Chasson Randle can't help but think what more he could have done to help. He was barely a teenager at the time, but years later he still racks his mind for something - anything - that would have redirected them to the right path.
There was the friend who could dunk by the time he was in seventh grade, the real hyped talent always head and shoulders above the rest. He got caught up in the wrong crowd, left town and people have since lost track of him.
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Then there was the other friend who was undersized but had the speed that gave him a chance to be special on the court. He, too, fell in with the wrong people. He was shot and killed.
"Things like that happen that I wish I could take back. What could I say to my friends back then that could have kept us all in the circle?" Randle said. "We're talking sixth, seventh, eighth grade. These guys, I hate to say it, got involved in the wrong stuff early. I'm the type of guy who tries to lead by example when I can. We had them around our families, gave them rides to tournaments. We would try to talk about the right things, but it's the things when you're not around. What are those people saying to you? What are you doing in those moments you aren't with each other?"
Randle has transformed those nagging questions into a cause. The Sixers' point guard speaks with inmates at the Scott County Juvenile Detention Center in Davenport, Iowa, whenever he returns home to Rock Island, Illinois.
Randle got involved with the center through his eighth grade basketball coach Harlee Miller, who now works there. Miller instilled lessons of respect that stuck with Randle and are apparent through his interactions. Randle greets reporters with a firm handshake and makes it a point to stand up at his locker for interviews. When Randle had an opportunity to echo those values imparted by Miller to others, he embraced it.
"It's about trying to reach out to the kids and give them some kind of inspiration and positive motivation to do better," he said.
Randle wasn't a troublemaker. His neighborhood wasn't one where he had to escape problems but if someone wanted to find some, as in most settings, they could. Randle emerged as a standout high school basketball player and went on to become Stanford's all-time leading scorer. He also completed his undergraduate degree ahead of his senior year and began working toward his master's in psychology, all while pursuing an NBA career.
With those gleaming accomplishments, how could he relate to those at the detention center? When Randle's friends went astray, he saw firsthand the negative effects of their misguided decisions, from stealing cars to drugs to gangs.
"It's easy for me (to relate) because I grew up with those type of kids. I played basketball with them," Randle said. "Some of my close friends didn't make it, they got caught up in it. I had examples in front of me of seeing how things went for people when they went the other way. I didn't want to be that guy. I've seen people go this way before, let me go that way."
Randle estimates he has made 10 visits to the center. A basketball court on the property provided the perfect setting to make a connection that had a long-lasting impact.
"There was one kid who was in there for getting in trouble in school, he was involved with gang stuff," Randle said. "He was into basketball so we got to shoot hoops together. The last time I came back (home), I went to the mall and I saw him out. That was pretty cool. He was telling me he appreciated me spending time with him. For me, that's gratifying."
Randle's off-the-court demeanor was not lost on the Sixers when they brought him on board for a 10-day contract and re-signed him to a second contract Friday. In addition to stepping in without hesitation and scoring 10 points (including two threes) in his NBA debut, Brett Brown noted the weight Randle's reputation carries.
"He's a four-year Stanford graduate that comes with a very distinct pedigree and intellect and maturity that adds to 'team,'" Brown said. "Albeit new, he really adds to what we're trying to build in relation to the guys that we invite in our program. He's a high character guy."
Randle is achieving his goals. For all his childhood friends who didn't, he hopes those he meets now can.
"I wish I could have had more of an impact on my friends," Randle said. "I feel like it's my responsibility to try to reach and touch somebody. If I can touch one, then I feel like I've done something."