OLD TOWN — Wanye George said he "wants to be successful as badly as I want to breathe."
For example, when the Wells High School senior initially took the ACT, he a scored a 17. He took it again and tallied a 27, including a 31 on the math portion of the test.
During the first conference basketball game of his junior season, the Raiders guard suffered a devastating tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee, costing him the remainder of the campaign. He's rebounded this year to average a team-best 25 points per game.
On Tuesday, he will face Perspectives Charter Schools, which is coached by one of his heroes, Waybon McConnell Jr. — one of the many people George credited with helping him stay focused and away from gangs.
In his 17 years, Wanye has attended seven schools. The Old Town resident has met his biological father only a handful of times, "not even enough to count on my fingers," he said.
When he was a 1-year-old living in the Cabrini-Green projects, he was covered in his mother Tamika's blood after she was accidentally shot in the face and was left in a coma for a month.
"It's not often in life you get to challenge someone that looks up to you and considers you a role model," said McConnell, a Lincoln Park High School graduate who lives in Uptown. "He wants to win, I want to win, but we both know it's all love."
"I wish I had a relationship with my own father, coming to see my games, and that hurts me the most," Wanye said.
Ten years from now, Wanye, the oldest of four siblings, wants to open a day care center to help disadvantaged kids. He's even picked out the name: Every Child Deserves a Chance.
If he graduates from college, Wanye will be the first of his family to do so. That includes his mother, five aunts, grandparents and 24 first cousins.
"I think he really wants to get out of where he lives and make his mom proud," said Wanye's logistics teacher, Vashti Taylor, of the Near North Side. "Words can't express how proud I am of this kid. I'm so glad he won't be a statistic."
DOING 'GREAT THINGS IN LIFE'
Todd Zayti said Wanye has an "it" factor.
Zayti, a former wide receiver for Michigan State, has been mentoring Wanye for nine months as part of the By The Hand kids club, an after-school academic program for underserved youth.
"He's one of those kids, if he puts his mind to it, and he wants to accomplish something, it's going to truly happen," said Zayti, of Streeterville. "He's got all the right qualities to do great things in life."
Zayti said he bonded immediately with Wanye because they're both athletes who grew up without fathers. Zayti has done well as a real estate investor, and he said he believes Wanye will share similar accomplishments in the business world.
Taylor said she thinks the same thing. She moved to Chicago from Liberia before high school and earned a bachelor's degree in computer science at Illinois Institute of Technology, a master's degree in education at National Lewis University and is working on a Ph.D. in leadership at Argosy University Downtown.
Taylor oversees the work-study program at Wells, 936 N. Ashland Ave., in which Wanye takes part. Wanye spends his mornings in class, then commutes Downtown on the Blue Line each afternoon for a paid internship at Mikva Challenge, which aims to develops civic leadership in underprivileged children.
He then returns to school on the "L" for basketball practices or games before doing homework the rest of the night.
"He never lets me down, and always rises to the occasion," Taylor said. "The kid has been through a lot of stuff. When you've gone through so many challenges, sometimes it makes you mature faster."
Wanye said he has always been mature because he's wanted to set an example for his younger sisters, Dazanquie, 16, and Shirese, 8, and brother, Dejuan, 15.
As he's transferred from school to school, he's done his best to keep away from "all the drama ... all the fighting," he said.
"It's about getting good grades, being obedient, respectful and working hard," said Wanye, the vice president of the senior class.
'FIRECRACKERS, I CAN'T EVEN STAND THEM'
Wells basketball head coach Michael Horton also is Wanye's school counselor. Horton spent his childhood two blocks from Cabrini-Green and four blocks from where Wanye lives now. The Sullivan High School graduate understands what Wanye has been through.
"I talk to him a great deal about breaking the cycle and being a role model for his family," said Horton, of Morgan Park. "I'm not just trying to be a coach. I'm trying to be a father figure."
Horton said Wanye also doesn't want to let down his mother, who nearly died when he was a baby. When Wanye was 1, the man who would become the father of his three siblings accidentally shot her with a 9mm handgun. The bullet entered her left jaw near her ear and exited just under her bottom row of teeth.
George thought her son had been shot when she saw him drenched in blood while playing with building blocks. It was not until she tried talking to him and felt a stream of blood rushing from her mouth that she realized that she was the one who had been hit.
"It's something you never forget, and even now I still have complications," said George, 37, who was put in a medically induced coma and estimated she had at least 10 surgeries to repair the injuries. "Firecrackers, I can't even stand them — the sound of them, none of it.
"I think that's why I try to stay on these kids as much as I can," George said.
Of all the obstacles her son has overcome, George said his knee injury was the most daunting.
Competing in a game at Al Raby School for Community and Environment, Wanye connected on two quick jump shots. But on the team's third possession, while lunging for a loose ball, he heard three pops and felt "immediate pain."
"I started bawlin in tears," Wanye said. "I tried to walk, but I couldn't."
George said her son is hoping to play college basketball, with Kentucky State, Jackson State, St. Joseph's (Ind.) College and Concordia University Wisconsin among his choices.
Horton and McConnell said Wanye is more of a Division II-type of player, in part because the 6-foot-2-inch guard is only about 150 pounds. McConnell, who's engaged to one of Wanye's cousins and has known him for about a decade, said Wanye s progression as a player has been "amazing."
Wanye's improved ACT score could open doors to academic-based scholarships. Wanye was so excited about his 27 that after receiving his score via email earlier this year, he ran around his house "jumping and screaming."
"It raised my horizons for colleges I can get into," Wanye said.
Wanye already has plans to help the next generation. A degree in business management awaits, then ownership of a day care center in impoverished communities like his current one.
Like his future business' name states, he said every child deserves a chance.
"My life, it's coming along," he said. "And I want to help somebody like I've been helped."