Kelvin Scarborough (1964-2020): From the Projects to the Pit

By Mark Smith
Enchantment Sports
Editor in Chief

“Hey Wino! Where on earth you been, man?” the wide-eyed oldtimer asked the young man walking with me through the impoverished neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

“Man, I thought you was dead!”

“Na, man,” the guy nicknamed Wino responded with a belly-laugh, slapping the man on the back.

“I’m playing ball. College ball. New Mexico. I ain’t dead, man.”

“Mexico? What the hell you doing in Mexico?”

Another belly-laugh. This one buckling Wino like he’d just taken a Mike Tyson gut-punch.

NEW Mexico, man. We’re here to play Georgetown.”

It was December 1985, and Wino was back home.

But not for long.

And definitely not for good.

Wino certainly had his ups and downs — dealing with demons like we all do at one time or another.

But Wino had escaped the poverty of the projects for paradise of the Pit.

His home was now more than 1,800 miles and a lifetime away.

And just 15 months after that stroll on Rhode Island Avenue, Wino would finish his college career as one of the most beloved players in Lobo basketball history.

And when Kelvin Scarborough died last week of an apparent heart attack at age 56, a countless number of fans and folks of all ages, races and backgrounds lost a mentor, an inspiration, a legend and, above all, a friend.

I was one.

Photo courtesy/University of New Mexico.

Hero in the hood

“Wino?” I asked the weathered oldtimer in the Brentwood Village Development — the projects — that day.

“That’s what we call him because the way he always wore his hat,” the man said, laughing and putting an arm around Kelvin while his other clutched a heavy-duty garbage bag full of his belongings.

“He had one of those flat hats and always wore it sideways, like a wino.”

Donnell Scarborough, Kelvin’s older brother by one year, laughed when hearing that story this week.

“That was probably one of reasons for the nickname,” Donnell said. “But the first time I heard it was when he was about 10 years old playing Pee Wee football.

“He was so small, and his uniform was so big that he always had to walk around pulling his pants up and walking sideways trying to hold them up. His coach started saying he walked around like a wino.”

In 1985, I was assistant sports director at KOB-TV 4 in Albuquerque and was in D.C. with photographer Bob Davis to cover the Lobos’ Dec. 11 game at Georgetown.

Scarborough, who came to UNM as a highly recruited freshman in 1983, was a junior.

The gregarious hoop star was an easy guy to cover on the court and an even easier guy to like off of it.

I had the idea of following him through his old D.C. stomping grounds, and interviewing some of those from his childhood.

Scarborough liked the concept, but was a little hesitant. He said he’d have to call his mom for permission.

Hattie David didn’t hesitate.

She instantly invited us to lunch with her beloved son and a few of his other Lobo teammates.

I don’t recall if it was the day before or the day of the Lobos’ game at sixth-ranked Georgetown, the school New Mexico nearly shocked a year earlier in the Pit when the Patrick Ewing-led Hoyas were ranked No. 1 in the nation.

The Lobos used a Pit-deafening 28-12 second half-run and were within 60-57 late in the game before the defending national champion Hoyas escaped 69-61 in 1984.

This time, UNM faced Georgetown on the road in a battle of unbeatens.

Scar, however, was right at home.

“It was crazy how many of his friends and family members were at that game,” friend and former teammate Hunter Greene told me this week. “There were at least 50 or 60 fans there just for him.”

There would be no near upset this time. The Lobos were throttled 76-51 that night in Landover, Md.

But the legend of Wino only grew.

“The people out here just loved him,” Donnell said. “To this day, he’s still a hero to so many out here.

“I knew he had a lot of fans when he was a player in New Mexico, but I didn’t know how many people out there still felt that way about him today. I was amazed seeing all the people posting on Facebook this week.”

Scarborough, in fact, was the reason the Lobos got a home-and-home series with mighty Georgetown, according to Greene.

“That series would never have happened if it wasn’t for Scar’s relationship with (late Georgetown legendary coach) John Thompson,” Greene said. “He loved Scar. He called him a lot over the years.”

So why didn’t Thompson recruit Kelvin?

“Scar was a flat-out scorer in high school, but he wasn’t a passer,” Greene said with a laugh.

