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Andrew Janik

‘God, I Miss That Boy’

A Bay Area community mourns the tragic killing of high school basketball player Rodney Frazier Jr.

Before dark, North Richmond is beautiful. It sits just north of Berkeley, across the bridge and up I-580 from San Francisco. Ride north on Fred Jackson Way and there is the bay behind you and the hills to your right, and when the sun sets behind the Golden Gate Bridge, you can feel, for a moment, as if you’ve been dropped into a Northern California gift shop postcard.

At night, that changes. Darkness hides the bay and the bridges. Dots of light from million-dollar homes serve as distant reminders that the hills still exist. Your vision is limited to whatever’s in front of you, and all that’s in front of you is decay. It was there in the daytime if you took a moment to look: barbed-wire fences and boarded-up buildings, vacant lots left concealed by streetlights gone dark.

This is what Rodney Frazier Jr. saw as he rode his motorcycle home on the night of November 7, 2014. It’s what Rodney had seen most every night of his 16 years, ever since he’d been adopted by his grandparents when he was 2 weeks old — “because his mama and daddy was smoking that shit,” says grandfather Hozie Evans. He lived here in North Richmond, a small unincorporated community that sits just outside Richmond’s city limits. It was just after 9 p.m. when Rodney rode toward his home on Market Street. He’d been gassing up his Yamaha 450, his baby, which he’d salvaged and rebuilt using parts he’d dug up in a local junkyard.

Rodney was just a high school kid, but he was already a mechanic. Grown men would load their bikes onto the beds of pickup trucks and drive them to Rodney’s house. “Fix it,” they’d say, and if you gave him a few hours and a little money, Rodney would. He was also a basketball player. Richmond High School coach Rob Collins had first spotted him at an open gym when Rodney was in fifth grade. Who was that boy in the blue jean shorts and the grease-stained shirt, Collins wondered, beating kids twice his size to loose balls? “That’s Rodney,” an older kid told Collins. “He’s a point guard.” Collins had pulled Rodney aside that afternoon. “You’re gonna be a hell of a player someday,” he told him. “Stay out of trouble, and come see me when you get to high school.”

Now Rodney was a junior and the team captain for the Richmond Oilers. He played with a deadened venom, outmuscling post players and outrunning other guards, delighting in the way he could make opponents miserable, make them hate him, all without showing any emotion. When he left the gym he became gentler, even goofy  a kid with nerdy interests but enough confidence to make them cool. He liked engines and chemistry labs and was prone to random, nonsensical outbursts of noise. He would tell you “happy birthday” even if your actual birthday were months away. If you corrected him, he’d only shake his head. It was your birthday when Rodney said it was your birthday. He made himself laugh. If you understood him, he’d make you laugh too.

On that night, he rode home from the gas station just after 9 p.m. He turned down Market Street and pulled up to his home. Across the street, Espanosa Matthews could hear everything. He heard the low rumble of Rodney’s bike as he rounded the corner. Then he heard stuttering blasts. One after another, with no order or rhythm. His bike, Espanosa thought. His bike must have backfired.

Espanosa and Rodney had been friends since they were 5. After Espanosa turned 10, he moved in across the street from Rodney. “That,” he would later say, “is when we became brothers.” They’d spent nearly every day together, playing basketball and riding their bikes, sharing tools and giving each other rides, racing each other down Market while the neighborhood kids watched and placed bets.

Espanosa walked outside. He looked across the street and saw Rodney in his own yard and immediately he knew. The bike had not backfired. The blasts he’d heard had been gunshots. Rodney’s helmet was still on. His body was still. He lay in his grandfather’s bushes and his own blood. Espanosa ran to him, and other boys followed. He crouched to the bushes and grabbed Rodney in his arms. His eyes were open but empty. Espanosa held him. Rodney began to shake.

“Wake up!” Espanosa yelled. Other boys — younger boys, ages 10 to 13 — ran to them and yelled at Rodney too. Rodney kept shaking. He seemed cold, but the night was warm. They hit him. They kicked him. They’d seen people shot but had never seen people die. Screaming and hitting was the only way they thought they could keep Rodney from fading away.

