In December 1995, the month he turned 20, Exavier B. Pope came close to selling drugs.
He was living in an apartment on the city’s Southeast Side, sleeping on the floor of a drug house. After flunking out at Iowa State University in one semester and hanging with friends at the University of Illinois, Pope was back home in Chicago.
Once again, he was alone. His brother and twin sister were not in his life at the time. He was barely speaking to his mother. He hadn’t seen his father in 10 years. His beloved foster mother had been dead for five.
He had no phone. He had no car. He had one set of clothes: an Iowa State T-shirt, an undersized leather bomber, blue jeans and white athletic shoes.
And one day, he had crack cocaine.
It started when a massive man who worked in the apartment approached him.
“You ain’t on sh-- right now,” he said to Pope, the boy who at the age of 9 told his church that “Gangbangers are cowards.”
“You ain’t in school,” he said to Pope, who at the age of 12 tested into an accelerated program at Whitney Young Magnet High School.
“You ain’t making no money,” he said to Pope, who as a homeless teenager spent some nights sleeping outside at The Point in Hyde Park and Tuley Park in Chesterfield.
“You might as well get out here and hustle.”
With that, the man put a small bag of yellow crystalline rocks in Pope’s hand and sent him to 88th and Burley streets to sell.
Exavier Pope, crack dealer.
The wind snapped in his face. The street, normally buzzing with activity, was quiet. He walked to the corner and paced, the words echoing in his mind: “You ain’t sh--. You ain’t sh--.”
He stopped walking.
“This can’t be my life,” he said aloud to himself.
He knelt on the concrete.
“This can’t be my life,” he said again.
Tears filled his eyes. He blinked them back. He put his head to the ground.
“This can’t be my life,” he said through sobs. “This can’t be my life.”
He wept. And he prayed.
“This isn’t my life,” he said. “This isn’t my life.”
If you know anything about Pope, you know it isn’t his life.
Maybe you know him through his work running The Pope Law Firm, where he handles sports and entertainment matters ranging from contract negotiation for clients starring on networks such as Showtime and VH1 to advising NBA and NFL prospects on everything from forming business and charitable entities to selecting agents.
Maybe you know him through his charitable work and mentorship or through the alumni network at Whitney Young.
You might know him as the self-proclaimed “best-dressed man on television” through his appearances on WGN, NBC, CBS and Fox.
Perhaps you are one of his 20,000 Twitter followers, reading his daily affirmations of “Expect the very best today!” and “POSITIVE > Negative.”
Maybe you work for a Fortune 500 company that hired Pope to speak. Or you heard about him being named one of the Chicago Defender newspaper’s 2014 Men of Excellence.
Or maybe you’ve never heard of him. You will, if he accomplishes his goal of reaching an international audience as a sports and entertainment lawyer and leader of youth.
There is plenty to say about the 38-year-old. But this is not a story about where he is today.
It’s the story of where he came from.
‘My guardian angel’
Pope’s mother, Victoria Blakey, has her own troubled story. She ran away from home as a teenager after her mother threatened to send her to juvenile hall for missing curfew.
It was then that she met John Pope, a pimp who coaxed her into prostitution. Once, when she was pregnant, he beat her and kicked her in the stomach.
But she did not leave John nor the street life. In 1974, she was arrested after following friends in an attempt to kidnap a wealthy woman, hold her hostage and blackmail her family.
“It was something I knew I didn’t want to go along with,” Blakey said in an interview for this story. “Going along with my children’s father, going along with my girlfriends — each time I went along with somebody, I got deeper and deeper in trouble.”
Blakey was charged with aggravated kidnapping and robbery. She spent a few months in Cook County Jail until members from her church raised money to pay her bond.
While out on bond, she became pregnant with Pope and his sister. Prosecutors waited for her to give birth before beginning her trial.
“I guess they didn’t want sympathy from the jury by having me on trial as a pregnant woman,” she said. “The day that they found me guilty and revoked my bail, they were 6 weeks old. I still hadn’t milked them from my breast.”
Pope was born on Dec. 26, 1975. His father was absent from his life. John died in 2012; the last time Pope saw him, he was 9 years old.
