of people lined the streets, and Robinson and his parents rode the parade route in the mayor’s convertible. They drove to City Hall for a brief ceremony, and the three of them stood next to each other on the steps.
In the year to come, Robinson would re-create his winning free throws in the White House Rose Garden, then toss the ball to President George H.W. Bush and say, “C’mon man, you can take a shot.” He would grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, become the 10th pick in the NBA draft, move to a mansion in Atlanta and buy each of his parents a Rolex and a new Mercedes-Benz. You’ve got some mojo going on here because at this point we’re thinking back to that opening scene and wondering how this could’ve gone so wrong. Structurally, this is pretty much straight chronology with a present-day opening and a lingering mystery about what’s become of Robinson. Did you play with structures at all? This seemed like the natural structure from the beginning—start in the present moment, and then go with straight chronology. It is definitely simple, but I also think that structure is usually pretty effective.
But first, on the steps of Cambridge City Hall, Rumeal handed Lou his NCAA championship ring and wrapped his parents in an embrace.
“You guys didn’t give me my second chance,” he told them. “You gave me my only chance.”
ROBINSON LEFT FOR ATLANTA in the summer of 1990, after signing a four-year contract worth $4.3 million, and some friends from Cambridge came along. He agreed to launch a record label with them, just because he had always loved music. He invited a new girlfriend in Georgia to move into his spacious home, then extended the offer to his hairdresser too. He had the same craving as his parents: He wanted a crowded house, bustling with activity.
They went out as a group for $500 dinners at steak houses. He attended a boxing match as the special guest of promoter Don King. He sent gaudy bouquets of roses to Helen on her birthday and fancy chocolates to the house on Easter, but his calls home became increasingly infrequent. “He was never a big talker, and I thought he was just a grown man living his life,” Helen says. “But we heard rumors about him blowing his money.”
Early in Rumeal’s second season with the Hawks, Helen asked her son Randy, the track star, to move in with his brother and bring order to his life. Randy went to Atlanta and discovered a mansion with a guesthouse and a garage filled with two Porsches, two Mercedes and a few motorcycles. Then he opened Robinson’s mail and noticed nobody had been paying the electric bill. The power company wanted $2,400 or it would turn off his lights. Randy ordered his brother to pay it.
Still, there was no slowing Robinson’s spending. How were you able to source all the financial details? Court records detailed this stuff for hundreds of pages, so in the end it was a matter of choosing which details to include. He invited people to the house for what he called “business meetings” a few times each week, and he made deals for Atlanta real estate, music equipment and designer dogs. He hired a fashion consultant to build his wardrobe as well as an interior designer to work on his house. Sometimes, Randy says, Robinson handed his employees blank checks, trusting them to pay themselves. One contractor stole his dogs and relocated her business to another state using Robinson’s money.
He had never been a drinker, but he threw parties to show off his house and cars. He paid for friends to fly in and visit for a night. Late one morning during the off-season, three of his guests woke up in Robinson’s house expecting to have breakfast with him. They couldn’t find him anywhere, so Randy called his cellphone.
“Where are you?” he asked Robinson.
“I’m out in Brazil,” he said, explaining that he had bought the ticket on a whim the night before. As you do. What surprised you most about this story? What was the biggest challenge in reporting/writing it? The biggest challenge was trying to address why Rumeal did this, because nobody really seemed to know. The simple answer was that he got in over his head and became financially desperate. But trying to understand the reason behind the betrayal was the hardest and least satisfying part of reporting.
Meanwhile, Robinson’s play suffered. He occasionally slept through his morning workouts and started to gain weight. He averaged just 5.6 points and 2.8 assists as a rookie in 1990-91. He improved those numbers to 13 points and 5.5 assists during his second season, but his maddening inconsistency made coaches eager to trade him. Robinson drifted to five teams during four more NBA seasons. He almost never started. He played in the CBA and Europe. In 1997, when he was making nearly $1 million as a benchwarmer for the Lakers, American Express sued him for unpaid debts. In 1998, he filed for bankruptcy, and a court forgave his liabilities to three creditors.
