By Mia Crow
Point Park News Service
When he finished a professional basketball career in France, Nehemiah Brazil thought back to his days on the mean streets of Pittsburgh’s North side where he not only experienced trouble but saw it all around him.
As a 15-year old, he was lured to those streets, but somehow managed to leave them for an education spurred by his basketball skills.
When his basketball career ended, the devoutly religious man came back home to work in a year-round basketball program for Urban Impact, where he hopes to help kids escape the wrath of guns, drugs and gang violence in one of Pittsburgh’s most volatile neighborhoods.
“When I was growing up there was not a lot of opportunities for young kids to do much in my neighborhood and I always wanted to build a place for them to have those opportunities.” Brazil stated with steely-eyed conviction.
Urban Impact is a youth outreach ministry that seeks to provide community development, a spiritual base and find significant ways to relate these ideals to the youth of the Northside. Brazil is the group’s urban missionary, where he provides support and resources in obtaining a higher education and runs the organization’s Basketball Teams Program. Brazil anticipates that his life stories and experiences will help them to think and make the best choices for their lives and some of God’s words will also be influential in those decisions.
With his easy smile and laid back demeanor, Brazil doesn’t look like he was once on the corner selling drugs or on the road to destruction until he sat down to tell of his journey. He sighed deeply as his thoughts take him back to a time when the thought of having to fight his friend over a drug deal gone wrong and his overnight stint in Schuman Juvenile Detention Center after he was caught selling drugs on the corner of Charles and Perrysville Avenue.
“That one day felt like a life time. I never got in trouble before so I got probation, but it really disturbed my mom because she did all she could do to make sure we had what we needed…that life can pull you in if you’re not grounded.” Brazil says as he also noticed the effect drugs had on families. On the day he was caught he sold drugs to a man and his girlfriend who abandoned their kids for dope. Brazil says he felt terrible guilt for contributing to the troubles of that family. He also gives his parents credit of taking a stance together to get him out of that life.
“That was something I’d never seen, my parents taking a stance together against me selling drugs. That shocked me. This was the first time they came together since I was five years old.” If the drugs weren’t enough, street gangs were beginning to take over the corners of the Charles and Perrysville where he lived. He remembers many of them.
“Many of those guys are either locked up or dead now. I knew it was only because of God that I didn’t make the same choice. I believe it is my path in life to be here for the kids in my neighborhood. I know most of their parents and I was put here to show them a better way.” Brazil said sighed.
Once he got out of the drug mess in the early 1990’s, Brazil, in the 9th grade, decided to concentrate on school and try out for Perry’s basketball team. At the time he was only 5’8” tall and he didn’t make the team that was loaded with future NCAA Division One players like Eddie Benton, Malik Hightower and Will Macon.
The team was so good; he didn’t even try out in 10th grade, instead playing in church and neighborhood leagues until high school graduation.
Not only did the sandlot leagues help him improve his basketball skills, but he had grown to over six feet tall.
On the playground hoop courts at the time, Brazil started noticing he was improving enough to play tough against some of the star players he grew up with.
“I started noticing how my skills were improving and I was like man I want to go somewhere and make something of this…The only place I knew that made sense was Community College of Allegheny County. I didn’t take my SAT’s and I didn’t do necessary stuff to get in a four year school.” Brazil explains.
Before he enrolled at CCAC, Brazil was recruited by the U.S. Government’s Job Corp program. In exchange getting an education and following through with the program, they paid for his education, a bus pass and money to spend on clothing and books. It changed his life. Soon after, he quit his job to attend CCAC full time and play basketball there.
Now 6’5” tall, Brazil thrived in 2 seasons at CCAC, which earned him a scholarship to Kutztown State University.
After a dominating career there, his coach told him about a professional French league that needed players and before he knew it, he was living in the South of France, playing in an international basketball league. Over the ensuing decade, he played on four teams Aix Les Baines, Feurs, Vitre and Blois. Two of those teams won the championships and Brazil earned league MVP three times and a career average of 20 points per game.
Brazil laughs as he describes how he had to adjust to life in another country. He still vividly remembers his first stop, when the French coaches took him to the city of Aix Les Baines, his first stop. The car didn’t have any air conditioning and the road to the city wrapped around a mountain and was winding. The car was zooming down the hill swerving and Brazil said he was bent over, holding his stomach and ready to throw up. He was car sick for the first time in his life. He lived with a Frenchwoman who rented him and a teammate a small apartment.
Brazil says he appreciated being in France learning another culture and playing a game he loved he said it was hard at first and he spent time reading the bible and establishing his own relationship with God. That first year in France, it was quiet, there was no television so he would sit in his room and read the bible to fill time and he began to realize how important a role God played in his life thus far. Brazil said that playing ball in France was a cutthroat business, if he didn’t do well in a game or he would do well and the team wasn’t, they could cut them and find another American and they weren’t obligated to pay the player the rest of the money they were contracted to be paid.
“There were many stories about the behavior of American players who would go in the office and steal all the liquor and use the phone calling America and ran up the bill…many of my teammates would complement me on how well I carried myself.”
Another pivotal moment in Brazil’s life was as he says, getting serious with his now wife, Precious, who was the first person he’d seen “bring church home.” He says he knew about church and how people would go to church receive the word and leave it at the church door. His wife would listen to gospel music, sang in the choir and watch gospel programming.
Brazil says he admired her commitment to her beliefs and he admired that and while he was in France he took the time to get his life right with God. By his second year in France Brazil had married Precious and brought his daughter and young son along with him. His daughter was five and in kindergarten and his son was three they both attended a school in Aix Les Baines where they only spoke French; both of his children were speaking the language within the year and by the time they had their last two children who also learned French, his older children were completely bilingual.
“We left France when my daughter was in sixth grade, she’s now in high school and she is fluent in French. My sons came home speaking French but eventually forgot it because they didn’t have anyone speaking with them constantly,” said Brazil proudly.
They had two more sons in the nine years he played in France. Throughout it all, Brazil’s burgeoning religion and his desire to help the kids in his neighborhood urging him to return to the North Side to achieve that goal.
“When I was growing up there was not a lot of opportunities for young kids to do much in my neighborhood and I always build a place for them.” Brazil said. He knew there were opportunities outside of the North Side, if only kids would realize it.
“My world views and my mentality of being in the hood changed when I went to France. It was a good experience, we learned another language and we were able to meet people of different nationalities.” Brazil said.
Brazil talked with excitement of his growth in his relationship with God he says, “I want to go back to where I came from and be able to walk amongst the people and share with them, this is where basketball took me, but ultimately where God brought me…I’ve come from the same situation you’ve come from, up against the same things.” Brazil’s believes his life story and the positive change he made with his belief in God is the message he sends to the kids he works with at Urban Impact. “There is a better way and they can make better choices, through Christ.”
Brazil coaches Urban Impacts high school boys’ varsity and junior varsity basketball teams, who are going well this season; V is 7-0 and the JV is 6-2. Brazil aspires to one day teach high school math, coach high school basketball and become a pastor of a church someday. His family has adjusted very well to life in America, his daughter, who is a sophomore at North Catholic high school. She helps the kids who are struggling in French and plays AAU basketball with Pittsburgh Impact a team Brazil is the coach.
“Fatherlessness is an important factor in these kids’ lives and God has placed me in their lives for a reason, to be a positive role model and to show them another way.”