Run And Gun

How Javaris Crittenton went from basketball phenom to standing trial on a murder charge

PROLOGUE
I stand in the center of a busy strip mall parking lot just off Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, wiping the sweat from my brow. It is unseasonably hot for February, and my pulse is racing. How do you address a gang leader?

Soon a flashy, late-model car pulls up and he gets out slowly. He can’t be more than an inch taller than me, but his presence radiates across the parking lot. He wears designer jeans and a well-fitted gray polo shirt that struggles to contain his muscular shoulders.

He recognizes me by the notebook under my arm. We slap hands, then exchange tense small talk about mutual friends.

His phone vibrates in his hand, he glances down, then back up. “I know you got a story to write,” he says in a distinct L.A. drawl. “So tell me what you want to know.”

What I want to know is why Javaris Crittenton, the former first-round pick of the Los Angeles Lakers, a quiet Bible-touting honor roll student and much-loved son of Atlanta, is now in jail facing charges of murdering a 22-year-old woman, attempting to murder two others, running huge quantities of drugs across state lines and being a member of the Mansfield Family Gangster Crips – the street gang that is the pulsating heart of this three-square-mile area.

I grew up not far from here, and in the past three weeks I had contacted old high school friends with loose connections to the Mansfield Crips to see if anyone would talk to me. Each response was similar.

“Stay away from this.”

“They know you’re asking questions.”

“Leave it alone.”

And I did, initially. I wasn’t naïve about gang culture. But then a couple days before our meeting, I got a text from T-Locc1, a Mansfield OG, who owed a friend a favor.

Now, T-Locc stands looking at me, awaiting my response, his lip partially curled. The sun fights through the lone cloud in the sky and I cup my hand over my eyes. Cars drive around us, curiously staring back as they pass. “I was hoping you could tell me something about …” — I pause, avoid his eyes and take a deep breath — “Tell me about Javaris.”

PART 1
Once upon a time there was a factory for tiny basketball players – a place on the Westside of Atlanta where boys would bring their short attention spans and passion for basketball, a haven from the harsh world around them that 7- and 8-year-olds shouldn’t yet know about. It was run by Tommy Slaughter, although his disciples called him PJ. He was brash and energetic, and would pull up to practice in a new shiny SUV with music blaring out of the windows and a smile laden with gold teeth sparkling in the sun. When practice started he would jump on the court with his mini players to demonstrate the right way to play, the PJ way.

When Sonya Dixon, Javaris’ mother, was looking for a place to drop off her rambunctious 8-year-old son, she was told about this program at the old, run-down Adamsville Recreation Center, just a 15-minute drive from their home in the Cleveland Avenue area in Southeast Atlanta. She had given birth when she was a junior in high school, and with Javaris’ father rarely around and suffering from acute liver disease, the parenting was left to her. In many ways, she and Javaris were growing up together.

In PJ, she found someone who could harness Javaris’ bursts of boyish anger. PJ saw talent and pushed him harder than any of his other players. If he asked someone to make five lay-ups in a row, Javaris would have to make every single shot without touching the rim. The discipline appealed to Javaris, and over time they established such a tight bond that PJ began referring to him as his son.

In small-time, local youth tournaments, little Javaris was making a name for himself and soon word reached Wallace Prather Jr., known to many as the godfather of Atlanta hoops. A quiet but stern man with sharp eyes and a graying goatee who oversaw the development of nearly the entire area, Prather valued mentorship and coaching for its own benefit and enlisted others with the same philosophy. He then streamlined the most talented and respectful players into one organization: The Atlanta Celtics.

With various summer teams made of players ranging in age from 9 to 18, the Celtics were the pride of the local youth sports scene and were run with the efficiency of a city-state. Practices were crisp and diligent and coaches taught life skills as much as they taught fundamentals. By the early 2000s, Prather was residing over the golden age of Atlanta basketball. Never before, or since, has there been so much talent or so much local attention paid to high school basketball in the area.

In the summer after Javaris’ eighth-grade year, Prather, who admired his young protégé’s fierce competitive streak, asked Javaris to join his top traveling team that included future NBA stars Josh Smith and Dwight Howard, in the hopes they would help mentor him. But from Javaris’ first game with the Atlanta Celtics, a marquee match-up against LeBron James’ summer team in a tournament in Houston, Javaris refused to be a sideshow.

