Jayson Williams, David Banks, Elliott Dawes, Errol Louis, Tracy Martin and Etan Thomas (courtesy of Tracy Martin)

(The Root) — Could this be one of the great comeback stories? Former NBA player Jayson Williams spent 18 months in jail for the death of limousine driver Costas Christofi, whom he said he mistakenly shot and killed inside his home in 2002. A year ago he was released, and now he is a community activist working with young men in Harlem and other neighborhoods. He was also a participant in a panel about the black male at the National Action Network Convention in New York Thursday, where men taking the initiative to change lives and communities was a strong theme.

It's worth noting that Williams was introduced as a former NBA All-Star player by the moderator. But when Williams spoke, he said that he was not just a former NBAer. "I am a convicted felon; I am on parole." (In fact, during the panel Williams got a call from his manager, who reminded him that he had to check in with his parole officer.) Then Williams turned to fellow panelist Tracy Martin, the father of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman on his way home from the store, and said, "I took an innocent man's life by accident, so I can understand how Mr. Martin feels."

As for how Martin feels about his son's killer, he told The Root, when asked about second chances and forgiveness, "Until I have some time to sit back and weigh what was actually in Mr. Zimmerman's heart, I can't really say how I'll accept that. As a God-fearing man, [I believe] it's in Moses' law that we have to have a forgiving heart. So sooner or later I'll forgive, but it's just a matter of whether it's sooner or later." 

For now Martin is focusing on the upcoming trial of Trayvon's killer, scheduled for June in Florida. He has also been speaking out about how to help the black community when it comes to raising children. "Just because a child is raised in a single-parent home doesn't mean both parents are not involved," Martin told the audience of more than 350, mostly men, gathered for the black male panel.

He said he wants to make sure that black single mothers are not demonized. Martin also said he believes that when black men make bad choices, that does not necessarily mean that they do not have positive role models; it could mean they are being led down the wrong road. "We just have to come together as men, put the problems on the table and show initiative," said Martin.


Elliott Dawes, the head of the Black Male Initiative at the City University of New York, echoed that sentiment and spoke about the importance of mentoring and how more programs are needed to help black men leaving prison to go back to school and get a degree. Dawes says it's been proved effective in reducing recidivism.

David Banks, president of the Eagle Academy Foundation and the brother of Philip Banks, who was recently appointed chief of department for the New York City Police Department, said that while there is no one single answer, the impact of fathers who are not there cannot be understated.

Nathaniel Pendleton, the father of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was killed in Chicago just days after attending President Barack Obama's Washington, D.C., inauguration, said that more discipline by parents is needed.


Jayson Williams extolled the virtues of God and the church, which he said were in his life well before his conviction but became even more prevalent after. "No one is going to pick up your call when you're in prison. When you're in prison, the only one you can call on is God," Williams told The Root.

But Etan Thomas, who also played in the NBA and is now an activist and author, said that sometimes churches are not welcoming of young black men "wearing baggy pants and young women in hoochie-mama outfits." Thomas said that he is also opposed to sagging pants, but adults have to meet youths halfway. "Too many times we are afraid of our young people because they are not in a perfect package."

Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.