Daily News from New York, New York on February 10, 1985 · 226
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Daily News from New York, New York · 226

New York, New York
Issue Date:
Sunday, February 10, 1985
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MARK HRELAND continued from page 19 hood's 135,000 residents are black. "It's not a bad neighborhood at all," insists Breland. "We got a lot of rippin' off there, a lot of killings. But nobody really messes with you unless you mess with them." At the north end, just before you get to Williamsburg, is an arrangement of big, square apartment buildings that appear to have been scattered there like children's blocks. The Tompkins Houses lodge there between two other projects: eight terra cotta slabs on a three-block tract between Tompkins and Throop Avenues. The crime rate is among the highest in Brooklyn's public housing, according to the Housing Authority, but compared to other projects, Tompkins is a kind of paradise, most residents contend. Broken windows get fixed, vermin are scarce and the heat comes up like a balmy dream from October to April. "It's not the best place to live and it's not the worst," shrugs Luemisher Breland, Mark's mother, sitting in the living room of her 14th-floor apartment. "I never had any trouble with my kids." (She has six.) Around her in the small room, trophies cover every available surface little ones like pre-war automobile hood ornaments, big ones like silver-plated Greek temples, clusters of medals hanging on ribbons like grapes. Most are decorated with figures of boxers in fighting stances. "When Mark first started boxing, he'd come home every day with a little trophy," says Mrs. Breland, a woman with little riffs of laughter in her voice. "They just kept getting bigger and bigger." The Brelands, like many of the 1,046 families in Tompkins Houses, have Southern roots. South Carolina-bora Mrs. Breland keeps a busy kitchen, turning out savory stick-to-your-ribs specialties like baked macaroni, collard greens and peach cobbler. Most of the kids have moved on now, but the living room of the six-room apartment still percolates with a crowd of cousins, in-laws and family friends. When it comes to parenting, Mrs. Breland and her husband Herbert, a roofer, are from the old school. "They kept the belt in their hands," laughs Mark. Down-ho me discipline apparently worked; Mark, his brothers and sisters all steered clear of trouble, though at times, it grazed them: "People got thrown off the roof," recalls Breland. "A guy got shot right up over us in the building. But there wasn't anything could do about it. . . . Just think about it, keep it in mind." Everybody has a pet theory about how kids make it through such places. Sometimes a neighborhood provides a kind of protective blanket, says Carol Griffin, Breland's American history teacher at Eastern District HS, who grew up in Marcy Houses, right next door to Tompkins. In the Bed-Stuy projects, it has something to do with Southern notions about responsibility. "In the South, you're not only responsible for your own children but for everyone else's kids in a 10-mile radius," says Griffin. "You feed them, care for them, discipline them as if they're your own. If someone's parents catch you doing something, first they kill you and then your parents kill you all over again. That idea came North with a lot of folks, though it has disintegrated in the past 15 years. . . ." But community ties can be strong in the projects whether it's the network of friendships in a 16-story warren of apartments, or the collective response to a crime wave (in 15)77, the Tompkins Tenants' Association raised money for television equipment, setting up security systems in each building's lobby). Often, friendship and community feeling coalesce around one charismatic figure. V . v : I A1 4 I Gold medal performance: Breland raises American flags after Olympic triumph. During most of the time that Breland was growing up, for example, community affairs revolved around Mae Miller, head of the Tenants' Association. "People like Mrs. Miller are role models for kids," says Griffin. "She showed us that you can't always wait for somebody to do it for you. Sometimes you have to get down and do it yourself." But for poor kids, without spare change for movies or skating, boredom can undermine everything. Kids often drift into crime because it's "action." "When there's nothing to do, sports is something," explains Kenny Jones, who coaches four basketball teams at IS 33, across the street from Tompkins. "As long as you got some place to go, you got a choice, you're not robbing people." Mark's choice came like a mule kick when he was 7. A family friend took him to Madison Square Garden for the first Ali-Frazier fight. "It really stuck with me," he says. "I got into it the crowd, the excitement, the way Ali fought, throwing so many punches. I knew I'd been through something, seeing the man dance and get hit that long." His parents struggle to explain where Mark's boxing talent comes from. They doubt that it has anything to do with coming from a tough neighborhood. "It's a gift of God," says Mrs. Breland, to nodding assent from her husband. "He wasn't what you would call a mean child. If anyone got on his nerves, I guess, like anyone else, he might get into a little scuffle. But I taught him not to fight if he could help it." A year or two after the Ali-Frazier fight, Mark announced that he was going down to the Broadway Gym to take boxing lessons. THE GYM. George Washington remembers the "skinny little kid with braids in his hair" who showed up one day 12 years ago. "I told him the only way to make a champ out of him was if he came to the gym every day," says Washington, a heavyweight himself during the 1940s and 1950s. Washington trained Breland through most of his amateur career. "I started showing him some things, like how to body punch," continues Washington, who became head trainer of the Bedford-Stuy-vesant Boxing Association on Sumner Avenue four years ago, after the Broadway Gym closed. "I hit him once in the ribs. He said it hurt," Washington chuckles. "He musta thought I was angry or something. He stopped coming around for a while. Six months later he came back." It's a busy day at the gym. Washington, a big man with a stoop, juggles tasks like a chef. He's taping hands, tying gloves and shouting instructions at a kid punching the heavy bag as he explains how one of his fighters got beaten the previous even ing in Atlantic City. "He was lookin' all right the first two rounds Pivot that right, Ronald! thai he got tired and dropped his hands. Stuck his head right in there and got it on the chin. The other guy was surprised too. Hands up, Ronald!" Every year the chaotic gym, fragrant with sweat and throbbing with the sound of rap music, produces a half-dozen Golden Gloves finalists. This year they're talking about Riddick Bowe his friends call him "Don King" because of his mutinous hair and Derrick Batts, among others. Bowe, a mean-hitting 175-pounder who's a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School, talks about emulating Breland. "I got a majority of my experience with Mark," he says. "I'm inspired by what he's accomplished. It makes it possible for me to do the same." Breland still trains there, too, a mystic presence, intense and unsmiling, moving in front of the big wall rnirror to the stutter-step beat of rap groups U.T.F.O. or Run-D.M.C. But there are palpable signs now of his new professional status. Breland's 22

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