- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

The mystery of Attila Cosby begins with a gun and a prison sentence and resumes with a rebirth at Bowie State.

Cosby is the doting father of 4-year-old Malik, who suffers from a muscular disorder and is bound to a wheelchair for life. He is a solid student who is on course to get a sociology degree this spring, then move on to play professional basketball.

The soft-spoken man with the nice smile also is a convicted sex offender.

Cosby was found guilty of assaulting a 46-year-old prostitute at gunpoint in his dorm room at George Washington University in 2000. He spent 21/2 years in a D.C. prison before being released last New Year’s Day.

“Every time I think about it, it kills me,” said Cosby, who claims he was innocent of any wrongdoing. “I felt like I was thrown away. I am not a bad guy. [The judge] could have given me probation. I was in school doing good. When something like that happens, you don’t just up and cut somebody’s life in half.”

Now Cosby is back on campus and on the basketball court, though far from the limelight of his glory days at Pitt and GW. The 6-foot-9 Cosby, known for his shot-blocking, rebounding, nimble feet and a soft half-hook, is finishing his college career at Division II Bowie State.

“I am on the right track to get my life together,” said Cosby, 26. “Everybody has a path in life. What you go through, you learn from it.”

And Cosby has been through a lot — or, perhaps, put himself through a lot.

The native of Southeast Washington was expelled from DeMatha High School after stealing a car. He graduated from Oak Hill Academy, a prestigious basketball power in Virginia, went to Pitt and became the Panthers’ first freshman starter in more than a decade. Cosby was a rising star and one of the Big East’s top shot blockers.

The promising start turned ugly when he got into a fight with an assistant coach, was suspended and left school. After a short stopover at New Mexico, he came home to be with his pregnant girlfriend and transferred to GW.

But Cosby got into trouble before he played even one game there. He picked up a convicted prostitute on May15, 2000, and offered to help her find some crack cocaine. She accused him of forcing her at gunpoint to perform oral sex and of sexually assaulting her with a broomstick.

Felony charges were dismissed when the woman failed to show up in court, but misdemeanor charges were filed during his only season at GW. Cosby was tried and found guilty on seven misdemeanors, though the woman admitted she was high on crack cocaine that evening.

Both testified that she performed oral sex, but the stories contradict after that point.

“The vicious, nasty, violent and really unexplained nature of the crime requires significant punishment,” D.C. Superior Court judge Neal E. Kravitz said at the sentencing. “It is essential that the court sends a clear message that it is not acceptable to prey on the most vulnerable members of society.”

In his last plea for a lesser sentence, Cosby looked at the woman and said, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake.”

Cosby was sent to the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility in Southeast, where he served the entire sentence.

“This kid was railroaded,” former Colonials coach Tom Penders said. “It was a tragedy. It was one of the worst things I have ever seen happen to a young person. It was almost like justice in the ‘50s in Mississippi. That’s what it reminded me of.

“All I know is that he was a black kid and it was a white judge. … I just think it was a bad judge. It was a judge that had an ax to grind and was trying to make a statement.”

Penders was forced to resign from George Washington in the wake of the Cosby incident. Nonetheless he is quick to vouch for his former player.

“He never gave me trouble for a minute,” said Penders, now the coach at the University of Houston. “He was a kid that was worth saving. He was a kid that could graduate. He was a kid that could certainly help the basketball program. He wasn’t a thug. He wasn’t a bad kid. He was a legitimate student with legitimate grades.”

A fresh start

Cosby said he holds no animosity toward the woman.

“I don’t hate her, because she was a product of her environment also,” he said. “She is a crackhead.”

And Cosby has little interest in looking back.

He is a busy man, juggling basketball, studies and his home life with Malik. He lives with girlfriend Lisa — Malik’s mother — and her family in their new house in Prince George’s County.

And basketball is again a priority after a three-year hiatus. Cosby is averaging 15.4 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Bulldogs, who are off to their best start ever with a 7-0 record and are ranked fifth nationally in Division II.

“There is no more room for trouble,” Cosby said. “I have been through a lot. It was very important to know I would play again. I grew up with this. I am a basketball player, I guess. It was mostly a prayer, a hope that somebody would have faith in me and give me another chance. This is a fresh start.”

Bowie State coach Luke D’Alessio is used to taking on kids with difficult pasts. The Bulldogs are a second chance for transfers who either didn’t work out at Division I programs or were forced to take the junior college route. However, the coach concedes having major concerns when people close to Cosby approached him.

“He wrote me a nice letter when he was in prison,” D’Alessio said. “People spoke on his behalf. I met his fiancee and saw his child. They said he really wants to get his life together. It took about three or four months for me to be convinced. I agreed to get him into school and we would see about basketball later.