PJ, meanwhile, had been diagnosed with colon and rectal cancer, and for weeks he had kept it secret, embarrassed by his decaying appearance. Knowing it might be the last chance he’d get to see Javaris in action, PJ traveled to Houston to see his disciple play.

Late in the game, as the story goes, LeBron James switched onto Javaris, who had just been inserted into the lineup. LeBron had been decimating the Celtics players, but Javaris demanded the ball when he saw LeBron guarding him. Javaris cleared out his teammates, faked left, and paused. LeBron, who was already touted as the greatest high school player of all time, bit on the fake. Javaris dribbled toward the hoop then as he rose up, LeBron, his 17-year-old arms ripped with muscles, came from behind intent on not just blocking the shot but exploding it off the face of the glass. At the last moment, the lanky Javaris switched hands and reversed it in off the other side of the backboard while LeBron flew by. The crowd erupted, college scouts scribbled in their notebooks, and PJ grinned, clenching his fist.

In the coming months, every high school in Atlanta with a decent program was after Javaris. He was set to enroll at Douglass High, the trendy school where many of his friends were going, until he got a call from Dwight Howard Sr., the athletic director at tiny Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. He offered Javaris a scholarship and believed he could team up with his son to form a nationally recognized program.

Under head coach Courtney Brooks, Javaris was taught the importance of details, both during games and in his everyday life. Together with PJ, who had begun to slowly recover, and Prather, Javaris was encircled by mentors and father figures who fenced off outside influences. As a result, Javaris flourished. He had a singular goal of playing in the NBA, and he absorbed everything they taught him.

He transformed from a kid with baggage into an intensely focused young man in everything he did. He was the class president in school, had a 3.5 GPA, and scored almost 1400 the first time he took the SAT. If there was Bible study, Javaris had to memorize more and know more than anyone else, even his school tie and jacket had to be pristine.

Nowhere was his drive more evident than on the court. His exploits became the stuff of legend. There was his performance in the state championship his sophomore year (and Dwight Howard’s senior year) when he single-handedly took over the game despite playing alongside the best high school player in the country. There was the time he scored 30 against O.J. Mayo in a double-overtime loss and couldn’t eat after the game.

The stories abound, but no game encapsulates Javaris more than the Wallace Prather Jr. memorial game before his senior season.

On June 17, 2005, 51-year-old Wallace Prather Jr., stepped in the shower and collapsed, dying of a heart attack. The tight-knit Atlanta basketball world was devastated and did the only thing they knew would honor the man who had done so much for the community. They organized a basketball game in nearby Suwanee with many of the nation’s best players. For most of the participants, it was a glorified all-star game, a chance to show off their dunking skills in front of a packed gym full of scouts and fans. Javaris, however, would never disrespect Prather by treating the game as a showcase. He picked up full court on defense and dove on the floor for loose balls. His passion bounced off the walls of the stuffy gym; he attacked the basket with the full force of his pain, and called out his teammates if they didn’t hustle. He was unguardable and sensational and was named the MVP of the game.

By the end of his senior year in high school, Javaris was considered one of the top players in the country, but it was inside Atlanta, within the Interstate highway, 285, that encircles the city and separates it from the suburbs, where he was most revered.

“He was the symbol for the original Atlanta area,” says Jonathan Mandeldove, his teammate with the Atlanta Celtics. “He was the backbone and the entire city was behind him.”

When it came time to choose a college, Javaris bypassed the recruiting process entirely. He never even thought of leaving his city, or his people. He enrolled at Georgia Tech, leading the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA tournament his freshman year. At 6-foot-5 and with the rare combination of power and speed, Javaris was a pro scout’s dream. He immediately applied for the NBA Draft, and true to his loyal nature, hired Wallace Prather Jr.’s son, Wallace III, as his agent.

On June 28, 2007, over 200 people, including the Chief of Atlanta Police, fought through a torrential downpour and packed into a private room at the FOX Sports Grill in downtown Atlanta to experience the moment their local hero wrapped his arms around a childhood dream.

As each pick in the draft was called, the tension inside the room increased. Greg Oden went first, then Kevin Durant to Seattle, then Al Horford to Javaris’ hometown Hawks, later Joakim Noah to the Bulls. When the Hawks, desperately in need of a point guard, were on the clock again with the 11 th pick, everyone in the room held their breath. The moment seemed too perfect.

Atlanta, however, selected Acie Law from Texas A&M.

