Nets' Randy Foye finds strength, hope and inspiration in his sadness

The enduring mystery of Randy Foye’s life was also the source of his inspiration. A common response to his story was to feel sorry for him, but he rejected self-pity. Instead he found strength in his upbringing, and hope in his sadness.

“Everything I had to endure and go through, it made me who I am today,’’ Foye says quietly from his bench in the locker room, surrounded by Brooklyn Nets teammates as they dress after a recent game. “I wouldn’t change my life. I wouldn’t change any of it. Because it made me a strong person. Made me the husband I am, the father I am. I’m extremely proud of who I have become from the circumstances that I had to go through.’’

Foye is 33, and the Nets are his seventh NBA team. When his phone rang from a government number in September, he assumed it was bad news about his recent physical exam in advance of the new season, his 11th in the NBA. “The guy who did my stress test said, ‘If you get a call from someone from New York state, it means you failed your stress test,’’ says Foye. “So I thought that was what happened.’’

The voice in his phone was asking him: “Are you sitting down?’’

He had been preparing his entire life for this conversation, and still he was taken by surprise. It came out of the blue, this call from Brooklyn. The authorities believed they had located Regina Foye.

They had found his mother.

‘Don’t stretch yourself’

As a player he is serene. When teammates and opponents have been panicky, he has tended to grow confident. Foye, a 6-foot-4 guard, has always played in surprising bursts, biding his time, maintaining self-control, hiding his thoughts behind large quiet eyes. It’s as if the uncertainty of the game has made him feel secure.

“I think it’s my upbringing,’’ Foye says. “Not having my mom and my dad, It seemed like it was always pressure for my grandmoms, or my aunt who I was staying with, to put food on the table. And in those moments I was always calm. I just always used to say, ‘We have it tonight, we are good.’ Or, ‘Don’t stretch yourself, I’ll eat in school.’ Or something like that. ‘Don’t worry.’’’

Randy Foye was 5 years old when his mother disappeared. Even so, as the truth of her absence settled upon him with each passing year, he was able somehow to turn the panic into peace, the pain into strength, the questions into faith.

“Everything I had to endure and go through, it made me who I am today,” — Randy Foye

“In the neighborhood I grew up in, in North Newark, it was always something going on where it was a little bit of turmoil, where at any time something bad could happen,’’ he says. “So you always have to be on your Ps and Qs, always be calm, relaxed, just in case something happens, like, I know I got to run this way, or I got to go this way. And then when you put it into basketball terms it’s like, alright, if I make a shot or I miss a shot, or I make a mistake? It’s just basketball.’’

His life story is well known. His father died in a motorcycle accident when Randy was 2. Three years later, his mother was gone. A community of family and friends in Newark came together to raise Randy. Along the way the mystery of his mother’s disappearance was relayed to him slowly, cautiously, as he was able to absorb it.

“I didn’t know what was going on until I was 9 or 10,’’ says Foye. He remembers being told, in the beginning, that she was on vacation. Later, when he was of the age of his eldest daughter now, he learned that his mother had been seen climbing into a van in Newark and that was the last anyone had seen of her.

“She wouldn’t just leave and disappear like that – it had to be foul play,’’ he says of those conversations he used to have. “That’s what I got from my grandmother, that they couldn’t find her and it wasn’t like her. So they was just like, ‘Somebody kidnapped her.’’’

He grew up not knowing what to believe, even as he was learning to express extraordinary confidence on the basketball court. He was New Jersey Player of the Year at East Side High School, first-team All-American as a senior at Villanova, the No. 7 pick of the 2006 NBA Draft. All of these successes were elevating his self-awareness, and contributing to his desire for understanding.

“How hard you work, being professional, being on time – other than things like that, you can’t control nothing at this level,’’ Foye says of his NBA career. “All you can control is the things that people don’t see.’’

For bigger and better

On one side of his chest is a portrait of his mother. She is beautiful and always will be, for as long as he is able to see his own reflection.

