Lenny and Marki Dowell were in eighth grade when their parents administered the mother of all punishments. The memory makes the 17-year-old twins cringe while their brother, 14-year-old Jason, buries his chin in his chest and shakes his head.
For three months the twins were confined to their bedroom, stripped of television and video game privileges. Their transgression was bringing home 85 averages on their report cards. They were 90-plus average students, and Lenny Sr. and Naisha Dowell, the twins’ parents, needed to make a point.
“If you’re a 90 student with an 85 average, the question is why?” Lenny Sr. said. “Eighth grade? OK, you have popularity and girls, then you look at the comments from the teachers, ‘Talks too much, not as focused.’ The grades reflect your effort. We punished the effort, not just the end result.”
After the 90-day fast ended, Lenny and Marki had the cleanest room in the Western Hemisphere and had pulled their averages to 96, but it was no cause for celebration. Appearances on the honor roll are a requirement. So is earning a degree.
The parents of five children, Lenny Sr. and Naisha spend most of their time with their family, communicate well, attend church regularly and live in a North Buffalo home wrapped with love and laughter. But when it comes to discipline and education, the fun and games cease.
“We always aim higher,” Lenny said. “Honor roll means nothing, it’s just the way we are. An 85 is a bad grade for us. It’s terrible. … Our goals are high.”
Which is why the Dowells are flourishing academically and athletically. The brothers are starters on Emerson High School’s 11-6 boys basketball team, which tonight hosts its first playoff game in 15 years when it takes on City Honors School at Hutchinson-Central Technical High School.
Lenny is a senior shooting guard, and Marki is a senior power forward. Jason, a freshman, is the point guard, giving Emerson the rare distinction of having three brothers playing, let alone starting, for the same team.
The foundation is the loving yet firm guidance of Lenny Sr., a culinary teacher and girls varsity basketball coach at Emerson and a 1994 graduate, and his wife Naisha, a massage therapist and a graduate of Hutch-Tech.
“The moral values and the respect that comes from these kids is unreal,” Emerson coach Gary Raimondo said. “They never have a bad thing to say about anybody. These are great kids, and that’s a tribute to mom and dad.”
The children are on the right path. Lenny and Marki will play football at Division II Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa., next fall. Both played for Hutch-Tech because Emerson does not have a football team. Jason also plays football for Hutch-Tech, and Lenny Sr. is an assistant coach. Khyvana, 18, is a freshman at Niagara County Community College, where she’s majoring in the pastry program. She’s also the scorekeeper for the Emerson boys team. Ryan, 9, is in fourth grade.
Asked about the most important message he’s learning from his parents, Jason said, “You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you don’t apply it to your life, you basically don’t live. You can be smart, but if you don’t know how to act smart or talk smart you won’t get the opportunities later in life.”
The Dowells were raised with different perspectives on discipline. As a child, Naisha was encouraged to have a voice and give feedback, but at Lenny Sr.’s home there were only two voices: his mother’s and grandmother’s. As their family expanded, Lenny Sr. learned there wasn’t always a need for the iron fist, and Naisha become more firm as the boys grew older.
“It was the best thing to happen to me as a father, to get them to reason,” Lenny Sr. said. “Raise them to be men of integrity, that’s our goal, and to be able to use wisdom as guiding principles. … But they have a drive of their own, they want to make me proud and their mother proud.”
They serve as outstanding role models. Lenny Sr., who played for longtime Emerson coach Orv Cott, was raised in a single-parent home by his mother, who worked two and three jobs to support her family.
He married Naisha in 1996, and when Khyvana was born he was determined to become a good father. After high school, he worked at E.B. Green’s Steakhouse in downtown Buffalo, where he ran into a former teacher who asked him to consider a career in teaching. He received his B.A. in education in 2003 and later his master’s in career technical education from Buffalo State College.
While Lenny Sr. finished his degrees, Naisha raised the family and recently returned to school to earn her degree in massage therapy.
“She sacrificed all her dreams for the ideal we have for our family,” Lenny Sr. said. “She put her career on hold for us.”
It was quite a sacrifice. Naisha doesn’t follow sports and couldn’t tell you the difference between Kobe Bryant and Bryant Gumbel. But she’s like Phil Jackson when it comes to running the family.
“She is an eagle,” Lenny Sr. said. “She protects her own. She protects her kids to the end of the earth. She will discipline her kids and talk to them, and she’ll discipline me when I don’t understand.” “I think it’s really hard, but one thing that really helps us is that I’m an at-home mom,” Naisha said. “I pretty much dedicated most of my time and made the sacrifices I had to make, to make sure I was at home to raise them and help teach them and help them with manners and things like that.”
On the court, the twins have a natural symmetry.
Lenny, 6-foot-3, is one of the city’s top scorers and is the primary focus of the team.
“He’s going to score,” Marki said. “When he goes to the hole he’s going to look for the pass. He’s going to look to get the rebound and put it back up.”
Marki, 6-foot-2, is the team’s top defender and rebounder who rarely commits fouls.
But it’s young 6-foot-1 Jason who, like Naisha, runs the show and is the workhorse.
“He goes without substitution for the whole game,” Raimondo said. “With all the pressure he faces, he hasn’t fouled out once this year.”
Jason, the shy one in the family, smiles and buries his chin in his chest once again. There won’t be any fouling out in life, either. Mom and dad are watching.