After dark on cold Ohio nights during basketball season, Courtney Boyd heads to her old high school gymnasium, searching for the shot that once saved her life. Usually her dad, but sometimes her mom, comes along, flicking her rebounds back to her. They work together in the quiet of the empty school where Courtney’s career points record is memorialized in the hallway, their thoughts punctuated by the bounce of the ball echoing on the polished wood. And on these nights, she looks for her shot: in the corner, her sweet spot for 3-pointers; up the middle, where her coach wants her to focus her college game; and in her head, where she’s had a lot to think about in a season spent mostly on the Wright State bench.
Later, they’ll head home, to a four-bedroom two-story with two porch swings out front. Courtney will climb the stairs to a tidy bedroom painted a soothing deep gray, where a downy white comforter covers the bed and a 12-gallon bin at its foot overflows with socks – dozens of clean, dry socks, balled into matching pairs. If she were to reach her hands deep into the pile, she could surround herself up to the elbows with their soft, fluffy cotton.
But Courtney’s life hasn’t always been about clean socks and porch swings and a dad who catches her rebounds. She remembers a time when she wore socks stiff with days-old dirt, sweat and neglect.
She grew up eight miles east of East St. Louis, Ill., in a map dot called State Park Place, a collection of trailers and chain-link fences and stray dogs, where beer cans litter yards and refrigerators are often empty and parents get high. In her home, she was the oldest of four children, and – even at age 8 or 9, neighbors recall – Courtney was often the household caretaker. Her parents were in and out of trouble with cops and drugs and alcohol.
By middle school, many State Park Place kids are plotting their escape and finding it through pot, pills and, eventually, heroin. But Courtney, in search of a different kind of liberation, had a plan of her own.
“Her parents loved their kids, but because of their circumstances, they just couldn’t care for them the way they wanted to,” said Lori Billy, Courtney’s childhood basketball coach. “It’s part of that cycle of poverty, and they could never find their way out.”
Courtney did find her way. Today, she has clean socks, parents who care and a scholarship spot on an NCAA tournament-worthy basketball team. But all these years after leaving behind the trappings of poverty, she is still trying to escape.
The high school graduation rate in State Park Place hovers near 30 percent. At the neighborhood school, Kreitner Elementary, 90 percent of children live in poverty.
The teachers at Kreitner strain to help children and ache to have a success story. And even when Courtney was small, they saw possibility in her: She had her love of basketball, for one thing – a raw, scrappy athletic ability combined with an unquenchable passion for the game. Plus, the environment that buckled many of her classmates, locking them into a life much like their parents’, seemed to give Courtney a mission and a sense of responsibility.
“You knew she had that fire,” Billy said. “You knew she had that passion for the game, a dedication that was so far beyond her years.”
That kind of focus is rare in State Park Place, a small community with unknown beginnings and an uncertain future. It is located in the shadow of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which preserves the remnants of one of the most advanced Native American civilizations in North America. Where some of mankind’s earliest breakthroughs in astronomy, agriculture and economics took place 1,000 years ago, some State Park Place residents toss their trash over the fence and onto state land.
Local legend suggests State Park Place began with campers on unattended state land; more people followed, then even more, until an unofficial village of squatters had emerged. A historian who studies the mounds said the beginning was more formal, with people from Kentucky and Tennessee moving to the area’s newly platted streets, yet the squatters story persists.
Occasionally, nearby Collinsville considers annexing the unincorporated area of 2,600 people. But State Park Place residents resist. They seem to want to be left alone, and left where they are.
“We’ve tried to leave before, but we came right back,” said Chris Keel, a third-generation resident whose daughter grew up with Courtney. “It was home. We tried to leave to have a better life for my kids, but no matter where you go, it’s the same. And you feel more comfortable here because everybody watches out for each other.”
These relationships are a double-edged sword, theorizes Ruby Payne, a popular author and educator who trains teachers about the culture of the poor.
“In poverty, you make decisions based on survival, relationships and entertainment,” Payne said. “Entertainment takes away the pain; people are what keep you alive because money is thought of as communal. You spend it when you get it because if you don’t, you have to share it.”
Payne’s ideas are controversial. Some experts on American poverty say they are simplistic, even classist. But ask Billy, who has taught in State Park Place for 25 years, to explain the epidemic of inertia that can stymie promising kids like Courtney, and she’ll ask if you’ve read Payne’s books.
