Senseless killing of Philadelphia’s Devin Bullock won’t overshadow his inspirational life

Devin Bullock was an inspirational leader to teammates and fellow students.

Philadelphia-area high school basketball standout Devin Bullock was in love with Michelle, and he didn’t care who knew or what they thought of it.

A popular kid who thrived personally, academically and athletically despite a turbulent upbringing, Bullock could always rely on Michelle to soothe him — to keep him level-headed and focused — when he felt the rest of the world had turned its back.

Michelle comforted Bullock when his parents separated while he was in elementary school, and she was there to make him smile and keep him focused as he moved from school to school and living arrangement to living arrangement as a teenager.

Michelle was there when Bullock, the diminutive star guard at New Media Technology Charter School, made a game-winning free throw during the school’s February victory in the Philadelphia Public League Class A semifinals, as she was every day as he roamed the halls at school, where others looked to Bullock for guidance, inspiration or a warm smile.

Bullock was planning on bringing Michelle with him to college in the fall — whether at Community College of Philadelphia, Valley Forge Military Academy or one of the other schools that felt he’d make a great addition to their basketball teams. And Bullock, who at 5-foot-7 played more like 6-foot-3, hoped to one day take her along for the ride in the NBA, where he dreamed of competing with his idol, LeBron James.

And so it was appropriate, if tragic, that Michelle never left Bullock’s bedside at Hahnemann University Hospital, where the 19-year-old clung to life for nearly two weeks after being shot in broad daylight on April 23 near 25th Street and Thompson Avenue, a quarter-mile from his father’s house in North Philly.

We laugh because he called his basketball Michelle, but in reality, that was the only thing he needed.

New Media HS assistant coach Anthony Richardson

A good kid who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, Bullock wasn’t the target of the gunfire that sprayed out the window of a black Toyota that day, but it pierced him nonetheless, and Michelle was there waiting after doctors amputated Bullock’s leg in an effort to keep him alive.

Unfortunately, Bullock’s injuries were too severe to overcome, and he died in the early hours of May 5. And though Bullock was in a coma and unable to speak during the 12 days before his passing, his love for Michelle never waned — of that, everyone is certain.

“He worked on his craft all day and all night,” said Anthony Richardson, Bullock’s mentor and an assistant coach at New Media. “Michelle was his girlfriend, Michelle got him through a lot of things and Michelle taught him a lot about life. We laugh because he called his basketball Michelle, but in reality, that was the only thing he needed.”

HARD TIMES LEAD TO LIFE LESSONS

The stories of Bullock’s independence were greatly overstated — unfounded rumors that he had no one and was forced to fend for himself in the world, working 40 hours a week to be able to rent an apartment so he had a place to live.

And though those depictions — many of which originated with Bullock himself — were certainly exaggerated, it’s fair to say that Bullock didn’t have it easy growing up, and the challenges only got tougher as he started becoming a man.

They started after his parents split up, and Bullock began living with his mother, Gail, and eventually, her new husband. That sense of abandonment Bullock’s father, Greg, felt in the wake of that separation strained the pair’s relationship, and as a result, the two grew further apart.

“My dad, when (Devin was growing up), looked at him and saw himself, and of course they bumped heads,” Bullock’s sister, Crystal Evans, said of the contentious relationship between father and son. “But when it was all said and done, when my dad couldn’t communicate with him, he would call me and I’d relay it, and after a while they got along and learned how to communicate with each other and stay out of each other’s way. My brother’s whole thing was that he wanted to be better than his dad, and his dad wanted him to be better than him.”

Eventually, Bullock had a falling out with his stepfather, as well, which, according to Evans, led the stepfather to clean out Bullock’s belongings and leave them on the curb at his father’s house. It was a harsh reality check for a boy who, at that time, was a sophomore in high school, and the betrayal his father once felt was suddenly hitting home.

Devin looked dapper at his mom’s wedding.

