Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Monday, February 10, 1997

Al Graves is a sifu, a teacher, at the Universal Martial Arts and Fitness Center which he co-owns down on lower Madison Avenue in Albany. His pupils are mainly the young from the city's predominantly African-American South End.

One morning last August, he read an announcement for a Team USA qualifier at the Schenectady Armory in the martial arts category for the upcoming Pan-Am games in Manzanillo, Mexico. An overwhelming urge to go for it came over him, even though the qualifier was only a couple of weeks away. ``Hey, why not? I know my students, so I picked some from my most experienced to my least experienced and we went into training. What a great goal to shoot for.''

Fifty organizations competed in the qualifier, and the result was that Al's was among a half-dozen area teams invited to join the 400-member U.S. brigade heading south of the border for the big games. Al and his students were stunned by their success.

But there was a catch, they soon learned. There's always a catch. Like so many other amateur athletic competitions, the participants were required to come up with sponsors and foot their own expenses -- about $1,500 for each of the four: Graves, 36; Dave Baldwin, 11; Isaac Hammond, 19, and Pierre Ponzo, 15.

Fund-raising in a poor neighborhood, on short notice, around the holidays is a fantasy-buster.

But they sold candy, had bottle and can drives, and raffled off whatever they could get for donations. Small businesses in the area, like Stancil's Barbershop and Angelo's Submarine, Lombardo's Restaurant, and the McDonald's on South Pearl, all helped out. So did some school administrators. Funds dribbled in.

``We found out that those who could least afford it in our community gave anyway. They understood what this trip meant to those kids,'' Graves says.

``We were really disappointed, though, with the big companies in the city, and City Hall, and especially with our own organizations like the Urban League, the NAACP, the Hundred Black Men and others. We asked them all, and many more, from Mike Tyson's people to the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, and didn't even get a response from most of them.''

Marilyn Hammond, mother of one of the participants and a South End community activist, says she's ``ashamed'' at how poorly the leadership groups of her community responded. By ashamed, she means deeply hurt, disappointed and angry.

``Oh, they talk the talk about building self-esteem in our young people. But they don't walk the walk.''

Now I don't know how effective she and Graves were in bringing their request to the right people, or how persuasive they were. But they're convinced, at least, that they were shunned, and they're bitter about it.

But Hammond and Graves didn't take shunned for an answer. Hammond took out a note against her house so that her son could make the trip. Graves borrowed a bunch.

So the team went to Mexico anyway. The four had to share equipment and uniforms, and they traveled on a shoestring, but they went for the four days of competition in early January and maintained their training regimen.

They returned with nine medals: three golds and six silvers.

And a sense of pride and accomplishment, says Al Graves, that will be a beacon for these young men for the rest of their lives. And for others in the South End, too. Who knows what price tag to put on that?

Actually, Al does. It's $3,048, the amount he and Hammond still owe.

Fred LeBrun's column appears regularly. To contact him, call 454-5453.