“What happens when you leave is that you are forced to give up your relationships,” Payne continued. “You are no longer one of them. And if you’ve been raised all your life that relationships are what keep you alive, you have no concept of how work and achievement keep you alive.
“To transition out,” Payne said, “you have to have someone who helps you see your future story.”
Coach Billy poked her head into Courtney Weeden’s fourth-grade classroom.
“Courtney, do you want to play fifth-grade ball?” the coach asked.
“I do,” Billy recalled the girl saying. “I do, I do, I do, I do. I can do it.”
The year was 2001. Courtney had never been a student in Billy’s class, but any basketball coach would have noticed this girl around Kreitner. She rode her Mongoose bike to school, with one hand on the handlebars and the other cradling a basketball on her hip. The ball sat next to her in class, ready to come outside with her at recess, where she played against the boys – even bigger boys – and outshot them.
Courtney had speed, athleticism and even height, for a fourth-grader. But Billy was more struck by her determination, her seriousness. Courtney showed up for practice even when she had no one to drive her. With Billy’s help, she wrote letters to the Kiwanis Club in nearby Collinsville, asking for donations to cover the cost of shoes and entry fees.
Her dad, it seemed, understood Courtney’s passion and potential. Tony Weeden bought her a basketball hoop and set it up in the street, weighing down its base with bricks. He worked at the local Carpet King, laying carpet even as his knees deteriorated and he turned to painkillers to dull the throb.
“I was just a daddy’s girl,” she said. “I just always wanted to work with him, and I always wanted to be around him.”
Growing up on Arlington Street, Courtney and her friend Jennifer Herling would ride bikes and shoot baskets, and Jennifer’s mother was always happy to see her daughter play with the quiet and well-behaved Courtney. “Jen wasn’t as into basketball as Courtney was,” Keel said, “but Jen tried.”
The two Kreitner girls stayed out of trouble, but danger loomed around them: One day Courtney discovered a bag of cocaine in a shed where she and her friends liked to play. Someone had hidden it there – out of the sight of cops, but within the reach of children. And when Courtney was in sixth grade, she returned from a visit to her aunt’s house in Ohio to find evidence that her dad was using drugs. She confronted him when he came home, but even today, she doesn’t like to talk about what she found. “He was embarrassed,” Courtney remembers. “He said he was sorry, that he wouldn’t do it anymore.”
Some of the worst days of her childhood are outlined in police records: The days the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department stopped by because someone had reported no adults were present to look after Courtney and her brother and sisters. The days when her dad drank too much and pushed or hit her mom, a recurring situation her mother once told police had happened “too many times to count.” The day when a neighbor’s fight with his girlfriend carried over into Courtney’s home, leaving a man bloodied in a ditch outside. The day her parents fought in screams so shrill that a deputy driving past heard them, stopped to check on everyone’s safety, then discovered an arrest warrant for Courtney’s mom and took her to jail.
Through it all, Coach Billy looked out for Courtney. She befriended a woman down the street, encouraging her young charge to head to that house if she found herself in trouble. The friend also watched Courtney’s behavior, reporting any transgressions to the coach.
“She’d say, ‘Lori, it’s 10 o’clock at night, and Courtney’s outside. Her dad’s gone; her mom’s gone. You talk to Courtney at school tomorrow,’” Billy recalled. “She’d keep an eye on her for me.”
In fifth grade, with her coach’s help, Courtney joined an AAU team. Securing a spot on a traveling team meant frequent trips outside State Park Place. Basketball gave Courtney a glimpse of how other families lived.
She began spending more time with her AAU teammates and their families, particularly Cassie Bluemner of Collinsville and her parents, Joel and Vicki. Courtney would eat dinner at their house, and the Bluemners would even do her laundry. When the water was turned off at Courtney’s home, she would take a hot shower at the Bluemners’.
They took to calling Courtney their “adopted weekend daughter.” And as the Bluemners began to understand the pressures Courtney faced at home, their drives to deliver her back to State Park Place grew more difficult.
“I knew that she needed something. She was missing something as far as family goes,” Joel Bluemner said. “I didn’t know if we were going to have much of an impact on her.”
