ISAIAH LAMB

 

PORTRAITS BY CHUN-LI 'KEN' HUANG

 
 
 
Isaiah Lamb by Chun-Li Ken Huang .jpg
 

Isaiah Lamb and his parents spent many nights from 2013 to 2014 creating a temporary home in the rooms of the Comfort Inn in Towson, Maryland—relying on only the compromised nightly rates and their relentlessly high spirits. Their clothes, living supplies, and years worth of belongings awaited them, left piled up in their Hyundai Elantra in the parking lot outside.

At the hotel breakfast buffet, Isaiah and his brother would offer a hand to the guests with pouring batter into the waffle makers, assuring it would turn the golden brown that they had perfected over the year and a half. “I was so good at it,” Isaiah smiles, glancing up at the ceiling. “My brother and I used to call them the ‘perfect peas’—it all depends on if you pour the waffle mix in a certain way and stuff like that.”

“It wasn’t all bad—in that, I made it fun.” He spent his mornings recycling the small sense of joy he received from making each “perfect pea” for each hotel guest he encountered.

Isaiah has spent the past three years traveling the corners of America with the Marist Men’s Division I Basketball team, each hotel they stay at reviving an oddly uncomfortable sense of recollection. He enjoys the presence of his teammates and coaches, alongside memories of living in the hotel through his junior, and part of his senior, years in high school—in between his family’s various stages of homelessness. “To this day, I’m not a big fan of hotels because I was always there,” he said. “And to this day, I don’t eat the little waffles—because I used to eat them every day.”

———

“It kind of gradually started to happen in middle school.”

Isaiah is a junior business major and forward on the Marist Men’s Division I Basketball Team, maintaining a B average—and getting there was never easy, even in the slightest sense.

The Lambs were homeless in Isaiah’s years from ninth to 12th grade, living out of their car for three years and in a hotel for one year. The spiral towards homelessness began when his father suffered a heart attack and could not return to his job as a maintenance man. “By him not being able to work and provide, my mom had to do it all. It was just overwhelming and things started happening. We were moving from house to house—still going to school and acting like nothing was happening.”

For about three years, Isaiah and his parents found themselves living out of their car. They spent many nights sleeping in the parking lot of a local laundromat—where they became close with the owner, who would let them go in and wash up after they closed. “Sleeping in a car when you’re 6’4” is absolutely terrible,” Isaiah said. “I would just lay in the backseat with bags, and to be in a parking lot—hoping that no one you know walks by and sees you—is pretty rough.”

Through everything, Isaiah and his parents relied on one another for making the absolute best of the circumstances in which they were presented with. He slept on blow-up mattresses in each home he settled in. When the mattresses would burst, Isaiah and his brothers would use them as makeshift sleds during the snow. “My family, we just made the best of what we had,” he smiles. “We literally had the best times. When we only had the car, we would drive around and look at the Christmas lights during the winter,” he said. “When it was hot, we would go to the park and spend the whole day at the park and then settle in the car somewhere. We had to make things work."

Isaiah began his high school education at a Baltimore private school, Calvert Hall, on a scholarship—but only completed three months before noticing the growing intensity of his family’s financial hardships. “I lied to my mom and told her I hated the school,” he said. “No one knew I was leaving—I kind of just stayed to myself. No one knew what I was going through.”

He transferred to a public high school mid-year, the same school where his older brother played at as the “star football player.” Isaiah played both basketball and football—and after playing one game of football at the school, he was recruited and offered a scholarship from Rutgers University. “I didn’t know how to play,” Isaiah said, recalling just playing football outside with his brothers for fun—while Rutgers saw his potential, and was interested in his size as an athlete at such a young age.

However, during his freshman year, he tore his ACL and had to sit out during his sophomore basketball season. “I went from feeling like the man, to just tearing my ACL—I thought it was career-ending.”

During his recovery, Isaiah was still watching the financial troubles in his family unfolding, and he was welcomed into his football coach’s home while going through rehab from the knee surgery. “He helped me through all of that—we remain close to this day,” Isaiah said. “My parents would have to drop me off at his house, and they wouldn’t tell me where they were staying, because they didn’t want me to know how bad the place was.”

