Inside Rysheed Jordan’s fight for basketball redemption after prison

Rysheed Jordan’s mind would go racing. He couldn’t help it. He was in prison, locked up. There was so much time to think, and he always seemed to wind up in the same place.

How did I get here?

How did the top high school player in Pennsylvania, “The Prince of North Philly,” as he was known, wind up behind bars after being charged with attempted murder? How did everything go so wrong? How did such a bright future — some felt an NBA future — become a cautionary tale?

“It didn’t feel real,” he said recently in a sit-down interview with The Post. “Sitting behind bars, your dreams are just crushed. You’re thinking to yourself, ‘Wow, I’m a waste of talent.’”

It’s been four months since Jordan was released from prison, but that depressing feeling still pushes him, along with the memory of his beloved mother, Amina Robinson, and desire to make a better life for his large family. He’s trying to remake his shattered life, playing with the semi-professional Camden Monarchs of the ABA before the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic in the hope of jump-starting his career. He has given several motivational talks to high school and middle-school students about his regrets, imploring young people from his hometown of Philadelphia not to make the same mistakes he made.

Jordan, now 25, said prison changed him. He matured and grew up. Those closest to him echo that sentiment.

“I think he’s onto something, and I’m hoping and praying for him,” said Kamal Yard, one of Jordan’s mentors and his longtime AAU coach. “He has a plan and it seems like he wants to execute it.”

At the time of Jordan’s commitment to St. John’s in April 2013, he was considered an elite prospect, a five-star recruit ranked No. 17 in his class by ESPN. The 6-foot-4 uber-athletic point guard initially committed to UCLA, but when coach Ben Howland was fired, he wound up choosing the Johnnies over hometown Temple. Jordan took the road less traveled in high school, staying at Robert Vaux, a small public high school in Philly’s North Central neighborhood, when so many inner-city stars would leave for posh prep schools. He led Vaux to the 2012-13 Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Athletics Association (PIAA) Class A state championship, the school’s first such title, and was the PIAA Player of the Year after averaging 24.8 points, 6.1 rebounds 4.3 assists and 3.3 steals per game.

“In high school, this was a kid I saw get 50, 60 points in a game, torch the nets from all angles,” Steve Lavin, St. John’s coach at the time, said during his sophomore year in Queens. “He’s someone that can score in a variety of ways.”

He was heralded by some as the best St. John’s recruit since Felipe Lopez and was voted the Big East preseason Rookie of the Year, expected to help take the program to a new level. Lavin said his talent entering college reminded him of former NBA star Baron Davis, who played for him at UCLA, in the way he could impact both ends of the floor. But in two seasons, Jordan never quite put it all together, averaging 12 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 42.7 percent from the field.

There were off-the-court issues, such as a homophobic tweet, a suspension for violating team rules and a leave of absence during his sophomore year. Lavin shielded him from the media. He talked just once, during the 2015 NCAA Tournament, as mandated by the NCAA.

The summer before his freshman year, while Jordan was in France with St. John’s for a preseason tour, one of his close friends, Aaron McDaniels, was killed by a police officer in a car chase in Philadelphia. Two weeks later, his mother was hospitalized, and he returned home.

That same season, Jordan’s aunt, Niaja Kane, was murdered while he was playing in a game at Villanova. He was frequently going home to Philadelphia, doing his best to take care of his ill mother and his large family while keeping up with his responsibilities at St. John’s.

“There were times he would have uneven performances and a lot of that had to do with the shouldering of trying to be the leader of his family,” Lavin said in a phone interview. “He performed remarkably well for us when you consider the number of challenges that were in play with his life during that period.”

Jordan was admittedly “all over the place” his two years in Queens. He said his head wasn’t on straight. During his interview with The Post, he owned failing to live up to the sky-high expectations. Looking back, Jordan doesn’t regret going to St. John’s, even if it allowed him to fall into bad habits by being so close to home. He remains close with several members of his former team and the coaching staff, speaking to or text-messaging with many of them daily. Lavin visited him while he was behind bars and remains a part of his life, several years after coaching him.

“He never left my side. That shows a lot about him,” Jordan said. “What Coach said when he first recruited me was that they’re a family. He really meant that.”

Still, Jordan admits, maybe his life would have been different if he stuck with UCLA, if his home wasn’t only a few hours away.

“If I was out in Cali, chances are I would been what I was supposed to be,” he said.

Life began to take a wrong turn following his sophomore year. Lavin was let go, replaced by Chris Mullin. Jordan initially thought it was best to move on. But three weeks later, he had a change of heart. By that time, he had fallen behind academically. He skipped finals and also missed the cutoff date to enter the NBA draft.