Courtney matured on the court – becoming stronger, faster, taller. And she was at her best when the ball, unlike so many other things in her life, was firmly in her control. “I’m not going to say she was a ball hog as a kid,” Joel Bluemner said, “but she liked to have that ball in her hands.”
Billy became an assistant girls basketball coach at the high school. She talked to Courtney about a vision for the girl’s future – a future that included basketball, and college, and basketball as a way to pay for college. If Courtney stuck with the game and worked hard in school, Billy said, she would earn a spot on the Kahoks, the high school team that takes its name from the nearby mounds.
Then, Billy would help Courtney find a spot on a college team.
“In State Park, everybody is looking for something to get them out,” Courtney said. “Everybody told me, ‘Basketball is your ticket out of here, basketball is your ticket out of here. You can go to college and play basketball.’ I didn’t really know what that meant, but that was the picture painted in my head. I was going to play basketball, and I was going to go to college.”
Courtney had basketball as a hope for the future. But around her, especially after she and her friends graduated from Kreitner Elementary, others were already losing hope.
Her friend Jennifer, the one who used to shoot baskets with her in the street, dropped out of school in seventh grade. “She started hanging with a bad crowd,” recalled Keel, Jennifer’s mother. “Everything went downhill with Jen, and Courtney stopped coming around.”
Even a college dream – the very possibility that something rosy might be on the horizon – was difficult to shoulder. “In a way, Courtney was turning her back on her friends and her community and everything she knew,” Billy said. “It was seen as, ‘You’re just stuck up, and you think you’re better than us.’”
Around that time, Jennifer’s mother remembers, her daughter started calling Courtney “goody two-shoes.”
In her work, Payne outlines four criteria that must be met for people to propel themselves from the culture of poverty. First, they need a vision for the future, a goal to keep them going. Second, they must have a talent or skill that will make that goal reachable. Third, they need a relationship with someone who can help them see a different reality for themselves.
And finally, the pain of the current situation must become intolerable.
By the time Courtney was in eighth grade, she had the goal. She had the skill. She had Coach Billy, encouraging her to look ahead to the future.
Pain was all around her: at home, where she couldn’t count on her parents. At school, where her childhood friends were making dangerous decisions. Even in basketball, where she missed practices and games because her mom expected her to care for her younger siblings – dressing them, feeding them, changing diapers.
But on Sept. 9, 2005, in an incident detailed in a St. Clair County sheriff’s report, the pain became too much to bear.
Courtney was 14 years old, riding with her dad in his van, not far from their home. She asked him for some money – to buy tampons, she remembers – and he stopped the van in the middle of their block. Tony Weeden marched to the passenger-side door, jerked it open and pulled her out.
He returned to the driver’s seat, and Courtney approached his window just as her father drove off. She had to step out of the van’s way to avoid a collision.
“He has a drinking problem,” the police report quotes Courtney as saying, “and he gets mad easy.”
She was done – done with her mom, even done with her dad. Done with her old friends, who weren’t really friends anymore. Done with showering and eating at other people’s houses because no one at her house could supply a hot shower and a decent meal. And she was done with her parents’ responsibilities at home taking priority over her responsibilities to herself and her future.
Courtney reached out to her aunt in Dayton, Ohio. She had spent some happy visits at the aunt’s home, and always found herself wishing she didn’t have to leave. “Please, please, please come get me,” Courtney pleaded with her.
But before Courtney could leave State Park Place, she needed to say goodbye to the person who had helped her see the way out.
Lori Billy remembers the phone call. “I need you to come over to the middle school,” a teacher there told her. “We need to talk. It’s regarding Courtney.”
At the school, Billy found Courtney in the teacher’s classroom. “Miss Billy,” she said. “I’ve got something to tell you.”
In one more year, Courtney would join Billy and the Kahoks at the high school, a day both of them had looked forward to since Billy tapped Courtney to join the big kids on the fifth-grade team.
“I have the chance to move to Ohio and live with my aunt,” Courtney said. Her coach remembers the tears in the girl’s eyes, but also her resolve. “And I’m going to do it.”
