News & Politics

Chasing the Dream

Victor Page's days usually begin the same way. After he takes a shower, before he pours a glass of juice, he puts on a video of one of his Georgetown basketball games as he dresses. He has them all on tape. He likes to remind himself of the great players he once battled and listen to the game announcers marvel at his soaring drives to the hoop.

The All-Met guard from DC's McKinley Tech splashed onto the college basketball scene in the 1996 Big East tournament. Upstaging Allen Iverson, Georgetown's star and his backcourt mate, the freshman racked up 54 points in the final two games, winning tourney MVP honors. The next year, after Iverson left for the pros, he led the Big East in scoring and took the Hoyas to the NCAA tournament.

Dreaming of the big money and fame that greeted Iverson in the NBA, Page announced after the tournament that he was leaving Georgetown and entering the draft. "I feel I'm good enough to go," he told coach John Thompson.

Six years later, still living in Southeast DC, Page has yet to log any time in the NBA. "I should be there," he says. And one day, he will–at least that's been the plan. Since leaving Georgetown, Page has chased his NBA dream all over the world. He's played in Italy, the Philippines–anywhere he could show his stuff. Each time, he's returned home to DC and his Georgetown videotapes.

Then came the Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2003: Page hadn't expected to be home for the holidays. Scouts from leagues in Kosovo, Denmark, and Holland had been talking to him about a contract since he played well in a tournament in Copenhagen. But their interest had cooled, so he found himself with time on his hands. By afternoon, he was hanging out with friends near the Barry Farm public housing complex, a cluster of aging townhouses in Southeast DC, close to where he grew up. He sat parked in his Isuzu Rodeo on Birney Place, a tiny street lined with brick apartment buildings. A playground and community center occupy one end of the block; the other is riddled with drugs and crime. A leasing agent for neighborhood buildings says she won't go near that end of the street.

What happened that afternoon on Birney Place is murky. There was a disagreement, a gun, and shots fired. Bullets pierced the doors and tinted windows of Page's SUV. One lodged in his chest, another in his leg; one ripped a hole in his face, just below his right eye.

Vi ctor Page almost made it to the big time back in 1997, the year he left Georgetown. With 50 or so other top college players, he checked in to a plush hotel room in downtown Chicago for the NBA's predraft camp.

Page felt like he was dreaming from the moment he arrived. The NBA picked up the hotel tab and filled his pockets with spending money. At an opening cocktail party, Hall of Famer Nate "Tiny" Archibald recognized him and introduced himself. Players were impressed to learn that David Falk, Michael Jordan's agent, was his rep.

During the next few days of tryouts, Page scrimmaged with college stars Keith Van Horn and Antwoine Walker on courts lined with NBA coaches and scouts. Coaching legend Larry Brown told Page he was playing well.

I've made it, Page thought after the last day of scrimmages. Like Iverson's, his childhood had been troubled. He says both parents died of cancer while he was young, and he tangled with police a few times, including a conviction for cocaine possession during his senior year at McKinley.

But things were looking good. He heard that the Chicago Bulls might draft him. The only thing between him and the NBA was two days of agility and speed tests. Players were to meet in the lobby at 8 the following morning.

That night, Page says, he and his roommate walked to a bar near the hotel. Page had a few Heinekens, and the two toasted their good fortune.

Page returned to his room about 3 AM, went to bed, and fell into a deep sleep. He didn't set his alarm. Later that morning, he heard a voice in his head. "Wake up," the voice said.

Page sat straight up. It was after 10. The message light on his phone was blinking. He had overslept.

League officials sent Page home early from the camp. He thought teams were still interested in him. He watched the draft on television at his grandmother's DC apartment. When his name wasn't called in the first round, he grabbed his keys, jumped into his car, and headed to Atlantic City to gamble.

As he drove, Page scolded himself for that night in Chicago. He was supposed to be a man, he thought. His family–including half-siblings, a grandmother, and cousins whose parents were drug addicts–was counting on him to get a big contract.

The drive cleared his head. By the next day, he had decided he was still going to make it.

Pa ge remembers the shooter's face; it was a young man, someone he knew from the neighborhood. The two had been talking when they got into a disagreement. Friends say Page gave the young man a dirty look, but their argument was no big deal. The young man disappeared, and Page got into his car.

Minutes later, the man returned with a gun. Shots rang out, and Page turned to look at the shooter. That's when the bullet tore through his face.