Finally, the younger boys decided they’d seen too much. They turned and ran away. But Espanosa stayed there, cradling his friend’s head, begging him to stop shaking, to focus his eyes and breathe, to live.

But Rodney’s body just trembled and his eyes just stared, and Espanosa held him as 10 minutes passed — at least it felt that long, but in the moment Espanosa’s sense of time was lost — until sirens drew closer as Rodney kept “shaking, shaking, shaking” and finally, Espanosa says, “He took his last shook.”

Police arrived. Espanosa let go. Rodney was dead.

Two days after Rodney’s death, Richmond High School coach Rob Collins sat in his apartment and took a teary shot of tequila with his roommate, Berkeley High School coach Mark DeLuca. A 53-year-old man who can typically be heard screaming or joking, often at the same time, Collins was in his second stint as Richmond’s coach. Years ago, he’d taken a job at Amador Valley, an affluent suburban school. “I left for money, and I’m a socialist,” he says. “Bad idea.” A few years later, he was back at Richmond. (“The rich-kid parents got tired of my shit. I don’t blame ’em. Fuck it, I’d get tired of me too.”)

Coaching at Richmond presented a different set of challenges. This was the school where, in 2009, a 16-year-old girl had been beaten and raped by at least four young men, who left her unconscious under a picnic table during the homecoming dance. It was the school where, three years later, another homecoming was canceled due to gun violence. “First, there was a fight in the stadium,” says Collins, “so everybody started running away from the football field. Then, there were the gunshots outside the stadium, so everybody turns around and starts running back in.” But it was a school filled with kids whom Collins — and, really, almost all of the faculty — had grown to love. “They want someone to tell them how to do good,” Collins says. “And then they want that person to tell them, ‘Hey, you’re doing good!’ That’s all.”

At Amador Valley, Collins had been a strict disciplinarian — ordering suicide drills and handing out suspensions for missed practices. “I can’t do that here,” he says of Richmond. “I can’t practice longer than 90 minutes, and I can’t run the kids too hard, because, I mean, some of these kids barely eat. Their bodies just can’t handle that kind of work.” He continues: “And forcing them to come to practice? I mean, what am I gonna do? If a kid comes up to you and says, ‘Sorry, Coach, I have to walk my brother and sister home because my dad’s gone, my mom’s working, and if I’m not there with them, they might get shot,’ what the hell are you supposed to say?! ‘No’? ‘You’re suspended’? Come on.”

He’d had good teams (20-9 in 2005-06) and bad teams (1-26 in 2011-12). He’d tried to instill discipline and show love. He’d recruited kids off the drug corners and onto the court. (Some left the drug game behind entirely. Others took a couple of hours off each day so they could go to practice.) He’d been an offensive innovator. “I like to sit and watch tape of European teams and then copy their sets. Nobody expects that from a team like us. A lot of high-post, a lot of east-west cutting. It’s weird shit, but it’s beautiful.” Coming into the year, he didn’t know what to expect of his team. They had a little talent and plenty of toughness, but when they got behind, sometimes, they gave up. “It’s hard to be resilient,” he says, “in a place where all you see is rotten shit.”

Family members sometimes tell Collins to leave Richmond. It’s too dangerous, they said. “Fuck that, a lot of places are dangerous!” he says. “What the fuck are you worried about anyway? You’re not the one who’s living it — I am.” Collins knew kids who’d been killed: thirty-three of them, in fact. He’d been keeping count since his first turn as Richmond’s coach. But none like Rodney. Rodney would text Collins in the early mornings, asking to get into the gym and shoot before the first bell rang. As a sophomore, Rodney had embarrassed Richmond’s seniors, winning every sprint, recovering every loose ball. This past summer he’d shown signs of what he could become. When Richmond’s varsity was getting blown out by a suburban school’s JV team, he’d been the one to remind his teammates they had nothing to lose and no reason to fold, who urged them to make a run and keep the final score respectable. He was a defensive menace — “Nicest kid off the court,” Collins says, “but just nasty and mean in all of the right ways on the court” — and an emerging vocal leader. He probably wasn’t going to get much attention from college recruiters, but that was fine. Here, now, in this neighborhood and on this team, he was a star.

