Death of a hoop dream

By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 28, 2008
08028_rally_main4
“INCREASE THE PEACE”: Two days after Hornsby Jr.’s death, more than 700 people took to the streets with the victim’s brother Devron, 13, and father, Mario Sr. (center), to honor Hornsby Jr. and rally against the increasing violence.

Put on your hater blockers
Two days after his son’s murder, Hornsby Sr. gave an interview to Springfield’s WWLP-TV. “The message today,” he said, “is to all the youth of Springfield, or wherever you hear my voice: stop the violence.” During the past three months, he’s been making sure his voice is heard loud and clear, by as many potentially troubled kids as possible.

On August 1, I saw Hornsby Sr. speak at the Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the “Hip-Hop Forum on Youth Violence,” sponsored by the AND1 sneaker company. In early May, Hornsby, Jr. had also given a speech there, just days before his death, upon receiving the Springfield Republican’s Eric Koszalka Memorial Award for work ethic and dedication on the hardwood.

In the Hall’s regulation-size Center Court, bleachers full of rowdy kids in brightly colored United Way and YMCA T-shirts chatter among themselves. Some break dance on the floor to Lil Mama’s “Lip Gloss” as they wait for things to get started.

From high above, we’re looked down upon by the smiling, backlit faces of the Hall’s inductees: Bill Russell and Larry Bird, Red Auerbach and Robert Parish. It occurs to me that Hornsby Jr., a huge Celtics fan, never got to see the team win its 17th championship.

Hornsby Sr., sitting on a panel alongside three of his son’s Central High teammates, a couple of players from AND1’s traveling Streetball All-Stars, and Springfield’s Violence Prevention Coordinator Tony Pettaway, steps forward and asks the crowd a favor: “Turn to your neighbor and say, ‘I love you.’ ”

There are snickers. Some sarcastic over-emoting. But the kids do as they’re told. Then the room falls silent as Hornsby Sr. tells his story in words they can understand.

“I lost something on May 17 that I can never, ever get back. My wife and I both. My sons lost a big brother. He had his troubles. But he turned it around.”

He asks how many kids play video games. A forest of arms is raised. “If you get shot in real life, there is no reset button,” says Hornsby Sr. “There’s no coming back. Now, when I go see my son, I’m standing over him, looking down and crying.”

Hornsby Sr. admonishes the crowd to learn how to deal with life’s problems. To know when to let beefs slide. To understand that a $200 pair of sneakers, or an innocuous bumping-into, or a stolen girlfriend, just aren’t worth it.

“You’re gonna have haters. You’re gonna have people who dislike you for whatever reason. You can’t control what people feel about you in life. Put on your hater blockers. We’ve got to learn to walk away from this stuff.” But the crux of his argument comes when talking about his son’s killers. “I have no hatred in my heart for them,” says Hornsby Sr. “In order to see my son again, I can’t hate anyone.”

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