Perhaps, in retrospect, that was it – the first twist down the spiral. But at the time, it was only a momentary lull. Eight picks later, all eyes looked up at the giant screen as David Stern stepped to the podium: With the 19th pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers select … Javaris Crittenton from Georgia Tech.

The place exploded. It was delirium – high fives, hugging, embracing. Someone screamed, “He’s going to Hollywood!”

“There was so much joy around that,” Atlanta Celtics coach Horace Neysmith said. “Everybody expected Josh, Dwight, Randolph (Morris) to be pros. Javaris, they knew he was good, but when he got there and got to that point, it was like, ‘Wow, this is really happening for the kid.’”

Twenty minutes later, Javaris, dressed in a newly tailored brown suit, walked in with his tall and beautiful high school sweetheart Mia. He hugged his mom tight, then worked his way around the room, looking each person in the eye, smiling as he shook hands, and thanking each of them for their support.

PJ stood back, allowing Javaris to soak up the moment and admiring the man he had become. When the restaurant closed, PJ walked into the stormy night struggling to fight back tears.

“To be a parent, because Javaris was like my son, to be a parent and see your son drafted, it’s like the biggest thing going. It’s a life changer,” he said.

PART 2
For a kid from Atlanta, Los Angeles had a mystique – like a newly polished Ferrari glittering under the sun. Before the season, Javaris settled into an apartment a half a mile from Venice Beach and was the guest of honor at a Hollywood nightclub welcoming him to L.A. He was new royalty in a town that worshipped the Lakers. Not even a week after his introductory party, though, he caught a glimpse of the corrosion just below the sheen.

While leaving to head home after a night out, according to Mia, Javaris was walking to his parked car — he never paid for valet, if he could avoid it — when two men approached him and snatched off the chain around his neck at gunpoint, then calmly walked back into the network of alleyways that surround Hollywood Boulevard.

Over the next few months, Javaris rarely ventured out as he put all his focus into basketball. Yet during games in the first few months of the season, he was becoming increasingly frustrated with his lack of meaningful minutes. The same quality that got him to the NBA — his relentless competitive streak — was now restricting him. In practice, Javaris would not only try to match up against the all-world Kobe Bryant but he would also try to take some of his minutes.

“The best player on the planet is Kobe, and (still Javaris) thought he should be playing,” PJ said.

Javaris was drafted as a long-term project, a prototypical Phil Jackson point guard, tall, intelligent and defensive-minded who could contribute down the road.

“He’s got to be patient and he’s not a patient young man,” Jackson told the Los Angeles Times in January 2008.

By the time Javaris turned 20, on New Year’s Eve 2007, he had only appeared in 12 games. Despite his frustrations over the last few weeks, he had rebuilt his community in L.A. and slowly had begun to settle in. Mia had moved in, two of his cousins, Scooter and Woody, came to stay for long stretches, while teammate Kwame Brown, who grew up not far from Atlanta, lived across the street. Together in one tiny corner of L.A., they reconstructed Georgia.

To celebrate his 20 th , Javaris and Mia went to a nearby bowling alley, as the clock neared midnight. It was quiet and simple, and for a moment he could look back and see just how far he’d come.

“It was beautiful,” Mia remembers. “He was happy, and things were beginning to work out.”

In the next game, Javaris led the Lakers with 19 points, his career high. But less than a month later, the Lakers decided to strengthen their frontcourt and so shipped Javaris, along with Brown, to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol. Javaris was surprised by the news, but he immediately packed up his belongings and left his apartment. As he got on the plane to Memphis, he handed Mia a Bible and a hand-written note that read: You can’t make plans, only God can.

PART 3
“You see all this,” T Locc says, waving his open hand out in front of him as cars pull in and out of the parking lot around us. “From Olympic to Pico to Venice on down. That’s all Mansfield.” His gruff voice fills with pride.

The rigid boundary of the Mansfield Crips sits along the Pico corridor where the conflux of Korea Town, South Central, Hollywood, and the outer reaches of Beverly Hills flow together into a basin that’s colloquially called the Deep West Side. It’s a neighborhood that both geographically and historically connects the various subcultures of the city. Everything you need to understand L.A. is written into these streets. It’s where the utopia and the dystopia collide.

The Mansfields, whose neighborhood was in the crosshairs of the burgeoning drug trade in the 1980s, made millions from drug sales2 while brutally protecting their prime West L.A. real estate.

