- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003

As the point guard for the Washington Bullets’ 1978 NBA champions, Tom Henderson was known as a tough and feisty playmaker who never backed down to bigger opponents nor temperamental, out-of-line teammates. That has served him well during his post-basketball life.”It takes a certain kind of toughness and endurance to live with somebody else’s children who have been so damaged,” Larry Misiak said.Misiak is the foster care coordinator for DePelchin Children’s Center, a Houston agency that serves troubled families in a variety of ways. One way is assigning kids to trained, qualified foster parents like Tom Henderson and his wife, Denolis. Since 1986, three years after Henderson retired from the NBA, they have taken about 60 youngsters into their home, also located in Houston.However a normal, happy life is defined, that does not apply here. “These are very disturbed kids that come from very disturbed backgrounds,” Misiak said.Said Henderson: “I’ve got to try to give them the best I can give them.”Kevin Grevey is not surprised at the direction his former teammate has taken. “Because of his kindness,” Grevey said. “You can still be a fierce competitor but still be a good sport, a good guy. Tom was certainly that. A lot of people used to challenge him.”The Bullets back then had one of the league’s great frontlines: Elvin Hayes, Bob Dandridge, Wes Unseld in the middle. Few opponents were dumb enough to mess with them.”So the guys that got challenged were Tommy and me,” said Grevey, a restaurant owner in Falls Church. “That’s where they thought they could beat us. I always thought I could battle, and so could Tommy. Guys would post him up, foul him, try different things. That was a big mistake. He used to go out there with a smile on his face and then beat you up. We called him ‘Sugar Bear.’ He’d attack you like a bear.”Larry Misiak said Henderson has exactly the right mindset and personality for the responsibilities he and his wife have chosen to assume.”I think the discipline he had as a basketball player probably serves him as well in this business as well as anything,” Misiak said. “And I think his [6-foot-3] size has something to do with it. I think it has a way of keeping kids in line.”We see the result of some rather poor home life and poor parenting, and in most cases there has been serious abuse and neglect, where these kids have been damaged emotionally and, in some cases, physically. Tom and Denolis have a pretty thick skin. They let things bounce off them.”And off their walls. Many of the children know no other way to express themselves except through violence.”These kids do damage,” Misiak said. “When you bring them into your home and they’re angry, aggressive kids, they’re gonna be busting things up. They can put their fist through a wall. They can be destructive in other ways I’d rather not mention.”Henderson, 51, keeps the basketball memorabilia, including the framed jersey he got when he attended the recent 25th anniversary celebration of the Bullets’ championship, out of harm’s way. Everything else is fair game.”I had a clock for 20 years, televisions, all kinds of stuff they can break,” he said. “I can replace that. You can’t have anything you can’t replace.”The Hendersons are paid for being foster parents, but most of the money is used as reimbursement for expenses. They are not getting rich off this. Currently, they have three boys, two of them brothers. The oldest of the three, who is 10, suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. “He’s just slow,” Henderson said. “He has that look on his face all the time, that sad look.”The 8-year-old has Attention Deficit Disorder. His brother has something known as Opposition Defiant Disorder.”He wants to fight all the time, wants to be first all the time, wants to do everything his way,” Henderson said.The boy is 6.”He and his brother were crack babies,” Henderson said. “The agency doesn’t tell you that.”The Hendersons provide a caring environment, laced with teaching life’s lessons and a lot of love, some of it tough. What Henderson and his wife try to do is “take [the kids] out of a dark spot and into a bright spot,” he said. “I’ve always felt confident I could reach them. But I’m not gonna save every child. Some don’t want to be saved. … My wife figures with love and prayer everything will be OK, but these kids need their medication, too.”The amount of time a child stays with the Hendersons varies. It mostly depends on the child’s family, whether the birth parent is fit and able to resume care. The two brothers, for example, will stay indefinitely because their mother continues to use drugs.”Nobody else can handle ‘em,” said Henderson, who is fighting a small, private war against a large problem. There are about 5 million children in Texas. According to recent statistics, 46,000 have been abused or neglected. Those are the reported cases. The actual cases number almost 200,000.The Hendersons have two grown children and two grandchildren, all of whom live in the area. Henderson said Denolis declined to be interviewed but relayed this message: “She said she did this because she wanted to feel needed as a mother.”Henderson’s full-time job deals with the same type of children, those who have come to be known as “at-risk.” He is a licensed administrator at the Sheltering Harbor Residential Treatment Center, located in Spring, Texas, a Houston suburb. The children who live there are between the ages of 10 and 17, and all have been ordered to the facility by courts or because of probation violations.”There are all kinds of issues,” Henderson said. “Sexual issues, issues with the law, physical abuse. This is their sentence.”Sheltering Harbor includes five converted houses located within 10 minutes of one another. Henderson runs the South building. Each house holds 14 to 16 children who attend school outside the facility, which has basketball and volleyball courts. Every morning, Henderson inspects the rooms, making sure the beds are made, the floors mopped. He does administrative work during the day and supervises recreation, study and “quiet” time when they return from school.If a resident is having problems at school, a frequent occurrence, he will try to sort it out with him. “My kids have a tendency to cuss teachers out,” he said. Sometimes, Henderson said, it is necessary to “consequence” a child. The methods are not abusive, but they are decidedly old-school. One child at Sheltering Harbor who accumulated 13 “zeroes” (transgressions) in school, Henderson said, was made to stand in the corner for more than three hours. He did get a dinner break.”I want to deter them from doing things,” Henderson said. “If they can’t abide by my rules, I’ll call their case worker and find them some other place.”