Every time Kevon Looney visits friends in his hometown of Milwaukee, the phone calls come. His mother, Victoria, is worried. She wants to ensure her son's familiarity with his surroundings do not provide a false sense of security.
“He’s not street smart,” Victoria Looney says. “That’s why every time he’s in Milwaukee, I get really nervous for him. With social media these days, people find out things really fast. People see stuff on Instagram and they know where you are.
“You have to be careful because you’ve got family members that are jealous, and you’ve got people that you grew up with knowing you’ve got money. You never know who might want to rob you.”
Her son is learning. Kevon is years beyond the childhood insulation that came with parents dropping him off and picking him up from school or basketball practice. He’s 23 years old and in July signed a three-year contract worth $15 million to remain with the Warriors.
A happier wallet does not always equal a happier life.
“Sometimes, if you’re making a certain amount of money,” Looney says, “you feel all this love and start thinking, ‘Nah, they won’t do that to me. I’m different. I’m doing all of this, or all of that.’ But I was always taught it could happen to anybody.
“You might have a million people in the city that love you. But it only takes one or two or three guys to hate on you and change your whole life. My mom always told me to watch as well as pray. Every time I go back home, she’s calling to make sure I’m all right. She’s saying, ‘Are you sure? Make sure you take your brother with you. Don’t be staying out too late. Make sure you’re doing the right things.’ Because we know that in a situation like that, anything can happen.”
For a professional athlete or any other entertainer to get comfortable with celebrity and feel invincible can be risky. There have been two high-profile reminders that folks in the old neighborhood can have the worst intentions.
Baseball legend David Ortiz survived the gunshot that nearly killed him. Hip-hop star, entrepreneur and philanthropist Nipsey Hussle did not survive the bullets thrown his way.
Handling with care
Six months after Hussle was murdered in his South Los Angeles neighborhood, aftershocks continue to be felt by many pro athletes who not only enjoy his music and understand his message but also have a deep appreciation for his community engagement.
Born Ermias Joseph Asghedom, Hussle was trying to lift his society in the same ways as athletes rising from similarly underserved areas. There is a sports-music kinship, with those from both settings using fame, money and influence in hopes of helping the less fortunate. They also know that depriving their old 'hood of occasional face time is to risk being labeled uncaring or, worse, considered “boujee” or a “sellout.”
So, they give back. They also go back, and that’s where care must be taken.
Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia recently went back to his hometown of Vallejo. He grew up in the notorious Crest (or Crestside) neighborhood, which spawned such hip-hop legends as E-40 and Mac Dre. Sabathia’s foundation routinely contributes to various Vallejo causes, but on this occasion, the six-time All-Star enlisted his mother, his wife and their four children to help him distribute 3,000 backpacks to students.
“We’re from where we’re from,” says Sabathia, who will retire after this season. “I’m from The Crest. I’m from Vallejo. A lot of my friends and family are from there, and still live there. Your connection to them is what it is.
"You never think about that when you’re there; I was in The Crest all day [Aug. 19] and felt safe. That’s my home.”
Yet Sabathia, reflecting on Hussle’s murder, concedes nothing can be assumed.
“I think everybody, after Nipsey Hussle died, put themselves in check,” he says. “Knowing what he was, and what he meant to that community, and him still getting shot, in front of his business, in front of something he built in his community, everybody put themselves in check and took a little step back. Nobody is untouchable.”
If ever there was someone who might have thought himself untouchable in his community, it is Ortiz in the Dominican Republic. A beloved figure known to fans around the world as “Big Papi,” the former Red Sox slugger was a victim of gun violence on June 9 -- precisely 70 days after Hussle was murdered -- in the capital city of Santo Domingo.
