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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

John Blanchette: Split decision helps Booker overcome poor decision

Chordelle Booker dons his winner’s jacket while celebrating a 2-1 split decision victory in the 165-pound final. (Tyler Tjomsland)

The decision was read and Chordelle Booker dropped to his knees and folded himself in two, head bowed forward to the canvas, braced on his forearms that caught his tears.

The smiles and the joy would come later, after they’d draped a gold medal around his neck and given him the prized winner’s jacket. But what was going through his head at the moment was this:

“I wasn’t supposed to be here!”

This was the thought that turned over and over. He wasn’t supposed to be here. Not because he wasn’t good enough, or because he hadn’t trained hard enough, or because he’d been injured or couldn’t get the financial support.

Chordelle Booker wasn’t supposed to be here because he was supposed to be in prison.

That simple.

OK, it’s never that simple. Except to Chordelle Booker, it all seems very black and white: he was there – in an awful, desperate circumstance – and now he was here, a national champion bound for next year’s Olympic Trials.

The USA Boxing National Championships wrapped up Saturday at Northern Quest Resort and Casino, a few upsets scattered among the big names asserting their dominance again. No upset carried more impact than Booker’s 2-1 split decision at 165 pounds over Leshawn Rodriguez, the two-time defending champion. It was as close as those calls always are, but maybe if the judges had known what it meant to Booker it wouldn’t have been.

“I’ve been through so much,” said the 23-year-old from Brooklyn. “Always making it to the finals, to the semifinals, and never winning. Yesterday, I couldn’t even sleep. I had to win. Had to win.”

Then the tears came again.

“I wasn’t even supposed to be here, man!” he wailed, shaking his head. “I wasn’t even supposed to be here. I was looking at 13 years in prison, man! God is good. God is good.”

And when he caught his breath and composed himself, Booker told the tale – fingering that gold medal every few seconds to make sure it was still there, still real.

“My cousin was going through some stuff and had already been sentenced to two years,” Booker said. “We started hanging out. He was selling drugs. Always kept guns on him for protection. I was in my car and the police came, and he already had two years – so when they came, I took everything for him. I didn’t know how serious it was until I went to court.

“They read the charges, and everything on the list was ‘mandatory, 2-3 years.’ Mandatory. Mandatory. My mandatory was 13 years, what I had to do.”

He was 18 years old.

Booker’s mother, Sheryl Morrison, said her son’s lawyer didn’t think he’d be able to get the charges reduced, even though Booker had no criminal record.

“So we kind of put a team together,” she said. “I got people from my church, people wrote letters for him, character statements. The boxing gym put together a letter. I have a strong family in Brooklyn and every court session – we had one every month for a year and a half – we showed up with all the family members, people from church, so the judge could at least see he has a strong support system.”

After that year and a half of hearings and letters and dark waiting, Booker was sentenced to three years’ probation, due to end in December.

Relief? Absolutely. But revelation, too.

“My cousin has been home for about a year,” Booker said, “and every time I see him I think, ‘I could have thrown away my life for you.’ It’ll never happen again. Never.”

If anything, he seems to be investing in it. He works at his training gym, Revolution Fitness in Stamford, Connecticut, tutoring young boxers. He coaches a youth basketball team.

“He’s an inspiration to me,” his mother said. “He has totally changed his life around from high school. He’s dedicated, he’s committed. He has a big heart. He has goals and dreams now. He’s turned into a wonderful person.”

And on Saturday, something wonderful happened to him – and he wanted to share it. Family, friends, fellow boxers, strangers – he took pictures with one and all. Then he hugged and cried with them and posed for more pictures.

“I’m privileged to be here,” he said. “I know it. I’m privileged to be in boxing. Some people don’t look at it that way, but that’s fine. I put myself in that predicament. Nobody else did that. So I don’t take any of this for granted. I’ll take a picture with everyone in this building if they want one.

“There will come a time nobody will remember this. But I’ll remember.”

And all the reasons he was supposed to be here.