“Devin was hurt, and he was heartbroken because he saw my mom being hurt,” Evans said. “He thought, ‘She’s my flesh and blood, why would she be like this?’ and I had to explain to him, because I went through it, to just toughen up. Sometimes you’ve got to numb yourself and toughen up and focus — focus on what you want and go for it and don’t let anybody stop you.”

As things calmed down, Bullock took refuge at the home of Richardson, a local youth league coach with whom Bullock had at least a workable rapport. Bullock lived with Richardson during his junior year — his first as a student at New Media — but after Richardson’s own son graduated from the school, Bullock decided it was best that he give Richardson his space and work on mending his relationship with his own father.

So before his senior year, Bullock moved in with his dad at his house on North 26th Street, in the city’s Brewerytown neighborhood. Bullock worked 20 to 25 hours a week at Foot Locker at a job Richardson arranged for him and paid his dad $25 a week for a room — ”rent” that was more a tough-love lesson in responsibility than an exchange for services rendered. And as the school year passed, the two grew closer, finding a harmony that had been missing for years.

“It was home,” said Evans, who until recently also lived in the house with Bullock and his father. “Like any typical family, you go through stuff, you bump heads, but he had his father and he got the chance to be with him. He’d just started driving, just got his license, so my dad would let him drive the car. They were bonding man to man, son to father.”

In fact, the day Bullock was shot, he spent the afternoon watching a movie with his dad — a rerun of the ‘80s remake of “The Blob.” After the movie, Bullock left his father’s house to get a haircut. He returned, only to leave again with a friend. A short time later, he was shot down on the side of the road, within shouting distance of his front door.

TRAGIC SPORTS DEATHS

By the time Bullock died, police had already arrested 20-year-old James Cole in connection with the shooting of Bullock and his two friends. A disagreement over a girl was reportedly the motivation behind the attack. An arrest didn’t bring full closure to the grieving family, but it was a start.

“I’m at peace with the whole situation because I know that my brother — I truly believe in things not being coincidence, and I truly believe that the great people have their time and they go,” Evans said. “They get snatched away, and it’s sudden, and a lot of people don’t know how to deal with death … but I try not to let it spook me out.

“I understand the mentality of the young men and young women. It’s not senseless; it all makes sense. It’s just a matter of whether we want to acknowledge how we make sense of it. We all get angry, we all get mad … and they did what they did, and they’re getting what they’re getting.”

A SCHOOL’S SORROW

The news of Bullock’s death hit the campus of New Media hard, as any student death does.

Devin Bullock was on track to graduate this year.

Though Bullock had attended the school for only two years after beginning his prep career at Frankford High School in the northeast corner of the city, he was planning on graduating later this year, and his impact on the student body and the faculty was immeasurable, according to those who knew him best.

“The way that our school functions, we had a really great basketball team this year; our basketball team was really phenomenal,” New Media athletic director Vernon Davis said. “But it wasn’t just that — they were really like the leaders of the school. Kids would talk to me and say, ‘Mr. Davis, we’re not going to be able to get things done if the basketball team is not on board.’ That included the prom, dances, anything like that.

“They would say to us, ‘Listen, if we don’t have the basketball team on board, no one else is going to be on board. If the basketball team doesn’t want to do it, we don’t want to do it.’ So a lot of people followed the basketball team, and every single person on the basketball team followed Devin.”

It was with that in mind that New Media CEO Reuben Mills asked Bullock’s teammates to take the stage with him each time he addressed the school with an update on Devin’s condition, including the news of his passing.

“They were constantly with Devin, by his side through the last two years, and I believe that’s how Devin would have wanted it,” Mills said. “I think for me it was a show of solidarity because of his relationship with the team, and I wanted the team to be standing with me as I delivered the message to the students because the rest of the student population would be looking to the basketball team for resilience and courage and leadership.”

Like Davis, Mills had known Bullock only since the beginning of the school year, but in that time, the pair grew close, with a bond that extended far beyond a typical teacher-student accord.