He wound up getting selected fifth overall in the NBA D-League (now G-League) draft by the Delaware 87ers, but only played in 11 games before getting released. He admits he was hanging around with the wrong people, putting himself in bad situations. On June 1, 2016, Jordan was arrested for the first time in his life. A May 27 stickup gone wrong outside the Athletic Recreation Center in Philadelphia led to a man being shot twice in the arm. Jordan was seen on video surveillance running toward the scene of the crime and admitted to the police it was him on the tape. According to police reports, Jordan and two others attempted to rob two victims who were there to buy marijuana, and shots were fired. He faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Instead, he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, robbery and possession of a firearm for a reduced sentence and served 3 ¹/₂ years at State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands in Somerset, Pa.

“I just pleaded guilty, because who knows how long it would take?” he said. “I probably would still be in jail fighting the case. I know I needed to be home.”

Jordan insisted he merely ran into a few friends and wound up in the wrong place at the right time, that it happened in a flash. Still, he wouldn’t give up any of his friends. He did the time without breaking.

“It’s the way I was brought up,” he said. “You stand on your own 10 toes.”

Since getting out, Jordan had made some needed changes. He was spending most of his time with family and a few friends with their heads on straight before the coronavirus pandemic has limited social interaction. He was working out twice a day and speaking to kids about the wrong choices he made. His cousin, Porsha Moore, said he has left behind the entourage that would lead to trouble. He doesn’t just talk about doing the right thing. So far, he is acting on it. When they talk, Lavin believes Jordan understands there is a long road ahead, telling him he can only go one day at a time and is focused on making the right decisions.

“He’s determined to right his wrong,” Moore said.

It began as soon as he was released. Jordan spent his second free day at Mathematics, Civics, and Sciences Charter School. He offered his story, described how his life had gone wrong. At these talks, he doesn’t bring prepared notes. He prefers to speak from the heart, hoping it will impact another life, help someone else avoid the missteps that have befallen him. He has discussed his own regret, about being a follower, not valuing what was important.

“Each one I almost cried literally,” said the Rev. Stan Laws, the Monarchs coach who along with team owner Giovanni Thompson has helped Jordan set up speaking engagements. “It’s just heart-wrenching to hear his story.”

“It almost functions as a therapy session for him,” Yard, Jordan’s AAU coach, said.

Prison was difficult on its own. It grew increasingly harder on July 15, 2019, the day his mother passed away from heart problems. The two talked every day when he was away in prison, and she routinely made the long trek to visit him. He thought it was a nightmare, unable to be by her side for her last breaths. Jordan didn’t attend the funeral, preferring to stay locked up because of the grief. When he started suiting up with the Monarchs, he wrote the day of her death, 7-15-19, on his sneakers. Her memory, what she wanted him to accomplish — make a career out of his passion and support his six younger siblings — remains with him.

“Every day I wake up, that’s my motivation,” he said.

Joining the Monarchs was the first step, at the suggestion of Laws. The two have known each since Jordan was in middle school and Laws had kept in contact when he was behind bars.

Thompson was in favor of bringing him in. She bought the team to offer young men like Jordan second chances. He instantly became the team’s best player, averaged 33.0 points, 11.3 assists, 8.9 rebounds and 5.6 steals in five games, and helped boost ticket sales. He made $150-$200 per game and earned additional money for the amount of tickets he personally sold. Before the season was cut short, his travel restrictions were lifted locally, allowing him to go to road games, and a few teams overseas had expressed interest. That could be the next step, as long as Jordan can continue to prove he’s rehabilitated, to play overseas or in the G-League.

“There’s no way in the world I should be coaching this young man,” Laws said.

To Jordan, it was a perfect starting point. Friends and family members could see him play, as he worked himself into shape, and most importantly, he would be on a basketball court again. The first game was emotional. He had nerves. It had been almost four years since his last organized game.

“I really couldn’t believe it,” he said.

The major question is how long will this last. Has Jordan matured? Can he stay on the right path? Even Yard admitted he’s still in the honeymoon phase, when freedom is new, and everyone is happy to have him back.

Bad habits can be easy to fall back into. The challenge, Jordan acknowledged, is keeping the right company. That means his family. That means Yard. That means Laws and Thompson. That means relying on Lavin and his St. John’s family.

“Surround yourself with positive people, people who want the best for you,” Jordan said.

His self-confidence remains high. He talks in certainties, not possibilities. He still plans on reaching the NBA one day. Making a better life for his family. Being someone who kids growing up in Philadelphia can look up to one day.

“I wouldn’t let myself get back to [where I was], because I know what it’s going to lead me back to,” he said. “I stay away.”

He’ll come home and see his brothers watching his old highlight clips sometimes. Jordan will watch with them on occasion. It doesn’t make him sad. It serves as further fuel. There will be new highlights to come. The way he sees it, it’s all part of his story that has yet to be fully written.

“I was up at one point,” he said, “I fell and I’m still fighting to get back to where I was.”

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