Growing up in Niagara Falls, Modie Cox was blessed.

He was a basketball star at LaSalle High School and played pro ball after a full ride to the University at Buffalo. But like everyone, he had challenges to overcome.

Cox, who played in pro leagues in Europe and Africa, was raised by his grandmother because his mom had a drug problem.

Adopted at 14 by a white coach and his family in North Tonawanda, he went on to have a stellar athletic career but faced some drug charges at age 23.

The charges were later reduced but he spent a year in jail. “It was all part of making me the man I am today,” he said recently.

He has worked with kids since he stopped playing basketball, most recently as the director of Buffalo PAL before he resigned in March to follow a dream, literally.

“I had a dream one night that I resigned,” he said.

The next morning he had a meeting with Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and the words just came out. He resigned as director of PAL. “My heart was pulling me toward my company — to run it full time,” he said recently. “I had to put my all in it.”

His 8-year-old company is called Winning Because I Tried and for Cox, it’s all about reaching out to the kids.

A news team from WKBW Channel 7 followed Cox to Hillbrook Juvenile Detention Center in Syracuse recently.

News anchor Ashley Rowe, whose piece on the 44-year-old Cox will air at 11 p.m. Thursday, watched as the young detainees made collages of their lives with magazine clippings, under Cox’s direction.

She was impressed.

“Not only are they building a relationship (with Cox) but they’re opening up about their self-interests and about what matters to them,” she said afterward.

Rowe found out about the work Cox was doing when she met him at a Buffalo gym where both work out.

“I was so drawn to his personal story, what he is doing with these kids and for these communities,” she said. “It’s really important the rest of the community knows what he’s doing.”

Cox’s partner in the project is John Wallace, a long-time friend of Cox’s when they were young players. Wallace, who played at Syracuse University and then with the New York Knicks, is now engaged in several philanthropic efforts to help underprivileged children.

“It’s been very very empowering, helping kids and changing kids’ lives,” Wallace said. “It’s something I wish I would have started a long time ago.” 

Cox, who is the “hands on” partner in the company, was able to work with Wallace’s Syracuse connections to land the once-a-week job at Hillbrook, a detention center devoted to changing kids’ lives, according to the senior counselor Chris Petrilli.

“Our county (Onondaga) is an industry leader in juvenile justice reform. We take it very seriously,”  Petrilli said, adding that Cox stands out among those he’s seen who work with troubled kids.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of people who come out here to try to connect with kids. Some don’t do so well,” Petrilli noted. “He just doesn’t connect with inner city kids, he connects with all the kids,” he said of Cox.

For Cox, the father of a 14-year-old son, Kaleb, it’s a simple matter of returning some of the blessings he’s received. 

“A lot of people have helped me along the way,” he said. “It just feels like it’s my duty somehow to give back.”

WATCH ON TV

WKBW Anchor Ashley Rowe’s piece on Modie Cox and his work with young people in juvenile detention, will air Thursday on Eyewitness News.