I’ve never told anyone this before, but my best friend died in my arms – and it was all because of basketball. It’s a day I’ve kept tucked away in a corner of my mind for over 30 years, like the carefully folded contents of a weathered trunk, buried behind cobwebs and cardboard boxes in the farthest corner of an attic. Until I started writing this book, I hadn’t spoken about what happened to anyone, including my parents and siblings. It’s a guarded memory I’ve only revisited in moments of solitude on my road to the NBA, and I debated dredging up the past when my family has always been about moving forward. Still, what happened changed the course of my life, as well as theirs, and I can’t possibly tell my story without it.
When it happened, Chris was seven and I was six. We were two inseparable bundles of energy who lived in neighboring tenement buildings in the crime-ridden Washington DC, projects in the late 1980s. We’d met in kindergarten and our families had become familiar enough to know that where they found one of us, the other was most assuredly there, as well. We walked to school together in the morning and left together each afternoon for the corner bodega, where we shared a $2 turkey, cheese, and mayo hero in thick white deli paper we’d unwrapped barely out of the door. Then, it was off to one of the half dozen courts sprinkled within walking distance of our complex, where we played basketball until dusk warned us to get home.
Chris and I were consumed by basketball. My father had placed the first rubber globe in my hands the year before, and one never seemed to leave them after that. That’s why Chris and I got along so well – he was just as eager as me to spend all of his time on basketball. If we weren’t out on the courts, we were watching NBA games on TV.
In mid-1988, the Los Angeles Lakers were on their way to back-to-back championship titles, but it was Michael Jordan, whose Chicago Bulls team didn’t even make the playoffs, who stole the spotlight. By the time the regular season ended, Jordan was the leader in scoring and steals, while also winning Defensive Player of the Year and the regular season Most Valuable Player. He was the first to win of all these accolades in the same season and his feat hasn’t been matched to this day.
Two months earlier, Chris and I had been glued to the screen in my family’s living room, mesmerized by the feverishly back-and-forth NBA All-Star game, where Jordan was crowned game MVP. Yet, it was the dunk contest that had us buzzing like we’d each downed a two-liter soda. In his final turn, Jordan ran the length of the court and launched himself from the foul line to the basket – a full 15 feet of jaw-dropping air time. An eagle, wings outstretched, screeching across the sky. Jordan was flawless and awe-inspiring. Like many of our peers, Chris and I knew we were going to play in the NBA together someday. We had no doubt. All we needed to do was practice every day, which was how we found ourselves after school at the local court, trying to hang with the older kids when we could barely graze the rim with our shots.
Chris was a better player than me. He had excellent ball handling and dribbling skills and was quick and crafty like Jordan himself. Even at that young age, I was envious of Chris’s natural talent.
Working our way up the court, I watched Chris do his thing. He nailed a beautiful crossover dribble and the older kid defending him lost his footing and fell onto his backside. It’s called an ankle-breaker and it always gets a strong response. This time was no different. As the players hooted and hollered, the other neighborhood kids watching shook the chain-link fence surrounding the court.
“Dammnn! He broke you up on that one,” I heard someone say behind us. I couldn’t help but smile because I knew, if anyone on this court was going to make it to the NBA, it would definitely be my best friend, Chris.
On any other day, the older kid would have brushed himself off and jumped back into the game, plotting his revenge in the paint. On any other day, Chris and I would have walked home together afterward, side by side, happily reliving the amazing crossover.
This was not any other day. Chris had unintentionally shown up a gang member. The older kid got up, walked calmly back to his bike, brandished a small black handgun from the backpack hanging from the handlebars, and aimed it directly at Chris.
The shot echoed across the court and most of the kids scattered for cover, fearing they’d be hit next. Shouting and panic abounded in the gunshot’s echo. Standing only a few feet behind Chris, the bullet could have hit me, but my best friend revealed its path when he fell awkwardly backward onto the blacktop, clutching his stomach. I watched in shock as the shooter got back on his bike and calmly pedaled away. Nobody tried to stop him. Nobody dared attract his attention again. None of us wanted to die.
I ran to Chris and fell to my knees, propping his head and torso against my chest. I instinctually placed my hands on Chris’s, but the blood kept coming, pooling into his gray T-shirt and gushing down in all directions like an erupting volcano. It smelled like pennies.
Ambulances don’t arrive immediately in the hood, but I prayed that someone had run off to call one. Chris moaned and gasped for air as we waited for the EMTs. Tears streamed down his face. He was in a lot of pain and I could see the sheer terror in his eyes.
The older kids from the neighborhood slowly huddled around us, all of us witnesses to Chris’s final moments on Earth. None of them offered to help. I looked around at them, but they were all strangers, as Chris and I were to them. But they were just kids, too, frozen by what they were watching. As Chris’s blood seeped down his midsection onto the blacktop, the huddle surrounding us seemed resigned to gawking, as if Chris’s fate were already a forgone conclusion. He continued to moan and mumble words I couldn’t understand, then started to gurgle on his own blood, deep down in his throat. His eyes rolled back as he made a final exhalation. His chest stopped rising and falling underneath my hands. He was gone.
A powerful pair of arms emerged from the crowd and yanked me out of the circle, away from Chris, who I’d laid flat to the ground. My father ushered me over to my mom and darted back into the circle, a clear path parted for him. We watched him grab Chris’s limp wrist for signs of life. I turned into my mother’s warm body, seeking refuge. I already knew he wouldn’t feel a thing.
