Date: 08/24/2016

The painful arc of becoming an anti-gun activist

All those thousands of jump shots before breakfast, all the AAU and YMCA games where he perfected his long-range game, even the national championship he won with Roy Williams at North Carolina hadn’t prepared Wayne Ellington for this moment.

The musty mausoleum-like gym at North Philadelphia’s Girard College — where the 28-year-old Miami Heat shooting guard would feel most at home — was upstairs and empty for now. Instead, he was down in this sweltering basement on a brutal August afternoon, standing up to address about 50 young men and teens who were leaning forward on their hard metal chairs to hear the soft-spoken college standout turned NBA journeyman.

He clutched a white sheet of paper in his right hand, his shooting hand, and grasped to find the word or phrase that would persuade even one of these youths to steer clear of the gun violence that is epidemic in cities like Philadelphia – where a person is shot, on average, every six hours.

“My father was taken from me and my family by a senseless act of gun violence – a tragedy that shook up me and our family to our core,” Ellington told the players taking part in the first Philadelphia Peace Games tournament on Saturday to promote nonviolence through basketball. “I want to do anything in my power to prevent this from happening to another family. Change starts with us, and I really believe that you all have a choice, to say no to violence.”

Two years ago, Ellington would have had only a shared love for the hardwood in common with these young men. That was before the afternoon of Nov. 9, 2014. That’s when 57-year-old Wayne Ellington Sr., who lived in the racially mixed, middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown, sent a pregame good-luck text to his son (then a Los Angeles Laker), got into his red Oldsmobile, then got into a heated discussion with a 34-year-old man standing outside the car who took out a gun and shot him in the head.

Some 21 months later, neither Ellington’s family nor prosecutors have the slightest clue what motivated the shooter. In a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to third-degree homicide and three gun charges and was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison. The only way Ellington can deal with such a senseless loss is to keep his frustration on the back burner and try to prevent the same awful thing from happening to someone else.

“Please understand how much your life and our lives can all change in the blink of an eye,” he pleaded with the Peace Games attendees. Although the NBA honored Ellington with its J. Walter Kennedy Award for Citizenship this summer, his anti-gun-violence campaign – which he’s dubbed The Power of W.E., his dad’s initials, and his own – is still very much a work in progress.

In finding his top-notch 3-point shot, Ellington had a series of great coaches, starting with his dad, “the person who put a ball in my hands.” But now that Ellington is trying to find his voice as an activist, he’s largely on his own, figuring out what to say as he goes.

Many NBA ballers grow up in rough neighborhoods. Ellington even came up worshipping one of them – putting his hair in cornrows for a time and buying the shoes and the jersey so he could be just like his hometown idol, Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson. But his own upbringing was far removed from that world.

Ellington was mostly raised outside of Pottstown, a former industrial town about 40 minutes west of Philadelphia. After his freshman year at Daniel Boone High School, he was heavily recruited by city prep schools and ended up being teamed with future NBA player and best friend Gerald Henderson Jr. at the elite Episcopal Academy in an affluent Main Line suburb.

In those years, there wasn’t time for much besides basketball. “A lotof basketball,” his mother Elaine Ellington said, fanning herself in the steamy basement where her son was about to speak. “Some days there was breakfast, lunch and dinner basketball.” But another constant those years was his dad’s rich involvement in his life.

It was the senior Ellington, who’d played a little football at Pennsylvania’s Kutztown State University, who made sure as a YMCA coach that his son played point guard to develop his ballhandling skills – even though he was the tallest kid on the team. When the younger Ellington was the most valuable player on the North Carolina team that won the national championship in 2009, his dad’s beaming face was the first thing he saw through a torrent of confetti.

As a pro, Ellington has bounced around the league – the Heat will be his seventh team in nine seasons – but his dad watched every game on TV, no matter where they were. And he always texted his son – sometimes with the occasional critique, but mostly “keeping it light.”

On that Friday evening in November two years ago, “Pops” Ellington texted some encouragement to his son after the Lakers had started the season 0-5. “Tonight’s going to be your first one,” his dad wrote. “Go to work.” And Ellington did have a good night on the job. L.A. beat Henderson’s then-team, the Charlotte Hornets, 107-92, and Ellington came off the bench to score nine points with five boards. When he got back to the locker room, his phone’s screen was full of texts and emails. But before he could even begin to read them, he got a call with the news of his father’s death.