“When I got the news (that Bullock had been shot) that Wednesday evening, I was driving on Route 1, and the only thing that I could do was pull over,” Mills said. “And I cried and I cried and I cried. … He was just a vivacious, gregarious, fun-loving person that had all of these special characteristics that just stood out beyond the regular student body.”

Devin (center) loved his teammates and they loved him in return.

In fact, Mills was so immediately impressed with Bullock’s influence on campus upon meeting him last year that he purchased a long-sleeved, white dress shirt and a tie for Bullock and named him principal for the day when the school’s actual principal was on the mend after surgery in the fall.

“It was a role that he took with pride, a role that he took with courage,” Mills said. “He was able to move students through the hallways just like the principal would have done, made announcements on the PA system, worked the lunchroom and the cafeteria, moving students from class to the cafeteria and the cafeteria back to class. That’s a day that I remember most about Devin, that he was principal for the day, he took that with pride and people took his leadership seriously, as though he was the leader of the building.”

Davis said he saw the same kind of passion in Bullock, whom he praised effusively for his desire to succeed.

“The people that we are and the people that we become are always a reflection of our experience, and I think that still holds true with Devin,” Davis said. “The experiences that Devin has had in life in his past, and even his current situation outside of school, I know played into the person that he was, and I also know that it was reflective of his own internal battle to be great.

“When you have a person that’s always seeking to be great at everything that they do, that speaks to your natural character. So I believe that his character was shaped with all of those different experiences and people who have been in his life or not been in his life, for him to really become the person that he was.”

And nowhere was Bullock more himself — and more of a leader — than on the basketball court. New Media coach Mike Greene met Bullock through Richardson two years ago, and the two became fast friends and confidants.

“His personality was infectious,” Greene told me. “You’re from Florida, so think of it this way: He had a smile from Orlando to Tallahassee. That’s how big his smile was. That’s how infectious his personality was. And he fit in right away.

“A lot of times when new kids come in, there’s some dissension, but one of the things we always teach our kids is that once you become a teammate, you’re a teammate for life. Understand that whatever you’ve got going on outside, we’re on the same team and we’re going to fight the same fight. And he was phenomenal.”

When you have a person that’s always seeking to be great at everything that they do, that speaks to your natural character.

Athletic Director Vernon Davis

After he was an all-conference honorable mention selection as a junior, Bullock dedicated himself to improving even further during his senior season and asked Greene to stay late during the summer to help him work out.

“I’d have to kick Devin out of the gym,” Greene recalled with a laugh. “It would be like, ‘Dev, I’m trying to go home, man,’ but he’d just say, ‘Coach, let me get a few extra jumpers.’ That was the type of guy he was.”

Though the extra work wasn’t exactly work for Bullock — he wanted nothing more than to be with Michelle — it still paid off this season, when Bullock averaged 17 points per game. And though Bullock was undersized, to say the least, he played with a tenacity that allowed him to compete with players who were bigger, stronger and better.

“I remember one time there was this guy who was 6-3, 6-4, and one of our big men was struggling to play him, and Devin came to me and said, ‘Coach, let me get him,’” Greene said. “I told him, ‘Devin, he’s got you by seven inches,’ but his response was, ‘Coach. Let. Me. Play. And if he scores, then put someone else on him.’

“So he went in and out-thought this guy; he out-thought him as a basketball player. He understood how to play the game, he was always a team player, and he played much bigger than what his size was, and that’s because his heart was the size of Philadelphia.”

It was thanks in large part to Bullock’s play that Greene’s Jaguars team finished the year 17-6.

Devin Bullock (left) leads the victory celebration with his New Media teammates.

“On the court, he was fearless,” Richardson said. “He loved a challenge, and always wanted to stick the best player on the other team. He loved to take the last-minute shot if we were down. If we were pressing and I told him, ‘Dev, we need to get the ball back,’ he would get the ball back. He would do whatever it takes to win.”

Greene said he has already decided to retire Bullock’s No. 12 at the school, and is in the process of creating a Devin Bullock Courage Award to be handed out to a Philadelphia prep player in Bullock’s honor each season. It’s the least Greene could do, he said, to honor a player who loved the sport more than most could even fathom.