He moved to Miami after his retirement in 2002 and lived in a condo on Williams Island, near the opulent homes of Sammy Sosa, Missy Elliott and Whitney Houston. Okay this may sound naïve but how on earth, if he’d declared bankruptcy? Good question. Bankruptcy usually limits what you own—your assests, and since he rented the place on Williams Island it wouldn’t have counted against him in a bankruptcy hearing. Still, he is a very different type of bankruptcy case. I spent a few days once in Michigan listening to bankruptcy hearings for a story for The Post, and those people were in tattered shirts and mismatched shoes. Not Rumeal. He started a real-estate development company with plans to attract investors and build a resort called Harmony Cove on 25,000 acres in his Jamaican hometown. He met a stripper named Stephanie Hodge, who had recently dated former Miami Heat forward Chris Gatling; Robinson hired her as his office manager. She was compensated with a company Mercedes and a salary of $150,000. We’re in the wrong business, dude. Pretty good job. But, then again, she did have to live with Rumeal, who was in the process of fleecing his mom. Point.
Robinson’s real estate business never made any money, he would testify, and he never filed tax returns. But he was accomplished at attracting investors. It was something of an obsession — “Rumeal talks about deals all the time, left and right, all day long,” Hodge would later say — and he borrowed money from anyone he could: businessmen from Michigan who remembered his free throws, relatives in Cambridge, loan sharks, a WNBA player. Great details—how’d you get? Court records. Many of these people testified.
Although Robinson and his partners traveled to Jamaica and regularly stayed at five-star hotels, they never made any progress building their own. He focused more on what he bought, turning his life into a constant spending spree. Three family members flew to Florida on separate occasions, witnessed his extravagance and asked him to stop. Each time he turned sullen and defensive, they say. “I have billions coming to me in business deals,” he told them.
Randy blamed stubbornness and stupidity for his brother’s money troubles: “He thought he was like an international deal maker.” Perhaps, but money had also become his identity. Great insight—how did you decide to make this almost psychological declaration and the one that follows? Is this Helen’s POV or yours, or both? This is Helen’s, but it is more mine than anything else in the story. I tend to prefer subtlety in my writing, sometimes to a fault, and at a few points in this story the ESPN editors pushed me to be a little more forceful in describing what we were seeing. Money distanced him from the memories of the 10-year-old boy who had wandered the halls of an apartment complex with nothing to eat and nowhere to go. “He had come from nothing, and now he couldn’t get enough,” Helen says.
His monthly credit card bills, according to court records, testified to his wanton excess:
Rodeo of New York: $2,050. Coco Cigar: $794. Bodega: $1,491. Louis Vuitton: $1,990. Biltmore Golf Course: $1,592. Circuit City: $14,257. “Laptops,” Robinson later testified.
Bed Bath & Beyond: $1,449. “That might have been a gift,” he said.
Pottery Barn: $2,920. “Just spent some money,” he said. “I don’t know what Pottery Barn is.”
Love how you did this, the repetition of following the line item with an explainer quote. How’d that come to you?
I love short, punchy sentences and paragraphs. Every once in a while, they can be so good for the pacing of the story. And his quotes are just so silly and hilarious. In the trail transcript, this exchange—prosecutor reads charge, Rumeal responds—went on for pages and pages, and I guess I wanted a few beats in the story, to mimic that.
Robinson developed a habit of spending himself into debt every few months, then seeking a major loan to cover his expenses. He borrowed several thousand dollars as many as 10 times from a Florida foreclosure specialist named Rick Preston, who charged him 14 percent to 18 percent interest.
Sometime in 2002 or 2003, Robinson approached Preston about another deal. Would the foreclosure specialist, he asked, have any interest in acquiring an old house near the heart of Cambridge, at 2 Rumeal Robinson Way?
ROBINSON FLEW HOME and showed his mother a series of drawings that he described as architectural plans for Harmony Cove in Jamaica. Lou had handled the couple’s money, but he had died of dementia the previous year. Helen listened as Rumeal said he needed her help to develop Harmony Cove.
“I’m not a rich woman,” Helen told him.
She owned it outright, but Robinson asked her to take out a new loan against the home’s equity. Robinson said he would take that money and use it to fund the project in Jamaica. He said he’d pay her new mortgage. In return, he promised to make Helen an investor in the project. “This could make you a rich woman,” he said. If all went well, he said, she would make $5 million within a few years.
Helen thought the Harmony Cove design looked nice, with its imaginary trees, hotels and casinos. But she didn’t understand the finances; Lou had bought their house in 1951 for less than $8,000 and made the payments himself. She had never dealt with any of it.
“Okay, sure; I trust you,” she told Rumeal. “You’re my son. I’m your mother. Okay.”
On June 16, 2003, Robinson sent Preston to Cambridge to take care of the paperwork. Helen had never met him, but she insisted that he stay at her home. He took her to the city courthouse, where Helen thought she was agreeing to a loan for her son. Instead, she later testified, she unwittingly sold her home. She signed a deed that gave ownership of the house to Preston. Then she went with Preston to the bank, where she thought that the roughly $250,000 she received was a loan. It was, in fact, her proceeds from the sale.