Ellington took 10 days off to be with his family. After returning to the Lakers, he decided that he needed to do something. But what? Before that night, Ellington had lived a mostly charmed life, an NCAA champion making millions to keep playing the game of his youth. Now, he says he learned to take nothing for granted, and that he wanted “to take this negative tragedy and turn it into something positive.”

His first toe in the water was a “peace march” last summer in his dad’s neighborhood of Germantown. He walked through the streets with a T-shirt bearing his father’s name, and was alarmed to see so many similar shirts with the names of so many other murder victims. “It made me kind of weep to see all these young kids, everybody involved with the T-shirts – and there was so many, so many T-shirts,” Ellington recalled. “It was senseless to me.”

A few weeks later, Ellington joined the Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah – the 2015 winner of the Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award – and other NBA players and community activists for a Chicago Peace Tournament, a basketball event launched in 2012 to get gang members off the street and inside a gym. He resolved to launch the Philadelphia Peace Games that took place on Aug. 20, and slowly The Power of W.E. became more than a slogan. He taped a public service announcement for an anti-violence program at North Philadelphia’s Temple University Hospital, gave away more than 2,000 tickets to Brooklyn, New York, youth groups after joining the Nets for the 2015-16 season, and hopes to make connections in Miami now that he’s with the Heat.

Noah also gave Ellington something else that’s hard to find for a 21st-century athlete-turned-activist: A role model. One of the other speakers at Saturday’s Peace Games – Philadelphia state lawmaker Dwight Evans, who’s expected to win election to U.S. Congress in November – said pro athletes are among the few adults whom urban kids might actually listen to, if only more would get involved.

“When I grew up there was Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Tommie Smith [raising his fist with John Carlos in a black power salute] at the Olympics – we haven’t had that on a sustainable basis,” said Evans, 62. He said he feels today’s pro athletes are too wealthy and too removed from inner-city life.

“It could be better,” said the Philadelphia 76ers’ Henderson, who attended the Philadelphia Peace Games, when asked about social activism by NBA players. “Sometimes people watch TV and are like, ‘Oh, God, there’s horrible stuff going on here.’ There’s so much violence, you can’t stop it all but you can chip away, little by little … that’s where it starts.”

Indeed, while there have been some green shoots of athlete activism in 2016 – from the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx’s Black Lives Matter jerseys to Michael Jordan’s declaration that “I can no longer stay silent” about violence – everyone acknowledges the gun crisis is particularly vexing.

While organizers of the Chicago Peace Tournament say gang violence did drop in the immediate neighborhood after the games, more than 2,700 people have been shot in the city so far this year, close to the total for all of 2015. Murders in Philadelphia are up 8 percent over last year. Just four hours before Ellington’s tournament started, a domestic dispute in West Philadelphia triggered a Wild West-style gunfight among seven people.

Most of the players who showed up Saturday to play hoops in front of Ellington and Henderson said they’d lost someone to a gunshot. Four years ago, Julian Stewart of Camden, New Jersey, said, his 16-year-old cousin was sitting on his front steps when “a guy came up and put a lot of bullets into him,” killing him. Now 25, Stewart calls himself “the rose that grew out of the concrete,” because he made it to a trade school and found a job as an inspector at a Philadelphia shipyard.

But a massive jobs program for the inner city is beyond the scope of what a rookie anti-gun activist can accomplish – as is getting the thousands of guns off the streets of Philadelphia and Camden. Ellington and his allies instead did what they could do – asking the 50 or so players to rise and recite a pledge.

“I pledge to help end senseless violence in my community,” they said in ragged unison.” I will not give into violence and instead I will promote peace.”

Ellington insisted that neither the nationwide scope of gun violence nor the recent spike in some crime numbers will stop him – maybe because that’s not his nature. “You see that the killing continues, it gets a little bit discouraging,” he said. “But at the same time to not have hope … I have hope that one day it will change and that the more people that you reach, the better that it will become.”

The young players who live nearest to the gunfire agreed – that whatever signing a pledge and playing basketball for an afternoon accomplishes, it beats doing nothing.