“The police feared us so much, because we were ruthless,” says T Locc, recounting the days of gang warfare with a tinge of nostalgia. “Everything was done with precision and done right and thought about.

“We’re the smartest gang around.”

The Mansfield Crips are an anomaly for an L.A. street gang. Members, who are borne from this middle-class neighborhood, are well educated and crisply dressed. Comedian Alex Thomas, who grew up near Pico, calls them “gangsters with two parents.”

As a result of their upbringing, members can often blend into any situation. So when a record label opened a residence to house visiting East Coast artists some 25 years ago within the Mansfield territory, members were easily able to mingle and befriend some of the early luminaries of the rap world.

As hip hop and R&B erupted into the mainstream in the mid-‘90s, Atlanta became a hub, and many of the Mansfields followed their famous friends to help with security detail or in the studio. Some even stayed in Atlanta but still raised their kids loyal to the streets of West L.A.

In the summer of 2008, after Javaris finished his rookie season in Memphis, he returned to Los Angeles for a few weeks to work out and see Mia. One evening while he was out at a club, according to sources, he was introduced through an Atlanta connection to an Atlanta-raised rapper, whose mother had grown up along Pico Boulevard. The rapper went by the moniker “Dolla.” A magnetic personality, with striking amber eyes and “Mansfield” tattooed on the inside of his right index and middle finger, he was already recognizable for his modeling work with Sean John and his top 100 single with T-Pain that was playing nationwide.

Javaris, who rarely went out or drank alcohol at the time, was drawn to Dolla and others in this tight-knit group, including Asfaw Abebe, or “K-Swiss,” whose brother lived in Atlanta. The group were mostly L.A. kids in their early to mid-20s, who had gone to decent schools like Fairfax High School or Los Angeles High School, or, like Dolla and his brother, were new transplants from Atlanta. The connection was immediate.

“Javaris saw the glamour,” T Locc says. “The way we move, people are attracted to that. That’s the powerful part. We got a lot of people associated with us and they got genuine love for us, and not on some bully, gangsta sh*t. Legitimate, like a family.”

PART 4
In March, a short drive from the Atlanta airport, where the city begins to peeter out into the wooded countryside, I meet PJ at a Red Lobster restaurant, just off the I-285.

He greets me with a soothing smile and firm handshake. After recently completing his third round of chemotherapy in the last 10 years – this time for 14 months, including four straight months in the hospital – his eyes look worn and battered. But his long, thick dreadlocks have grown back, and his magnetism, which all great coaches have, still lingers.

He reclines slightly along the booth, and I can sense his mind racing, flashing back to the days when he once stormed up and down the sideline coaching future NBA players like Dwight Howard, Toney Douglas and Josh Smith.

“Javaris. Man he was different,” PJ says. “He was special, he has a good heart.”

When Javaris was 14 he invited PJ to watch him play, but when PJ arrived, Javaris was clowning around. A strict disciplinarian, PJ was furious.

“Javaris felt so bad, he wrote me a 13-page hand written letter the next day,” he recounts, the edges of his lips curling upward and the gold teeth sparkling under the soft yellow lighting. “He told me he was sorry, and he loves me, and he promises to make me proud and he said he’ll never let me down again.”

He tells me more stories of Javaris’ youth exploits, then, as he takes another bite of the steak in front of him, his tone changes. “You try to think about what went wrong,” he says. “Once he got in the league, maybe he started second-guessing things?”

When Javaris returned to the Grizzlies for his second season, they didn’t have a place for him, so he was shipped off to Washington for a draft pick early in the season. He played sparingly until the last month of the season when he finally got a chance. And he capitalized, averaging 10 points and shooting over 50 percent from the floor.

PJ, in the midst of his second battle with colon and rectal cancer at the time, was struggling to reconcile his own frailty and possible death and pulled away.

“For a while, I let him go,” PJ says. “I wanted him to find himself and I needed to do the same thing.”

But things took another bad turn. When Javaris’ third season began, he ruptured ligaments in his left ankle and was sidelined indefinitely. He withdrew inward and soon began peeling off the layers of his youth. He fired his agent, Wallace III, and broke up with Mia. But he still needed his mentor, and his mentor needed him.

For Javaris’ 22 nd birthday, PJ traveled to DC to see his “son.”

“We hung out and had a good time that night,” PJ says. “The next morning I wake up and turn on the TV and I said, ‘What the hell?’”

