FORT MYERS, Fla.- Steve Walker wears his grief on his feet.
The 16-year-old point guard slides a palm below the sole of his white Air Jordans to restore the grip.
Walker is in the thick of a pick-up game at the STARS gym in Fort Myers, just down the road from Dunbar High where he’s a junior. He sleeps in Lehigh Acres, but most days he shoots around Fort Myers “until his arms get tired.”
You can see his doggedness, his ferocity of spirit in his game. He sprints when his opponents drag. He grins when he maximizes their out-of-breath state to swoop in for a lay up. His T-shirt touts “Unbeatable.” So later when his shot for three bounces flatly off the rim, an “Oh, sh–” escapes. His shoulders droop as he jogs down court.
Dee would have made that, he thinks. Dee never missed. Dee was the best player he knew. Dee was his brother, not by blood, but close enough to call each other’s mothers “Mom.” Dee was the nickname of Stef’an Strawder, one of two teens killed in a hail of bullets at Club Blu and Walker is wearing his shoes. “These babies right here, you ever see the movie, ‘Be like Mike?’ I like to call these, ‘The Be like Dees,’” Walker said after the game on a Thursday night in late August, a month to the day from when his best friend was shot two miles away. “These are a little beat-up now, but when they were brand-new. Stef’an used to wear these everywhere.”
Walker’s tone lifted when he described the size-11 Legend Blue Air Jordans, sought-after white sneakers with splashes of North Carolina blue. North Carolina was an early stop on Michael Jordan’s rise to greatness.
I am not a sneakerhead, but my friend who is told me that a friendship with trust enough to swap sneakers is a sacred one. Walker gave Strawder his Nike Air Force Ones. Walker said Strawder had them on when he was shot.
The day after his friend’s death, Walker visited Strawder’s house in Leigh Acres and saw his bag sitting on his sister’s floor. “That’s Stef’an’s bag, right?” he recalls asking her.
Inside he saw the Legend Blues.
“I need these right now,” he told her.
The Air Jordans were something tangible to grip when what he really wanted was Dee. They had been accessory to so many memories: school, parties, gas-station runs and ranked among Dee’s favorites for the court.
The court is where Strawder and Walker bonded, first as competitors when Walker would tug on Strawder’s shorts while guarding him — and later as friends. From STARS to Hoops on Mission to travel ball, their friendship grew over the past few years around the game of basketball.
Not that Walker would have admitted it in front of his friend when he was alive but between the two, Strawder was the better player. Strawder was a star.
“I can’t make it nowhere without this kid,” Walker often felt. “If he were to leave my side, I would melt. He taught me everything.”
To survive in Dunbar, you must learn how to cope when someone you love dearly, someone you would allow to sweat in your finest shoes, is murdered. Basketball is one way Walker copes. It’s his peace. It’s home.
“You guys probably hear it a lot, but basically basketball is my life. If I didn’t play basketball, I wouldn’t want to be on earth. It gets me away from everything. I can use it as dinner, breathing. I can use it as my heart. It’s what I use to live.”
That’s not to say basketball protects him.
“In this city, you’re not safe anywhere. The only protector is the Lord, that’s my protector, but I don’t really look at it that I need protection. I live in a bad city but it’s a small city and they show love … There’s a lot of hate and you see it in all the crime but there’s actually a lot of love so it’s hard to feel scared.”
His statements — that he’s not safe anywhere, but he is not scared — feel contradictory to someone who has not grown up amid violence. How could a 16-year-old who lost his widely lauded and respected best friend not be scared?
That friend was shot while leaving a club billed as secure for teens, doing what 18-year-old’s do during the summer, seeking fun in freedom. Walker lost his stepfather too; he was shot last year. Three days after we talked, on a Sunday afternoon, a fellow Dunbar High student was shot and killed outside a grandmother’s house.
How has Walker’s sense of invincibility not been shattered into a million pieces? Is it naiveté or strength? Faith? Or is death such a part of life in this community that he is numb?
To some degree, he is accustomed to a climate of violence.
“I hate to say it, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “You can’t tell anyone what do with their lives and their guns but you can control what you do. There’s nothing you can do about it but just try to stay out the way.”
For the most part, even if it wasn’t the case with Strawder and the other Club Blu victim, criminals leave the good kids be, Walker says. People watch out for him, from the guys he meets on the courts to his mentors to his relatives.
“They’ll see me out and say you know, ‘Whatcha doing out there? Why are you not in the house? Why are you not in the gym?’”
Keith White, Strawder’s uncle and a program coordinator at STARS, watched the friendship of Walker and his nephew evolve on the court, “It’s just like they lived here.”
He has seen several of his nephew’s friends turn to Strawder’s belongings to cope.
“But the best thing they’ll take away from this is his character and his love of basketball, that’s going to be more impactful than any material item they have.”
Strawder’s mom, Stephanie White, understands the semblance of solace Walker has found in the Air Jordans.
“It just means that his presence is still with all the people he touched,” she said.
In the month since Strawder’s death, Walker has adopted his friend’s habits. Strawder would often shoot by himself after school while Walker would head home for a nap or to waste time until Strawder called him to play.
Now Walker carves out time to shoot alone.
“Everybody tells you, ‘he’s with you’ and all that stuff. I’m still not feeding into that, but things happen and you’ve got to use it.”
Walker will play Sunday evening in a basketball classic at Dunbar High to benefit the families of Strawder and Sean Archilles, the 14-year-old killed in the Club Blu shootings, and the James Brunson and SWITCH foundations.
But Walker figures he must stop wearing the Air Jordans soon to preserve them for the Dunbar High basketball season. He plans to write RIP Stef’an Strawder or Dee in Sharpie marker on the toes. His ultimate goal is to step into Strawder’s NBA dreams. The shoes make him feel like he could do it, like he could fly beyond all this.
“I just believe hard that as long as I have these on I have nothing to worry about. I’ll be the best player on the court.”