Chicago Teen Dodges Daily Violence Threat for Hoop DreamElizabeth Campbell and Louise Kiernan
Edward Morrow is working the grill at his grandparents’ Saturday cookout on the South Side of Chicago when his father’s mobile phone rings for him. Again.
It’s the sixth call -- and sixth college coach -- of the day. This Saturday in June marks the date Edward is eligible to be contacted about playing Division I basketball. He’s already heard from Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Bradley and La Salle. This time, it’s Georgetown.
Edward folds his 6-foot, 7-inch frame into a lawn chair as his father watches from across the porch. Edward Sr. is keeping an ear on the conversation and, as always, an eye on his son.
At 16, Edward is a rising star at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy, the South Side high school that produced guard Derrick Rose of the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls and the No. 2 college recruit last season, Duke University’s Jabari Parker. He’s also a teenager in one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods. He and his parents don’t just have to negotiate the usual concerns about injuries, eligibility and scholarships. They have to protect his life.
The toll of Chicago’s gun violence surrounds the family. Last summer, they saw a man die next to their Washington Park apartment building, killed in a spray of bullets moments before Edward’s mother, Nafeesah, was about to walk out the door. His sister’s high-school lab partner was shot to death outside a Simeon game in January. And Edward’s own grandfather was shot two years ago just a few yards from this porch.
His parents have constructed a fortress-like world to protect him and his siblings. They accept this narrowed existence even though they understand what it is to live without the constant low hum of fear. Until Edward was 10, the Morrows called Lincoln, Nebraska, home.
“I never saw a fight until I came to Chicago,” Edward says. “Here I’m 16, and I can’t even go out and sit outside on the porch.”
The family moved back to Nafeesah’s hometown in 2007 after her mother was diagnosed with diabetes. There were more jobs, and there was basketball.
Chicago offers a bigger stage, more opportunities to get noticed, more chances to win that golden ticket: a college scholarship. Each day, though, they must walk a path that cuts precariously between the promise of basketball and the threat of violence.
This afternoon, when a police car pulls up next to the house, Edward’s grandfather, who still carries a bullet in his leg, makes sure the new neighborhood beat officer meets Edward and his 17-year-old cousin, Rasheed. The message is clear: these teenagers belong to our family. They’re ours. They matter.
To a stranger -- cop or gang member alike -- Edward Morrow isn’t a basketball star. He’s just another South Side kid in a Nike T-shirt, hanging out on a summer afternoon, a phone pressed to his ear.
The idea of sports as a ticket to a better life is ingrained in American culture. Most people know an athletic career is rare. But the odds are even longer than the mythology would suggest.
About 156,000 U.S. high-school seniors play boy's basketball, according to 2011 estimates from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Of those, about 5,000 can make a college roster as a freshman. And the number of college seniors drafted to the NBA? Not even 50.
Few U.S. high schools are better known for producing standout basketball players than Simeon in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood. In March, the Wolverines won their fourth consecutive state championship, tying an Illinois record.
Edward’s family believes that staying in Nebraska would have robbed him of the training and spotlight a player needs to win a full ride to college. At Simeon, head coach Robert Smith says that 100 percent of his graduating players earn athletic scholarships. In Lincoln, two high-school coaches recall no more than a handful of players from the city’s schools earning basketball scholarships in the past decade, and most weren’t to Division I colleges.
Poor prospects don’t stop teenagers from dreaming, especially if they come from places like Chicago’s South Side, says Mike Naiditch, an NBA agent who coached at the city’s Whitney Young Magnet High School. “Basketball has become an ‘all or none’ option, which has led to a landslide of ‘nones’ and a small speck of ‘alls,’” says Naiditch, whose clients include Bill Walker, formerly of the New York Knicks.
Edward’s family knows what basketball can mean. His grandparents sent five of their eight children -- every one of their daughters -- to junior colleges on basketball scholarships. All the Brown girls, as they were known in the neighborhood, played for Harlan Community Academy in Chicago.
When Nafeesah’s turn came, she went to Westark Community College in Fort Smith, Arkansas. From there, she was recruited to play at the University of Nebraska as a 6-foot forward.
Nebraska changed her life. She met her husband, a football player, at the athletes’ table in the cafeteria. She became the only member of her family to graduate from a four-year university. As the couple settled in Lincoln and their family grew to include five children, they thought about how they could help them follow the same path.
The Morrows knew what they were getting into when they decided to leave Lincoln, or at least they thought they did.
“Yes, Nebraska outweighs being in Chicago,” Nafeesah says. “We sacrificed it all just for a better opportunity for him to get off to school.”
Edward agrees. Once, on a family trip to Lincoln as an eighth-grader, he hugged his mother after watching former classmates play basketball. “Thank you so much for moving,” he told her. “If I got out there right now, I would kill every last one of them.”