Page knew he had to get out of there. He hit the accelerator and drove down Birney Place and around the corner to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. A passerby who saw him flagged down a firetruck, and the firefighters called for help.

Around 3:30, Page was flown by medevac helicopter to Washington Hospital Center. Though he was conscious and talking, his eye was smashed, and his nose and jaw were broken. A bullet in his chest left him gasping for air.

Th e Run n' Shoot Athletic Center houses ten basketball courts open for business 24 hours a day. It's a warehouselike building in District Heights that used to be a Caldor superstore. A few pro stars work out there. The Houston Rockets' Steve Francis, who had one golden year at the University of Maryland before turning pro in 1999, drops by occasionally, as does the Wizards' Chris Whitney. The Mystics' Chamique Holdsclaw plays often.

Most of the regulars at the Run n' Shoot are hoping to recapture the glory of their high-school or college stardom. They play at the Run n' Shoot while on breaks from the minor leagues or overseas teams. Many still think they have a shot at the NBA.

On this spring morning, months before the shooting, Page shows up at the gym looking collegiate in jeans and a lightly rumpled oxford shirt. Other days he sports $135 Solbiato warm-ups and a large diamond stud in his left ear.

Page is greeted like a celebrity, with high fives and fist-punches all around. At McKinley Tech, he led the school to the city championship and was named All-Met player of the year. He says he can't walk down the street without someone recognizing him. Restaurants often serve him dinner on the house. If they don't, his brother will sometimes say, "Do you know who this is?"

When someone asks if he's still playing, Page says, "I can still walk, can't I?"

When Page wasn't picked in the NBA draft, he threw in his lot with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, a South Dakota team in the Continental Basketball Association, one of the best minor leagues. He made $1,200 a week–a midrange salary–and became the team's all-time leading scorer. Fans sought his autograph and made his replica jersey the team's top seller. Scouts from the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves courted him over lunch at an Olive Garden restaurant. Stay hungry, they told him. Don't lose hope.

But after three years, Page grew frustrated. He was suspended for going after a rival player with a broom. He earned a second suspension after he reportedly broke his fist in a bar fight in DC and lied to coaches about it. Such antics, one coach says, made teams think twice about signing him.

"I'm still angry," Page says. "I don't like people to know, but I am."

Page dropped David Falk as his agent–or perhaps Falk dropped him. By the time Page left a message firing him, Falk hadn't returned his calls in months. Before, Page says, Falk would call him three times a day.

"It's like Patti LaBelle's song: 'You're on your own,' " he says, humming the chorus. In college, the basketball program made sure he did his homework, had a clean uniform, woke up for practices. Having an agent made Page feel like someone was looking out for him. Then reality set in.

"No one was there to baby me," he says.

Tw o days after the shooting, surgeons operated on Page's eye and jaw. Friends say the bullet to his head caused no brain damage.

Doctors left the bullet in his chest, fearing an operation would do more harm than good. The shot to his leg won't leave him crippled.

"The doctors say it's a miracle I'm alive," Page says.

With the shooter at large, police posted a guard at Page's door. ESPN and local TV stations ran stories on the shooting and broadcast images of his SUV's doors and windows riddled with bullet holes. The attention from the national press pleased Page, but he fumed at local newscasts that talked about his troubled past when he was the one who got shot. "I don't know why they said all of these bad things about me," he says.

As news of the shooting spread, dozens of family and friends called. The hospital set up a direct line to his room, as front-desk attendants were not told Page's room number or even that he was a patient. Former teammates checked in from New York and New Jersey. Allen Iverson called, as well as Jerrod Mustaf, the former Maryland star, who recruited Page into the National Streetbasketball Association, a semipro league. John Thompson dropped by.

Friends say Page wears a black patch over his eye. The bullet to his face shattered his optic nerve.

"I don't have an eye," he says. "It's gone."

At the Run n' Shoot, Page heads over to a two-level grandstand and folds his six-foot-three frame into the seats. Most days, he works on his game. But this morning, he was here to watch.

Chris Monroe, a graduate of Good Counsel High School, comes over. Monroe is finishing his senior year at George Washington, where he is the university's all-time leading scorer, but he's worried whether he can make it to the pros.

"What do I have to look forward to?" he asks Page. You played well this year, Page tells Monroe, but your reputation will take you only so far. Make sure your game is sharp; you never know when you'll get that call.

At times, Page has thought about giving up. Life in the minor leagues is hard, with road trips crammed into vans and cheap hotels. Playing overseas can be depressing; fans rarely speak English, and the arenas often are rundown, with uneven hardwood and cheap metal backboards. The NBA can feel oceans away.