“If everybody gives up on him, what’s he going to do?”

D’Alessio then had to convince a skeptical administration to admit Cosby. But soon after his release from prison on New Year’s Day, Cosby enrolled at Bowie State and paid his own tuition for the first semester. Cosby did not work out with the basketball team that semester and earned nine credits toward his degree.

The mature approach convinced D’Alessio that Cosby was serious about turning his life around.

“Nobody ever thought he would pass classes on his own without [help] from the athletic department,” said D’Alessio, who awarded Cosby a basketball scholarship for the fall semester. “I knew that was going to show if he was worth the risk. Regardless of what happened, he did his time in prison. He dealt with it. Now, he’s trying to move on.

“He knows if he messes up, he’s done. He’s handled it so far. It’s a hard one, and if something happens I am accountable for it.”

Family man

Cosby sometimes misses practice because he must take his son to the doctor. Malik Cosby suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a condition diagnosed when he was about 1.

“He can’t walk. He can grasp little things,” said Cosby, who helps to raise funds for the research of the disease and attends medical conventions dealing with it. “I think that’s my fate in life, to just be more for a cause. Having my son with this disease has really grounded me more. It can happen to anyone.”

Cosby was in the delivery room when Malik was born May 25, 2000, just 10 days after the criminal incident. Malik is Cosby’s second child. His 5-year-old son, Ezekiel Snowden, lives with his mother in Philadelphia.

Lisa Couser noticed a change in Cosby when Malik was born, and even more so when their son was diagnosed with the disease.

“It affected Attila very hard,” said Couser, who has been with Cosby for about eight years. “He is having a little boy. He wants his son to be just like him and play basketball. Even sometimes today, it bothers him.

“He knows we have a son to provide for and have all this equipment he needs. Right now, we are trying to get him a stair lift so he can get up and down by himself.”

Couser said she was hurt by Cosby’s actions that night in the dorm but never lost faith in his innocence.

“Because I loved him,” said Couser, who holds degrees in criminology and criminal justice from the University of Maryland. “I knew that wasn’t him. He is not a violent person. He is the nicest person. He will give the shoes off his feet. He told me everything that happened. After that, I told him I believed him and said, ‘I will stick by your side.’ I just moved on. I knew we had a baby coming soon, and I knew my son needed a father.”

The father and son play video games together. Malik is a regular at Bowie State’s home games, where he cheers on his dad and even gives some constructive criticism.

“When I get home, he gets on me: ‘Dad, you didn’t play too well today,’” Cosby said. “He’s young, but he’s a really smart kid. I just like to see him smile and make him happy. I just want him to know his father is there for him.”

Growing up

But he wasn’t always there for him. Their separation while Cosby was in prison was tough, especially when Malik, then 2, was rushed to a hospital with a life-threatening condition in 2002. Cosby also did not get to attend his father’s funeral. Alan Cosby died while serving at a Maryland prison on a work-release program.

“Losing my dad when I was incarcerated, I became like a maniac,” Cosby said. “I was almost in the [psychiatric] ward. They didn’t let me go see him. I feel like that scarred me for life.”

Cosby said he mostly kept to himself in his small, cold cell. He would spend as much time as he could in the gym. He would read and study. His spirits were kept up by visits from family and friends.

One of those friends was Ron Williams, who is part of the Giving Back Foundation for at-risk basketball players in the area.

“He was depressed at first,” said Williams, who considers himself a second father to Cosby. “I would go in maybe every two weeks and talk to him and try to show him a familiar face. A lot of the prominence he had as a high school All-American and a big-time college basketball player surrounded by all these ‘friends,’ all that fell off. That was even more depressing.”

Williams and the family tried to get Cosby’s sentence reduced. They pointed out the condition of Cosby’s son and his desire to finish college. Each plea was denied, and Cosby got no relief. Williams also scouted out potential schools for Cosby to attend after prison.

And Williams now beams when discussing Cosby’s comeback.

“We have a beautiful story here,” he said. “He was knocked down, but not out. He is going to make it. He shouldn’t feel ashamed. As long as he walks in the light and does the right thing, a lot of people are going to be admiring his situation.

“He has been places these guys haven’t. He’s been to George Washington University. He’s played in front of massive crowds. And he spent 21/2 years in prison. You think that doesn’t grow you up?”

And Cosby is anxious to show he is not the animal he was portrayed to be before he was sent to prison.

“I am not the smartest guy, but I am not the dumbest either,” Cosby said. “What I have been through as far as family, my upbringing, my incarceration — it has helped me become more of a man. I have more responsibility in life. I know where I stand and where I want to go.”

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