Samuel Hardiman Memphis Commercial Appeal
Published 2:39 PM EDT Jul 20, 2019
MEMPHIS — Two men, both in their 50s, sat five feet apart last week at a long conference table on the seventh floor of Memphis City Hall.
By appearance, the difference between them was striking.
One, Earl Wilson, 51, is mid-sized and stocky. His hair is a light gray, almost white. He spent two years in jail for aggravated assault and was released in late 2018.
The other man is tall, NBA-level tall, in fact. As the big man is about to speak, Wilson interjects.
“Wait, this ain’t? No,” Wilson asked. A half-smile of realization crossed his face. “Wait a minute. Did you say ‘Bedford’? And you said ‘William’?”
“Yeah,” the big man, William Bedford, 55, replied.
The men shook hands, punctuated by a snap of the fingers.
Bedford, the University of Memphis (then-Memphis State), basketball great, addressed why he, too, was sitting at the table talking to a reporter. After years of searching for the right kind of help following his release from prison after serving time on felony drug charges, he found it over the past six weeks at Manhood University. That is the City of Memphis’ program aimed at reducing recidivism and easing reentry into society, Bedford explained.
“Why am I here? Hmm … Mainly I’m here to better myself. I went to the NBA. That’s another part of life. After the NBA, I made some wrong choices and got in trouble with some wrong people and had to do time,” Bedford said.
“You really can’t find a job that you can make a good living out of being my age and being my height … I went through a few programs that they had, but they didn’t work,” Bedford said. “I went to one class with this, the first class, and I was excited … a lot of the things they were talking about were hitting home.”
‘I hated basketball’
Bedford graduated from Manhood University last week. He is working on his autobiography with an out-of-town publisher.
He graduated from Melrose High School in Memphis after a stellar basketball career. He would go on to play three seasons at then-Memphis State University under coach Dana Kirk, reaching the Final Four during the 1984-85 season.
The Phoenix Suns drafted Bedford sixth overall in 1986. His NBA career lasted six seasons, including an NBA championship run with the Detroit Pistons in 1990. He would last appear in an NBA game in late 1992.
More than a decade later, in 2004, he would be sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Many of the documents in the case are still under seal.
“It’s like you’re trying to live that same lifestyle. Your check’s not coming in anymore … In order to live that lifestyle as a professional athlete or entertainer, it takes a lot of money,” said Bedford. “So me, making the wrong decisions and choices … getting involved with some people that were involved with drugs.”
Bedford left federal prison in 2011, and a halfway house in 2012, he said. Federal court records show he was placed on three years of probation in May 2012.
Since then, he’s worked as a car salesman at Memphis-area dealerships and tried to find a guidance program that was right for him, he said.
Bedford explained he tried Manhood University because he was searching for something and learned about it through his former Memphis teammate, Ken Moody, who runs the program for the City of Memphis.
“I don’t know if I was going for myself or for someone else. I don’t know what I was looking for. I don’t know what I was trying to get out of it. I was just there,” said Bedford. “This one … some of the things they were sharing really touched home … A lot of stuff about being a man, the way you were treated growing up … whether it was the right way or the wrong way … and then some things that we took for granted and we didn’t do what our parents told us.”
As he spoke, his long arms unfolded, showing the weathered tattoos on his substantial forearms.
What did he take for granted?
“I hated basketball. I was made to play basketball … I was 6-9 in the ninth grade, and they made me play basketball because everyone kept telling my parents to make me play basketball. … When I was in ninth grade, I couldn’t even make a lay-up,” Bedford said.
“I didn’t start learning to play basketball with plays until I went to Memphis State. … I was only in college for three years and then went to the NBA, so I didn’t really know anything about basketball. I was just there because of the height.”
‘You’ve got to humble yourself’
Wilson and Bedford’s lives, however disparate their beginnings and middles, are now somewhat similar. They both know the day they went into prison, the day they got out. They recite those dates as quickly as someone else would say their birthday. They want others to learn from them.
Wilson will soon start a job with the City of Memphis. The program doesn’t guarantee city jobs for attendees but does give some the option. Wilson will work for the city’s solid waste division. He’s excited for his first real job in decades.
In prison and through the program, he has found and maintained his faith, Wilson said.
“When things are going right, we don’t do too much talking to God. As soon as things go wrong, that’s when we want him to intervene. That’s something else that I learned — I had to show my appreciation and respect for a higher power. Even when things are going right,” said Wilson.
“You’ve got to humble yourself … Obviously, there’s something that you’re not doing. You went wrong somewhere. You’ve been doing it your way so many times, try it another person’s way,” Bedford said. ”My message is to not go backward after you’ve done your time.”
He hopes the program, which helps change the mindset of individuals through conflict resolution training and building goal-setting and time-management skills, expands and becomes mandatory for those leaving prison.
“They should have this program set up so that it’s mandatory when guys get out … part of your aftercare … When you go to prison, you actually leave that age out on the street. You become a whole other person in prison,” said Bedford. “Their mindset, while they’re in prison, has to be there because that’s your survival. You’ve got to survive in prison and getting out, your mind is still there. You’ve been gone for so long that’s all you know.”
Bedford doesn’t have a job now. He would like one, particularly one that helps the youth in neighborhoods around the city.
“I would like to be director of (a) community center somewhere here in town, preferably Orange Mound. … I want to start working these young kids in our neighborhoods. … I want to tell the kids some (of) my experiences and my life story and try to help them. … A lot of these kids need it these days,” Bedford said.
Re-entry program to expand
Manhood University will expand, too.
The program, which is now offered at six sites across Memphis, will also begin to work with inmates about 60 days ahead of their scheduled release date at the Mark Luttrell Transition Center, the city and Tennessee Department of Corrections has announced.
“The men behind bars today are also our neighbors of tomorrow and the success of our communities hinges on their successful reentry. The men at MLTC have a great opportunity to make their lives better, which will help them to become productive members in society and make a safer Tennessee,” said TDOC Commissioner Terry Parker, in a statement.
The program has helped more than 300 participants so far, according to the City of Memphis.
“Life is about forgiveness, second chances and lending a helping hand to those who need it when and where we can,” Mayor Jim Strickland said in a statement. “That’s exactly what Manhood University does. Over the course of six weeks, this program gives hope and purpose to these men, and I’m excited to work with the state to get this done.”
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