Death and basketball: Murdered teammates, black lives lost at Franklin Learning Center

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Steve Ashley (far right, bending over with hand on knee) poses with his teammates. Ashley is one of five men who played basketball for Franklin Learning Center that were shot dead between 1994 and 2011.

IN THE SPRING, Ava Dunn-Shaw and her daughter, Kenya Shaw, swallowed their unfading anguish and attended a tournament to honor the alumni of Franklin Learning Center High School's basketball team.

Dunn-Shaw's son, Clifford Dunn, a scholar and a star shooting guard on the 1992 city Public League championship team, was famous for passing up a basketball scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh in favor of an academic one.

"I don't want to be a dumb athlete," he told a surprised audience in a speech at graduation.

But whatever Dunn wanted to be or not be eluded him. He was slain at a barbecue in Cheltenham in August 1994, one week shy of his 20th birthday.

Suffering privately through the years, Dunn-Shaw, 63, was unaware that others sitting near her at the tournament, held in the gymnasium at Benjamin Franklin High School in Spring Garden on May 7, carried the same holes in their hearts.

But as play commenced and mournful stories were shared, people slowly began to speak their unspeakable sorrows in a gym filled with sneaker squeaks and ghosts.

Between 1994 and 2011, five men who had been players for FLC basketball teams were shot dead, while a sixth hanged himself. In addition, the tournament's organizer - Philadelphia Sheriff's Deputy Mike Terry - survived a gun attack but carries a 9mm bullet in his right hip.

"I didn't know about the teammates who died till the tournament," Dunn-Shaw said. "It's odd. It's awful. Violence finds you."

A Precariousness to Black Lives

The shootings - three of them occurring in a seven-month period in 1995 - don't appear to be linked. They're viewed as grim coincidences.

FLC isn't normally connected to violence. The magnet school on North 15th Street requires decent grades and good behavior for admission.

The victims - all African American - were working class or middle class. Three had gotten into college, one had been a community college student, and a fifth was months from matriculating at Bloomsburg University.

Regardless of achievement, there is a precariousness to black lives in this country. Many black kids "can find themselves exposed to the horrific possibilities of their dreams being snuffed out because black lives are not as valued in America," said Eddie Glaude Jr., chairman of African American studies at Princeton University.

Pull out a Philadelphia class photo and you may find faces of people no longer here, victims claimed by a sometimes violent world.

Terry blames Philadelphia for the mayhem, even though two shootings of former FLC players occurred outside the city.

"You can have the greatest or the worst upbringing, but the longer you live in this city, the more this can happen," said Terry, 45, who works in the court system and sees the harshest aspects of Philadelphia - where, police figures show, 6,335 people were killed between 1994 and 2011, the span of the FLC killings.

"Basketball players, cheerleaders, nurses - they all die. People are violent.

"And no one has figured it out yet."

I want my son back

At Clifford Dunn's funeral, former FLC principal Charles Staniskis read the 1896 poem "To an Athlete Dying Young," by the British poet A.E. Housman:

To-day, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

"He was a well-balanced person, an excellent student," Staniskis said. When Dunn was still a sophomore at FLC, he tutored seniors in calculus.

At Pitt, Dunn had maintained a 3.3 grade-point average over two years.

A joy-filled practical jokester, Dunn - nicknamed "Binky" - once wrapped his family's clothes in boxes and gave them as Christmas presents in their Olney home.

"We were always laughing," said Kenya Shaw, 37.

Dunn's stepfather, Stephen Shaw, sold burglar alarms. His mother is a patient-service coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania's heart-transplant unit. Drawn to the medical field because of her job, Dunn was aiming for a career in administrative nursing. "I'm going to make a lot of money for all of us," he told Dunn-Shaw.

Dunn didn't get to keep that promise. On Aug. 13, 1994, days before he was to return to school, Dunn was shot in the head with a chrome .38-caliber semiautomatic pistol after getting into a dispute at a Cheltenham cookout with a stranger named Victor Sanders, 26, of Norristown. Sanders, who said he was drinking heavily that night, is serving a life sentence.

Shaw, an artist and personal chef, said that the sudden absence of Dunn's once-constant basketball dribbling in the driveway created a silence that nearly drove her mad. "He wasn't a thug," she added. "He was a good person."

After the funeral, Dunn-Shaw couldn't work, eat, or lift her head off her pillow. Friends asked what they could do for her. She had a ready answer:

"I want my son back."

The day "that damaged us as a family"

The day Rodney Brown had to leave Penn State University seemed the saddest in his life.

A business major who had completed his sophomore year, Brown, then 21, was needed back home in North Philadelphia to tend to his mother, stricken with cancer.

"I remember that day we picked him up," said his sister, Edna Brown, 55, of Strawberry Mansion. "He was upset leaving. He was about to start playing for the basketball team."

It had always been basketball for Brown.

"He was our captain at FLC in the 1985-86 season," Mike Terry said. "He was well-liked."

Brown, like Terry, had played in the famed Sonny Hill Basketball League, a mecca for gifted local players. For Brown, a forward, there was a sense of order on the court antithetical to the chaos of the streets.

"He loved the FLC team," Edna Brown said.

Back home, Rodney Brown started a janitorial business, and was doing well.

Then came the day "that damaged us as a family," said Brown's brother and Edna's twin, Edward.

On Nov. 30, 1995, Brown's naked body was found in the trunk of a silver 1992 Acura parked in Chestnut Hill. The clothed body of another man was also in the trunk.

Brown had been shot once in the head and several times in the body. His killer, Julius Pickard, would die of wounds he would suffer in a shooting in a bar on Cheltenham Avenue about a week later, although the link to Brown's killing would not be established immediately.

Philadelphia police say the motive was drug-related, though Brown didn't have a criminal record.

"I loved being around him," Edna Brown said. "He brightened our lives."

That was my boy, from Pampers on up

Commissioning a work of art for love, Mike Terry had a picture of his cousin Stephen Ashley tattooed onto his left arm.

"Me and Steve did everything together," Terry said. "That was my boy, from Pampers on up." They played on the same FLC team in the mid-'80s, along with Keith Donaldson, another cousin.

The three had ceremoniously sliced their fingers, then pressed their hands together, blood brothers for life. "It was deep," said Donaldson, 45, a North Philadelphian who works for the Social Security Administration. "If we ever needed each other, it was Johnny on the spot."

Along with basketball, Ashley also excelled at boxing, and after high school, he tried to make a living as a fighter and a manager. His style in the ring was simple, Terry said: "He used to let you hit him. When you were done, he'd tear fire to your ass."

Those skills caught Tracey Dorsey's eye.

"I used to watch him spar - the way he moved his feet, how he'd hold his hands," she said, sitting in a friend's tiny four-pew church in a North Philadelphia rowhouse.

Dorsey, 52, a former children's counselor, used to tutor Ashley, and "his grades went up," she said.

They were a case of opposites finding each other. "He was funny, and I have no sense of humor," Dorsey said. "He liked people; I never did."

Cracking up friends with a did-he-really-say-that style, Ashley would toss out gibes like, "Your mom's face looks like a piece of corn bread."

Ashley, who attended community college for a while, had a record for assault as a young man because, friends said, neighborhood guys would test his fighting prowess.

Ashley and Dorsey had a daughter they named Ashley Dorsey, now 26, of West Philadelphia. She remembers being exquisitely treated as a daddy's girl: "What father wouldn't want to have a princess?"

She lost her king on the night of Dec. 17, 1995. Stephen Ashley, then 25, was riding in a car driven by his uncle. A man named Cedric Richardson, 22, was driving a car that ran a red light at 15th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, and rammed into the uncle's car.

Ashley got out of the car and Richardson, perhaps fearful for his life, opened fire on the unarmed man, leaving him there "like a dog on the street," according to then-Assistant District Attorney Emory Cole.

Found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, Richardson served five years, then was released.

Dorsey said the short sentence hurts: "His release was my nightmare."

Your children aren't forgotten

People wondered what fueled Mike Terry's fury.

"He wanted to fight all the time," said Robert "Dondi" DeShields, a Sonny Hill coach.

Terry explained it: "Grow up in North Philly without a father, you're always angry."

Add to that the ever-present neighborhood violence, which seems to change children molecularly, creating hard cases out of vulnerable flesh.

"I was a byproduct of my environment," Terry concluded.

But he reined himself in. Of all people, Doctor J helped.

Julius Erving, the 76ers great, met Terry at a ball-related luncheon when Terry was in middle school.

"If you're going to take the game seriously, you have to fix your grades and behavior," Erving instructed.

Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, that kind of talk whistles right past a kid. But Terry, primed to hear a man speak to him as if he actually cared, took the icon's words to heart.

Terry knuckled down to become the self-proclaimed "tough nerd" of the FLC team, even making the honor roll.

He went on to be a prison guard, then a sheriff's deputy. He raised five kids, including Michael Jr., who earned a master's degree in criminal justice and now plays professional basketball in the Republic of Georgia.

In July 1995, some crazed man on Terry's block in Nicetown threatened Terry for reasons he still doesn't understand.

"Man, you better go ahead," Terry told him.

"Who you think you're talking to?" the guy said, shooting at Terry, the bullet biting into his right hip.

Terry shot back, missed, and the guy disappeared.

The respect a man gets depends on how violent he's perceived to be, said Elijah Anderson, sociologist at Yale University. Often, in neighborhoods where the police aren't trusted, where jobs are lacking and hope is minimal, young men are used to taking justice into their own hands - what Anderson calls the "code of the street." As a result, people can get shot over the littlest things.

Counting his blessings afterward, Terry realized he'd felt an attachment to FLC. He began to follow the lives of team members and noticed an undiscovered pattern: "They were getting murdered."

As part of the second FLC alumni tournament - the first was in 2013 - Terry decided to honor the lost ones in May. He asked Mothers in Charge, a local antiviolence nonprofit, to be there as well.

Terry offered families a simple message: "Your children aren't forgotten."

They lost a son who never should've died

Following a family tradition, Lorenzo Hardy III came to a threatened woman's rescue - and died because of it.

His parents had modeled the behavior over and over. Hardy's father was a cop. His mother, Tawana, broke up fights between couples in their Germantown neighborhood because she couldn't bear the sound of women screaming at night.

A registered nurse at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Tawana was vice president of the PTA at FLC when Hardy was a student and a 6-3 basketball player there between 1995 and 1998.

At 23, Hardy - called "Jun-Jun" - was two months shy of becoming the first man in his family to graduate from college, Morgan State University, a historically black institution in Baltimore.

A business administration major with a B average, Hardy was planning to join his sister, Tamika, in a mobile barbering and manicuring business in New York called Blade Runner.

On Oct. 4, 2003, Hardy went to a bowling party in a Baltimore suburb with 400 other students. A Morgan State freshman named Christopher Bacote, then 19, was harassing a young woman, said Jason League, chief deputy state's attorney for Carroll County, Md.

"That's not cool. Don't push on girls," Hardy told Bacote, according to Hardy's friend Ameka Smith, 35, of Baltimore.

Smith said that Hardy had been a noble knight before, rushing to help students in fights.

When Hardy left the alley at 2:45 a.m., Bacote was waiting in his Cadillac in the parking lot.

"What's up with that . . . you was saying in the club?" Bacote yelled out of the window. Then he fired his gun, killing Hardy with a single round to his stomach.

After the slaying, witnesses became deaf, dumb, and scarce. Tawana and Tamika made several treks to Baltimore to find anyone who saw what happened and persuade them to come forward. The entreaties worked, and the Hardys' efforts helped cops arrest Bacote.

"You do this job long enough, you run into lots of victims' families," League said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, they were 10s. They lost a son who never should've died who had a very good life ahead."

At trial, Bacote was convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence.

Since that time, Tawana said she'd heard bits and pieces of stories about the FLC deaths.

"As a black person, I see black-on-black crime as unbelievably high," Tawana said, sitting in her immaculate home with a fireplace and parquet floors. "This is genocide, and we're killing each other because we don't respect ourselves."

Experts don't see the violence in black communities as genocide. Criminals wind up victimizing those they live nearest, whether they're black or white, Glaude said.

Tellingly, though Bacote was a college student from an educated family - his father is a counselor at Morgan State - he was still following the "code of the street to keep it real," Anderson opined. Bacote was firing bullets to retain respect he lost when Hardy interceded between Bacote and the young woman, Anderson said.

Perhaps if young black people "were taught to love themselves, and to be proud of the culture that produced Harriet Tubman, they'd have a whole different sense of how to treat each other," said Molefi Kete Asante, chairman of the department of African American studies at Temple University.

"The fundamental problem black people have is, they don't know who they are."

He fell victim to the street

In the old days, it was Smoke and Lester vs. the deck-stacked casinos in Atlantic City, buddies battling the gods and odds of blackjack, summoning the correct cards to slide out of the dealers' hands before the last chip got confiscated.