So now Collins sat with his roommate, taking shots of tequila in between tears. He felt desperate. Rodney had been more than his team’s leader. He was a friend. “We should do something,” Collins told DeLuca.

DeLuca thought for a moment. “We should have a peace rally.”

Three days later, they gathered students and parents and teachers, pastors and politicians and police officers, along with basketball coaches from across the Bay Area. Three hundred people showed up, holding candles and signs. Collins told stories of Rodney diving to the floor and popping back up before hunting another opportunity to dive for the ball. “He would just get back up, get back up,” Collins said into the microphone. “He didn’t get back up this time. But he tried.”

The night was cathartic, a time for remembering Rodney and condemning the violence endemic to Richmond’s streets. But nearly two months later, sitting in a shared office in the back corner of Richmond’s gym, Collins shrugs his duffel bag shoulders and shakes his shaved and bespectacled head. After the rally and the funeral, he and others are left with only one prevailing truth. “Sixty days ago, Rodney Frazier Jr. was murdered in his front yard.” He shrugs again, as if to ask, What else do you want me to say? That’s it. That’s the story. There’s little else anyone can add.

There is no inspirational tale of tragedy pushing a team to greatness. The Oilers were not very good before Rodney died and they’re not very good now. Nor is there some spellbinding crime mystery. The shooting was random, police have said. Perhaps the shooters mistook Rodney for someone else. Perhaps he was killed as part of a gang initiation ritual. Police have announced no suspects or leads. Neighbors and friends have heard no rumors. The only thing that’s clear is how little anyone knows.

Nor does Rodney’s death fit neatly into any narrative about Richmond. Yes, the city is overwhelmed by poverty and ridden with crime, but you can even ask Hozie Evans, Rodney’s grandfather: “It’s a whole lot better than it used to be.” In 2013, Richmond’s murder rate was the lowest it’s been in 33 years. This is a city that has drawn international media attention for a successful program that “pays criminals to behave,” a city with a white police chief who held a sign reading “Black Lives Matter” and stood with protesters angry over police violence targeting young black men. “A decade ago, this city was in crisis,” says DeVone Boggan, head of the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety. “Now it’s much, much quieter.” It’s a city that was decimated by the housing crisis but is now beginning to rebound, a city with renewed optimism and hope.

And yet here is Collins, trembling as he speaks, telling of nights he’s been unable to sleep, of afternoons when his girlfriend will catch him staring at nothing, aware he’s slipped into daydreams tinged by grief: “People ask, ‘Are you OK?’ as if they expect me to just nod and say everything’s fine,” Collins says. “No, I’m not fucking OK. How the fuck am I supposed to be OK? I loved that kid.” And there is Sahr Kelly, the Oilers’ starting shooting guard and one of Rodney’s best friends. He stopped doing his homework after Rodney died — “I just couldn’t focus,” he says — and now he’s worried about failing classes, losing his eligibility, or worse. “I gotta figure something out,” he says, “or I won’t be able to graduate.”

Then there’s Sarah Egler, a 24-year-old Teach for America participant. She can still remember her first day at Richmond High, where she arrived in 2013 as a fresh graduate of the University of Washington. “You’re not going to like it here,” a student told her, but by the end of her first day, Egler felt confident she would. A small, rope-muscled sophomore lingered after school in Egler’s room. He said little but projected a confidence that suggested he was comfortable around adults. He helped Egler clean her classroom, and when he left, she told him, “Remember to do your homework.” Rodney laughed and shot back in a mock-tough-guy tone: “I don’t do homework.”

But he did. Over the next year, he would start hanging around Egler’s classroom in the hours between class and basketball practice, finishing assignments, listening to Bobby Shmurda or Lil Boosie, and, occasionally, taking lab materials outside and blowing things up. He continued staying after school to help Egler clean up. He eased her transition from life as a college student to life as an inner-city teacher. “Rodney,” she says, “kind of started to feel like a little brother to me.”