This is how the Morrows keep their children safe:
No one hangs out on the apartment stoop or plays on the sidewalk. They don’t know their neighbors. No hanging out with friends besides school or sports. No parties. No dating until 17.
Only an adult can answer a knock at the door. No one leaves the apartment after dark.
Inside, if Edward’s not studying, he plays games on his iPad or surfs the Internet for basketball stories. He doesn’t have a mobile phone, and even if he did, there’s no girlfriend or best friend to text.
“I isolated myself,” Edward says. He accepts this straitened life because he doesn’t want to get distracted. Not going to parties means “just one less thing to get in my way,” he says. He’s seen the payoff. Jabari Parker didn’t attend them. Neither did Derrick Rose, and look where they are now. Besides, he says, the people hanging out in the neighborhood usually are “up to no good anyway.”
That’s why the Morrows avoid the new basketball court at the community center down the block. Not safe. Family outings to Washington Park, the largest open space in the neighborhood? Only early in the day. Even then, when a couple nearby starts smoking marijuana, the Morrows pack up and leave.
Their Washington Park neighborhood has one of the highest rates of violent crime of Chicago’s 77 community areas. The Morrows didn’t know this when they moved in. They just knew that a friend of a friend owned an apartment building near the elementary school they wanted their children to attend.
No one walks anywhere. No public transportation either, unless absolutely necessary. Nafeesah works part-time on Simeon’s support staff so she can supervise the children as soon as school ends. When one child goes somewhere, they all go.
Only Edward, the oldest child living at home (sister Khalilah attends St. Louis Community College on a basketball scholarship), is allowed to stay at the apartment alone. And that’s just for a short time, with one of his parents’ mobile phones at hand so they can check on him.
Even getting out of the family’s minivan requires military precision. A few minutes before they pull up to their red-brick building, Nafeesah and Edward Sr. remind the children to gather their belongings. As soon as they park, everyone heads to the front door. No hesitation, no straggling.
“We want to be out and in the building before anybody can even think to mess with us,” Nafeesah says.
In mid-August, Simeon appears deserted. While classes won’t start for almost two weeks, a rock props open the gym door and the screech of shoes and thump of basketballs drift into the summer air.
Inside, seven young men take turns driving to the hoop, faking out a plastic office chair, their imaginary defender, at the top of the key before taking the shot. The Simeon team isn’t officially practicing. This is “open gym.” It’s basketball and something else: a safe haven.
“We don’t want to get one of those phone calls in the afternoon or late at night saying one of our players has been shot,” says Smith, the Simeon coach.
More players trickle onto the court and break into a scrimmage as a few parents watch from the bleachers. Edward, one of the tallest, dunks, hanging from the rim. Earlier in the summer, he shattered one of the backboards, to the delight of spectators.
“It’s sort of big in the basketball world,” he says, in a rare public flash of pride. “Jabari, all year, he had been trying to break that backboard.”
Off the court, Edward is reserved and respectful to adults, the kind of young man who remembers to hold open doors and inquire about how you’re doing. On the court, he is tough, focused and physical. Scouting sites use terms like “hustle” and “exuberance.”
“It’s his time to be in that limelight and be one of the guys who carry us for the next two years,” Smith says. “What I love about him, he wants to be good. He works hard.”
Along with his Simeon teammate D.J. Williams, Edward has drawn national attention. On ESPN’s list of top power forwards in the country, he’s ranked 15th in his graduating class. In Illinois, he’s considered the state’s sixth-best recruit, four spots behind Williams.
Players like Edward get more exposure by playing for Amateur Athletic Union teams, traveling the country during the off-season for tournaments that can draw college coaches such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari of the University of Kentucky. At times, this courtship process resembles nothing so much as a middle-school dance, with one group eyeing the other, which pretends not to notice.
In late July, Edward’s team, the Mac Irvin Fire, played in one of three overlapping tournaments in Las Vegas that drew more than 1,000 teams from the U.S. and several other countries.
Through the casinos and along the Strip, players strode in small groups, heads bobbing above the tourists, backpacks hanging from shoulders, headphones covering ears or cupped around necks.
Nike sponsors the Fire, and the Morrows paid nothing for the trip except for Edward’s food. He shared a suite at the Palazzo hotel, where one of three TVs was in the bathroom. He wore a new pair of yellow Nike Hyperdunks. But he ate four meals at Chipotle. It was as if he stood with one foot in the present and another in the glamorous realm he hoped to enter.
Las Vegas, at least, offered one respite from Edward’s everyday life. All he had to worry about while wandering the boutiques or playing Marco Polo in the hotel pool was attracting the occasional stare.
At home, violence lurks at the team’s edges. In January, a young man was shot after Simeon played rival Morgan Park High School at Chicago State University. The game, which Simeon won 53-51, ended in a brawl on the court between the players. Both coaches were suspended for four games after a shouting match.
