An invasion of players from a tiny Caribbean island made a huge impact in local basketball circles in the mid-1990s.
John Wood Community College basketball coach Mike Elbe brought three players from Antigua -- Wayne Walker, Kevin Richards and Vivian Benjamin -- for the 1994-95 season. He then went to a week-long camp in Antigua in the summer of 1995 and made plans to bring two more players -- Clint Walker and Edleawn Barton -- for the 1995-96 season.
He also brought back one more player who wasn't academically ready for college. Instead, Merve Joseph attended Central High School in Camp Point. He was 19 but hadn't attended school on a regular basis for several years.
Joseph went on to become The Herald-Whig's Player of the Year and led the Panthers to 23 victories and a regional championship, the first in school history. He then played one year at John Wood Community College before going on to Eastern Illinois University. He averaged 6.1 points and 5.7 rebounds as a sophomore, but a knee injury hampered the rest of his career. He played just 12 games as a junior, averaging 10.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. He played 10 games as a senior, making one basket and two free throws.
Joseph, 41, now lives in Antigua with his second wife, Tallio, who he married in 2011, and their 5-year-old daughter, Keziah. He works as a probation officer for the government. Earlier this month, he visited the Camp Point home of Gary and Candy Foss, where he lived when he attended high school.
When was the last time you were in Camp Point?
I came back here and spent some time (after leaving Eastern Illinois), and then I went back home. That was in 2001. It was really familiar. There are some new places, in terms of the school and the gym, and some new additions, but generally it's familiar. The people are still friendly and embracing. It brings back a lot of memories.
Did you run into any people who remembered you?
Before I came, Candy let some people know and put it out there that i would be back. Some of the guys contacted me on Facebook, because I keep in touch with a lot of people on there. I met with some of them this morning and last night. I saw some of those guys for the first time in 20 years, and we had a real good conversation -- not about basketball but about life issues. That was a great experience. We now all have families, and we're married with children. It was really a privilege to be a part of those guys' stories and for them to be a part of my story. Our children were playing in the pool together. Basketball did that.
What brought you back?
Family. I always want to come back here. Where we are located in the Caribbean, it's easy to take a flight to New York, but coming to the Midwest is kind of challenging. On this occasion, while I was in New York, we kind of planned to take some time here. Apart from this, I don't know when we would come back. It was a great opportunity with my wife and child. They wanted to experience it as well. I've always talked with my wife about it.
What do you tell them about your experience here?
You have to experience it, coming from the Caribbean and then coming here. When you are here, it's a totally different thing, in terms of the pace of living and the friendliness. I'm used to that. Back in the Caribbean, we're kind of easygoing. That in itself was not a difficult adjustment. We are made to feel at home. We're interacting with the people. I came here after nearly 20 years, and it was like I just fit right back in. Some of the stories, I don't even remember.
What are some of the stories you were told about?
It's more about the experience of basketball that we had together. Traveling to Warsaw and going to different environments to play. It was kind of exciting. It was new. I guess at the time, I didn't really study a lot about the experience itself, but a lot of people embraced it. They were telling me about stories that happened, and as they started talking to me, I started to remember how they happened. The shot that we made at the buzzer that didn't count and everybody was excited. Stuff like that. Great memories.
Before you came to Camp Point, you were attending high school on the island ...
No. Not really. My history in terms of school ... I can remember my days in primary school, real young, but I never liked to go to school. I was like 12, 11, maybe as far back as 10, and I never was really regular in school. I don't know why. I don't know my father. I was raised by my mom and different people in the community. In terms of the strictness of it, that wasn't there. There were no boundaries. There was no one saying I should go to school. There was no enforcement of that. With that freedom, sometimes I went, and sometimes I didn't go.
So what did you do?
I started to play basketball. I realized I liked it. Midnight, 2 to 4 in the morning, I was the only one on the court playing. We lived in a small community, and I just enjoyed the sport. I wanted to get better at the sport. I would be out there dribbling and shooting in the dark. That's how I practiced.
What do you remember about how you made it to Camp Point?
It's interesting. I look back at it, and things happen for a reason. How I remember the story is that Coach Mike came to the islands, and he was looking at other individuals. He was watching, and I was playing a game at night. Because of how I was playing, I think I piqued his interest. When he inquired of me, I didn't have any education, and I wasn't going to school. I didn't have any background, so that was a challenge, but he still wanted me to have this opportunity, and he kind of organized it to where I could come over and get enrolled in high school with the plan to complete the GED. That's how it all started. I don't know the ins and outs and how it went. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know where I was going. All I know is I wanted to play, and I got this opportunity. At the time, I wasn't thinking, "Well, what am I getting into?" I wasn't thinking that I was going to miss home or miss my family. I just wanted to play basketball.
Obviously the basketball part of your time in Camp Point went well. How difficult was it to adjust going to school every day?
That was the most challenging thing. I remember I couldn't spell my name. I couldn't write. When the first guys came over here and they would write to us, in terms of writing back, I would write, but later on, when I look at those letters, really and truly, I couldn't understand what I was writing. I couldn't really spell. When this opportunity came, I took it upon myself to initiate some contact with a teacher back home, Mr. Rudolph. He agreed to assist me for the time with writing and the math. It was the middle of the summer when I found out, and I only had a few weeks to get ready when it was finalized. In terms of going to classes over here, it was challenging. First, I had to train my mind to get back into class. My motivation was that I was doing it so I could play.