“When he was with basketball, it kept him from being in the streets and trying to be around the wrong people, and that was his joy that kept him going every day,” Greene said. “Not once ever did he ever complain about what his situation is like. He was always looking for the brightest part, and the future, and that was his refuge.

“A lot of times, people turn to the wrong type of people. They’ll turn to thugs or they’ll turn to drug dealers or they’ll turn to people who are doing stuff they don’t have any business doing. What kept him moving and motivated was basketball, so as much as basketball needed him, he needed basketball.”

So enamored was Bullock of basketball — of Michelle — that the thought of a life without it was not one he or his family was ever really ready to consider.

“He handled everything with the ball,” Evans said. “If he was mad, he got the ball. If he was sad, he got the ball. … When he was in the hospital and he had to get his leg amputated, I knew it was over. He was fighting, but once they took his leg, I knew. He wasn’t coming back like that; basketball was his love, and if he couldn’t have that, he didn’t want anything.”

TWO MICHELLES

This Friday, Bullock’s family will hold the first of two services in Philadelphia to honor Bullock’s life, with another to come Saturday. And though the relationships among the various branches of Bullock’s family tree were not always picturesque, there was no questioning that Bullock was loved.

“They make this story sound like, ‘Hey, this kid’s been on his own, and he didn’t have any family,’” Richardson said. “He had a village. A village. And it was kind of disappointing to me because his mother, Gail, is precious, his father, Greg, is really precious. They always wanted the best for Devin.”

There’s no one for whom that statement rings truer than his sister, Evans, and next month, she will be heading to the White House for a National Small Business Association briefing. There, Evans says she hopes to get her brother’s basketball signed by the first lady — one Michelle leaving a lasting mark on another — while also sharing Devin’s story with anyone willing to listen.

“I feel like he was on this Earth for his time and for his purpose, and there’s a lot of light in it, and (his story) can give people a lot of hope,” Evans said.

He was a kid who was doing it on his own — with support, but pretty much on his own, working, going to school, being an athlete.

Vernon Davis

The goal, she added, is to move toward curbing the type of gun violence that claimed her little brother. It may not have been enough to save Bullock’s life, but if nothing else, the people who loved him want to make sure his death wasn’t in vain.

“As bad as this may seem, the end has to justify the means,” Greene said. “He’s pulled the community together — it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Hispanic, coaches, teachers — and made them look at this from a different perspective, trying to get a handle on this violence. … There’s two ways you can go at a fork in the road. You can either go south and pout and do things that you have no business doing, or you can go north and take the route to the highest level, and that’s what he did.”

“I want them to believe in their dreams,” Evans added. “Sometimes we want to point the finger at people and blame them for our downfalls or our lack of success or our lack of accomplishments, but Devin didn’t do that. Devin didn’t make any excuses, and I think those are the courageous ones — the people who can look themselves in the mirror, be accountable for what they want and not be afraid to reach out for help.”

And if one life can be saved through Bullock’s death, it will have made all the efforts in the wake of his senseless death worthwhile.

“I think, if anything, I would just hope that people understand that life is fragile,” Davis said. “Life is fragile, and the way that we treat each other, the way that we care for one another, the legacies that we leave and everything that we do on a daily basis — they matter.

“It’s a sad story because here you have a young man who was about to graduate, a young black man who was about to beat statistics. He was that kid who was kind of shattering expectations. He was a kid who was doing it on his own — with support, but pretty much on his own, working, going to school, being an athlete.

“And here, his life ends abruptly, tragically, because somebody else didn’t care for themselves — didn’t love themselves like he loved himself and didn’t have empathy or compassion for others because they had no hope. That, to me, is the story.

“You have the tale of these two pathways, and Devin very well could have been that kid, that person who shot him. He could have been a person that ended up like that, but instead, whatever has happened in his life, whatever experiences he’s had, and whatever people wrapped their arms around this young man, he chose a different path. And I think that’s significant, that’s important.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.