“John Thompson told him, ‘If I bring you here, you’ll never pass the ball inside to Patrick. You need to go somewhere and learn how to pass the ball.’ “

Learn he did.

The 6-foot, 1-inch point guard is fourth all time in Lobo history in assists (574) and has the record for assists in one game (21). He is also the school’s all-time leader in steals (235) and ranks 13th in scoring (1,469 points).

Scarborough was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the sixth round in 1987. Despite not catching on in the NBA, he played professionally from 1988-93 in Argentina, Australia, Hong Kong, Mexico, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

He truly became one of the Lobos’ all-time great players.

“Everybody just loved Scar — even the old coach who loved coaching such a great athlete,” said Gary Colson, the UNM coach from 1980-88, including all four of Scarborough’s Lobo seasons. “Such great memories and experiences. He always was a true Lobo.”

“And he’s even a bigger hero in Washington, D.C.,” said former Lobo Greg Brown, who didn’t play at UNM during Scar’s era. But the ex-Albuquerque High sensation played ball “all the time” with him during the past 30 years, and took multiple trips with him back to D.C.

Greg Brown

“He’s a legend in his neighborhood. It’s hard for people out here to understand how big basketball is for city guys. In New Mexico, fans know the Lobos, love the Lobos. I grew up like that, too. But it’s a different knowledge of the game in the city.

“New York, Philly, D.C., Baltimore – they take basketball so seriously. They live for the game, and the stature Scar has out there is incredible.”

Brown, the newly named boys’ basketball coach at AHS, said he was in the process of hiring Scarborough as an assistant coach with the Bulldogs this season.

“People know how great he was on the court,” Brown said. “Brother Kelvin, he’d dunk on your head then go pin your shot to the glass on the other end. But it’s not just his skills on the court; it’s his skills with people that are so impressive. His personality, his heart. He would help anyone.”

George Scott

But before Scarborough ever even heard of Albuquerque, the Lobos or the Pit, he had to simply survive some of the meanest streets of D.C.

“Thank God he was able to get out of there, and stayed in New Mexico and made it his home,” says former Lobo teammate George Scott. “That truly added years to his life. He would have never survived long had he not gotten out.”

Wine-o and dine-o

As we parked our rental car that December day 35 years ago in the nation’s capital, Scar turned to Bob Davis and me with a stone-cold look I had never seen him deliver off the court.

“You guys need to understand,” he said. “Ya’ll gonna be the only white guys a lot of people ’round here have ever seen in this neighborhood.”

“That was no joke,” former Lobo assistant coach Larry Shyatt, who recruited Scarborough, said this week.

“I remember a couple of times going there, and he said, ‘Coach, I need to walk you out to your car for your protection. You’ve got to understand, people around here might not want to see you.’ “

Former Lobo assistant coach Larry Shyatt, fourth from left in white shirt with his family, recruited Scarborough from the D.C. projects to New Mexico. (Courtesy/Pam Shyatt)

Shyatt learned that firsthand — and not just about that neighborhood.

“The night that Scar committed to us, I called Gary (Colson) and said, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news.’

Scarborough went to Eastern Senior High School on the other side of town, “but it was in an area that wasn’t much better than where we lived,” Donnell says.

“The good news was obvious,” Shyatt said of that phone call to Colson. “The bad news was that I literally needed Gary to wire me money to get a plane ticket home. My rental car got broken into, and they literally robbed everything I had with me.”

Davis and I fortunately had no such issues on our visit. In fact, we only saw one fistfight that trip and that was on the floor during the game itself.

As far as the jaunt to “Scarville” was concerned, everything was cool.

Mrs. David was as jovial and friendly as her famous son.

Kelvin Scarborough, bottom left, and members of his family in 2001. Mom, Hattie David, is next to Kelvin with sister, Tracey, kneeling. Sister Debra is top left with brother Donnell on her right, then Stanford and Nisey. Brother Wayne is in front. (Courtesy Debra Scarborough)

“She was our glue,” Donnell said this week, his voice slightly cracking. “She was a bubbly woman from North Carolina and did the best she could raising all of us and sacrificing for us.

“She was a remarkable woman. It was the most hurtful thing in the world when she passed about 10 years ago.”