I wanna scream so loud for you, cause I’m so proud of you …

“That was my first tattoo, it was a portrait, which is like five and a half hours,’’ Foye says. “You go numb after awhile. I was saying to myself, well, I can’t stop now. I had that song with Kanye West, Hey Mama – I think his mom’s passed, he put out a song out for her.’’

I said mommy I’mma love you till you don’t hurt no more …

“I was listening to that song for five and a half hours and that got me through it. I knew it was for a bigger and better. It wasn’t for me. It was for me, but it was her living through me. That’s why I did that. When the pain was coming I was thinking, this is for my moms. From what I remember, I know she was a wonderful woman, especially to me and my brother.’’

On the other side of Foye’s chest he wears a similar tattoo portrait of his elder daughter, Paige, who looks very much like her grandmother.

What may have been

It is a horrible question, and the regret of having asked it is immediate. But Foye is willing to answer: How might his life have played out differently if she had never gone away?

“I might have been the same person,’’ he says. “But then I watch some of the things that my daughters say, and the things they try to get away with. We were going to the IHOP, and my daughter is like, ‘I don’t want pancakes. I want steak.’ My wife looked at her, like, furious. I thought it was funny, but I didn’t want her to see me laugh. And then my wife was like you need to take them to where you grew up and just drive them around and tell them exactly what went on.’’

Foye and his wife Christina have three daughters: Paige is 8, Penny is 6 and Pilan is 3.

“They’re starting to ask questions,’’ Foye says. “They brought some book home from the library about LeBron, and it was talking about his first car was the Hummer and how they moved around Cleveland. My older daughter asked, ‘Was that like you, Dad, like you guys had to move around Newark?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s similar.’’’

And then he saw his opening.

“I told her, ‘Everyone isn’t as fortunate as us. You are born into a blessed situation, so you just have to understand that,’’’ Foye says. “So when we do things for the foundation, like backpack drives, my daughters are like, ‘Why do we have to get the kids a backpack – why can’t their parents?’ And that’s the best moment for me. Because I sit down and explain that everyone doesn’t have what you have, or what people on TV have. There is a real world out there besides, you know, this fantasy that we live in.’’

This is the fantasy of which he must have dreamed – this real world that he is creating for his own young family, for the kids in his foundation, and even for his younger teammates in Brooklyn.

Foye dreamed of a different outcome when he joined the Timberwolves as their highly-picked rookie in 2006-07. He did not envision himself becoming a role player with a 10.8 points career scoring average.

“I wanted to be a star,’’ he says, and he still believes he could have been if not for the injuries and the moves that were beyond his control. He averaged a career-best 16.3 points in his third year with Minnesota, which encouraged his trade at peak value to the Wizards, and ever since then he has never stayed with any team for more than three seasons, while visiting the playoffs twice.

Amid the frustrations and humbling disappointments, Foye became known for his integrity. “He is a character driver,’’ says coach Kenny Atkinson, who is counting on Foye and his fellow elders Luis Scola and Greivis Vasquez to immerse their young Nets teammates in an environment of professionalism.

“When Randy comes on the court and tells Isaiah (Whitehead, the rookie point guard), ‘Isaiah, you did this wrong,’ or whatever it may be, it’s out of love and respect,’’ says Nets GM Sean Marks, who signed Foye to a one-year contract last summer. “Because, look, ‘We just sat and had a meal together. I’m directing you in the right way.’ And Isaiah knows that, or Caris (LeVert, the rookie shooting guard) knows that – that he legitimately has their best interests at heart. But not only that, Randy still has something to prove. He’s out here pushing them.’’

Instead of holding on bitterly to the self-aggrandized dreams that went unrealized, Foye embraced the opportunity of returning home – or close to it – by signing with Brooklyn. It was as if he was meant all along to help the rebuilding Nets by way of his soothing influence that transcends statistics.

“Everything is happening for a reason,’’ he says of the NBA stardom he never achieved. “The reason why I wasn’t, it is because it’s making me who I am now. And if I was that person? I could have been a jerk. So everything that happened early on, it basically formed me into who I am now.’’