Billy, who had spent years helping Courtney solve problems, reacted by trying to find a different solution for this one: Courtney could live with another AAU family in Collinsville. Maybe the Bluemners, who had long wanted to help Courtney in any way they could, would take her in. Then, Courtney would still live close by – close enough to be a Kahok. Billy would live up to her promise to help Courtney get a college scholarship.
“This was my kid. This was my girl,” Billy said. “She was the one I had worked with and tried to help, and finally she was going to be mine at the high school, and I was going to make it all better for her.”
But this time, the coach could see, was different. Courtney’s determination to work hard had turned into a stony realization that she couldn’t succeed from home. Billy also knew enough about the cycle of the community to know that if Courtney stayed nearby, the problems would follow her, pull her back and hold her down – perhaps, eventually, forever.
“You can’t stay here. You’ve got to go. I get it,” she recalled saying. “Courtney, it breaks my heart, but you’ve got to do this.”
The coach cried all the way back to Kreitner.
The student in the second row of Amy Boyd’s French class at Brookville High School was loud. Loud, opinionated, with poor grammar – in English, not just French.
Plus, this girl’s feelings about the class were clear. “I hate French,” Courtney Weeden announced 10 minutes into the first day. “I wanted to take Spanish, but they wouldn’t let me in.”
Brookville, Ohio, is a community of nearly 6,000 people just west of Dayton. Its motto, “Proud and Progressive,” is fitting for a community with a restored train depot and a bustling community theater. It was not Courtney’s first stop in Ohio; after a few months with her aunt in nearby Dayton, she thought about giving up and heading home to Illinois. But then her cousin offered her a place to stay, and Courtney changed schools before starting her freshman year at Brookville High.
The transition wasn’t easy. Among her State Park Place friends, Courtney had been the rule-follower, the people-pleaser, the kid in whom teachers wrapped their goals and dreams. But her character had also picked up an edgy toughness that went unnoticed in her hometown. Dropped into Brookville, amid small-town teen dramas and the pecking orders of cliques, Courtney’s hard edges were exposed like a coat of armor.
As Courtney got to know this new place, she saw that Brookville parents tended to show up at their kids’ basketball games and cared who their children’s friends were. She found herself yearning for someone like that – a role model, someone to be on her side, someone to help her make the right choices.
She needed a Coach Billy.
She found her in, of all places, that French class she hadn’t wanted to take. A mother of three, Amy Boyd had lived in Brookville all her life, and establishing rules and setting high expectations for teenagers seemed to be what she did best.
In her classroom, she instructed her students to never cross an imaginary line around her desk, ever. And the students? They respected the line they couldn’t see.
No one had ever before set boundaries for Courtney; she had always set them for herself.
That summer, Amy Boyd received a text from a phone number she didn’t recognize.
“Can I be your aide this year?” it read.
She shared the message with her husband, Brad, a middle school teacher. “I bet this is from Courtney Weeden,” she told him.
“What’s wrong with that?” Brad Boyd answered.
“She,” Amy Boyd acknowledged, “would drive me crazy.”
Her husband’s answer would change their family’s lives: “She needs you.”
As the student aide in Mrs. Boyd’s classroom, Courtney was allowed to step beyond the imaginary line that barred other students from approaching the desk. There, in the corner of the French classroom, she and Mrs. Boyd started to talk.
Courtney told her all about State Park Place – about the Cahokia Mounds and the drugs and the gym at Kreitner that was too small for regulation basketball. She told her about the friends who had dropped out of school, about the pervasiveness of cocaine and the growing popularity of heroin. She told her how she used to go to work with her dad, and he used to come to her games, until he didn’t. She told her about her little brother and her two younger sisters and the guilt she felt over leaving them behind. She told her about Coach Billy and the teachers at Kreitner and her dream of playing college basketball.
Courtney started asking Mrs. Boyd to draw other lines in her life, asking for her teacher’s permission to go to a party or hang out with a new friend. Courtney even ventured to call Mrs. Boyd “Mom” a few times – just a little joke to acknowledge that, yes, this deepening relationship was unusual.
Mrs. Boyd reciprocated, tracking Courtney’s grades just as she did her own children’s. Once, when Mrs. Boyd noticed that the girl was earning a C in a class, the teacher did what she would have done with her own kids: She took away Courtney’s cell phone.