Donnell said he and Kelvin’s father was in their lives, but never married his mother.

I can’t recall what she made Bob, Kelvin, the others and me for lunch that that day in that four-bedroom apartment where she raised eight kids. But I remember it was darn good.

“And I guarantee it was some Southern cooking, for sure,” Donnell says. “She really could cook.”

I certainly do remember her words to us when we left.

“Thank you for making Kelvin so happy in New Mexico. Please, you all take good care of him, now.”

Strength through school and sports

Like Kelvin, Donnell escaped the projects via college basketball, playing for a junior college in upstate New York and then a four-year school in Oklahoma.

He and Kelvin were the first two in the family to get away from the neighborhood, go to college and get degrees.

“Growing up, gangs and drugs were all around us,” he said. “But we just played sports all the time and went to school.

“So many of our friends had problems. There was peer pressure, but it was sports and school for us.

We were determined to get out.”

Davis, an Emmy-winning television news photographer who has worked for Los Angeles TV stations the past 30 years, has seen his share of crime-filled, poverty-stricken turf.

Despite being just a year apart in age, Kelvin Scarborough, right, was much shorter than brother Donnell as kids. Here they are at 3 and 4, respectively. (Courtesy Donnell Scarborough)

“That (D.C. area) was probably the roughest,” he says. “It was as bad as some of the areas in North Philly and in Compton (Calif.) There were a lot of abandoned buildings, people sleeping on the sidewalks, trash everywhere.

“I remember that Scar kept asking people about childhood buddies, trying to catch up about them since he’d been gone. He’d hear ‘This one got killed, these guys are in prison, these guys died of drugs.’

“It didn’t seem many of those friends were left.”

Donnell said, “You hear a lot of guys who get out talking about growing up in the hood, and using it as a badge on honor.

“For me, it was all about survival.”

While I had never been to a rougher-looking neighborhood than where Scar grew up, for some reason I felt a sense of security that day.

Maybe because I was young and naïve. Maybe because a couple of other Lobo players joined us.

Kelvin, left, and Donnell in 2017.

Or maybe it was what Scar told Bob and me after we got out of the car.

“It’s gonna be all right; you’re with me,” he said. “They all know me around here.”

Did they ever!

Still do.

“We don’t know what we’re going to be able to do because of COVID-19,” said Donnell, a retired police officer who works for the courthouse in Greenbelt, Md. “Hunter is trying to plan a memorial of some kind (in Albuquerque), and we’re bringing the body back here for burial to lay to rest next to our mother.

“I just don’t know if we will be allowed to have a funeral. But the whole family has been trying to make arrangements. If we do have one, we’ll have to get a very, very large place because of all the people who will want to be there. We would need some type of mega-church to accommodate so many people.”

Friendly foes

Scarborough was already a hoops legend long before that day in D.C.

The charismatic dynamo from Eastern Senior High was well known in the prep basketball world for his quickness, slashing, shooting, defense and dunks.

“And his personality,” says Greene, whom Scarborough had listed as his next of kin and received the first phone call from the Office of Medical Investigation on Tuesday when the body was found in the pay-per-week hotel room where he was living.

“Scar knew everybody, and they knew him. He had basketball connections and friends with so many people all across the country; John Thompson, (ex-NBA player) Danny Ferry, (sportswriter) David Aldridge, (Georgetown athletic director) Lee Reed. People loved him.”

Said Donnell, one of Kelvin’s seven siblings, “I was amazed at how many famous people he played with and against, and people he would introduce me to. He was friends with everybody.

“He played with guys like Len Bias, Danny Ferry and so many others. Whenever I’d go with him around the nation, he’d see guys, like Tim Hardaway, who all knew him by name. It was overwhelming, sometimes.

“And anybody who came out of D.C. during that era knew Kelvin.”

Greene said Scarborough had been living in the hotel for about a month, after house-sitting about two years while the home was on the market. It recently sold, and he planned to move into an apartment on Dec. 1.

“I sent him a text on Nov. 29, and didn’t hear back from him, which was really unusual,” said Greene, whose mother-in-law passed away that day. “I was letting him know about my mother- in-law.

“I had just talked to him a day or two before. He was taking a lot of medications because his blood pressure was so high, but he said he was feeling good.

