A celebrity doppelganger preaches against dope.
You’ve got to hand it to Rockefeller Ludwig Twyman. Upon spying someone who looks remarkably like Michael Jordan standing outside at a highway rest stop, most people would probably just say something to themselves like, “Hey, that guy looks a lot like Michael Jordan.” The statement might lead to a round of idle speculation about how heavy the burden of being a celebrity look-alike might be. Would every game of pickup be a gantlet of cheap wisecracks and petty triumphalism? Would dates merely see degrees of Michael Jordan-ness and not the real me? Would even I see the real me in the mirror each morning and not a gaping, signal failure to be someone else?
Within seconds, the realization would arc in through the cerebral net for a 3-pointer. Unless this guy actually was Michael Jordan pretending to be someone who just looked like Michael Jordan, being told day in and day out that he looked like Michael Jordan might just suck. And that’s why most of us would just stare—briefly—and then keep on moving.
Not Rockefeller Ludwig Twyman. The community affairs coordinator for Washington radio station WHUR—and the proprietor of the public relations firm Rocky’s PR Miracles—skipped the polite embarrassment that makes strangers of us all. Instead, when Twyman spied a dead ringer for Michael Jordan at the Delaware House rest stop off I-95, he went straight for the cheese: “Hey,” he said, “has anyone told you you look like Michael Jordan?”
Bruce Smith, as it turned out, happened to be waiting for his ex-wife to bring his daughter by for a visit. But she was late, and Smith had time for Twyman’s banter. Yes, people like Twyman kept him aware of a certain resemblance. But it wasn’t something that figured much in his life beyond a friendly conversational gambit. Smith had other things on his mind besides looking like Michael Jordan, all of which involved making it to the end of each day as plain old Bruce Smith.
But as the pair talked, Smith, 45, laid out a life story as tough as any NBA challenge the greatest basketball player of all time has ever faced. It was fall and redemption, salvation and grace, the stuff not of sports legend but of biblical metaphor. And Twyman, a religious man and Seventh-Day Adventist, sensed something in the way of a minor PR miracle.
Flash forward one month, to a small soup kitchen in Shaw on Sunday morning. On 1611 4th St. NW, they’d been up since 6 a.m., cracking 15 dozen fresh eggs, beating pancake batter, and preparing for the influx of homeless people. Sunday is a tough day to be homeless and hungry in D.C. Most of the churches that organize free-meal services are otherwise engaged. And so it falls to people like the Seventh-Day Adventists, who have their services on Saturday, to take up some of the ministerial slack. More than 100 homeless people are regular Sunday visitors to the Adventists’ 4th Street Friendship Church.
And today, as Twyman has been promising, they’re in for a “special treat.” His press release says it all: “Michael Jordan Look A Like to Spread Joy at Local Homeless Shelter on Father’s Day.” Gathering around Smith, the volunteers strike happy poses for snapshots. Twyman advises that friends “will never know the difference.”
If any of the homeless people are similarly fooled, they’re not letting on. Indeed, it would seem that few of them care about the familiar-looking stranger in their midst. They’ve come for the food. They’ve come for the free barbershop. And though some may listen to the pre-breakfast sermon or join in the prayers, many fall asleep watching a fan spin shadows on the back wall of the church.
On the other hand, Smith’s trip from Vineland, N.J., looks like a sure-fire morale booster for the volunteers who are trying to help the 27-year-old church cope with failing facilities, small budgets, and the endless grind of keeping a ministry to the homeless afloat. The freezer is on life support, the air conditioning is busted, and they desperately need a van to move food. Church elders may be mainly amused by Twyman’s PR whimsy, but at least he’s trying.
And Smith, though he’s no Michael Jordan, gives a talk that can’t help but inspire someone on the verge of giving up. As a 16-year-old gangbanger in the early ’70s, he says, he was stabbed in the back six times by a rival gang member. The stabbing punctured both of his lungs; he was drowning in his own blood. Luckily, inebriation slowed his body down and stalled the shock that would have kicked death into a faster gear.
Patched up and none the wiser, Smith says, he stayed with his gang and was stabbed again six months later, this time in the stomach. Then, in another incident, he was propelled through a windshield. His finger traces the impact’s dings and scars on his face. If the worst
didn’t happen to Bruce Smith, it wasn’t for want of trying. For 29 years, he boozed, popped, and snorted, driven by the “insanity” of addiction. To get money for drugs, he says, he sold his children’s Christmas toys, cashed his brother’s tax rebate, and was arrested for selling a gun to a minor in South Carolina—for which he landed on probation in 1994.
As he addresses the congregants, Smith plays down the long hard road from rehab to relapse and back to rehab. It was a 13-year journey, and its telling would be demoralizing. What he wants them to know is that it was the final, faith-based 12-step program that really set him clean. He is wary of bringing up religion because, sleepy or not, the homeless and the addicted tend to be skeptical. Still, Smith credits the Pentecostal ministry with saving his life—just as he says the Adventist Church can save those willing to listen today. “Some people complain that it’s brainwashing,” he says. “But maybe if you’re out there killing yourself, you need your brain washed!”
A ripple of laughter and “amens” follows. Bleary eyes flicker.
Smith says he’s happy to take all the Michael Jordan ribbing in the world if he can tell those who are where he used to be that they don’t have to die, that they really do have a choice, and that there is hope.
“You tell the truth, brother!” says Deacon Larry Bryant, himself formerly homeless and addicted.
“That’s right!” says elder Ken Anderson.
Smith beams. If it’s not quite the smile of a man who’s won six NBA titles, it’s at least the smile of a man who’s gotten his life back. His girlfriend is with him for support. Back in New Jersey, he’s getting to know the children he once ignored. And, for better or worse, he looks like Michael Jordan. It could be a lot worse.
“If you’ve never seen a miracle, here is one,” Smith says. He thumps his hand on his chest.
“It’s a wonderful story,” says Twyman. “It’s a wonderful story.” CP