It must happen a million times a day. At the office, at the gym, in a bar. You say something about an athlete you like, and someone else says forget it, he's nothing compared to my man so-and-so. And there you are, passionately defending athletes you haven't met and never will.
That's how it all began on the night of Nov. 9, when friends Montrell Washington, 25, and Hasan Mitchell, 20, went to see their hometown Philadelphia 76ers play the visiting Seattle SuperSonics. Washington likes Allen Iverson of the Sixers. Mitchell likes Gary Payton of the Sonics. Both are point guards, both are terrific. Plenty there to argue about.
"Hasan said he couldn't wait to see them play, to see what Payton was going to do to Iverson," says Washington, who works in a meat processing plant. "He was making a bunch of noise about the Sonics at the game, and I said it just doesn't matter, Iverson's going to put up his numbers."
After the game they ended up outside the Southwark Plaza public-housing complex in South Philadelphia, where both men have friends and family. The great sports debate continued. "He was still making a bunch of noise, and I was, like, Man, that's all over with, I don't wanna keep hearing that," says Washington. "He was, like, I told you Iverson can't mess with Gary Payton, and like that there. Then he went on to his other words, disrespecting me. I said, 'You say that again, we fight.' "
Washington says friends stepped in to separate them, but the police say at least one punch was thrown before Mitchell left the scene. When he returned about an hour later, he was with his father, Isaac, and his 18-year-old brother, Yusef. Homicide detectives say that Isaac, 46, had a gun and that as soon as he saw Washington, he opened fire.
At that moment, Montrell's brother Derrick, 21, and his cousin Jameka Wright, 22, had just come out of nearby apartments. Wright was on her way to get some butter pecan ice cream. A bullet entered her left shoulder and came out her back, and she crumpled. Derrick was hit in the chest and back and went down six feet away, near a tree. Both were dead within minutes, innocent bystanders snuffed out over a silly sports debate gone mad. Montrell, who had turned to run, went down, too. A bullet went clean through his left arm, but he would be fine. Physically, he would be fine.
"He's grieving, and it's going to take some time, because he never knew a simple argument about basketball would lead to this," says Montrell's mother, Ada, 47. Of losing a son, she says, "I'm still numb." Montrell says he wonders what Hasan could have told Isaac that would have induced a rage so destructive. Philadelphia police say they have no evidence yet that other issues played a role in the killing. They have arrested Isaac, Hasan and Yusef, charging all three with two counts of murder.
Just a few miles from the site of the shooting, University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Elijah Anderson is finishing a book entitled The Code of the Streets. People who feel alienated from "wider society" create identities for themselves through money, a girl, "or in this case a basketball player," Anderson says. Sports is like an opiate, because it transports you out of the world you live in. "But it's not about the player. You identify with someone and you become him, whether it's Iverson or anyone else. There's an insecurity that has to be defended because your self-esteem is often on the line." Anderson says that it's all about respect, and that it isn't uncommon to round up a posse to defend a family's honor. Respect us by respecting Gary Payton. Or die.
"Stop this chain of stupidity," says a handwritten note on a tree near where the shooting took place. Jameka's father, James, 49, came out of his apartment on a recent morning, retracing his daughter's last steps, and a tear filled his eye but didn't fall. "So senseless," he said.
Lionel Simmons, 29, who grew up in Southwark and went on to play seven seasons in the NBA (he retired a few weeks ago), knows both families involved in the tragedy. Isaac was his barber. The Washingtons are his friends, and he has stopped in to see how Montrell is doing. Eight years ago when he had the chance, Simmons refused to leave college early for the NBA. He had promised his mother a diploma, and he went on to graduate from La Salle with a degree in criminal justice. Growing up in the inner city, he says, "you want to be a part of the solution." But he has no easy one, because there is none. He does, however, know the answer to the question of who's better, Iverson or Payton?