While playing in Italy in 1999, a phone call in the middle of the night woke him in his hotel room. It was his half-brother Michael; their grandmother was dead.

The news sent him reeling. After his mother died when he was a teenager, Page had leaned on his grandmother. He worked hard to make her proud. He couldn't imagine going to her funeral and dealing with his grief, then flying back to Italy.

"If I leave," he told his brother, "I'll never hoop again."

Michael told Victor to stay in Italy. He played several more games but then decided to leave. When he got back to DC, he worked in landscaping for a few months, cutting grass and laying sod. "It was hard for me to love anything," he says.

Since 2000, Page has played on and off with a couple of teams in the Continental Basketball Association, working at his brother's car-detail shop in between stints. He's also toured with a DC team in the National Streetbasketball Association.

In the summer before the shooting, he signed to play for the Brevard Blue Ducks, a Florida team in the United States Basketball League. He started the season with the team but was back at the Run n' Shoot within weeks. The coach said he had a bad attitude and was out of shape. Page said the coach was unprofessional and let players party late into the night.

"Don't worry," he says as he leans back against the bleachers. "I'll get my time in. I'll never stop hoopin'."

Pe p Tyson, Page's best friend and a regular at the Run n' Shoot, kicks off his beat-up black sneakers and laces up a pair of white Nikes. Tyson had a bright future when he came out of Dunbar High School in 1993; two Division I colleges recruited him, and he seemed set to go to the University of Miami. But when his SAT scores fell below the NCAA requirement for scholarship athletes, he went to junior college and then a small Division II school in Kansas.

After graduating, Tyson sent game tapes to four agents. None responded. He got a job with UPS loading boxes onto trucks.

Then he started practicing at the Run n' Shoot, where players talked up his game. "Why are you still here?" they asked.

Buoyed by the praise, Tyson won a spot on the Washington Congressionals. Every Friday he cashed a check for $250–the first money he made playing ball.

Page and Tyson met while hooping as teenagers, and Page has been an honorary member of Tyson's family for years. A year ago, he lived with Tyson and Tyson's father, Earl Sr., for a month. If Earl throws a twenty his son's way, Pep says, he gives Page one. He tells both to be proud of what they've done in basketball.

Tyson is soft-spoken, earnest. He plays point guard and likes to break down the game in his head. Page thinks of himself as a scoring machine. He bristles with verbal testosterone, often saying, "I'm going to tear that game up."

Each is the other's biggest booster. When Page was asked to play in South America, his first question was, "Do you need a point guard?"

Tyson, who'll go to the Run n' Shoot at midnight, often wakes Page up in the morning to practice. If he worked a little harder, Tyson says, he'd already be in the NBA. But he isn't good at motivating himself. "I think he needs some guidance sometimes," Tyson says. "I can be that."

Page says: "Pep knows what I'm capable of. He believes in me."

The duo's family obligations complicate their NBA dreams. Tyson has a nine-year-old daughter by an ex-girlfriend. Though he says he gives the mother half of everything he makes, it's not enough. "Pep," she says. "Can you stop? You're not going to make it to the NBA. Your daughter needs you."

"That's why I have to take this seriously," Tyson says.

Page has a three-year-old girl, Mikeyah, with his girlfriend, Lashawne, a nurse. They lived with Page's older brother, the brother's girlfriend, and her three kids in a four-bedroom house in Wheaton until recently when Page moved back to Southeast DC.

"I told her [Lashawne] I'll marry her when I make it," Page says. "If we got married, it would interfere."

As Page lay in his hospital bed, his future stretched before him. It wasn't clear whether he would be fitted with an artificial eye. Friends were talking about how to help him build a new life off the court. Jerrod Mustaf called a friend at DC's Department of Parks and Recreation to find out whether Page might catch on there teaching kids basketball.

"You never want to say never," says Mustaf. "But I've never seen a basketball player play on the court with one eye."

Before the late Mo Udall got into politics, he played college ball and a year in the pros with a glass eye. He did so well that at least one reporter questioned whether he was handicapped. Udall plucked out the eye and gave it to the reporter: "I haven't been able to see much out of this one; you try it."

Page is optimistic about his recovery. "I'm a strong man," he says. "I am in such great physical shape."

He knows his wounds will leave him weakened, but he says he's going to whip his body back into shape.

"I'm still going to play," he says, then pauses. "Of course I am."