Though Pope’s father originally had custody of the children, Blakey’s mother, Betty — who never liked the elder Pope — went to his home and forcibly took the children.
But Betty’s boyfriend didn’t want to raise Pope and his siblings.
Fortunately, Betty knew a woman who was taking care of a number of foster children — Emma Lily Mitchell. Betty contacted her about the three children, and Mitchell took them in.
A recent widow in her early 60s, Mitchell lived in a two-story house at 528 E. 92nd St. Along with the Pope kids and other neighborhood children, Mitchell cared for a daughter and two grandsons who had mental and physical disabilities.
“My guardian angel,” Pope calls Mitchell today.
He still thinks about her lilting voice, the one that started his day for 12 years.
“Exavier! It’s time!” she would call. “It’s time to arise for a new day!”
He also thinks about what she told him. That he was different from the other kids. That he would never have to intimidate others to find success.
“If there ever comes a time when you are uncomfortable and there is trouble,” she told him, “come home.”
Trouble was never far. Just east of Mitchell’s house, at the intersection of 92nd Street and St. Lawrence Avenue, are three spots where Pope’s life nearly ended.
At 13, he was attacked just north of 92nd Street by several teenage gang members who wanted Pope to join their gang. He was forced to fight his way home.
Later that same year, a stray bullet bounced off a sign post inches from his head.
And at 16, while walking under a viaduct south of 92nd Street, two men heading to their getaway car after a robbery pressed a .38-caliber revolver into Pope’s abdomen, robbed him and told him to run home without looking back — or else they would shoot him.
Mitchell’s words rang in his head as he ran, never looking back: “Come home. Come home.”
‘This woman is beating us’
Mitchell did not adopt the Pope kids. She raised them until Blakey was able to take care of them.
Pope’s mother spent three years at Dwight Correctional Center in central Illinois, was in a work release program for six months, then had scheduled visits with the Pope kids from 1980 to 1982.
In 1982, she moved into an apartment on West Lakeside Avenue in Uptown with the children. In mid-1983, the family moved to an apartment on West Briar Place in Lakeview.
With Blakey’s first words upon their arrival home at the Uptown apartment, Pope and his sister learned how different life would be with their birth mother.
“It’s not going to be like it used to be,” Blakey said.
It was a warning. She felt Mitchell had spoiled the Pope kids. That would not be the case with her. She would maintain discipline.
Discipline meant violence.
Sometimes she used a slap or a punch. Other times she stripped the children naked and whipped them with an electric cord. The children had to shower first so they would be wet. The sting wasn’t right otherwise, she told them.
Then there was the time she asked 9-year-old Pope to go to a newspaper salesman to pick up one section of the paper that had not been delivered. Pope was too shy to ask and came back empty-handed.
In response, Blakey broke a leg off a chair and hit him in the head with it. An errant nail was hanging out of the leg and stuck in Pope near his hairline. She yanked at the leg a few times, trying to dislodge it as it hung from her son’s head.
After another incident in which Blakey threatened his life, Pope left their home in the 500 block of West Briar Place in the middle of the night and walked 2½ miles to the family’s old Uptown apartment to sleep in a stairwell.
It was February, but he didn’t wear a coat — he thought he didn’t have enough time to put it on.
A janitor found him and called the police.
“My mom is abusing my sister and me,” Pope told them. The police went to their house and picked up his sister and mother to sort it out.
“This woman is beating us,” he said to the police. He pointed to the fresh wound on his head from the nail. “This woman hit me over the head with a chair.”
“Try not to use your hands next time,” the police told Blakey. The three were released.
In the cab ride home, Blakey looked at Pope.
“You should be pleading to God for your life right now,” she said.
Instead, he was thinking of Mitchell, wondering how he could make it back to her. They barely spoke anymore, since Blakey forbid it.
When they got home, Pope knew what was coming. Blakey told them to shower. But the phone rang. “I’m gonna get you,” she said to Pope before answering the phone.
This was his chance to leave. The apartment’s back door was attached to his room, so he walked into his room, closed the door, opened the back door and walked out. He had been inside for less than 30 seconds.