Thirteen days earlier, Javaris and Wizards teammate Gilbert Arenas got into a heated argument over a card game. It was widely reported that Arenas, known for his macabre sense of humor, placed three guns in front of Javaris’ locker two days later next to a sign that read “PICK ONE.” Javaris, who had been carrying a gun ever since he was robbed in L.A., was wary of Arenas and brought his own black-and-silver pistol to the gym. They were both summoned to the general manager’s office, reprimanded, and all involved assumed the entire episode was being handled in-house and had blown over … until the details were plastered all over sports channels on New Year’s Day.

The NBA cracked down hard, suspending both Javaris and Arenas for the remainder of the season, and Javaris was also charged with a misdemeanor possession of a firearm. (Arenas was charged with a felony.)

Javaris, who Mia says “really felt bad” about the incident, returned to Atlanta but could feel the disappointment from the people closest to him. Embarrassed, he then gravitated back toward the anonymity of L.A.

A year earlier, Dolla had been killed,3 and the Mansfields had been in a state of mourning since. Dolla’s group of friends bonded tighter, and when Javaris was in L.A., he spent more time with K-Swiss and his best friend, “Lil Swiss,” or “Flaco,” a Latino small-time weed dealer.

Javaris would stop by K-Swiss’ place often, where they would watch TV, or they would go out to clubs and talk to girls. The Mansfields helped insulate Javaris, they didn’t judge him or feel disappointed by his suspension. To Javaris they were just his friends, he didn’t think of them as “gang members.” He began to feel a part of the Mansfield family and soon got a tattoo of a hand twisted into a “C” for Crip on his abdomen.

“He had a fence around him in Atlanta,” says Mia. “When he came to a different city it was harder. (In L.A.) he thought he was building a white picket fence, but he was building a black barbed wire one.”

On July 21, 2010, Javaris got his first taste of the gang lifestyle. Seven months after his suspension, two LAPD detectives appeared at Javaris’ front door and held their badges up to the peephole. They were let in and then quickly began interrogating Javaris about his relationship with K-Swiss and Flaco, and his possible involvement in a double homicide.

A surprised Javaris mumbled through his answers, downplaying his friendship, and claiming he had no connection to a murder. Two and half months earlier, according to authorities, K-Swiss and Flaco parked their rented Jeep on Corning Avenue, just west of La Cienega Boulevard. They reclined their seats all the way back and waited for a member of the Playboy Gangster Crips,4 who had shot K-Swiss in the torso during an argument three weeks earlier.

When the target and his wife got into their car that morning, Flaco allegedly jumped out of the Jeep, raised his gun and fired into the car, missing his target but hitting his target’s wife, killing her and her unborn baby.

Once back in safe territory, Flaco and K-Swiss allegedly stashed the gun and kept it quiet.

When Javaris came by the following day, Flaco asked him if he could buy him a ticket to Atlanta. It was urgent, Flaco said, “family matters,” and he didn’t have a credit card. Javaris was frugal and refused, telling Flaco to ask someone else. Eventually Javaris relented and bought Flaco a one-way ticket to Atlanta on his American Express card. The day before Flaco left town, he handed Javaris the cash.

A few days later, K-Swiss was arrested, but Flaco remained on the lam. By tracking Javaris’ credit card receipts, authorities eventually arrived at his front door.

Javaris, still reeling from the embarrassment of his NBA suspension, didn’t tell PJ, or any of his close confidants from Atlanta about the police investigation. Instead, he sought advice from his new family.

“He was scared to death about the whole incident,” T Locc said. “I told him, ‘Talk to the police, just tell them what your involvement was.’ He didn’t have no involvement in it, but police kept sweating him to see if he knew anything.”

With his close friends in jail, police questioning him about his role in a double murder, and a war about to kick off between the Mansfields and the Playboys, Javaris decided he needed to get out of L.A. Without a contract, he had a brief tryout with the Bobcats but wasn’t offered a spot on their roster. With no NBA teams calling, Javaris got on a plane with his cousin Scooter and went just about as far as he possibly could.

They landed in Hangzhou, China, a city of eight million, two hours southwest of Shanghai. Javaris’ ankle had fully recovered and through five games, he dominated the league. But China wasn’t just 12,000 miles from home, it was also on the other side of the world from his NBA dream. He terminated his six-figure contract and headed to the D-League for a fraction of that. He had to be close when the NBA called.

