The bond between Gerald Henderson and Wayne Ellington was solidified on the basketball court at Episcopal Academy in the Philadelphia area.
From that point on, they were always there for each other in significant moments of their lives. High school successes. Being recruited to collegiate powerhouses Duke and North Carolina. Becoming first-round NBA draft picks.
As their game schedules had it, they also were at the same place on Nov. 9, 2014. Henderson’s Hornets were in Los Angeles to play Ellington’s Lakers. Neither could have anticipated they would be together on a night that turned tragic.
Ellington’s father, Wayne Sr., had a feeling the Lakers would get their first win of the season that evening. He sent a cross-country text to his son before the game telling him that, and encouraged him to “go to work.”
Ellington got that victory over his best friend. The two should have caught up afterward for a joyful reunion. Instead, Ellington’s world was flipped upside down when he checked his phone following the game.
“One Sunday evening we got the unfortunate call that my dad had been shot and killed here in Philadelphia,” Ellington said recently at the Philly Peace Games. “That was a very, very hard time for me and my family. We still grieve obviously.”
Wayne Sr. had been murdered in his car in Germantown.
Ellington was struck by harrowing grief inside the Staples Center. Henderson learned of the news and rushed to find his best friend.
“It’s so crazy that I played him that night it happened,” Ellington said. “He was there for me. When I got that news, he was one of the first people that had come to me. … It definitely comforted me some. There’s nothing that anybody can say to do or do to make you feel better, but to have somebody that genuinely loves you and cares about you and you have a bond like that with, to have them by your side, no question it makes it a little, little, little bit easier.”
Wins or losses, nothing else mattered in that moment except for Henderson getting to Ellington.
“It’s what friends do,” Henderson said. “It’s a thing you can never really prepare yourself for, being in Wayne’s position. You just try to support him the best way you can. As his friend, I just tried to be there for him.”
That meant flying from coast to coast to support Ellington. Henderson arrived in Philadelphia for the funeral and flew out that same day to make it to a game against the Warriors in Oakland that night.
“Wayne Sr. was a great man,” Henderson said. “More than anything, just a funny cat, a cool cat, very similar to Wayne. Seeing Wayne’s family here brings me back to how much I relied on him as a kid, going over their house, eating up all their food, his mom or dad taking us to games or practices, AAU tournaments. … You realize how much they really did for you. Wayne Sr. did a lot for me, and more than anything, was a good man for me.”
Ellington started the “Power of W.E.” initiative, named for his father’s initials, aimed to reduce youth violence in Philadelphia. When he hosted the Philly Peace Games this month at Girard College, there was no question if Henderson would be there for it. Henderson, along with NBA players Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Ed Davis, coached teams that competed in the tournament. Prior to the games, a panel of Ellington, Henderson, Philadelphia state representative Dwight Evans and CeaseFirePA executive director Shira Goodman addressed the group of 40 players to emphasize the message of preventing gun violence.
“I’m from the Philadelphia area, this is where it happened to my father. This is the place where I feel like I can touch the community and the youth,” Ellington said. “You just hope a few people walk away from here with a different attitude or are able to spread the word. [You hope] to be able to do that, just to change somebody in some way, [someone’s] life and make them want to live life a little differently, take a more positive approach, realize how serious it is and not want to resort to violence.”
Wherever their careers have taken them, Ellington and Henderson have remained closely tied to Philadelphia. Ellington, who signed this offseason with the Heat, is thrilled Henderson inked a deal to return home and play for the Sixers.
“I think it’s great for him,” Ellington said. “He’s going to get to play in front of his friends and family. I think it’s going to be great for the city, too, and great for the Sixers. I think people are going to be shocked to see how big of a following he still has in the Philadelphia area. I’m excited for him.”
Ellington and Henderson have proven whether they are in the same city or opposite sides of the country, wearing the same uniform or on opposing teams, the relationship they established in high school is strong enough that they can’t be kept apart.
“Wayne’s my best friend,” Henderson said. “It’s really as simple as that.”