•••Henderson was and always will be a New York City kid — he grew up with seven brothers and sisters in the Bronx. “We were poor, but it didn’t bother us,” he said. “I thought everyone was poor.”His father died when he was 12. Henderson’s mom, Rosabell, was an imposing woman — 6-foot-2, 275 pounds. She taught him at an early age to cook and iron, and she laid down the law.”I was too scared to do something wrong,” he said.It continues to amaze Henderson that children attack their parents, which, in his world, happens a lot. “The funniest thing,” he said, “is the thought of me trying to whip my mother.”Henderson ran the streets with his friends but stayed out of trouble. Gangs were not a problem, he said, “not then.” He started playing basketball at 13, discovered his talent and went to DeWitt Clinton High School, notable for its sports teams. Then it was on to San Jacinto Junior College in Texas and the University of Hawaii.Henderson was good enough to make the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team and strong enough to get over the controversial loss to the Soviet Union more quickly than some of his teammates, although it didn’t happen overnight.”I let it go,” he said. “It took me a few years. I realized that in international basketball, the United States was hated. That’s our game. But I’m over it, and I’m fine with it. I have no problem.”Henderson was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 1974, the No. 7 pick overall, and traded to the Bullets for forward Truck Robinson on Jan. 20, 1977. It was a controversial trade; Robinson was both productive and popular. Henderson said he heard the reason it happened was because Robinson had two good games in a row and then was benched so Grevey could get more playing time. The livid Robinson supposedly confronted coach Dick Motta and assistant Bernie Bickerstaff and was traded shortly thereafter.The addition of Henderson helped galvanize the team. He was exactly what the Bullets needed — a smart, intense, unselfish playmaker. “I was a student of the game,” he said.”Point guard was our Bermuda Triangle,” Grevey said. “We never had the right guy. Tommy was our quarterback. He didn’t care for fanfare, he didn’t care for recognition, but every one of his teammates knew how valuable he was.”Henderson’s job was simple: run the offense, play defense, get the ball to the scorers, Hayes, Grevey, Dandridge, sometimes Unseld. He would tell Grevey, “I’ll give you 15 open jumpers. Just make half of them.”Signing Dandridge, a former Milwaukee Buck, as a free agent in the summer of 1977 was huge.”Wes and Elvin were already there, but Bobby was like the glue,” Henderson said. “He was somebody who wanted the ball. You watch a game now, very few guys want to take charge at the end. When I played, very few guys wanted to step up and be the man. Bobby wanted to be the man.”Under Motta, the Bullets finished only 44-38 in the 1977-78 regular season. But they were ready for the playoffs.”We just started coming together,” Henderson said. “We had five guys who didn’t particularly care for each other. We didn’t really like each other. But we had mutual respect. … Nobody liked Elvin. He was an idiot. A hell of a player but a hell of an idiot. He was all ego, that whole thing. Me and Bobby took turns cursing him out and getting him on our page.”In case the point was missed, Henderson notes, “I was opinionated.”The Bullets took care of Atlanta, Philadelphia and San Antonio in the playoffs before reaching the finals and a death match with the Seattle SuperSonics. Trailing 3-2, Washington won at home to stay alive and then took Game 7 in Seattle 105-99 for the franchise’s first and only title. To celebrate, owner Abe Pollin took the team to Israel.The next year, Washington went 54-28 and again made the finals. This time a better Seattle team won in five. The opinionated Henderson contends one problem was that Motta used fewer players during the playoffs, so when he finally needed to reach deeper into his bench, some of the reserves weren’t ready.A free agent after the 1979 season, Henderson signed with Houston because he got four guaranteed years; the Bullets, he said, offered just one. In 1981, the Rockets went 40-42, made the playoffs and took Boston to six games in the finals before losing. Reunited with his old pal, Hayes, Henderson played out the remaining two years and retired in 1983 after nine seasons, three trips to the finals and one championship.What next?For the next three years, Henderson did little but watch cable, eat barbecue and gain weight. Finally, he decided to get off the couch. He had worked at basketball camps and realized he not only enjoyed being with children, they seemed to respond to him. Former Rockets teammate Calvin Murphy helped him get a job as a counselor with the Texas Youth Commission, and it has been his life ever since. At about the same time, Henderson decided to be a foster parent, although the main reason at first was Denolis.”I thought I was doing it for her sake,” he said. “But it’s for my sake, too. I’m crazy about these kids.”

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