Isaiah transferred schools, again, by recommendation of his athletic director during his junior year—ending up at Dulaney High School, on the opposite side of Maryland. He had to wake up at 4:45 a.m. to take a bus to a train, to another two buses to get to school every morning for the first half of the year.

Isaiah and his family were close with the owner of the Towson Comfort Inn, where they would stay here and there, when they could come up with the money for a night’s stay. The owner noticed the clothes and living items in the Elantra, and would let them stay in his hotel without always paying full rates. “We would always get the money to him, but he was just so nice and so caring for letting us do that.”

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Isaiah Lamb's Childhood Image

"All I wanted to do was play ball and go to college, and it just seemed like everything just kept getting in the way—I was always positive, because you don’t know what you’re going through until you see the other side."

Their kindness, high spirits, and family values would continue paying forward in small bits. As the Lambs created relationships with members of their community, they gradually began to take the smallest strides towards ending their journey through homelessness. During the second half of his senior year, the Lambs moved into the small apartment—without furniture, but in walking distance to his high school.

Things were looking up for Isaiah during the second half of his senior year—he was overcoming his injury and beginning to play well, getting noticed by college recruiters. Then, he tore his other ACL—and lost 20 out of his 22 Division I collegiate basketball offers. “At that point, I just felt like I hit a wall—all I wanted to do was play ball and go to college, and it just seemed like everything just kept getting in the way. I just kind of broke down at a point. Just having it all taken away from you, having all your offers snatched from you, and then you don’t even have a home to go home to—that’s tough.”

He reveals his motivation through his two major knee injuries, the strength of his parents that led him by their example. “They always talked to me about staying strong because they’re strong—and I had to be strong for them.”

Isaiah expressed gratitude towards the Marist Basketball coaches for “keeping faith” in him—as Marist was one of the only two schools that did not retract their offer after his second injury. The coaches would sit in and watch him during rehab and show a great amount of interest. Marist granted Isaiah a portion of his first “big relief,” as he described it, that he had received in years.

At the time, his family had settled into an apartment and traded in the small Elantra for an SUV. “My parents were proud of me,” he said. “I was feeling so good. I am kind of proud of myself, because I don’t know if everyone would have stayed on track after that.”

“I was always positive, because you don’t know what you’re going through until you see the other side—and I didn’t see the other side because I didn’t have friends who grew up in a big house and had fancy cars. I really thought at the moment that the way I was living was normal.”

Isaiah is the youngest of a family of seven—and looks to his brother, closest in age, for guidance to this day. “When he was growing up, he went through hard times—he was guiding me and making sure that I was in the gym and not out running around with the other kids,” Isaiah said. “I didn’t have the luxury of doing that, I couldn’t do anything and get in trouble—because I had a lot more on my plate.” Isaiah recalls selling swimming goggles at the neighborhood pool in the summer as a child, to save up some extra money to buy a pair of basketball sneakers. “I would sell stuff in school to buy shoes—that was my present. I would save up.”

After college, Isaiah hopes to continue playing basketball at some point, either professionally overseas or hopefully getting a chance in the NBA. Aside from his major in business, he takes a few biology courses in order to prepare nursing program after graduation. “My mom is a nurse—and she is my everything. She has a whole lot of patience,” he said. “She comes home and tells me stories about her patients and all of this amazing stuff.”

He aims to utilize work in cycling his innate kindness in a hospital to continue his family’s tendency to pay it forward, even when they had so little to give. “I was never a big fan of the hospital because my dad had a heart attack, and I was in and out of the hospital with surgeries and rehab, but I would like to just help other people.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Isaiah Lamb is a junior business major and forward on the Marist Men’s Division I Basketball Team who struggled greatly throughout his adolescence as a homeless athlete. His story and photo were featured on the cover of the October 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated, in a longform feature titled “Young, Gifted and Homeless.” Through dealing with homelessness and two ACL injuries, Isaiah overcame many hardships at a very young age—now standing as a successful, Division I athlete.

