I spent last Saturday afternoon, as I have many Saturday afternoons in the past six years, with my 17-year-old nephew and 19-year-old brother-in-law.
I first met them when my wife and I began dating in late 2012, and was happy to discover that they both loved and played basketball. Since then, I have drilled with them in humid YMCA gyms. I’ve coached their AAU teams. I’ve driven them to practices. I’ve sat on bleachers throughout Western Pennsylvania watching them play games. I’ve made phone calls to guys I hooped with who are now coaches to inquire about getting them on teams, in leagues and into schools. And in my nephew’s case, I was able to get him (and his brother) into the private high school he currently attends.
I’ve watched them grow, in that six-year span, from adolescents to teens and from teens to young men. My brother-in-law just completed his freshman year of college and is home for the summer working at Home Depot. My nephew, who has grown to 6 feet 4 inches (and might still be growing), will be a senior in high school and is receiving interest from college basketball programs. If he has a good summer and fall, he could possibly earn a full basketball scholarship somewhere. (He also just took his SAT three weeks ago. I asked how he did. His reply: “That was ... easier than I thought it’d be.”)
Since I’ve gotten to know them, these summer Saturdays have become a bit of a routine. I pick them both up in my car, we drive to Central Catholic High School’s open gym and we play for two hours. Afterward, we get something to eat. Usually, we’ll grab some pizza or burgers or some other teen-friendly food. Last weekend, however, I decided to take them to the Whole Foods hot bar.
They weren’t pleased.
Nephew: So ... um ... you actually eat here?
Me: I do.
Bro-in-law: I mean, this look cool, I guess. Maybe on a different day.
Me: THERE’S MAD OPTIONS! AND THE FETA AT THE SALAD BAR IS FIRE!
Nephew: The feta is ... fire?
Me: Never mind. Let’s go to Chipotle.
We left and actually went to Pamela’s Diner for pancakes. (My nephew didn’t eat, though. He had a date with his girlfriend later that afternoon and wanted to save his appetite.) When we finished, I took them to my barber for haircuts and then drove them back home.
Yesterday, when I first saw pictures of Antwon Rose and then learned that he was an honors student at Woodland Hills High School (a rival of my nephew’s high school), and also that he played sports and was “kind” and “well-mannered” and “intelligent,” and all the other things people say when what they’re really saying is, “This kid didn’t deserve to die,” I couldn’t not see my nephew. Each time Antwon Rose’s picture flashes on a TV screen or my laptop monitor, I see him.
I also see my brother-in-law. And my younger (15-year-old) nephew. And the kids who walk past my house every day to hoop at the YMCA down the street. And my nephew’s homies and teammates and classmates—many of whom I know, and some of whom are the children of men and women I know.
I see the high school kid who was on my team when I was hooping last night at LA Fitness. I see the young boys I encounter who work at Target and Giant Eagle and Sneaker Villa and the Cheesecake Factory. I see the kids waiting for buses on the corner of Smithfield and 6th Avenue downtown, outside Burlington Coat Factory and across the street from the Carnegie Library. I see the kids on Wood Street who annoy me sometimes because they take so long to cross the street. I see both the kids acting up in line and the kids selling us popcorn when my wife and I go to the movies.
When I watch the NBA draft tonight, I’ll see Antwon Rose in each of those tall and awkward 18- and 19-year-olds with big hair and wide smiles and suits too big or too small for their bodies.
I see the kids I taught at Wilkinsburg High 15 years ago. Some of them are in their 30s now, and I see them around the city sometimes, being adults. Several of them, like Antwon Rose, were killed before they had the chance to be adults, and I see them when I see him, too.
I see the old pictures of myself that I scrolled past last weekend to find one for an appropriate Father’s Day Facebook and Instagram post about my dad.
When I see each of these people—the young boys and girls who are our nephews and nieces; our little brothers and baby sisters; our little cousins and little cousin’s lil’ friends; our students and mentees; our babysitters and Burger King cashiers—I see Antwon Rose’s face, and I see how easily their faces could be the face flashing across our screens, their names the latest hashtag, their death the latest protest. And I wish I didn’t also see my nephew.
But I do.