Chris’s father arrived not long after. He ran to Chris’s body, and knelt by him. His urgency was gone when he scooped his son up and gingerly carried him toward the parking lot, just as the ambulance pulled up, a half an hour after it was called. The flashing red lights blurred in my teary eyes.
“Go wait in the car,” my mother instructed and I complied. Out the car window, I watched my parents approach Chris’s dad. They exchanged a few words and my parents walked back toward me. My red, sticky hands clung to the back seat, smearing its fabric with my fingerprints.
I don’t remember the ride home or what was said, if anything at all. My mother cleaned me up and put me to bed, retiring to the kitchen table with my father as she’d done on most nights. I looked at my big sister, Natasha, sleeping peacefully in the twin bed next to me. I watched the shadows and light dance under our bedroom door and strained to hear my parents, but couldn’t make out their muffled voices. I reluctantly drifted off to sleep, my eyes still stinging from the tears.
“I had a dream last night and God told me what we’re going to do next,” my father told Natasha and me the next morning at the kitchen table. We’d been summoned out of bed earlier than usual. Mom bounced baby Charles on her lap.
There was no mention of Chris. My parents, however, seemed focused, energized. I was confused, but I wasn’t going to bring up Chris unless they did.
“I dreamt about a beautiful place with mountains and trees and lakes and fish you can pull from them that are as big as you both,” he said, as if he was reading about a magical land from a children’s book. Natasha and I exchanged curious glances.
“Alaska,” he continued, his body rising from his chair because he couldn’t hold back his excitement any longer. “The Boozer family doesn’t pass up an opportunity and that’s what this is. We’re going to Alaska!”
“Is it far from here?” I asked, trying to surmise if this adventure would keep us days or even weeks away from DC.
“It’s on the other side of the country,” my pragmatic mother answered. “About 3,000 miles. It’s going to be quite a drive.” She got up with baby Charles, muttered something under her breath about giving two weeks’ notice at her job and left the kitchen behind my father. Chris wouldn’t be discussed this morning. I silently took my cue to keep my mouth shut.
With no knowledge of the shooting, Natasha didn’t sense the undercurrent of urgency in my parents’ decision. But I understood on some level that we were leaving because I was in danger. My best friend’s death was among a record 388 murders in DC in 1988 and the reason it was dubbed “the murder capital of America” – a moniker it wouldn’t shake for many years to come. The rampant rise of drug use in the late 1980s spread like wildfire through DC, making it a pushers’ paradise.
The gangs controlled the drugs because they ruled the streets. They decided people’s fates and you did everything not to cross them. While Chris and I had zero affiliations, that didn’t matter when it came to perceived retaliation. You get one of ours? We get one of yours – that was the code of the streets no matter what age. My parents didn’t know how far down the rabbit hole this would go, nor were they willing to wait around and find out. I figured wherever we were going, we weren’t coming back here.
Even without my involvement in Chris’s death, our family had plenty of other reasons to go. The three years we’d lived in DC had been a struggle. After serving a decade in the Army, my father held three jobs down to try and support us. During the day, he picked up money from retail stores to deposit at the Federal Reserve. He drove a cab in the evenings, then headed to his overnight security detail at the Navy Yard. We hardly saw him in passing.
For all of their industriousness, my parents still struggled to make ends meet. Our lowest point as a family came when we couldn’t afford a rent hike and we had to move out. My father checked us into a hotel, where we stayed for a few days before jumping to another hotel. My father paid for our room day-to-day. However, he didn’t make it back in time one afternoon, so my mother packed up our belongings and took us out into the street. In a time before cell phones, she had no way to communicate with my father, and without money, her choices were limited. Night was closing in, so she looked around and spotted an apartment building a few doors down. She didn’t want us to travel too far from the hotel, as our father would be looking for us. My mother waited until someone came out so she could grab the open door and usher us in. We trudged up a few flights of stairs until we reached the top landing. My mother pulled on the door that led into the apartment hallway. It was locked. She took a few pieces of clothing out of one of our bags and laid them out on the cold, dirty tile for a makeshift bed. She told us to lie down and tried to soothe us with calm words. After a few minutes of silence, I realized we were sleeping in the stairwell that night and my father wasn’t coming. It was terrifying.
I woke the next morning to my mother packing away our belongings. Judging from the dark rings under her eyes, she hadn’t slept for a second. She’d watched over us, keeping alert should that door open or someone venture up the steps. My mother took us to the navy hospital, where she worked in the accounting department. From there, she used the office phone to reconnect with my father, who’d been panicked and felt horrible that he’d let his family down. We remained homeless for a couple more weeks as we bounced between hotels.
The Boozer family pulled away from Washington DC, in mid-May 1988, our lives crammed into duffle bags and cardboard boxes stuffed in the back of a cream-colored Dodge with a sliding door that slammed so violently it could take a limb off. As soon as rubber hit the road, our parents were waxing about Alaska and what it would have to offer us. My parents were incredibly optimistic people, who looked at change like it was an opportunity to be seized and conquered. Their confidence eased me into the trip and my thoughts away from DC.
The 10-day, 2,800-mile-plus trip held many firsts for this six-year-old DC kid. I saw green pastures littered with cows, neatly tended rows of corn in endless fields.
I felt metal bend and give underneath our van as we pulled off solid land onto my first boat, a ferry, from Bellingham, Washington, toward Alaska. As the ferry jutted through the sea, I stood by its edge with my family, the breeze off the water cooling my face. And for the first time since Chris died, my thoughts weren’t with what I’d left in DC, but with what lay ahead.