Robert Lewis Jr. was only 16 in 1976 when he made a choice that would define the rest of his life.
His family's home in East Boston's Maverick Landing housing development had just been firebombed during the upheaval over desegregating the city's schools. Many of Lewis's friends simply left. He considered following them.
Instead, his family relocated to the Villa Victoria housing project in the South End and Lewis decided that he would stand his ground. The people in his community simply needed someone in their corner.
More than 40 years later, the fruits of Lewis's early activism are apparent. He runs The BASE out of Roxbury, where hundreds of kids have transferred the lessons of baseball -- discipline, focus, teamwork -- to their everyday lives.
"We have expectations, not rules," Lewis told NBC Sports Boston as part of Black History Month. "Rules tell young folks what they can or can't do. Expectations are lifting them high to where they can strive and achieve."
Lewis would know. He was once a kid in the projects himself, and he acutely remembers what it felt like to be treated as a negative stereotype instead of a human with potential.
"You look a lot at what is said about young folks, in particular in urban communities," Lewis said. "It says they're at risk, underserved, disadvantaged, right? It's all deficit language. Here at The BASE, it's all asset language. Too many urban cities in America have been portrayed as deficit. And the folks that live there are portrayed as deficit. We're changing that narrative, because the only thing our kids are at risk of is success."
Lewis was a fixture at the Boston Foundation until 2013, when he struck out on his own and formed the BASE, an outgrowth from his four decades coaching the Boston Astros, a baseball team that started with kids from the Villa Victoria community, but soon grew to cover the entire city.
Lewis saw baseball as an opportunity to "cultivate excellence" in oft-overlooked kids.
"If you were a young black or brown man in our Commonwealth, you were actually failing every social determinant," Lewis said. "Our young folks are successful on the field. I wanted to build something that could show that if you provide a lot of the same principles from sports to life, that we could ensure that our young folks could be successful on and off the field."
Former Red Sox reliever Manny Delcarmen is just one of Lewis's athletes to reach the big leagues. His BASE teams consistently rank among the best urban squads in the country, spawning similar programs in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis.
"We don't recruit," Lewis said. "We build them, we train them. Isn't it interesting how sports can prepare you, how sports if you ask a kid if you went 3 for 6, they know averages, so kids know math. Kids know diameters. A kid can pick up a 90 mph fastball and hit."
Spend any time at Lewis' facility in Roxbury, and you're immediately struck by how polite and conscientious the kids are. There's time set aside for homework. As Lewis notes, "Kids aren't here because they have to be. They're here because they want to be."
Lewis made a similar choice himself nearly 45 years ago, in the wake of a moment that could've broken him, but instead steeled his resolve -- much to the benefit of the community he refused to abandon.
"I was 16 years old after I got firebombed, and I said for the rest of my life, I will do work that will be about bringing people together," Lewis said. "I never want anyone to experience what I did. And my whole life will be about bringing people together. And literally, I have lived that."