“When the OMI called, I was in shock. I’m devastated.”

Scar tissue

Kelvin Scarborough, far left, was on a number of standout youth basketball teams including one with the late Len Bias, far right. (Courtesy/Donnell Scarborough)

Scarborough never took for granted where he rose up from.

And he battled through some brutal struggles to make sure he never fell back.

But there were times when he was close.

“He was a fun-loving guy and people wanted to be around him,” Greene said. “And he found himself in some situations where people were sharing (drugs) with him.

“He got addicted. He had some real tough times.”

But Scarborough also had Greene.

“I’m so proud of Hunter,” says Shyatt, who went on to become Billy Donovan’s top assistant at Florida for seven years, head coach for a combined 11 years at Clemson and Wyoming and an assistant coaching stint with the Dallas Mavericks.

“Hunter saved him a couple of times,” Shyatt said. “He’s as wonderful a friend as you could probably ever dream of.”

Kelvin, right, with childhood buddies in a recent trip to D.C.

A choked-up Greene said Scar was “truly my brother,” and that “I reached out and got resources for him, but it was all Scar doing all the work. He’s the one who beat the addiction.”

Greene, an Albuquerque commercial realtor and the Lobo radio basketball analyst, said that was more than two decades ago, and Scarborough had been clean ever since.

Shyatt said he’d check back often with Greene and with Charlie Villa, who owned High Noon Restaurant & Saloon and treated Scarborough like a son, to make sure Scarborough was OK.

Charlie’s daughter, Carla Villa, who now runs the restaurant in Old Town, said she and her parents have many fond memories of Scarborough.

“One year on the Wyoming-Colorado State road trip, Kelvin asked if he could ride with my parents from Laramie to Fort Collins because the Lobos only had three or four cars for the team instead of a bus,” Carla said. “Daddy said he didn’t want to share a back seat, and my mom (Shirley) said he rode with them, laying down in the back seat and talking the entire drive.

“Daddy says the thing he talked about most, marveled about really, was that he had come to a place that was so completely different from where he had been raised. He talked about the open space, the mountains. He really loved it in New Mexico. My mom remembers that he said that his mama wanted to make sure that wherever he was going, he was going to be taken care of. That someone would care about him.

High Noon owner Carla Villa’s parents, Charlie and Shirley, treated Kelvin like a son.

“Kelvin had such a good heart. He never lost that good soul.”

And he certainly touched the heart and soul of Lobo Nation.

Colson, Shyatt and assistant Scott Duncan were in charge of rebuilding a program decimated by Lobogate, possibly the biggest college basketball scandal in history to that point.

UNM’s walk-on-filled roster was just 6-22 in the 1979-80 season, a year after the scandal and a year before Colson and crew took the reins.

Scott came to UNM two years later as a juco transfer and Scarborough and Greene arrived the next season as part of a six-player freshman class that helped the Lobos to a combined 85-48 record and four straight NIT appearances in their four seasons.

“Scar was the perfect guy for the post-Lobogate scandal,” Scott said. “We called him Mr. Excitement. People loved him and he loved people. He was right out of central casting. He was just the perfect ambassador for Lobo basketball following what happed with the scandal.”

Here’s the dish

I ran into Scar a handful of times after his UNM career, each time being greeted with that ear-to-ear grin and getting hugged like I was running back trying to get past him at the goal line.

But it was around the mid-90s when I saw him in a most unexpected spot — the employee cafeteria at the Albuquerque Publishing Company, where I worked after changing careers from sportscasting to sportswriting.

“Maak! What’s up?,” he said excitedly from behind the mess-hall like serving line, pronouncing my name as always with a missing “R” with his eastern accent.

“Scar! What are you doing here?,” I asked.

That afternoon, instead of dishing assists to teammates on the floor, he was dishing out the low-cost entrée of the day on cheap plates.

Apparently, someone else was on break and he had to fill in from his job as a dishwasher in the joint.

“He knew he had hit rock bottom, and he was working his way back,” Greene said. “He didn’t have a car and I used to take him to work and pick him up.

Kelvin Scarborough, left, and former Lobo teammate Larry Markland. (Facebook)

“Most people would want to hide in that situation. He didn’t. He knew he had to face his struggles.”