In January 2011, Javaris arrived in Bismarck, N.D., to play for the Dakota Wizards, the D-League affiliate of the NBA’s Wizards and Grizzlies. His cousin, meanwhile, returned to Atlanta. Without a girlfriend around, and without his mentors or his friends, Javaris was alone for essentially the first time, looking out across the snowy prairie at all the directions his life could go, at all the possibilities.

He was only 23 years old, but after struggling with consistency through four professional seasons and owning the fourth-longest suspension in NBA history, Javaris had to know that this was maybe his final chance.

Despite having a far superior basketball pedigree to anyone on his team, Javaris didn’t play up to expectations. When the final game of the season ended, in which he’d scored just nine points with five turnovers, he was as far from the NBA as he’d been.

Less than a week later, Los Angeles District Attorneys summoned him as a witness to testify against his friends, K-Swiss and Flaco, in a preliminary hearing to confirm Javaris did in fact buy the plane ticket. Javaris, facing his shackled friends, answered questions meekly, his voice rarely climbing above a whisper.

When he got out of the courtroom, he stood for a moment as the sun beat down on him. Everything was going wrong. He needed to go home, back to Atlanta, to the comfort of the city that loved him.

PART 5
On a cool, damp Georgia evening on April 21, 2011, after Javaris had returned from L.A., he picked up his cousin Scooter and drove toward the barber shop in their old neighborhood on Cleveland Avenue.

After they got their hair cut, the pair stayed inside for hours talking. When it was nearly 11 p.m. they noticed another man, known as “Big Boo,” the leader of the Raised on Cleveland street gang, or ROC, had left the barbershop just before them.

As the cousins walked outside toward Javaris’ black Porsche, two men emerged from the dark shadows and rushed towards them. One looked Javaris in the eye and raised his gun. Javaris never told police the alleged perpetrator’s name, but it is widely reported that he thought it was “Lil Tic,” or Trontavious Stephens, who was just 17 at the time. (Stephens has denied his involvement.) Along with his two brothers, Lil Tic had been for years a menacing figure in the neighborhood where Javaris grew up as a member of the ROC.

Javaris bit his lip and handed over a reported $55,000 worth of jewelry. He thought he’d been set up. When police arrived, they asked Javaris to identify the thieves, but he was livid and refused. His car had been stolen just two weeks earlier in the Cleveland Avenue area, and he felt he was being targeted. He ignored the line-up photos and reportedly told police: “I’ll handle it.”

But Javaris’ temper cooled, and over the next few weeks he stayed away from the area. He spent much of his free time with his mom and his two young sisters. They attended church weekly and he sought to rebuild his reputation. He even attempted to reconcile with his father. “He’s a family type of guy,” PJ said. “When he was back he was real focused, trying to get back on track.”

Javaris, however, was going broke. He was paying two mortgages, various lawyer fees, and had no income coming in. He asked PJ, who is well respected in the community, to call Big Boo to negotiate the return of his jewelry.

The Atlanta Police Department however, was investigating witness tampering during the murder trial of a bartender in Grant Park, and had begun tapping calls between Big Boo and his close associates, according to a source. When PJ called, in conversations overheard by police, Big Boo refused to hand over the merchandise. Soon, pictures of Javaris’ jewelry were being sent between ROC members, then spider-webbing out across the digital landscape, mocking Javaris. He seethed. How could this happen here? In Atlanta. In my city.

Javaris was working out obsessively, furiously blowing on the dying embers of his NBA career. He called his college coach for practice tips and hired a new trainer, while shooting thousands of shots a day. In July, three months after the initial barbershop robbery, after leaving a nightclub, Javaris and Scooter allege they were robbed yet again, at gunpoint, and sought to have the jewelry replaced by insurance. Authorities, however, according to a source, were skeptical, and when Javaris contacted his appraiser, he was told his insurance had just expired.

Javaris was now spiraling into a free-fall.

On Aug. 14, 911 operators got a frantic call from an anonymous tipster that “Crittenton, the basketball player,” had shot and missed Lil Tic’s brother, (who bares a resemblance to Lil Tic) from a black Porsche, just a few doors from where Javaris had spent most of his childhood.

As police were beginning to collect evidence, there was another tragic shooting in the same neighborhood later in the week.

