In the toughest sections of Baltimore, even the most hopeful stories can end up breaking your heart.
That's what Brodie Crowder wants you to know about the murder of his cousin, John.
John Crowder spent most of the last two years trying to straighten out his life. He earned solid grades in his classes at Towson Catholic and Mount Carmel. On the basketball court, the 6-foot-8 teenager soared over competitors to snare rebounds and cram home dunks. Coaches knew him as a big puppy dog who greeted them with hugs and broke up the room with his crazy laugh. Division I recruiters had their eyes on him, and the scholarship he badly wanted seemed a sure thing.
That made it so much harder when the calls began buzzing around the city's tight-knit basketball community on Monday morning. The baby-faced kid, known as "Big John" since the sixth grade, had been shot and left bleeding in a yard near his grandmother's house in Northeast Baltimore. He died a few hours later at nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital. Police sources say he had drugs on him when he was found. No one has been arrested.
This is not the story of a young man who died because no one bothered to help him. Lots of people — coaches, teammates and kin — saw his gifts and sought to get him on the path to using them. If anything, it's the story of those would-be helpers, left behind and haunted by Crowder's decision to take a darker path. Why would a 17-year-old, cruising toward a Division I scholarship, go back to the neighborhood he once described as a war zone? What drew him, inexorably, to the place where his best friend was murdered, where two brothers hit the ground in agony after catching bullets? How could the dream they were all constructing have been so fragile?
"So many people are hurting, because so many people tried to step in and say, 'John, you should get out,'" says Brodie, who became his cousin's guardian and lived with him in York, Pa., until John moved back to his grandmother's house six weeks before his death. "They saw his potential. But it's like he was addicted to the neighborhood."
Crowder's mother died of cancer when he was 2, and his father wasn't around. By middle school, he was failing classes, dealing drugs and getting into trouble regularly.
"He just always hung around the wrong people," Brodie says. "He was easily influenced."
As an eighth-grader, Crowder faced drug-related charges in juvenile court. The judge gave him the option of leaving Baltimore for boarding school.
'He's in trouble'
One of Crowder's coaches, Corey Barnhardt, called Dallas coach Tim Miller. "We're trying to get John out of here, because he's mixed up in some trouble," Miller recalls Barnhardt saying.
Miller ran a small, private basketball academy for middle- and high school students called God's Academy. Crowder moved to Grand Prairie, Texas, where he lived with Miller's family. The coach remembers an eighth-grader who was haunted by the death of his mother and the troubles of his family. One day, Crowder could be a delight, proudly boasting of his Baltimore background and excitedly practicing the game he loved. The next, he might be homesick and depressed.
"There was tragedy in his mind," Miller says. "You just had to deal with whatever his mood was that day."
It wasn't hard to keep Crowder out of trouble in the Millers' suburban neighborhood. He rose early to take out the trash, said "yes sir" and "no sir" and hardened his body with help from a personal trainer. On the court, he started for the God's Academy varsity as an eighth-grader and impressed Miller by dunking on future McDonald's All-American Perry Jones.
"John was holding his own against high school all-staters," Miller says. "He was always fine when he was on the court. Basketball was his getaway."
But Crowder missed Baltimore, and his family missed him.
Miller says that in the weeks before Crowder left Dallas, he began calling friends from his old neighborhood. "I knew he was going to go back and get in trouble," he says. "I told his family they were going to have a headache. People are creatures of habit."
Miller says he shared his concerns directly with Crowder. "I'm gonna prove you wrong," he remembers Crowder telling him. "I'm gonna be good, and I'm gonna show you."
He went home for Easter and never came back, in part because his grandmother was skeptical of the education he had received in his six months at God's Academy.
Miller didn't keep in close touch with Crowder after he left but heard rumblings that his former player was spending too much time on the streets. He sounded sad but not shocked at the news he received from a college coach on Monday.
"I felt like he was haunted by his environment, and he didn't know if he could ever get away," Miller says.
'I want to play'
Josh Pratt did not see the haunted side of Crowder.