“I brought it home with me for the weekend, and I felt so awful, like, ‘I can’t do that. I don’t have the right to do that,’” Amy Boyd recalled. “But I don’t think anyone had ever done something like that for her before.”
By Courtney’s junior year, the Boyds – Brad, Amy, their two daughters, Katie and Emma, and their son Jake – were attending all of Courtney’s basketball games. Courtney and Katie, just one year apart, became friends, and Courtney found herself at the Boyds’ home after every game.
Courtney and her coat of armor required some time to assimilate in the halls of her new small-town school. But on the basketball court at Brookville High School, she fit in right away.
She earned the team Rookie of the Year award as a freshman and was named to the all-league team as a sophomore. She was a versatile all-around player, averaging 11.3 rebounds and 30.1 points per game her senior year. But the scoring records Courtney set at Brookville High demonstrate what she did best on the court. She broke records for most points in a game (43); points per season (662); career points (1,576); and successful three-point shots (108).
As a kid, Courtney had always wanted to be a three-point shooter, but she had to grow into the shot, and find her sweet spot deep in the corner. By the end of her high school career, she was landing 41 percent of her attempts from three-point range.
In her sophomore year at Brookville, Coach Billy’s vision for Courtney’s future started to materialize as emails in Courtney’s inbox. Still living in her cousin’s basement, she was receiving as many as 25 emails each day and tried to answer each message individually, sending recruiters her schedule, providing advice on which game they should see.
This college dream was within reach, but she still didn’t know how it would look. She couldn’t figure out which promises to believe, which offer to accept.
For Courtney’s 17th birthday, Amy Boyd made her a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and “Happy Birthday, Courtney!” scrawled on the top. They celebrated at the Boyds’ home. And with the family gathered around the dining room table, and a cake before her punctuated with 17 candles that looked like exclamation points, Courtney knew she didn’t want this college dream to take her far from home.
And she wanted her home to be with the Boyds.
Brad and Amy Boyd met Courtney’s parents at the Carpet King in State Park Place. The two sets of parents shook hands, exchanged hellos.
“They didn’t ask us one question,” Amy Boyd remembers. “Not ‘Who are you?’ Not ‘What are your intentions?’ Nothing at all.”
Together, they walked across the street to the State Park Place hardware store, where a notary public worked. The Boyds handed over the required $13 notary fee. Then, they all signed the paperwork: Courtney’s mom, Courtney’s dad, Courtney’s new mom, Courtney’s new dad.
The Boyds officially had custody of the girl they had come to think of as their daughter.
“They signed over their daughter at the hardware store,” Amy Boyd said, “and that was it.”
Within weeks, Courtney wanted the Boyds to adopt her. “She wanted to get to a point where she was a Boyd, we were Boyds,” Brad Boyd said, “and there was no explanation necessary unless she wanted to give one.”
Unlike signing over custody, Courtney’s dad was angered by the idea of adoption. And yet, on the day the adoption was finalized – 12 days before Courtney’s 18th birthday – no one showed up to contest it.
On a summer day between her junior and senior year in high school, Courtney sat at a table draped with a college banner in front of a backdrop adorned with the name of her high school. To her left bobbed blue and white balloons for the Brookville Blue Devils; to her right, green and gold for the Wright State Raiders.
This scene is what a dream looks like when it is actualized: from a coach’s mind, to a child’s vision of the future, to a high school girl who worked hard to get here.
The Boyds took Courtney on at least a half-dozen college visits, all of them within Ohio. She would like the facilities at one school, the coaching staff at another. But when she considered what this college dream would look like, a guard spot at an emerging Division I program in her own backyard felt like the perfect fit.
Wright State is close enough to Brookville that Courtney could combine her dream of a college basketball scholarship with her newfound need to get to know her new family.
And, just as important, Wright State has an education program where Courtney could pursue her other plan for her future: Courtney plans to become a teacher – just like Coach Billy, just like the teachers at Kreitner, just like Amy Boyd, just like Brad Boyd.
If Courtney’s signing day were the end of her story, it would end happily. But even from 350 miles away, State Park Place is never far from her mind.
The Boyds now have custody of Tony Jr., Courtney’s little brother. Not long after Courtney came to live with the family, Tony’s teacher contacted her, reporting that the boy was living with relatives and that she was concerned for his safety. The Boyds pursued custody of him – a move Courtney and Tony Jr.’s parents supported – and the boy, too, came to live in Brookville.