On Friday, Aug. 19, what is known is this: Javaris and his cousin Scooter rented a Black Chevy Tahoe Hybrid SUV in Fayetteville for Scooter’s birthday. Scooter, who didn’t have a credit card, reserved the car using Javaris’ card. Later that day, Javaris headed to Buckhead in North Atlanta, to watch some of the King of Hoops tournament he’d be playing in later that weekend.

Fifteen miles south, meanwhile, Julian Jones, or “Pee-Pie” as her family affectionately called her, was giddy with excitement. At 22, she already had four children between the ages of seven years and 10 months, and this was the one night a month her two aunts would watch all her kids.

At 9:30 p.m., she sat outside with Lil Tic on Macon Drive waiting for friends before heading to a barbeque. Outwardly Lil Tic tried to maintain a hardened exterior, but around Pee-Pie he was a doting play brother. He adored her. Tall and slender with a permanent smile, Pee-Pie was often seen skipping and singing along the sidewalks. She was the light of the neighborhood.

A quarter mile away, a black SUV with dark tinted windows quietly crept up Macon Drive. At the apex of the hill, according to court documents, as Pee-Pie handed Lil Tic a lighter for his cigarette, the back window of the SUV rolled down, and a high-powered rifle thrust out into the clear night. Four sharp blasts ripped through the air, echoing down the hill. Lil Tic hit the ground. Someone shrieked. Neighbors scattered. The SUV peeled off, then came back to check who was hit, then sped back down the hill.

On the ground lay Pee-Pie, in a circle of her own blood. Two bullets had shredded through her thigh, across her pelvis, exploding the femoral artery.

Fifteen minutes later, sirens came screaming up the street. Inside the ambulance, Pee-Pie started complaining of surging pain in her chest. Her breathing became labored. She vomited violently, then again. At the hospital, nurses and doctors rushed into action, performing emergency surgery, tying the artery, squeezing it shut, and pumping her with blood. She passed out. They pumped her with more blood. Doctors looked over at her monitor – the pulses were slowing down. A lifetime was floating away.

At 11:34, just over two hours after Pee-Pie had been shot, a doctor walked into the waiting room, stood in front of her aunt, June Woods – who had cradled Pee-Pie from birth — and broke the news.

June’s voice shuddered. “My baby,” June whispered. “My baby.”

The next day was Saturday. Javaris woke up around 6:30 a.m. and drove to Buckhead for the 9 a.m. pro-am game for the King of Hoops tournament. It was the first time he’d played in a meaningful game in Atlanta in a long while, and he was eager to play his best.

“He wanted to get back in shape, reclaim his name,” said Mandeldove, his former Atlanta Celtics teammate and teammate that game. “He looked really good, he looked like the old Javaris I know.”

Javaris’ team advanced to the next round, but Javaris unexpectedly didn’t show up for that game, or the championship game the next day.

On Monday, Scooter returned the rental car and asked to remove Javaris’ name and credit card info from the rental contract, then paid with a money order from Flash Foods. That night, police arrived in Fayetteville at Javaris’ front door with a search warrant. They canvased the house and found an AK-47, a black-and-silver pistol and a shotgun, but no high-powered rifle, and as police reported, “nothing of evidential value.” They searched the ponds, the surrounding forests, still nothing.

Meanwhile rumors began circulating around Cleveland Avenue about Javaris’ involvement in the murder. Soon his Twitter feed was filled with threats and subtweets and he dashed back to L.A. Detectives, meanwhile, found the black SUV rental car and began tearing it apart, peeling every inch for evidence of fingerprints and gun residue.

When Javaris arrived in L.A., he seemed upbeat. He saw the movie “The Help,” ate at the trendy Berri’s Café on Third, worked out, and tweeted how happy he was to be back in L.A. He didn’t tell anyone about the police investigation, but he could hear the footsteps. He messaged a friend playing overseas and asked if he could send an immediate transfer of money. It never came. By Friday, a week after the shooting, his name was all over the radio and TV. Police had found gun residue on the backseat of the rental SUV and issued an arrest warrant for Javaris and Scooter.

Javaris’ supporters in Atlanta came out in huge numbers. At his bond hearing, his lawyer brought a petition signed by 1,000 people asking the judge to grant bond and several character witnesses, including his college coach Paul Hewitt, his middle school teacher and his ex-girlfriend Mia. All testified to how exceptional he was.

There were also missing pieces of evidence. No gun was found, and no witness could identify Scooter, the supposed driver. It was only Javaris, the alleged triggerman, who would have been firing at the witnesses, and who was already well known in Atlanta and to the residents of Cleveland Avenue.

