By Dylan Butler
In so many ways, Danny Jacob is just another college freshman. The 6-foot-2, 19-year-old mingles with others at York College, dreaming big dreams of a hip-hop career, starting a clothing line, maybe penning a book or taking up acting.
All the while the Richmond Hill resident lives one of his biggest dreams — to play college basketball — as one of the first off the bench for Cardinals coach Ron St. John.
But delve just below the surface and Jacob is unlike any other freshman. After all, how many other 19-year-olds do you know who is the subject of an Academy Award-nominated documentary, runs a youth basketball organization and has been a guest speaker at City Hall?
Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find the inspiration for this Renaissance Man in Sean Jean jeans is his desire to be a role model for younger brother Raymond, a freshman at Beach Channel High School, and anyone else in the foster care system.
He returns again and again to the heartbreaking tale of his mother’s crack addiction as a springboard to help other young people who are dealing with the daily reality of life without parents.
“I always had that inner drive that I want to make a difference somehow,” said Danny, a versatile swingman who prides himself on his defense.
That inner drive is what drew the attention of Murray Nossel, who along with Roger Weisberg learned of Danny’s harrowing tale at the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Danny, then 15, was a counselor and Raymond, 11, participated in various after-school programs.
The result was a powerful 27-minute documentary entitled “Why Can’t We Be a Family Again?” by Palisades-based Public Policy Productions Inc.
Filmed over two years, it depicts the stark reality of two brothers’ dreams of being reunited with their mother, “Kitten,” who struggles with crack addiction.
In the film Danny talks about how, at the age of 5, he was forced to take care of his brother in Orlando, Fla. after their mother abandoned them for a week on a crack binge. When the food ran out, Danny scraped enough money together to get on a bus and bring his brother to his great grandmother’s house a few miles away.
“At 5 years old I was thinking, ‘Ok, I have to learn how to make this kid breakfast in the morning,” Danny recalled in an interview last week. “I learned how to make franks and beans, and when we ran out of food, I was still thinking when is she coming home?”
“The jargon people use is ‘the parentification of a child.’ He had to be a parent to Raymond at a very young age,” said Weisberg, the co-director and producer of the film.
“It’s a hard thing to ask, to not be able to do things other children can do and instead accept responsibility to care for Raymond,” he said. “Most people are surprised at just how intact and in some ways how wise they are at such a young age. It’s remarkable.”
Born to different absentee fathers, Danny and Raymond have lived with their grandmother Erslena Jacob — first in Sunset Park and now in Richmond Hill — while their mother has gone through countless but fruitless rehabilitation stints. Raymond figures the number to be around nine or 10 by now.
When she is sober, Danny describes his mother as “the best mother you can imagine — funny, cool to talk to. She’s like your own promoter; she puts her kids out there.”
But those moments have been few and far between for him and his brother.
“I don’t dream about having a mother anymore because I’m fed up with it,” Danny said. “I love her, but I just wish her the best. It’s hard to say, being her oldest, the first-born, but she has to live for her. I have my own life.”
Raymond, a shooting guard on the Beach Channel junior varsity team, still holds out hope, although he admits it is waning.
“Right now it’s hard to say it, that it will happen because each day time is wasting, my mother is out on the street anywhere — she’s not in a program,” said Raymond, an honor roll student with an 88 average who also plays JV football and baseball. “We don’t know what she’s doing. She’s not trying to get us back, but you still have to have hope.”
After getting over the initial guilt for being in the foster care system, Danny has used his story to inspire the other 26,000 kids in the system in New York City.
He has spoken at various Administration for Children’s Services events and at the suggestion of ACS Commissioner William Bell was invited by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to speak at a Martin Luther King event at City Hall.
“He’s committed himself to serving others, starting with his younger brother,” Bell said of Danny. “He typifies what we hope for all our kids. You look at Daniel and you see resilience and his commitment for his younger brother as his motivation.”
James “Buddy” Keaton, the boys’ grandfather and longtime basketball official, knows that sports have been a critical anchor for Danny as well as his brother.
Danny is “a team player. The one thing he learned since he was in foster care is that it’s not always him; it’s him and his brother,” said Keaton. “They put a lot in their mother and she disappointed them a lot. If not for their grandmother, they would be in terrible shape.”
St. John, who has coached basketball at York for 15 years, is surprised at how well the brothers deal with a film that is so personal.
“As I viewed it … I kind of looked back at them to see their expression and how they were handling it because some people might have felt embarrassed by it,” he said. “But it amazed me how they handled that.”
While Bell said Danny is a role model to others in the foster care system, he said the real hero is their grandmother who put her life on hold to care for the boys.
And although he hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with his grandmother, who Danny said employs ”tough love,” Danny agrees with Bell.
“I’m grateful for her because we could have been anywhere, but we’re fortunate enough to have our grandmother, a good grandmother at that,” Danny said.
Added Raymond: “We don’t even know if we’d be seeing each other if it wasn’t for our grandmother who stopped her life to take care of me and my brother.”
Danny was not always the model citizen, however. After always getting good grades, his marks slipped his freshman year at New Utrecht High School and he failed off the basketball team.
Erslena Jacob gave Danny an ultimatum.
“Daniel got to high school and started to slack off and I had to nail him down and give him a choice: Do well or you can’t live here anymore,” she said. “He made his choice.”
And now Danny is trying to make a choice about a career, even though he still has three years of college in front of him and his event calendar is packed solid.
After basketball season, Danny is planning on speaking at several high schools before flying to Los Angeles with his brother and grandmother to attend the Academy Awards March 23.
In between performing at various clubs — he already performed at an MTV-sponsored fashion show at Columbia University last fall — Danny is planning on preparing for the fourth summer of the Danny Love Youth Organization, where he teaches boys ages 14-17 about life through the disciplines of basketball.
There are also plans in the works to include a girls’ team in the program, currently based out of PS 62 in Richmond Hill, while continuing to be a beacon of hope to the thousands of children in the foster care system who are desperate for any bit of encouragement.
“They can relate to the roller coaster of emotions that me and my brother went through and to see the hurt and how I was forced out of a childhood because I was forced to grow up real quick,” Danny said.
“The odds are against them and it’s true we’re born into a system. Just to see them and tell them I’m still in the same boat and if I can do it, you can do it. That’s the message I’m trying to send out.”
Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 143.