She unknowingly signed over the money to Preston, she says, thinking it would go to the construction of Harmony Cove. “I really just signed here, do this, that, and I was just going through the motions,” she says now. (In court testimony, Preston said that Ford knew she was selling her home.)
During the next few years, Robinson and his friends flipped the house twice in a scheme that grew to involve bankers and housing appraisers throughout the country. Each time, Robinson and his friends made thousands in profits from the sale — money allegedly intended for Harmony Cove but instead wasted on motorcycles and spent paying off other debts.
Preston first sold the house for more than $600,000 to Jorge Rodriguez, a business associate of Robinson’s, who had also obtained $150,000 for the Jamaican development from his mother-in-law. Rodriguez then sold the house to Stephen Hodge, 19, the brother of Robinson’s girlfriend in Miami. Hodge was an unemployed Iraq veteran who lived in Hawaii, but according to court records he managed to secure a loan to buy the house for $1 million. In your reporting, did you get into the intricacies of how these deals worked? This seems emblematic of what’s going on in the country right now w/r/t predatory lending and underwater mortgages—or no? Yes, very emblematic, which is one of the reasons the story appealed to me in the first place. And this stuff is SUPER confusing. It is easy to see how Helen could have been hoodwinked. It took me a lot of research and several conversations with lawyers to understand the intricacies of this stuff, and much of it was too in the weeds to include in the story. But, like always in reporting, I had to understand it fully to know which parts to include and leave out.
Robinson had kept up with the loan payments on the house for a time by borrowing from other investors, still convinced that he could eventually make back the cash in Harmony Cove, but the project never earned him a dollar. “I don’t think Rumeal ever believed Helen would actually lose the house, but he was operating in denial,” says Benzan, Helen’s lawyer. “He couldn’t keep up with those debts. Nobody could. He was running in quicksand.” As the years passed and the house’s ownership changed, nobody took care of the mortgage.
In 2007, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door at 2 Rumeal Robinson Way and served Helen with foreclosure papers. “This must be a mistake,” she said. She went to court to bargain for more time and called Robinson. “What in God’s name happened?” she asked him. Robinson promised to take care of it, made a handful of payments, then stopped answering her calls. A sheriff’s deputy came knocking again in March 2009. This time he brought moving trucks.
The next two days were among the worst of Helen’s life. She was living in the house with three of her children and five grandkids, and the relatives scrambled to find new housing. Her youngest son, Louis Jr., then 22, came from Washington to help her pack. They had a lifetime of belongings to organize in two days. Helen, meanwhile, called Robinson and prayed for him to answer. A part of her still believed in her son, because questioning his actions and motives also meant asking tough questions of herself. Much of her image had been built on his story, on the fact that she ushered him from homelessness to stardom. He was her greatest success. So if Robinson was a failure, what would that make her? I like that you went there—the story isn’t just the litany of what happened but also what it means. This, to me, is a transcendent quality of the piece. How did you decide to deepen it in this way? Do you look for a transcendent quality in all of your stories? I certainly think you hope for a transcendent quality in every story, and I think this turn was important since it is a story as much about Helen as it is about Rumeal. And really, this is the biggest thing he took from her: not the house, or her money, but a sense that she had accomplished something incredible in her life by raising this great, successful kid. That’s more devastating than any of the rest of it, and it is also more human.
“My mom had such blind faith and love in Rumeal that she was thinking he was going to do something until the last hour,” Louis Jr. says. “I was sitting there bad-mouthing the hell out of this dude, and she was calling him thinking he might pick up. She thought he was going to save the day.”
Instead, the bank changed the locks on the house, and Louis Jr. loaded a U-Haul truck and moved his mother into a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Somerville. Only then, torn from her home, did Helen’s confusion turn to anger. And her anger build to rage. “He betrayed us,” she would say whenever anyone asked about her sudden move. She hired a lawyer who explained the steps behind Robinson’s deception during half a dozen meetings, and each time she grieved again. She discarded most of his basketball memorabilia, and she asked friends not to mention his name.
In September 2009, Robinson was indicted on charges that went far beyond deceiving his mother: federal wire fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and issuing false statements to financial institutions. All of his scheming had finally caught up with him. Federal prosecutors held Robinson’s trial in Iowa because a bank he defrauded was based there. Helen flew to his trial to testify as a witness for the prosecution. She had not seen Robinson for several years when she entered the courtroom. He was sitting at the defense table, dressed in one of his sharp suits. He looked handsome, she thought. She tried to make eye contact, but he looked away. She swore under oath and looked at him again.