Javaris was granted bond for an astonishingly low figure of $230,000, almost unprecedented for a murder case in Georgia. He walked out of Fulton County Jail less than a month after being arrested.

He headed to L.A. hopeful that the charges against him were falling apart, but his destruction was already coded into the spiral.

He became involved in a custody battle over a newborn son and needed money for a family lawyer. Through connections in Atlanta, according to a source there, he was put in touch with a man who, through two high-level suppliers, was shipping massive amounts of drugs around the country. This man set up Javaris as a runner, and linked him up with an accomplice who ran a car shipping business. Javaris, who was flying back and forth from Atlanta to L.A. and Washington would have his car shipped full of weed, then when he landed, he would pick up the car and hand its contents to the proper distributors. Unbeknownst to Javaris, federal agents had been tapping the man’s phone for months.

On Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, at 6 a.m., DEA agents, Federal Marshals, and local police descended on Javaris Crittenton’s home in Fayetteville. Guns were raised, and there was loud banging at his door to wake him up. The boy who once had the world at his feet was then handcuffed, paraded outside, and led to a waiting police cruiser.

EPILOGUE
Draw a line roughly equidistant from Cleveland Avenue to Adamsville to Fulton County Jail and you’ll find once promising lives strewn across the Atlanta landscape.

It’s February, and I’m sitting in June’s living room. Her niece’s presence is everywhere, framed pictures of Pee-Pie above the TV and across the house. June recently had open-heart surgery and a jagged scar runs down her chest. Her face lights up when she recalls her niece dancing to her favorite song, or the outpouring of emotion from the neighborhood when she was killed – around 400 people attended her funeral. Soon Julian’s oldest son, now 10, pokes his head around the corner.

“What do you remember about your momma?” June asks him. His features are strikingly similar to the pictures of his mom – a long face, with a large glowing smile. He looks over at me, holds his gaze a few seconds. We lock eyes, then he darts back into his room.

At Fulton County Jail, Javaris talks to his visitors through closed-circuit TV. His mom, Sonya Dixon, comes by often, and many continue to defend him. They point to the lack of direct evidence, but mostly they hold on to the memory of the kid they once loved. Javaris counts the days until the murder trial, currently scheduled for September, where he’ll be prosecuted by an old familiar face who once watched him win a Georgia state title – the Fulton County District Attorney, Paul Howard, Dwight’s uncle.

Across town, PJ and I finish our desserts at Red Lobster and get into my car and drive back toward his home in Adamsville. He excitedly points out where the old rec center once stood, the place where he first met Javaris and poured his soul into teaching basketball. The nostalgia seems to change him.

He looks out of the window, and lets the pain fill the chasm between what could have been and what is.

“I’m more hurt than anyone can imagine and feel,” PJ says. He no longer coaches basketball, the seemingly never-ending bout with cancer has sapped his energy. He’s trying to recover and clings onto hope that Javaris will be exonerated.

“The only thing I can do is believe in him,” he says.

We pull through a gate and I stop in front of his place. He opens his door, then turns back to me and shakes my hand. “You know,” he says, “sometimes I just wish he could go to sleep and it was all just a dream.”

FOOTNOTES

1 Name has been changed

2 T-Locc: “You take a whole kilo and chop it up into rocks and sell it on the block, and make 2K off of each ounce and there were 36 ounces in each one. That was serious money, and you selling that in a day.”

3 On May 18, 2009, an unarmed Dolla was shot in the back and shoulder in broad daylight in the ritzy Beverly Center parking lot in LA by a man he’d had a scuffle with a few days earlier in Atlanta. The perpetrator was found not guilty by reason of self-defense.

4 It’s sometimes mistakenly assumed there is one large scale war between Crips (blue) and Bloods (red), but often the most violent rivalries are between various subsets or “cards,” within the same overarching alliance to Crip or Blood. The Playboys and Mansfields, are both West L.A. gangs from the same Crip subset: “Trays” (others include “Neighborhood Crip,” “Deuces,” “Blocc Crips”) and have lived in harmony for years. K-Swiss and Flaco likely knew their intended target well.

FLINDER BOYD is a former European professional basketball player turned writer. His features have appeared at Newsweek, SBNation Longform, and on the BBC among others. He grew up in Los Angeles, before attending Dartmouth College and later Queen Mary, University of London. On Twitter he can be found @FlinderBoyd.