Family And Friends Mourn Death Of Aspiring High School Basketball Player
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said.
He was speaking to nearly 700 people who had gathered to celebrate the life and mourn the death of his friend Shaquille Jones, the 17-year-old student who was shot and killed a few blocks from the South Shore High School campus on November 18th.
He talked about how he had just seen Jones, how wrong the murder was, how senseless. He choked up. “It wasn’t even on the agenda,” he said.
The church was filled to overflowing, and every visitor in every pew seemed to sit up and pay closer attention. His social proximity to the tragedy and his unscripted language were shattering the protective layers of ceremony. When he returned to his seat, what was left in the air was raw anguish.
Jones was killed on Friday, November 18th, as he and two friends were leaving school. A group approached the boys and an argument ensued. Jones and his friends ran in different directions, but the basketball star was chased into the community driveway between East 78th and East 79th streets near Flatlands Avenue, where he was shot in the head and pronounced dead when paramedics arrived.
Friends and family describe Shaquille Jones as a stylish, easy-going kid with a fabulous sense of humor. He had recently turned things around at school, improving his grades and attendance. He was poised to join the basketball team and put his talents to use for South Shore. He had no quarrel with the alleged shooter, according to friends, family, and police. He was going to be a father.
His friends called him Bam, or Breezy, or Bam Breezy. The origins of Bam are obscure, but “Breezy” was fitting, because it meant cool, relaxed, easy-going.
“He wasn’t a troublemaking kid. He wasn’t looking for problems,” said one of his closest friends, who, like several other students, asked not to be identified by name.
“He was cool in his attitude, cool in his dress, in his friends, in every sense of the word,” said his aunt, Valerie Manzano.
Every night, “religiously,” Manzano said, Shaquille would iron and lay out his outfit for the next day. He kept his sneakers in boxes and his hats pushed in at the back, as they are at the store. He would shop for Polo items online, searching out deals. Kings Plaza was a worthy destination, but Century 21 was better.
Thelma Straker, Shaquille’s grandmother, spoke of how he would make her breakfast on Saturday mornings. Scrambled eggs, sausage, toast. She is elderly, and eating is no longer a foolproof process. “If anything dropped on me, he would say, ‘Gran-gran, let me come and pick this up,’” she said.
Straker also said that Shaquille had a mischievous side. “Gran-gran, want to see my six-pack?” he would ask her, deadpan, while pulling up his shirt and planting his torso in front of her. “Gran-gran, look, the muscles. See the muscles? Feel them!” Straker laughed. “He was something else, you hear?”
Shaquille’s cousin Renée Straker, 29, recalled sitting on the front stoop with him and the rest of the family last summer. The two of them tracked the sounds of a nearby ice-cream truck, giddy as if they were much younger. They talked idly about the family’s house in Barbados and the rumors it was haunted. “How many teenage boys do you know,” she said, “who will sit at home on a Saturday afternoon with family, waiting for a Mister Softee truck?”
Shaquille’s mother, Coleen Jones, spoke of their bond in terms of daily rituals. They would talk on the phone in the afternoon, as she made her way back from work in the Bronx where she is a nurse. “What you want to do for dinner?” she would ask. Often they would set out together in the car to get take-out. Just the two of them. A mother and her only child.
“Basketball was everything for him,” said Rommel Lovell, 26, a cousin who called Shaquille “the little brother I never had.”
Shaquille’s best move on the dribble: pump-fake; stutter-step right then go left; finish with a layup called an “up and under.”
“I could not stop his layup,” Lovell said.
Shaquille’s love affair with basketball began at the age of three, when “making a basket” in a toy hoop became his favorite task. Later, in elementary and middle school, he found a mentor in coach Al Charles, who drove him to exhibition games at places like Riis Park while talking about how to make smart choices in life.
“He had a great heart. I loved him,” Charles said. Over the last few years, they had lost touch, but Charles kept tabs on him from a distance. “He had a lot of potential,” Charles said. “He made good decisions with the ball.”
The coaches at South Shore were aware of Shaquille’s talent, but for reasons that are not entirely clear he did not play on the school team during his first two years of high school. Lovell, his cousin, thought attendance issues might have disqualified him. “All he has to do is show up,” was what the school’s principal told Lovell when he met with her last year. The school’s basketball coach and other school officials declined to comment for this story.
But this year, his junior year, Shaquille was going to play, according to friends and family members. His attendance had improved dramatically; he was getting to school on time; and
Continued on page 58 his grades went up as well, with fewer Cs and more Bs.
Shaquille thought that being on the team would help keep him out of trouble, according to a close friend, and he also hoped to qualify for college scholarships. He died less than two weeks before South Shore’s first game of the season.
His friends say the shift was due to the fact that he was going to be a father; his girlfriend is now at five months. The day before Shaquille died, he talked to his close friend on the phone for half an hour. The main topic was the baby and plans for a shower.
Initially, hearing about the pregnancy “wasn’t the best feeling,” Manzano said. “But he showed that he understood the responsibility of it,” she said.
In September, Shaquille wrote an essay called “My Goals.” He wanted to go to a four-year college, find a full-time job, get married. “I also want to get a nice house,” he wrote. “I don’t really care about a big gigantic house I just want a good size, nice on the inside house.”
“He couldn’t wait to turn 18,” Manzano said. A few college brochures had begun arriving at the house, and he talked with Manzano about the relative merits of a local school versus going away. He thought about finding a school near his girlfriend, who had moved with her family to Virginia.
Meanwhile, he wanted a job and a driver’s license. He wondered how one went about working in construction. A few days before he died, his father took him out in his car for an informal road test.
“People are not only sad, people are upset,” said Rev. Sully Guillaume-Sam, the associate priest at St. Gabriel’s, as he took the lectern. He was talking about the scourge of gun violence which continues to claim the lives of young black men in New York City at an alarming and wildly disproportionate rate.
Guillaume-Sam built his homily on the passage in Exodus where God assures Moses that He has heard “the groaning of His people.” In Brooklyn, the priest said, “God has heard the cry of our youngsters, saying, ‘We are not safe; we are in trouble; we cannot be in the streets; we are not free.’”
“The situation can change and must change,” he added.
Mitchell Jones, Shaquille’s father, spoke briefly after Guillaume-Sam, and echoed his sentiments. “We have to get these guns off the streets,” he said. “Please, I’m begging you guys.”
After the burial, the series of things to deal with — the coroner’s office, the police, the church, the funeral home, the well-wishes to handle, media inquiries, out-of-town relatives — slowed down. The grief of Shaquille’s parents remains mostly beyond words. Coleen Jones said she is surviving “minute by minute.”
“Whoever take my grandchild from me, I hope they meet with it,” said Thelma Straker. “He didn’t deserve this,” she continued. “Each time I think of it, water comes out my eyes.”