What was the adjustment like on the basketball court?
When we'd play at home (in Antigua), we didn't have a system. Yes, I was talented and skilled, but I would go on the court and run up and down. We played on teams, but it wasn't structured. That was challenging when I came over here. You have to play in a system. They had to incorporate me into a team concept. You have to be disciplined within the system. It worked for me, and it worked for the team. That year, we built a lot of bonds, even to this day. We had a great season. We had a great time.
What was it like being the only black man in Camp Point?
I believe the Fosses made life easier, Candy especially. She treated me like her son. Bethany is like my sister. I never felt out of place. I never felt like I am not one of the family. They taught me how to be compassionate. I never really grew up with that in terms of the closeness and intimacy. When I first came over here, the hug, the greetings, it felt kind of weird, but I learned those simple things. It makes it easier for me to love my family and my wife. I learned those things here. I know everything was not perfect, but for me as the only colored individual, I know people may have had their opinions, but I never felt anything. I just felt at home. I can't say I never thought abut being the only black person here, but I never had to think about it. The community never gave me any reason to think I'm the only black person here. We're just people. We're just having a good time.
Did you ever encounter any problems on the road?
I heard stories that other people encountered, and people had stuff to say, but I never really encountered anything like that. Later on in life, I learned Candy sheltered me from a lot o that. She would tell me a story once in a while that would speak to that. I admire her for that.
Before you left Antigua, were there any other plans in place when you were done in Camp Point?
The only plan I had was to play in the NBA. That was my driving force, to play at the highest level. I just knew I had to go to college, and it was a requirement. I wanted to finish John Wood and then move on, but in the summer (of 1997) when Coach Mike said he was going to leave for Dubuque, I didn't know what was going to happen. I got a call sometime from Eastern Illinois. (Assistant coach Mike) Church had some sort of relationship with the community, and I got to talking to him. That's how I chose Eastern.
The first year at Eastern seemed to go well, and then you got hurt. What happened?
I got hurt my junior year, the first game we played. I tore my ACL. That was it. I never really come around from that. Really and truly, my opinion, in terms of the rehabilitation, I didn't think I had a proper rehabilitation to get back. That was devastating to me. Basketball was the only thing. That also taught me something about me and something about life. I think I depended on basketball more than life. Through that experience, I learned that there's more to life than basketball. As a result of that, I started thinking about education. For the first time, I really got serious. I really should get an education. I realized how important it was. Life happens. I started looking at life differently. At that time, I went into ... ah ... uh ... a time of depression to deal with that situation.
When you couldn't play, how did you handle that?
When I got hurt that night, Candy and Bethany were at the game. They spent some time with me through the surgery. They were comforting. Even though I was hurt, they being there, I was OK. You know? I think ... I, um ... when it got difficult for me was when they left ... you know ... (long pause). I was there trying to deal with it. (another long pause)
What happened after you left Eastern Illinois?
I didn't have enough credits to graduate at the time, so that's why I came back to Camp Point. Then I went home. I still had the struggles with the leg. I ended up playing for the national team, and then I played in the ABBA (Antigua and Barbuda Basketball Association) at home. I think I got MVP for that, but those were the last games I played. I messed up my other knee trying to compromise for my injured knee. I just gave up the whole thing. I have so much difficulty running and walking. My knees kind of swell. When I got my daughter, I gave up basketball to be with my family.
You now work as a probation officer. Do you ever tell people about your life story when helping others?
I'm more into counseling now. I work with the high court and the magistrate court. I'm counseling families, single parents, those who come through the court system. Over the years, I've told my story to those school age children. It depends on the struggle they have. Some kids are in school, but in terms of their focus and goals, I try to find out their purpose. Some of them don't have any direction. They don't have any boundaries. They don't have any structure. A lot of those people get in the court system and live that kind of life, and that's not a good option. I was privileged to be in the right place and hook up with the right people.
What do you think would have happened to you had you not gone to Camp Point?
I don't know. A life without education. A life without options. This whole experience and to be able to graduate gave me a lot more positive options.
Do you pick up a ball much these days?
I don't. If I do, my knees ... some days, just walking, they swell. It's difficult to deal with. I want to spend time with my child. I just leave the ball and concentrate on her. Basketball did a whole lot for me. I saw the world through basketball. There's a point where it's hard to step away from it, but because of the physical limitations, you have the make the best choice.
If someone reads your Facebook page, they'll see many posts about the Bible and living a Christian life. When did you find God?
After I went back home and everything happened, I got a divorce from my first wife. Circumstances reveal character. With basketball, I was dependent on it to fill a void. I didn't know what I was. I tried basketball, but it didn't work. You think that it is life, but I still had this empty feeling. You try to fill it with marriage and children, but none of those things can really and truly fill that void. I was going to church, but I was still searching. Those circumstances led me to think there's something missing. I searched. What is it that's missing? What was missing was a life source. That's Christ. It's a born again situation. You have a human spirit, and you have a soul and a body. We are human beings with a human spirit. The human spirit is dead to God but alive to sin. So when I was trying all of this basketball, I was trying to get a spiritual need filled. I realized my deepest problem was that I was dead in sin. Where I get life is in Christ. That empty void that I was searching for, it was life in Christ. I know that I am filled. Basketball is a great sport. I love the game. If I could play the game, I would play it until I pass away. But it is a game. I was dependent on basketball for life. You can't get life from a game.