Back in State Park Place, the situation deteriorated. In 2012, Courtney’s friend Jennifer – the one who used to join Courtney in games of street basketball before dropping out of school in seventh grade – was found dead in a reputed drug house. She had overdosed on heroin not long after her mother had begged a drug court judge to send her daughter to rehab. Months later, the judge himself was arrested for possession of heroin.
Recently, even the basketball court – the place where Courtney has always felt most at home – has been challenging. As a freshman, she averaged eight points per game for a season that included 70 successful 3-pointers. And then she raised the bar in her second year, starting 24 games, playing more minutes and scoring more points. As a sophomore, Courtney averaged 9.8 points per game and landed 85 3-pointers.
But in a preseason game her junior year, she tore her ACL. She spent the next year recovering from surgery and in rehab, aching to get back to the game. She was cleared for practice in September – and then, the next day, Courtney awoke to a voicemail from her birth mom in State Park Place. “Your dad just died,” the message said. “Call me.”
Courtney, who was just learning what it was to be someone’s child, returned to State Park Place in September to be the adult who steered her family through the aftermath of her dad’s death. She took on the burden of paying for his funeral and burial, declining to have him cremated. The final bill totaled $8,500; people who have supported Courtney throughout her life – Kreitner teachers, Brookville and Wright State basketball fans, her dad’s boss at the carpet store – stepped forward with contributions for funeral expenses, but Courtney still owes several hundred dollars.
After the funeral, when she returned to Wright State, Courtney started the first three games of the season, but her comeback – from both her ACL injury and her dad’s death – hasn’t been as thorough as she and her coach had hoped.
“She’s been through some stuff. She’s been through more than most 19- or 20-year-old kids have been through,” said Mike Bradbury, women’s basketball coach at Wright State. “I would only assume that helps you bounce back. She’s mentally and physically a tough kid and a good kid that works really hard.
“We’ve had meeting after meeting – nothing set up, she’ll just walk in my office and say, ‘What have I got to do to get to play? I want to play,’” Bradbury continued. “I say, ‘Courtney, I want you to play, too. I saw what you did your first two years here. We’ve just got to keep working to get back to that.’”
Courtney will finish her bachelor’s degree in education this spring. When she returns next year for her master’s at Wright State, she plans to also return to the basketball team, using her final year of eligibility. By then, Courtney hopes, she will be more fully recovered from her wounds.
Even from the bench, Courtney can spot her family, the whole bunch of them, in the front rows of the balcony. There’s her little brother Tony with dark hair and full cheeks like hers; a younger sister, Emma, with a knit cap and a cell phone; two grandmas and two grandpas, including Grandpa Boyd in his fedora and Grandma Behm with her white, short-cropped hair; and Amy and Brad, whom Courtney calls Mom and Dad.
After the game Courtney will greet her mom with a hug and drape her arm around Tony. But even though she now has all these family members showing up for games in which she might get three minutes of court time, Courtney still feels something is missing: her two younger sisters.
The girls have visited the Boyds’ home – the youngest even lived with the family for a year – but chose to go back home, to the familiar surroundings of State Park Place. “I’ve always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to help them,” Courtney said, “and maybe get them to come live here.”
That goal – giving her sisters the same kind of future vision that Coach Billy gave Courtney – is what keeps her tied to State Park Place.
Payne, the poverty expert Coach Billy likes to cite, said people who succeed in pulling themselves from poverty often face new dilemmas. They feel guilty that they cannot repay those who helped them, and they want to rescue those they left behind.
“What she can do is give back, maybe not to her siblings, but to all the people she will help,” Payne said. “That’s how life works, and she is going to pay it forward to someone else. The way she gives back to the people who helped her is to help other people in the future.”
As a teacher and coach, Courtney hopes to have plenty of opportunities to give back. And she has an idea of what grade level she wants to teach: middle school.
“That’s when I was going through a tough time, trying to decide if I wanted to move away or stay there,” Courtney said. “That’s when a lot of teachers had a really big influence on what I was going through. They influenced me the right way.
“I feel like that’s a good time to help a kid, when you can still … ,” Courtney said, never finishing her sentence. “It’s not too late.”