Outside, 17-year-old Tyrone Lawson, a Morgan Park student, died after being shot twice in the back. Lawson, as it turned out, had been Khalilah’s lab partner. Nafeesah recalls her crying into the phone the next morning at school, asking to be picked up: “I can’t do it, Mother. I thought I could do it, and I can’t.”
The specter of violence haunts even Simeon’s hallways. A photo of one legendary player hangs outside the gym. Ben Wilson was a top national basketball prospect in 1984 when, on the eve of his senior season, he was shot to death in an altercation with two other teenagers.
Every season, Coach Smith recounts Wilson’s story to the freshman team. The lesson, Edward says, is simple:
“This could happen to me. This kid was supposedly a great kid. Then he was gunned down.”
Not all the Morrows are sold on the tradeoff that comes with staying in Chicago. Edward’s three younger siblings regularly badger Nafeesah about moving back to Nebraska.
Her parents, Sammy and Julia Brown, have lived in their Chicago bungalow more than four decades. When Nafeesah and her siblings were growing up they used to play basketball in the vacant lot across the street, and often the five Brown girls would pile into the family’s white Chrysler LeBaron and drive the South Side looking for a pick-up game.
Those days are long gone, a truth demonstrated on the last Saturday in January 2011. The family had gathered, as it often does, at the Browns’ home. Sammy Brown stepped outside for fresh air shortly after 10 p.m., when gunfire erupted. Tires squealed. Edward Sr. ran to the door and saw that his father-in-law's charcoal pick-up had disappeared. Moments later, the phone rang. I’ve been shot, Sammy told his wife. Hit in the leg, he was driving himself to the hospital.
Now 75, he and his wife insist they feel safe in the neighborhood. Some of their children and grandchildren aren’t so sure. This August, Lateefah, the youngest of the five daughters, moved her three sons and one daughter to Nebraska. She had been too scared to push her stroller down the street in Chicago. Roquayyah, the second youngest, hopes to leave once her son, Rasheed, a senior at Paul Robeson High School, graduates.
In Lincoln, on the Fourth of July, Edward walks with three cousins, including Rasheed, down the middle of the street, headed to the University of Nebraska’s outdoor basketball courts.
“I miss living here,” Rasheed says as he ambles along. “You can’t walk like this in Chicago.”
Later, after a string of sweaty nighttime pick-up games, Edward and Rasheed relax on a bench near Nafeesah’s old dorm. “They ain’t got parks like this in Chicago,” Rasheed says.
When they return to their aunt’s house, the air smells like smoke as fireworks explode in white and purple, green and red, crackling and whistling as the younger children squeal on her lawn.
While the Morrows were away for the holiday, more than 70 people were shot in Chicago, 11 of them killed. Seventeen-year-old Christian Green was shot to death by police two blocks from the Morrows’ apartment, just hours after Edward and his father left to join the family in Lincoln.
At a mid-September workout, Nafeesah can count at least 10 college coaches sitting across the gym from Simeon fans even though basketball season won’t start for seven weeks.
Two call out to the Morrows as they wait by their minivan after the workout. That was Loyola and Bradley, Edward Sr. reports.
Entering his junior year, Edward has five scholarship offers, from Bradley University and universities of Iowa, Massachusetts, Nebraska and Illinois at Chicago.
For all the family’s work, uncertainty lies ahead. First, Edward has to stay healthy and play well. Growing another couple of inches wouldn’t hurt, either. And he has to maintain his grades. So far this year, he’s making A’s and B’s, he and his parents say.
Edward’s focus is clear. “Family, school and then basketball,” he says.
The Morrows want to ensure Edward goes to a college where he will get an education. His parents, as former athletes, know sports always come to an end.
“There is a time where you have to stop playing the game,” says Edward Sr., whose football career ended after knee surgeries. He now works with at-risk students at a Chicago charter school. “It’s all about when that ball -- in this case, basketball -- stops bouncing. What you gonna do then?”
As the Morrows linger for a few moments in the warm September evening, the three youngest children, Nazlah, Aneesah and Ameer, run on the lawn in front of the school. Edward Sr. and Nafeesah watch them and a group of boisterous teenagers standing near the gym entrance.
Less than three hours later, on another South Side basketball court like the one where Nafeesah and her sisters once played, a pair of gunmen will open fire. Thirteen people will be wounded, among them a 3-year-old boy, shot in the head, a 15-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl.
The police superintendent will say it was a miracle no one died. The incident will make the national news, prompting a friend of Nafeesah’s to call from Denver to make sure the family is okay.
For Nafeesah, the shooting will offer fresh evidence that the rules -- no parks at night, no hanging outside -- are necessary to keep her children alive.
Tonight, after Edward loads his backpack from practice into the minivan, the Morrows pile in and pull out of the parking lot. It’s after 7 p.m. and dark. They need to go home.