Ortiz’s liver was damaged, and he lost parts of his intestines. After three surgeries and 47 nights in two different hospitals, he was discharged and returned home in late July. Though there's still some confusion over the shooter's motive, it does not alter the fact that Big Papi nearly lost his life in a nightclub while surrounded by friends.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, no matter where you are, anything can happen to anybody. In those neighborhoods, you come to understand that,” says 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who grew up in Compton, often cited as the hive of Los Angeles gang territory. “In some situations, you have to be cognizant of that. You can go back to your neighborhood, and if that’s where you live, more power to you. I’ve got no problems with that. You’ve just got to be careful.”
Walking a fine line
For professional athletes transitioning from childhoods in violent surroundings to the relative security of fame and wealth, the biggest challenge can be off the field or away from the court, where they must manage their lives. Enjoying the comforts that they’ve always dreamed of without neglecting those who were around when the dreaming began can be complex.
Those who believe chasing victory and individual accolades are the hardest challenges facing most professional athletes can’t understand and probably never will. Making it from the bottom to the top is plenty difficult, to be sure, but most of the athletic decisions after getting there are far easier than those involving personal relations. They never go away.
Willie Green, who spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the Warriors before recently accepting a more prominent role on the staff of the Phoenix Suns, made about $24 million over a 12-year NBA career spent mostly as a reserve guard. It’s not superstar money, but it’s more than he’d ever seen or perhaps imagined when growing up in Detroit.
It was enough, however, for Green to feel the weight of the off-the-court desires of others.
“It’s a fine line. It’s so tough,” he says. “That’s what we all are striving for is the balance, to be able to continue to touch our communities in a positive way, continue to impact our families greatly and in a positive way, and still stay in a place where you’re not in the middle of violence and crime. That’s the balance.
“But you have to do what you feel is in your heart,” Green adds. “Unfortunately, things can still happen. You try as best you can to stay away from it, but things happen.”
This gig is made more challenging when alarms sound, as they did in the aftermath of shootings to Hussle in March and Ortiz in June. The crimes struck a chord with fellow athletes because they were the latest reminders that, regardless of love and wealth and popularity, danger or even hate can be around any corner.
Both Hussle and Ortiz were revered by folks from their neighborhood -- and both were attacked by members of that neighborhood.
“The whole Nipsey thing, that’s tough because through his music and interviews, you hear where he came from, how he made it out and how he transformed from the gangbanger that he was back in the day to a businessman and entrepreneur,” says Warriors forward Alfonzo McKinnie, a Chicago native. “He was uplifting the kids and the culture in general. That’s why it hit so many people.”
Emerging from communities where a warm meal can feel like privilege, those who survive and prosper as young adults generally are considered role models, living proof that a safe life, away from routine street violence, is possible. More often than not, those nights are behind them.
The trick is to keep high-risk associations at a distance while still connecting with childhood friends who were around before the millions began rolling in. Sure, family and old friends want tickets. They want access. They want to share, if only from the shadows, some of the adulation directed toward their friend or relative.
“These people you grew up with, they’re important to you in your life,” Looney says. “They’ve been there for you. They’re your friends. They’ve seen you make it. They really are happy for you.
“But they see you with this new life, with a new set of friends, and it can be hard to balance that. You want to go home and share the experience of all the new things you’re doing, but if they don’t get a chance to experience it, it could bring some jealousy and some envy and some hate.”
Hussle was 33 at the time of his death. He had transformed himself, shedding gang ties and decrying gun violence to pour personal sweat and resources into his community. He encouraged education and activism. He was a bright light, and there might not have been a more revered community leader in Los Angeles.
“What Nip was doing, and what he did, was amazing,” Sherman says. “He gave back. He gave people jobs.
“But for some, that doesn’t matter. For some, it doesn’t matter if you’re freaking curing cancer.”
If the haters are determined to summon anger, if they don’t care, why would their bullets?
