Ahandwritten note on a red piece of construction paper hangs on a wall above Gary Trent's desk. It serves as daily affirmation that his guidance and support made a difference in a young girl's life.
You are like a uncle to me and I will remember all the stuff you told me and I am on the right path now and I never told you but I love u like u are my uncle!
Trent plays the role of uncle some days. Sometimes, he's a father figure and stern disciplinarian. Some kids lean on him as a trusted confidant, a friend they can talk to about problems at home or a bully on the bus. And some children just know him as the really tall guy walking the halls at Dayton's Bluff Elementary in St. Paul.
"I've got more hats on than Dr. Seuss," he said.
Most students aren't aware that Trent played for the Timberwolves during his nine-year NBA career. They know him simply as Mr. Trent, the school's cultural intervention specialist. His job description is open-ended because every day brings a different set of challenges, dealing with young kids who are coping with family problems, poverty or emotional issues.
Located a few miles east of the State Capitol, Dayton's Bluff Elementary sets student achievement as an overarching principle that binds its racially diverse enrollment. Trent casts a large shadow -- literally, at 6-8 and 260 pounds -- in the school's push to protect and nurture student development.
Trent walks hallways, pulls lunch duty and visits classrooms to make sure kids are acting responsibly. He disciplines those who require it and counsels kids who need support. He maintains a visible presence so that kids feel safe, and he strives to build personal relationships with students in order to gain their trust so that they will open up on deeper issues.
"There are days I go home stressed because I deal with a lot of negativity," he said. "It's my job to put resolution to it. Everything that I do, I'm going to have to put out some negative fire. But the reward is that I'm putting them out."
Trent can relate to his students on a personal level because he survived an unfathomable childhood that exposed him to death, drugs and crime in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. His father served time in federal prison for drug trafficking. His mother became addicted to drugs. His grandmother murdered her own son. His grandfather drank himself to death. Other family members were incarcerated. Trent briefly dropped out of high school as a freshman and began selling crack cocaine.
"It's generational dysfunction," he said. "It's the people before you that don't lay that groundwork properly for you to succeed in life. You think life is all about dysfunction and drama and just being ignorant to the world."
Trent found a different path, determined to break that cycle. He credits former coaches, teachers and teammates for saving his life. Now he wants to reciprocate that, though he never envisioned counseling as a second career.
Trent made millions as a basketball player but found himself bored in retirement and searching for something that gave him purpose. He started by coaching his son's athletic teams and eventually found his way into an elementary school as an intervention specialist. The one-time drug dealer had needed his own intervention years earlier.
"I tell people all the time that if you knew his story, he shouldn't be alive," said Jeff Boals, Trent's college teammate at Ohio University. "To do what he's doing now and helping kids is just a great success story."
Trent felt like a lost soul as a kid. He was surrounded by societal ills, which left him full of rage. He didn't want that lifestyle, but that life held a firm grip on him.
"I felt empty, I didn't feel loved," he said. "I felt alone as a child. What you end up doing is leaning on friends. Those can be good friends or gang-banging friends. That's where you get sucked into something because it's human nature to find a social group."
He broke that chain as a high school sophomore when his mother forced him to move in with an aunt in the Columbus suburbs. Hamilton Township coach Randy Cotner shook Trent's hand in the office that first day and said it felt like a "dead fish." Trent barely made eye contact and trusted no one.
Athletic but raw on the basketball court, Trent played with fury and clobbered anyone who came inside. Cotner quickly realized Trent's potential, but his primary goal was to keep the kid "eligible and out of jail."
Cotner and several school administrators kept close watch over Trent. They gave him rides to school, required him to attend study hall and welcomed him into their homes. They showed him that it's OK to trust others. And they pushed him to embrace responsibility.
The first time Trent visited Cotner's home, he frowned as he looked at the top of his coach's refrigerator. He told Cotner and his wife that they should wipe the dust off. Cotner's wife threw a dish rag at Trent.
"Well, clean it," she said.
Trent was a mess academically, carrying a 1.2 grade-point average as a junior. His grades scared off most college coaches, except Ohio University's Larry Hunter, who took a chance on him -- but not before laying down strict ground rules.
"I wanted to see his reaction," Hunter said. "He didn't flinch. I also told him that I was going to love him."
Trent became a three-time Mid-American Conference Player of the Year who earned the nickname "Shaq of the MAC" because of his imposing physical presence. The No. 11 overall pick in the 1995 draft, Trent provided the Wolves some toughness at power forward from 2001 to '04, averaging 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds mostly in a reserve role.
On the court, he ruled by intimidation and played with the same temperament as a mixed martial arts fighter. He wanted to pound opponents into submission. That inner rage occasionally manifested itself inappropriately. He earned an NBA suspension as a member of the Dallas Mavericks after he stormed into Golden State's locker room to confront two players. One day in college, Trent became so enraged by Boals banging on him in practice that he promised to take a swing at him if he didn't stop.
"My response was, 'Do what you've got do,' " said Boals, now an assistant coach at Ohio State. "Silently I was praying that he didn't swing at me."
They remain close friends to this day. Trent's upbringing hardened him, but that gruff exterior also serves as a protective shell for a guy who has "a lot of layers," former Wolves teammate Chauncey Billups said. The Wolves honored Trent for his community involvement and work with kids before a game last week.
"The thing about Gary is, he's extremely loyal," former Wolves coach Flip Saunders said.
Finding a calling
Trent peered into a classroom through a window to observe student behavior one day last week. Everything looked normal so he continued his rounds. He visited every fifth- and sixth-grade class to congratulate students for showing exemplary behavior on a field trip that morning. As he made a loop toward his office, he spotted a fourth-grade boy dancing in the hallway.
"Why aren't you in class?" Trent asked. "This isn't 'Dance Fever.' "
They both laughed. Sometimes it's small things that require his attention, too.
"Bad behavior needs to be corrected with positive reinforcements," he said.
Trent doesn't know how long he'll continue in this role because his life is hectic already with his wife and four children, all boys. He also dreams of becoming a coach, either in college or the NBA. Trent participated in the NBA's coaching developmental program, and the league invited him to its symposium to talk to the 2012 rookie class about potential pitfalls that players encounter.
Trent believes he has a lot to offer as a coach. But he also finds fulfillment in helping those young kids who walk into his office every day in need of help. He looks back and sees himself.
"I had so many positive people intervene in my life and help me along the way," he said. "I really got into this because I needed to be a part of something to keep growing. And I found so much innocence and I found so much truth in the children, the love that I got from them."