It must happen a million times a day. At the office, at the gym,
in a bar. You say something about an athlete you like, and
someone else says forget it, he's nothing compared to my man
so-and-so. And there you are, passionately defending athletes
you haven't met and never will.
That's how it all began on the night of Nov. 9, when friends
Montrell Washington, 25, and Hasan Mitchell, 20, went to see
their hometown Philadelphia 76ers play the visiting Seattle
SuperSonics. Washington likes Allen Iverson of the Sixers.
Mitchell likes Gary Payton of the Sonics. Both are point guards,
both are terrific. Plenty there to argue about.
"Hasan said he couldn't wait to see them play, to see what
Payton was going to do to Iverson," says Washington, who works
in a meat processing plant. "He was making a bunch of noise
about the Sonics at the game, and I said it just doesn't matter,
Iverson's going to put up his numbers."
After the game they ended up outside the Southwark Plaza
public-housing complex in South Philadelphia, where both men
have friends and family. The great sports debate continued. "He
was still making a bunch of noise, and I was, like, Man, that's
all over with, I don't wanna keep hearing that," says
Washington. "He was, like, I told you Iverson can't mess with
Gary Payton, and like that there. Then he went on to his other
words, disrespecting me. I said, 'You say that again, we fight.'"
Washington says friends stepped in to separate them, but the
police say at least one punch was thrown before Mitchell left
the scene. When he returned about an hour later, he was with his
father, Isaac, and his 18-year-old brother, Yusef. Homicide
detectives say that Isaac, 46, had a gun and that as soon as he
saw Washington, he opened fire.
At that moment, Montrell's brother Derrick, 21, and his cousin
Jameka Wright, 22, had just come out of nearby apartments.
Wright was on her way to get some butter pecan ice cream. A
bullet entered her left shoulder and came out her back, and she
crumpled. Derrick was hit in the chest and back and went down
six feet away, near a tree. Both were dead within minutes,
innocent bystanders snuffed out over a silly sports debate gone
mad. Montrell, who had turned to run, went down, too. A bullet
went clean through his left arm, but he would be fine.
Physically, he would be fine.
"He's grieving, and it's going to take some time, because he
never knew a simple argument about basketball would lead to
this," says Montrell's mother, Ada, 47. Of losing a son, she
says, "I'm still numb." Montrell says he wonders what Hasan
could have told Isaac that would have induced a rage so
destructive. Philadelphia police say they have no evidence yet
that other issues played a role in the killing. They have
arrested Isaac, Hasan and Yusef, charging all three with two
counts of murder.
Just a few miles from the site of the shooting, University of
Pennsylvania sociology professor Elijah Anderson is finishing a
book entitled The Code of the Streets. People who feel alienated
from "wider society" create identities for themselves through
money, a girl, "or in this case a basketball player," Anderson
says. Sports is like an opiate, because it transports you out of
the world you live in. "But it's not about the player. You
identify with someone and you become him, whether it's Iverson
or anyone else. There's an insecurity that has to be defended
because your self-esteem is often on the line." Anderson says
that it's all about respect, and that it isn't uncommon to round
up a posse to defend a family's honor. Respect us by respecting
Gary Payton. Or die.
"Stop this chain of stupidity," says a handwritten note on a
tree near where the shooting took place. Jameka's father, James,
49, came out of his apartment on a recent morning, retracing his
daughter's last steps, and a tear filled his eye but didn't
fall. "So senseless," he said.
Lionel Simmons, 29, who grew up in Southwark and went on to play
seven seasons in the NBA (he retired a few weeks ago), knows
both families involved in the tragedy. Isaac was his barber. The
Washingtons are his friends, and he has stopped in to see how
Montrell is doing. Eight years ago when he had the chance,
Simmons refused to leave college early for the NBA. He had
promised his mother a diploma, and he went on to graduate from
La Salle with a degree in criminal justice. Growing up in the
inner city, he says, "you want to be a part of the solution."
But he has no easy one, because there is none. He does, however,
know the answer to the question of who's better, Iverson or
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ANASTASIA VASILAKIS [Drawing of gun, chain, thumbprint and basketball]