 

‘I THINK I’M GOING TO PUT THIS ON THE COVER.’—Isaiah was a senior in high school when he and his parents had moved into a small apartment in Baltimore. Here, he received an unexpected phone call from Sports Illustrated magazine.

“I picked up the phone and he was like ‘Hey, this is Jon Wertheim from Sports Illustrated,’ and I said, ‘Excuse me?’” Isaiah said. Wertheim asked Isaiah if he was willing to share his story, which would later appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in a longform feature titled “Young, Gifted and Homeless.”

“And I was like, ‘Well, here’s my mom,’ and I gave her the phone,” he laughed.

The Sports Illustrated team flew to Baltimore to meet Isaiah within the next week—and set up an interview shoot in his apartment. His apartment had little to no furniture, so the crew bought a few stools at the local Target to sit on during the interview—they still have those same stools today.

The team of reporters set up the stools in the living room and sat down with Isaiah and his mother, asking them to tell their story. “At the time, it was really rough to talk about it because we were going through it.”

“[Wertheim] said [the article] is going to change your life, for the rest of your life,” he said. “He told me to know not to worry about what people say.”

Wertheim and his team conducted a photoshoot of Isaiah in front of a worn-down wall, which stood in the back of the old laundromat. The team also did some video shoots there, where he was wearing a pair of expensive Jordans that he had borrowed from a friend, specifically for the shoot. “Everyone was like—‘How are you homeless but wearing those Jordans?’ I didn’t want to be wearing ripped up shoes.” Isaiah sat up against the sepia-toned wall, with a basketball between his knees—above his white, mid-calf socks and the pair of Jordans. “We took the picture and he looks at it and goes, ‘This is a really good picture, I think I’m going to put this on the cover,’—but he said it kind of jokingly and started laughing.”

A few weeks passed, and Isaiah received another call from Sports Illustrated—this time, offering to fly he and his father up to New York City to visit the studio. “‘Did you see the magazine?’” Wertheim asked, upon their arrival.He held up the October 2014 edition of Sports Illustrated Magazine, showing the picture from the back of the laundromat on the front cover. “It was just mind-blowing—I was on the cover of the whole thing,” Isaiah said.

Since then, Jon Wertheim and Isaiah stay in touch—and he and his family came to see Isaiah play in his first home game at Marist. “It’s a lot—going from where I was to being on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I have a frame in my room of the cover, just because it is an honor. A lot of good came out of it. When it came out in high school, everyone was just so surprised,” Isaiah said. “No one knew—there was a lot attached to that story.”

———

C.J. Lee, Assistant Coach of the Marist Men’s Basketball Team has known Isaiah for three years now—and first bonded with him through their similar “Baltimore roots,” through his wife’s experience in graduate school in Maryland and extensive research experience in Baltimore. “We have clicked because of this personal connection,” C.J. said. “I have a ton of respect for the area he comes from in Maryland.”

“Isaiah is a giver, not a taker,” C.J. continued. “Isaiah recognizes the platform that he has as a student-athlete at Marist—not all student-athletes take advantage of or embrace the responsibility of the platform. He does, and he intentionally seeks out ways to leave spaces and leave people better than he found them.”

“I always tell him that he has been blessed with wonderful perspective very early on in life,” C.J. said. “He uses this perspective to fuel himself, and the amount of appreciation he lives with daily separates him from his peers.”

“My mom tells me this all the time—that my break is coming,” Isaiah said. “I don’t know if it is going to be when I get older, but there is going to be a time where I really enjoy and just live life. I feel like I did all of my hardship when I was younger—it only can get better.”

Isaiah remains adamant that through all, family means everything to him—and remains endlessly grateful for everything he has been granted. “Not everyone can say that they have their mom and dad—but they were there to help me and I was never alone. They taught me to never give up and to stay on track. This is just my part, and I think I am proud of who I became.”

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