"We went down there with an attitude," said Smoke, aka Steven Harris, 33, a bus driver from Drexel Hill. "The Claridge Hotel Casino every Friday night, and no fear about nothing." (The hotel no longer has a casino.)

Harris didn't play FLC ball like Lester Adams, who was on the 1992-93 team. Adams was a loyal buddy, even during his "rough patch" when he did a year in jail for robbery.

"Lester was my bad child," said Dorothy Adams, 56, his mother and a former housekeeper who lives in West Philadelphia. "He was always in trouble, beating people up."

Adams grew up in North Philly loving basketball. But soon enough, all his balling seasons ended.

Teammate Rasheed "Noot" Arnold, 40, who now oversees talent development for Slumlords Studios records in Columbus, Ohio, testified to the too-fleeting nature of youthful preoccupation: "You can't play basketball forever. You need a Plan B. Sometimes, you go back to your surroundings, and that's where Lester went wrong.

"He fell victim to the street."

Adams was working delivering furniture. He doted on his daughter, Starr, now 17. Neither Harris nor Dorothy had an inkling that anything was wrong.

But everything was.

"He and his girlfriend argued, then he went to Atlantic City," Dorothy said. But this time, Adams went without Harris.

On July 10, 2007, Adams, 32 years old, hanged himself from a rope he found in a garage at one of the casinos, Dorothy said.

"He said in a note he couldn't take life no more, and to take care of Starr," Dorothy said.

Among a portion of the black population experiencing hopelessness, "people succumb to suicide when they see no way out," said Jason Williams, a professor of justice studies at Montclair State University.

Dorothy will always wonder why. And she knows she'll never know.

Since Adams killed himself, Harris hardly ever takes the Atlantic City Expressway.

"No point in gambling anymore," he said.

A lot of mothers are burying their sons in Philadelphia

FLC coach Leonard Poole had been preaching to the 2011 team the value of passing the ball.

Davonte Coleman, sixth man and team wit, had a free lane to make a layup during a game, but passed the ball to a teammate instead, looking at Poole as the play unfolded, yelling, "Coach, I'm going to make this pass!"

He did. "Davonte always kept us laughing like that," Poole said.

The son of two chefs, Coleman couldn't cook but excelled at science and math. He lived in Feltonville's rougher streets before his mother moved him to the Northeast, said a cousin, Marcia Stewart, a chemist. "He was loved and semi-spoiled," Stewart, 36, said. "The only child of his parents, the only grandson."

Coleman, whose name has sometimes appeared in social media as DaVonte Colmon, had been accepted to Bloomsburg on a partial basketball scholarship, according to his mother, Tonisha Bullock, 41.

On May 24, 2011, Coleman, who was 18 and about to graduate from FLC, was sitting with three friends on the steps on Tiber Street near Wyoming Avenue in Hunting Park.

One of Coleman's friends had had a beef with some guys over a robbery, Bullock said. Gunmen pulled up in a car and sprayed the street with bullets, wounding one man and hitting Coleman four times, killing him.

Witnesses remained mum.

"We knocked on doors, begging for someone to say something," Stewart said. Her mission proved fruitless. The shooting remains unsolved.

To honor her cousin, Stewart attended the FLC prom two weeks after his slaying. "Davonte, we love you!" kids shouted.

"I had no other child, before or after," said Bullock, who tried to explain her everlasting pain, but could not. She started to cry, saying, "A lot of mothers are burying their sons in Philadelphia."

Six hundred people jammed the gym at Benjamin Franklin for the FLC alumni tournament in May. Most were there for a fun day of hoops and jokes about out-of-shape former athletes trying to take it to the hole.

Few had any idea that plaques bearing the names of dead young men would be distributed to mothers on the day before Mother's Day.

When Ava Dunn-Shaw was handed hers, she saw the name of her son, Clifford, in bold black letters under an image of four basketballs surrounded by a gold wreath.

As she stood on the hardwood basketball court, with the afternoon light pouring into the gym from high windows, Dunn-Shaw broke down, crying.

I think we opened some old wounds, Mike Terry said to himself, wanting to demonstrate that the dead were remembered, but realizing that aggrieved mothers never heal.

When Tawana Hardy accepted the plaque for her son, Lorenzo, she chastised the crowd for speaking during the ceremony.

"You're being disrespectful," she said. The crowd quieted.

"My prayer," Hardy said, "is that you do not one day find yourself in our shoes - without your son on Mother's Day."

alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969 @AlfredLubrano