His heart was pounding. He was cold and scared, but in his head he kept thinking, “My life is changing.”
There was one other thought in his mind: Get to Mitchell’s house. He walked to Lake Shore Drive and began trudging south, keeping an eye on the street signs.
His plan was to walk from Belmont Avenue all the way to 92nd Street, returning to Mitchell. It was mid-afternoon — perhaps he would get there just in time to see her in the kitchen, drinking her morning coffee, staring out the window.
Instead, he was spotted by police.
“Where are you going?” asked one of the officers.
“I’m going to 528 E. 92nd St.,” Pope responded.
“But you are on Belmont,” the officer said. “How did you get over here?”
“My mom is beating me,” Pope said. “Save me.”
When they got back to the police station, Blakey was there to meet them, and his grandmother was on the phone with the police. No one knew what to do about this boy who was walking from Belmont to 92nd.
“I don’t want to live with her anymore,” Pope told the police.
“Who do you want to live with?” they asked.
At last, the moment Pope had been praying for arrived. His grandmother spoke up.
“Send them to Emma.”
‘Like most students who are gifted, he was argumentative’
After five more years of caring for the Pope kids, Emma Mitchell died on July 24, 1990. If there was one saving grace for Pope and his sister, it was that she owned her house outright.
At 14 years old, Pope was now de-facto head of the household. For two years, he worked odd jobs after school to clothe and feed himself, his sister and Mitchell’s daughter and grandsons with disabilities.
He also forged Mitchell’s signature on grade reports so his teachers wouldn’t know he didn’t have a parent. He was afraid of being sent to a group home or, worse than that, an abusive foster home.
“I was impressed that he was in that gifted program competing with the rest of those kids,” said his seventh-grade teacher, Dorothy Lewis. “And I don’t know why I was impressed. I didn’t know he was adopted. The only way I knew anything about the students’ personal lives is if they had problems.
“And he seemed very well adjusted. Academically, he didn’t have any problems.”
Two years after Mitchell died, an attorney and friend of the Mitchell family figured out what was happening at the house on 92nd Street and kicked out the Pope kids. They weren’t in the will and they weren’t family. They had to go.
From there, he and his sister bounced around separately. She attended Hyde Park Academy, but he had tested into Whitney Young after sixth grade, getting into an exclusive six-year program in which students attend the school from seventh grade through senior year.
Ensuring that Pope got into the school, he later said, was Mitchell’s last great gift to him. The school brought out the best in him. He worked hard, earned high marks and was a social butterfly.
“Like most students who are gifted, he was argumentative,” said Joyce Kenner, Pope’s Whitney Young principal. “They want to challenge authority. And authority has to understand that they are gifted. They are going to challenge you because they are bright, and you can’t get mad at that challenge. When he would do that, I would talk to him about the appropriateness of his challenge.”
He spent his final two years of high school bouncing from friend’s house to friend’s house, from girlfriend’s house to girlfriend’s house and, when needed, park bench to park bench.
He said nothing about his home life, good or bad. When he was at school, he was at school, and that was that.
“He is very self-confident,” Kenner said. “So he must have used that as a mask because I never saw anything like that. He dressed the way other kids did. … Maybe some of his defiance was a shout out to say something about his home life, but he never articulated that to me as I can recall.”
‘This can’t be my life’
After earning a scholarship to Iowa State, Pope flunked out. He couldn’t focus, couldn’t stop partying and failed a few classes.
Back in Chicago with nowhere to turn, he ended up in an apartment on 88th and Burley streets used exclusively for cooking and selling drugs.
For three to four months, he slept on the floor. If he was lucky, he slept under a coat.
During the day, gang meetings were held there. Marijuana was sold at all hours. But the apartment’s primary purpose was for cooking crack.
He remembers the bubbling water in the pot. The smell of the formaldehyde. Watching the rock stiffen and harden in the pot into the desired consistency. The razor blade slicing the big rock into fine portions.
Most of all, he remembers the smell. It was like hair burning — if the hair was treated.