I returned to the cafeteria after Scarborough got off work that day, and we sat and caught up on old times — and his new battles.

He was still Scar.

He was as cheerful and friendly after working eight hours washing dishes in a cafeteria as he was after dishing out eight assists and scoring 18 points in front of 18,000 adoring fans screaming his name in the Pit.

“I have plenty of dreams and plenty to accomplish,” he told me. “I’m coaching kids and I’m going to go get my degree.”

Hoop dreams

Scarborough, indeed, returned to UNM. He got his degree in 1997.

I kept in touch with him often and ran into him at high school gyms throughout New Mexico.

I was covering prep games.

He was covering kids’ dreams.

He started the New Mexico All-Stars, a program that went around the state to put on clinics and camps and play tournaments, and was head coach at Menaul High School for more than a decade.

“There are endless accounts of people he’s helped; never looking for anything in return,” Greene said. “He had so many contacts and he was selfless.”

If a school, program or group needed him to do a camp or give a motivational speech or anti-drug/anti-gang talk, he was there.

“He knew this state better than anyone I ever met,” Greene says. “From the Four Corners to Gallup to the reservations, he knew everything about New Mexico. He loved it here and went everywhere to watch kids play and to help them.”

Former Lobo Bill Harvey played at UNM prior to Scarborough’s arrival, but got to know him well when both were high school coaches in Albuquerque.

“He was just passionate about helping kids improve, not only on the court but in life,” said Harvey, the director of golf at Albuquerque’s Ladera Golf Course. “Great sense of humor, good heart and a great guard. He was similar to (ex-Lobo star guard) Phil Smith. They were two of UNM’s all-time best.”

If a kid needed help pursuing a college scholarship, Scar used his connections to help. Especially the underprivileged youths.

Above all. it was underprivileged youths on whom Scarborough focused his utmost attention.

“Forget about basketball; he was there to help them with life,” Greene says. “How he impacted young kids at reservations, at pueblos — that’s what he most loved.

“Here was a guy from all-black schools, he never had a white teacher or a white coach, but he came to New Mexico and assimilated, and the people welcomed him with open arms. That’s why he loved it here so much. It didn’t matter what color he was or where came from. He was accepted.

“And he really tried to give back to kids like himself; underprivileged, especially the Native Americans, the Hispanic communities,” Greene says. “He always tried to give back. He gave his time and love.”

Shyatt said “Scar didn’t have a lot growing up on Rhode Island Avenue, but he made the most of the opportunity he received. He was all about giving back to others.

“He knew where he was from and was very appreciative of that opportunity.

Hunter Greene

“And when he was going through tough times, the one thing that always brought him back was the game itself. He had great love for the game. That, along with Hunter’s help, cleansed him.”

And vice versa.

“He got me involved into doing things to give back,” Greene says. “He worked in group homes with special needs people, with people with autism, with Special Olympics. He was so good with that. He loved that, and they didn’t want to go anywhere unless Kelvin was with them.

“People say that I helped him, but I didn’t help him half as much as he helped me. I didn’t save Scar. Scar saved me. He’s the one who taught me about giving back and about the things most important in life.”

A life that has been a little tougher this week for so many who were close to Scar.

For so many fans, family and friends.

Especially those he teamed with to restore the pride in Lobo basketball more than three decades ago, and who remained by his side through all the ups and downs.

“George, Hunter, Larry (Markland), Kelvin — the way they stayed brothers and took care of each other was real and true,” said Carla Villa, who hosted a number of fundraisers the kid called Wino held at High Noon for youth programs.

“It was exactly what his mama had wished for him.”

And from the ghettos in D.C. to glory in the Duke City.

From the poverty of the projects to the passion of the Pit, Kelvin Scarborough, indeed, proved that wishes can come true.


Mark Smith mug

Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio and has been honored nationally for investigative reporting. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.

6 comments

  1. Watching basketball has been part of our lives. I remember walking into Menaul High School Gym, eager to watch my nephews play in a tournament or summer league. We were always greeted by that famous Scar smile and gentle hug. He was kind to everyone and he will certainly be missed by all. Que Viva, Scar!

    Like

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