“Are you related to Rumeal Robinson?” the lawyer asked.
“Yes sir,” she said.
“What’s your relationship to him?”
“I’m his mother.”
She answered questions for about 30 minutes, briefly recounting her son’s successes and his scams. “He wasn’t raised this way,” she said. The judge dismissed her, and after she left the courtroom she began to cry in an elevator. Then she fainted. A courthouse employee helped her to the staff break room, where she lay on the couch, drank water and sobbed. “It was my breaking point,” she says.
A few days later, after Robinson was found guilty on 11 criminal counts and Helen had traveled back to Massachusetts, the judge issued his sentence. He told Robinson he would spend six and a half years in federal prison.
“You could not handle the money once it got in your hands,” the judge said. “It was like a drug to you.” It’s interesting that you keep the camera wholly on Helen, and that this story works despite Rumeal’s absence—we never really hear his voice. Was that a function of his inaccessibility? Even though the story is really Helen’s, can you talk a bit about writing about a story subject who declines to participate? Did he testify, by the way? It was mostly a function of his inaccessibility. I tried to get Rumeal—wrote him a few letters in prison, and, after my third attempt, he finally wrote back. He sent a letter in legal jargon that said his name was copyrighted, and we were not allowed to print it. It was a very strange letter. He did testify, so that was helpful, and a lot of those details helped me bring his perspective and his voice into the story.
TWO YEARS LATER, on a gorgeous fall day, Helen leaves her one-bedroom apartment and drives to work. Her eviction defines every hour of her daily routine: She wakes each night at 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. because she still feels uncomfortable in her apartment. She leaves home at 5 to spend an hour walking on the treadmill at a Gold’s Gym in Cambridge because everything in Cambridge feels more familiar. At night she tries to modify her old recipes to make them for one. She watches sports because she’d rather listen to the announcers than deal with the silence. She prefers football because basketball reminds her of Robinson.
At 67, she still works as a security and safety specialist for the Cambridge elementary schools, devoted to helping troubled kids. On this day, she monitors the lunch rush at a local elementary school, doling out meatball subs and chocolate milk while watching the students come and go.
“I used to feel like I knew them all, trusted them, understood them, could tell where they were headed in life,” she says, eyeing the children, shaking her head. “But people change. They disappoint you. Now I’m not so sure.”
She has not talked to Robinson or tried to contact him since the trial. He is incarcerated in South Carolina. He refused to comment for this story unless he was paid, sending a letter from prison filled with legalese, threatening ESPN The Magazine with copyright infringement and going to the trouble of having it notarized. In that letter, he also wrote that he has appealed his sentence, blaming “inadequate” defense attorneys for the guilty verdict. Was a mental health assessment ever part of the court proceedings? Just curious. Surprisingly, no. I think Rumeal was too vain to go in that direction.
Helen has been working with a lawyer, Benzan, to try to win back the house, even though she has no money for a down payment. Benzan has known her family for ages and has offered to volunteer his time, spending the past two years untangling a real estate mess that involved a series of fraudulent buyers and victimized banks across the country. He has finally reached a tentative agreement about the house, and on this fall day he wants to explain it to Helen in person. She drives to meet him after the children clear out of the cafeteria at school.
“I’m due for some good news,” she tells him.
Benzan explains that a third party has agreed to buy the house, clean it, repair it and divide it into rental condos. Units will go for about $2,000 a month. One will be reserved for Helen, as long as she pays the landlord.
The new buyers have plans to restore the center wall that Lou had taken down so long ago, when his family needed more space. Whoa, nice metaphor, rebuilding that wall. They hope to carpet the living room where the boys had ridden their bikes. They will paint over the basketball scuffs in the halls.
They’ll clean the house of its history, the good and bad.
“I’m sorry,” the lawyer says. “I know it’s quite a change.”
“I’ll be okay,” Helen says, nodding. “What hasn’t changed?” What’s Helen’s status now? Update? She is getting back into her house, but the house is all rental units, and she rents one of them. It isn’t a happy ending, exactly, but I think it at least puts her in a place where she is comfortable. Her lawyer, who helped her pro bono, is gearing up to run for Congress. Rumeal is still in jail, and will be for another few years. I saw him written about a few times last month, when Michigan made a run to the Final Four. I didn’t see any of those stories mention his mom, or the house. At least in late March, he is still remembered mostly for those free throws.
Eli Saslow is a staff writer for the Washington Post and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. His first book, Ten Letters, was published by Doubleday in 2011. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and daughter.
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