“Like if someone had a perm and someone went up and lit their hair on fire,” he said. “That’s what crack smells like. It smells horrible. It makes your nose hairs burn.”
As part of the interview for this story, Pope walked his path on Burley Street for the first time in 18 years. When he lived there, he would walk with his fists balled up, often holding a small knife for self-defense.
This time, he found himself comfortable and unaffected as he spoke about his time there.
“My friends had shunned me,” he said. “I wasn’t in communication with no other person. I was completely isolated in life. No phone. I’m isolated in this horrible neighborhood.
“So I went out there, and I just remember the wind, how it sounded. There was nobody outside. Normally there are tons of people outside. Nobody outside.”
He looked at his old neighborhood, at the swaths of empty lots.
“That conversation was playing in my head, that I wasn’t sh--. And I kept thinking, ‘This isn’t my life. This isn’t my life.’ I was saying it over and over again.”
He began to whisper.
“It came to me crying and sobbing and praying to God: I saw my life flash before my eyes. I prayed and I felt a deep sense of darkness come over me, and I literally saw my life — like scenes of my life in the future.
“I saw getting married. I saw going to law school. I saw being on TV. I saw speaking in front of thousands of people. I saw enjoying life. But most importantly, I saw a way out. And I needed to make a decision right then and there what my life was going to be.”
As Pope retold his story, he kept looking at the empty houses.
“It was like something leaped inside of me. And at that moment, I walked back to him and said ‘I’m not selling this.’ Back then, in that neighborhood, if you did something like that — there was about to be a fight, you might wind up dead. …
“I said it with such a steely determination that he cowered away from me. No retort. It was like, ‘All right.’ He backed off me. And just walked away.”
‘I couldn’t fully be me if I couldn’t fully love you’
A month later, Pope was going to Roosevelt University, living in a downtown dorm.
His grandmother had started telling friends that Pope was out of school and needed to find his way back. She reached out to a friend who reached out to Charlie Martin, director of the Upward Bound program at Roosevelt.
Martin called Pope and asked him if he was serious. Pope said he was, so Martin helped Pope enroll. He transferred to UIC in 1997 and graduated in 2000 with majors in economics and finance.
In 2002, after growing dissatisfied with his job as a portfolio fund accounting analyst, Pope decided he wanted to become a sports agent. That took him to law school at Rutgers and eventually to his own practice, where he handles transactional work for athletes and entertainers.
His mother turned her life around, too. She earned a nursing degree and worked at Somerset Medical Center from 1989 to 2003. After tearing her hamstring in her right leg while bowling, doctors told her she couldn’t work for six months.
So she traveled to Gambia in West Africa for what she thought would be a six-week trip. Instead, she lived there for years, founding a literacy program for girls before returning to Chicago in late 2013.
Today, Pope has reconciled with Blakey. They met in March at a coffee shop to discuss this story. It was the first time Pope ever heard the exact circumstances of his birth.
It was also another instance in which they confronted their past, albeit differently. Blakey says she doesn’t remember beating him, despite physical evidence like the scar on Pope’s forehead.
Still, Pope doesn’t hold it against her.
“I’m so thankful to you for creating me,” he told her. “I think it’s ridiculous to hold you hostage for things that happened in your life. I wouldn’t want anyone to hold me hostage for things that I’ve done.”
Pope now calls Blakey “mom,” something he didn’t do growing up. He touches her shoulder as he speaks about her.
“I couldn’t fully be me if I couldn’t fully love you,” he says.
When the meeting ends, they hug and say goodbye. Blakey walks to her car, and Pope checks his phone for texts and tweets about the ruling that day granting Northwestern University football players the right to unionize.
As he walks to the bus to head east on Madison Street to his downtown office, Pope is back in work mode. Tomorrow morning he will be on WGN-TV Channel 9 to talk about the impact of the Northwestern labor ruling.
He is in casual wear — a button-down shirt, a gray zip-up hoodie, a black peacoat, khaki pants and loafers.
He is 15 miles from 88th and Burley streets. Fifteen miles from the site where he cried for help, where he prayed to God, where his story nearly ended and instead began.
Fifteen miles and 19 years and a million lifetimes ago.