In the same way, when you ask Foye about the fears of his childhood in north Newark, he does not dwell on the absence of his father or the loss of his mother. Neither does he focus on the crime, the threats of violence, the times he went without food or money.

“I’m in situations, I’m human, I’m always afraid,’’ he says. “I’m afraid of failing, of not living up to what my grandma would expect from me. Or the people who I really love, what they expect from me. I’m afraid of failing because of them. I’m not afraid of failing from a fans’ perspective or anyone who don’t care about me. It was more about disappointing people who put so much trust and work into me. That was my fear.’’

This is his way. It is not about what he didn’t have. The vacuum in his life was filled with the love he felt from so many who were drawn to him. Basketball, in the same way, became a way of expressing a point of view that eclipsed the game itself. Basketball gave him the means to discover who he was and the man he could become.

“At some point when you’re younger you know you’re good, but you don’t know how good you really are,’’ Foye says. “My AAU coach always believed in me. I used to be like, come on, man, when he was saying `You’re better than this guy or that guy.’ It was like, you see this much in me? And my grandma would say, ‘Your heart is unbelievable – just your sense of people and choosing the right people.’ I used to look at myself as the kid to get in trouble or get into fights, but they saw so much in me. So that was why I was afraid to fail.

“My AAU coach said that I’m going to be an NBA player, so I wanted to be an NBA player; to me that would have been a failure if I hadn’t. My grandmother and my aunt was like, ‘You’re going to graduate from college.’ Well, my junior year I could have left because I had a big second half of the year, but I decided to stay after having that talk with my grandmother about getting my college degree. So that’s where I was afraid to fail. I’m not afraid to fail on the court; I’m afraid to fail with the people who are really there when you’re down and out, who are there to talk with you.’’

Taken away

His first thought in September, when the caller told him that his mother had been found, was that she must be alive. The image of this miracle after three decades overwhelmed him before he could think it through.

“I would have been upset,’’ he says.

Because if she was alive, he found himself asking, then why would she not have come home to him? Why had she not been in his life?

“That was the scary part at first,’’ he says. But then, just as quickly, he dismissed it. He knew that it was never her choice to stay away.

“The type of person that she was,’’ Foye says, “I couldn’t believe she would be alive that whole time and not come back for her son or to see her son. But she wasn’t.’’

She was not alive. His mother had died in January 1990, he was told. She had been buried in Brooklyn as a Jane Doe.

“It was an overdose,’’ Foye says.

It settled upon him that the drugs had taken her away.

“She was deceased,’’ he says. “And then my emotions were, wow. My mom is here.’’

A DNA test confirmed the identity of Regina Foye. There was a small ceremony of family and friends, 15 or so people gathered in a room with her ashes, and Foye stood up to attest to his mother. But the words were buried too deeply. He could not find them.

“I never cry or show emotions,’’ Foye says. “But I was crying, and my kids didn’t know. My oldest one was like, ‘I thought it was a celebration.’’’

‘Everything came full circle’

“She was in the ground for 27 years,’’ Foye says. “I didn’t want to put her back in the ground. I wanted to keep her with me. Now she’s going to be with me until I’m put in the ground.’’

In his home there is her golden urn, and nearby her remains is a candle. “We try to keep it lit,’’ he says.

Basketball brought him to Brooklyn, where his mother was found by someone who had happened to read a local news article about Foye and his long-lost mother and had gone to the trouble of finding her and bringing her back to her son. “I feel everything came full circle,’’ he says, “as though everything happened for a reason.’’

There are still hard days, and now, when Foye comes home, he finds himself being drawn to his mother.

“I will go over there and pray with her,’’ he says. “I am happy you are here with me now. After everything your soul and your body have went through, now I just thank you, for always allowing me to be in the light where I was seen.’’

It was his career in basketball that brought her back to him.

“If I wasn’t who I am?’’ asks Randy Foye. “We never would have found her.’’

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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