Understand, high-profile entertainers are murdered for a variety of “reasons.” Former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair was 15 months into retirement when killed by an apparent mistress in 2009. Washington’s All-Pro safety, Sean Taylor, was shot by burglars in 2007. Champion boxer Vernon Forrest -- by all accounts a beacon of his Atlanta-area community -- stopped at a gas station in in 2009 to put air in his tires and was robbed and shot to death. Will Smith, a former Pro Bowl defensive end for the Saints, was shot and killed during a road-rage incident.
Even now, 35 years later, the 1984 murder of 17-year-old Ben Wilson -- at the time widely considered the No. 1 high school basketball player in the country -- still is mourned and memorialized in Chicago. So profound was the loss of this popular and humble star that it was the subject of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary.
Ortiz is popular, too. Being among the most venerated baseball players of the 21st century failed to shield him in his Dominican Republic homeland, where his celebrity might be unsurpassed. He likely thought that, being among his people, he was safe.
Hussle was shot while standing in front of his Marathon clothing store in his beloved LA neighborhood. He probably thought that he, too, was safe.
Neither “boujee” nor “sellouts,” both were victimized by their people.
Keeping safe distance
There is inherent risk to walking any street in any town. Every so often, though, famous people are reminded that envy can exist in your old backyard and that it can mutate into hatred.
Which begs the question: How does one stay connected to the old neighborhood -- it’s hard to be a role model if you’re invisible -- when you’ve cultivated your gifts well enough to navigate your way out?
“We all have had to deal with that,” Green says of the potential for danger. “And we continue to deal with it. If you want to impact your community, and you want to promote others from that community, you have to deal with some of that. It’s not easy to figure out how to be in it, and then being able to move out.
"Not being in it too long, not being around certain people that you think might have the wrong intentions. There’s no science to it. You pray. You hope others are praying for you, that if you go into those circumstances, you come out OK.
“But there’s no guarantee.”
That’s the scariest part. It’s why most athletes have a personal bodyguard, someone trained to evaluate surroundings and monitor public activities. Steph Curry has Ralph Walker. When DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Warriors last summer, he brought Antjuan Lambert from Sacramento. When Kevin Durant came to the Warriors three years ago, he brought Tom Aube from Oklahoma City.
Athletes think nothing of hiring personal trainers and personal chefs. They are accoutrements of elevated status.
But more and more athletes are deciding to keep their connections to the ‘hood -- but at a distance. They do more giving than appearing, more investing than socializing.
“I go back. I give back. I talk to the kids,” Sherman says. “But I spend time whenever I’m at home. I don’t think to myself, ‘Man, I’m from here, so I’ve got to go back and always be there.’ I know I’ve got to help those kids, give them the same opportunities that I had. So I provide gifts that can help them achieve their ambitions.
“But in terms of going back and thinking I need to be walking around the city, I don’t because I’ve got kids. I’ve got a family and a job. I don’t have the time to go back as much as I want to, so I give back in other ways.”
Kevon Looney’s parents, Doug and Victoria, for a time operated a clothing business in Milwaukee. Victoria recalls acquaintances coming in seeking freebies and discounts. When the store eventually closes, many of those same acquaintances became scarce.
“That’s why we try to tell Kevon that we know users when we see them,” she says. “These people may be your friends now, but things can change."
Which brings us back to Nipsey Hussle, who also owned a clothing store. In June 2017, he opened The Marathon Clothing store in the same LA neighborhood where he once sold his CDs from the trunk of his car. He often was there to greet customers and pose for selfies. This was exemplary of his investment into the community that helped raise him.
He made it big and stayed close enough to inspire those with similar upbringings.
The store now is closed, the property sitting empty behind a locked gate and chain-link fence. The plan is to build a tower, including a museum, to commemorate and honor the life that Hussle lived.
“It’s just sad to see what happened to Nipsey when he was doing all these great things for the community,” Looney says. “Hopefully, everybody in different communities can learn from that and realize you don’t want to take away the people that are doing great things for you, in your community.
“People have to remember: If I’m not able to do my job and be healthy and safe, I can’t help anybody else.”