Beyond Box Scores: Triumph through tragedy
By Rob Daniels
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Basketball, a frequent source of solace for Kyle Randall, wasn't doing its job early Monday. Then again, if there is any street-legal vehicle that can spirit you away from news that a close friend has been shot through the head, it hasn't hit the marketplace.
Randall, UNCG's sophomore guard, couldn't get away from the nationally relayed developments in Youngstown, Ohio, and he couldn't leave his team. So he immersed himself in the immediate task, producing results that didn't retract a bullet but did compel a question: Where did this come from, this 8-for-10 shooting, 20-point performance?
The following day, a possible answer – or at least a good portion of it – was walking, talking and counting blessings from a hospital room while a community mourned the death of another. Shavai Owens, a confidante and friend of Randall's for as long as either can remember, is expected to celebrate her 18th birthday as scheduled next week.
"The doctors said she was two or three inches from death," Randall said before Wednesday's practice.
Owens was injured when a gunman opened fire outside a house party near the campus of Youngstown State University around 3:30 a.m. Sunday. A 25-year-old senior at the school, Jamail E. Johnson, was killed in the attack when he attempted to pacify a dispute between two groups of people. Owens was among 11 injured.
Police announced the arrest of two men on Tuesday and said the investigation is ongoing.
If only vicariously, Randall felt some of the sting from the incident. He and his best friend, Carrington Griffin, spent childhood determined – among other things – to keep Owens from harm. At 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, Randall is a guard by nature. He took on a more literal interpretation of the basketball terminology when it came to Owens.
"As kids, she was always with us," Randall said. "She's a very beautiful young lady and boys are always after her. She and I, we weren't boyfriend and girlfriend, but we were close like that. There was an affection there. She actually called Carrington her dad. My brothers call her their sister. And everybody calls her my wife. We would do anything to protect her."
Randall originally learned of the shooting via Twitter, but the first reference to the incident didn't include victims' names and the Spartan guard didn't have reason to fear anything. A phone call from his mom, a former social worker, delivered the news.
Randall said Griffin had planned on going to the party with Owens but changed his mind.
"We know it was one of those things you really couldn't stop, but with the role we see as having for her, it hurt that we weren't able to do anything," Randall said. "Even if we had been there, we probably still couldn't have done anything, but ….."
Upon hearing the connection, teammates sought to reassure him that he had nothing about which to feel guilty. He knew it, too.
When deciding on a college, Randall also knew he had to get out of Youngstown, a Rust Belt city unfortunately nicknamed "Crime Town U.S.A." in some quarters.
Always a tough place, Youngstown became tougher in the 1990s when the demise of steel mills facilitated the westward expansion of the Pittsburgh mafia. An ethnically diverse outfit took hold of the Mahoning Valley syndicate, filling court dockets with names such as Bernard "Bernie the Jew" Altshuler, Lawrence "Jeep" Garano, Antwan "Mo Man" Harris and Lenine "Lenny" Strollo.
The attempted murder of a local prosecutor in 1996 put the town on A&E's "City Confidential," a long-running true-crime series that contextualized infamous incidents in the history of their surroundings.
"I'll always love my hometown, but you don't want to put yourself in a situation where you might be less successful," Randall said.
Hence the decision to attend UNCG, where he is majoring in business and considering law school.
On the court, it hasn't always been that easy for Randall, who was shooting 32 percent from the floor entering Monday's game with The Citadel. He awoke that morning ambivalent about the evening's contest. No matter how good, his play wasn't going to help Owens, who began the day listed in critical condition. On the other hand, Randall had been buoyed by the support of his teammates and coaches, in whom he had confided about the conflicting feelings and sense of obligation.
"I really appreciate and am very grateful for the teammates I have because they helped me through a tough situation and really showed they care," Randall said. "They showed the brotherhood of our team."
The Spartans built a comfortable lead and the Bulldogs made a brief run in the final minutes. They tried to complete the process with an all-out trapping defense that targeted Randall. The sophomore responded with three aggressive drives to the basket that culminated one of his best games of the season and closed out a 12-point win.
On Tuesday, Randall's mom called to report that Owens was alert and apparently free of long-term damage from the wound, which pierced an ear and severed bones in the sinus cavity.
Owens attended one Spartan game earlier in the season and was considering making another visit with a brother to mark her birthday. Those plans are off, but any means of recognizing the occasion is grounds for joy at this point.
Randall will be in the lineup when the Spartans play at the College of Charleston on Saturday. It will not be as important as post-traumatic recovery, but nobody will claim it is.
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