[Hpn] On the rebound from drug addiction, a day at a time; Providence Journal/ 7/1/2007
Morgan W. Brown
Sun, 1 Jul 2007 08:10:48 -0400
Sunday, July 1, 2007
[Providence, Rhode Island]
Sports News section
Column, by Bill Reynolds
On the rebound from drug addiction, a day at a time
01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, July 1, 2007
Marvin Safford has overcome his cocaine addiction and is now on the
staff of the Institute for International Sport at URI.
The Providence Journal / Glenn Osmundson Glenn Osmundson
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SOUTH KINGSTOWN — He was a high school All-American basketball player,
was recruited to USC by O.J. Simpson, played professional basketball,
was in the movie Airplane, and used the game to take him places he
never could have imagined as one of 13 kids growing up without a
father in Worcester. The kind of career that too many kids all but
sell their souls in pursuit of.
So why does Marvin Safford say that his basketball career means nothing to him?
Well, that's the story.
And he's got a story, no question about that.
And it begins back in Worcester, a little kid with a dream, the most
American of stories.
One day in elementary school, he took a basketball and hurled it at
the basket and it went in. That was the beginning, and a few short
years later he already was a commodity, offered the chance to go to
Holy Name, a Catholic high school, where there were only a handful of
No matter that he had never worn a tie, or been around nuns.
Safford was an instant star.
So what if he threw up before games? So what if he felt ill at ease in
a lot of social situations? So what if the only place he truly felt
comfortable was a basketball court?
He had a great coach. He scored a zillion points. And at night he
would lie in bed and throw rolled up socks through a metal hanger he
had fashioned into a hoop. In the afternoons he would go to a local
park and often his mother would rebound for him.
"My mother would chase the ball if I missed," he says, "and she worked
three jobs and was tired and I didn't want her to have to chase it. So
I would pray that the ball went in."
It was the early '70s, and everyone wanted Marvin Safford. He visited
Providence College and stayed with Marvin Barnes, who told him, "What
goes on here, Marvin runs." He loved that. Wasn't he Marvin, too?
But he eventually went to the University of Southern California where
star running back O.J. Simpson met him at the airport, and where he
was put up in some three-room suite where there palm trees out the
window, not the three-decker tenements he saw in Worcester. The
University of Southern California, which was so far away from
everything he knew. California, where his life would begin to change
in ways he once would have thought unimaginable.
Who really knows when addiction starts?
Is it wired into our brains from the beginning, a little devil just
waiting for the right time to come out and play?
Who really knows.
For here it is the fall of 1973 and Safford doesn't drink, doesn't
smoke. He doesn't even go out a whole lot. Strip away his high school
celebrity, and he's not too far removed from the little kid who used
to sell newspapers in downtown Worcester and come home and put his
money in the cookie jar. But now he's in California and it's a
brand-new world, one where the devil can't wait to come out and play.
He tried cocaine at the first party he ever went to in Los Angeles,
tried it for the same reason zillions of kids first try drugs and
alcohol: He wanted to fit in. So he did what everyone else was doing.
"I think I got hooked on it that very first time," he says.
Instantly, he felt comfortable around people. He was no longer shy, no
longer the introvert he'd always been.
Safford went on to have an excellent career at USC, scoring 18 points
per game as a junior, all the while dabbling with coke. It was a funny
thing. He didn't particularly like alcohol, or marijuana. Cocaine was
different. He liked the person he was when he used it.
Two years later, he was in camp with the Portland Trail Blazers, the
year after they had won the NBA title, cut shortly before the season
started. He played in the CBA for a while. He made some money playing
basketball. Then one day it was over.
"I really didn't miss it," he says. "And I had got to do so many great
things, a little kid from Worcester. It was like God had given me a
talent to use."
He continued to stay around the game, though, in California. He worked
camps and clinics. He worked for Nike for a while. By all appearances,
he was doing fine. He considered himself to be a recreational drug
user. He just didn't think he had a problem — even if now he looks
back and realizes he had a big problem. Chances squandered,
relationships betrayed, life beginning to spin out of control, even
though he didn't know it then.
He was 48 before he finally figured it out.
He was back in Worcester then, and if the first year back had seemed
like a success on the surface, coaching a high school team to the
state final, beneath the surface it was a life spinning out of
control, to the point he became homeless, his addiction running his
To the point that one day he was sentenced to a year in jail for drug
"You can't believe how far you have fallen," Safford says. "But jail
saved me. It made me soul-search."
And he came to realize that he had lost everything. Lost his family.
Lost his good name. Lost everything he had ever cared about. And he
also realized that he couldn't do it alone, that he needed help.
So began the redemption of Marvin Safford.
"If I didn't get help, I wouldn't be here," he says.
He is now on the staff at the Institute for International Sport at
URI, there because Institute head Dan Doyle threw Safford a lifeline a
few years ago. This past winter, Safford worked for the Vermont Frost
Heaves of the American Basketball Association. Next season he's going
to be an assistant coach for the Montreal Royals of the same league.
"My life is good," he says. "I'm the happiest I've been in a long
time. I have peace of mind, and I have good people in my life."
He knows now that he always had an anxiety problem that went
untreated, knows now that "just because someone is a good athlete
doesn't mean they don't have problems."
That's one of his themes when he speaks to kids: Deal with your
problems, that the first thing you have to do is admit you have a
problem. He's proof of that.
That, and never give up. The lesson that his new life has reinforced,
the notion that it's never too late to rebuild a life.
"My goal is to help kids," he says. "Basketball was once my path, but
now my path is to take my pain, my experience, and use it to help
"I got places with it I never thought I'd get, then I got pain through
it, and now I'm getting healing with it," says Marvin Safford. "So I
guess you can say I've been on a basketball journey for a long time."
And the journey continues. One day at a time.
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