After his death, the school brought in grief counselors. Sahr and Daronte Shaw, another of Rodney’s close friends and the starting center for the Oilers, were given time during class to sit alone in a dark room, processing their loss in silence. Egler couldn’t bring herself to talk about Rodney on the first day back, so instead she asked students to write reflections on his death. “Well all my life I lived in North Richmond,” one girl wrote, “where almost every day there would be shooting, at night. There was always someone hurt or killed because they have gotten shot.”1

Espanosa, the friend who’d held Rodney as he died, started spending his afternoons with another friend, Jose Rios, and together they worked to fix Rodney’s bike, replacing parts that had been punctured by bullets, making it whole. After a couple of weeks, they took the bike back across the street to his home, where it still sits in the garage.

Walk from the garage to the living room, and there remains a funereal shrine. A collage of photos sits against the far wall. A giant teddy bear stands upright in the back corner, watching over a signed basketball and heart-shaped balloons. A bouquet of roses, now brown and wilted, sits on the coffee table.

In the last two years, Hozie Evans has lost both his wife, to cancer, and the grandson he’d raised. He’d been a cement mason when he was younger, a member of the Local 300 union in Oakland. He’d taken in Rodney when his parents were deemed unfit to care for him, and he’d laughed as Rodney, then just a little boy, had toddled around the yard trying to push Evans’s wheelbarrow, always full of cement, as if Rodney were going to grow up to become a mason too. Sometimes, the police would roll by and make small talk. How’s your grandson? they would ask. He staying out of trouble? “He ain’t never gave me no problems,” Evans would tell them. “Best-behaved boy I could ask for.”

Now Evans sits in a chair in the corner of the room, staring out the window, where Rodney’s helmet sits perched atop the family’s fence. After losing his wife, Juanita, last summer and Rodney last fall, he is alone. Someone mentions how tough it must be. Evans just nods and keeps looking out the window. “Yeah,” he says. “I guess I’m starting to get used to them being gone.”

Rodney’s cousin, Amara James, offers a tour. In the kitchen, a strip of duct tape covers a spot on the counter. She pulls it back to show a dent, left by one of the bullets that missed her cousin. She points to bullet holes in the walls that she stuffed with tissue paper after the lead blasted through them. But James let the holes in the garage remain. “No way to fill those up,” she says.

“I miss that boy,” James says as she walks outside. A spot on her driveway has been darkened, a dull red. Just to her right are the family’s bushes. Two months since his death and Rodney’s blood still stains the leaves.

“Oh my god, I miss that boy.”

He had plans. When he got home that Friday night, Rodney was going to hang out with Espanosa and Jose. They were going to work on their bikes, put in some late-night hours to get them ready for the weekend. The next morning, a friend was going to drive them up into the mountains, where, for the first time, they would try out their dirt bikes on actual trails.

The next Monday, he would return to school and to practice. He would do his best to will his teammates’ effort to match his own, and in two weeks, he would lead them onto the court for the first game of the season, against a suburban school called Mount Diablo.

As he neared graduation, he would try to keep his grades afloat. He’d graduate and start thinking about what would come next. At a recent college fair, he had spent time with representatives from a nearby technical school. Maybe, he thought, he could gain some formal mechanic training to round out what he’d taught himself.

He would keep working on bikes and someday, when he got a driver’s license and the requisite knowledge, he’d start working on cars. He and Espanosa would open a garage somewhere close to their homes, and together, they’d spend their adult days the same way they’d spent their childhood — swapping tools and stories, figuring out engines, making things go.

He would stay in the same house that his grandfather had built decades ago  the house that Hozie Evans had always said would one day belong to Rodney. But all of that was coming later.

For now, on November 7, Rodney was just riding toward his house, turning down Market. A black car pulled up, the window rolled down, and a gun stuck out. He kept riding, then turned into his driveway. It was a few minutes before curfew. Rodney was home. 

Filed Under: california, true crime, High School Basketball, Social Issues, Richmond, Northern California, Bay Area, Rodney Frazier Jr

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn