Jammie West was in third grade when the man in a suit came to take him away.
His name was called over the intercom, and he remembers how long the hallway seemed on the walk to the front office. He felt his throat tighten and his hazel eyes fill with tears when he saw his brothers and sister in the man’s car outside.
The Division of Family and Children Services worker told him it would be OK and that West’s mom needed some time. It was the beginning of a life of overnight bags, of being a visitor, of never really feeling at home.
“I was getting to the point that I had a bad attitude because I just wanted my mama,” West said.
West, the captain of Lucy C. Laney Comprehensive High School’s state championship basketball team, says a life in foster care and longing for family is what helped shape him into the person he is today. By the time he hit high school, he grew to become the The Augusta Chronicle’s Georgia boys basketball player of the year and Georgia Class AA player of the year.
“It made me stronger,” said West, 19. “It made me who I am. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me because this is a part of my life.”
He got strength from the foster parents who took him in and acted like mothers, even if they only lasted months at a time. He got tougher from the one who would beat him with a wet rag, the one who slapped him outside church and from his two-year stay in an emergency shelter on Waldon Drive.
One night at the shelter, the then-fourth grader peeked his head out of a window and stared at a basketball court with a high, Walmart hoop.
He jumped out the window and grabbed a ball. As the hours went by, he forgot the world around him.
“That’s kind of where basketball really, really turned into me,” West said. “It was something that took me out of the environment I was in. It was me and the court.”
A few weeks ago, almost eight years after that day, West walked by the former shelter to stare at the basketball court. He thought about how far he’d come, about the people who helped and hurt him, and decided he wouldn’t trade his past for anything.
“When I think about it now, I wouldn’t change anything in my life,” West said. Coaches started noticing him when he played basketball for Murphey Middle School. Laney assistant principal Bruce Bates said many knew about West before he knew them. When he transferred to Laney his sophomore year, it took one game playing junior varsity before the coaches moved him to the varsity team.
Bates said West was a leader, encouraged players when they got down but put a lot of pressure on himself. As the coaches learned his story, they saw a muscular teenager with freakish strength, a soft voice and an unwavering work ethic.
No one knew where West would sleep on any given night, Bates said. West would bring adult after adult to a practice or game and introduce her as his mama, but they often fluttered in and out of his life.
“The great ball players that have been through here ain’t got what he got in here,” said boys basketball coach Jerry Hunter, pointing to his heart. “Off the court there’s so much going on, but he’s safe in his own world on the court. For 32 minutes a night, it’s just your time. Unfortunately when that 32 minutes is up, that harsh reality is there that you have to go home to.”
As West progressed, so did his team. By his senior year, the boys worked hard after school, doing intense workouts and long practices. They quizzed each other in math and history before lifting weights and brought flash cards to practice.
With West leading the way as captain the team made it to the state championship game in March.
In the game against Manchester, the Wildcats raced to an early lead and never looked back, winning 67-53. It was the school’s first state championship in basketball and a life changer for West.
The championship was all classmates wanted to talk about, and Hunter watched as strangers started coming into West’s life claiming kinship.
“I didn’t too much like a lot of attention,” West said. “I’m always by myself, that’s how I came up. I had a lot of friends, but still alone. So I’m not a bragger type. I try to stay humble but hungry at the same time.”
During his senior year, his father, whom he met once before, came back in his life with one phone call. West was so excited he couldn’t hold a grudge. This was the man West first met when he was 8, who promised to come to his baseball game the next day with a new pair of Air Jordans and never showed up.
West was able to look past that, and embraced his father when he started watching his games and inviting him to dinner.
“He doesn’t act like he didn’t do anything wrong,” West said. “He’s a part of me.”
While his past is painful, West’s future is bright.
On May 21 he will walk across the stage with a diploma and a full scholarship to Tuskegee University to play basketball, with dreams of playing in the NBA. He plans to major in engineering and said if basketball doesn’t work out, he’d pursue a doctorate degree and engineering career.
After a life of dozens of foster homes, West spent his senior year living with Cynthia Brown, whom he met staying in the shelter as a fourth-grader when she worked as a caretaker there.
Brown and West bonded from the moment he dropped his bag at the shelter. He was transferred to a foster home on one of Brown’s days off, so they lost touch and didn’t see each other for years. Brown even drove through neighborhoods searching for the boy with light hazel eyes but didn’t see him again until West spotted her in church about a year ago.
Since that moment they were together again, and West fit right into Brown’s family.
“There’s not many people that can go through the things he’s been through and turn out the way he has,” Brown said. “He amazes me. He’s like my son.”
When thinking about who is going to be cheering him on in the stands on graduation day, West knows the crowd will be packed.
It will feel like home.
“My church, my mom, my family, my families, all the people who showed me love, who helped me is going to be there,” West said. “And life is going to be there. Life itself.”