Coaches, friends, family could not help John Crowder

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.

He met him as a sixth-grader, when he was the biggest kid on the court at rec league games and also one of the quietest. A few years later, Crowder walked up to Pratt, by then the head coach at Towson Catholic, and said, "I want to play for you, coach."

Crowder struggled in his first few weeks as a freshman at Towson Catholic. He wasn't used to the workload or to wearing a uniform. Pratt recalls administrators wondering if the kid would make it through. But he had an ability to read people and didn't mind asking for help.

"You could see it through the year, how he started to open up," Pratt says. "By the end, he literally had the school in the palm of his hand."

The only time he heard a whiff of Crowder's past troubles was when the player mourned a close friend who had been murdered. "That's the reason you play ball and the reason people love you and take care of you," Pratt remembers telling him. "No one wants things like that to happen to you."

Pratt brought Crowder along slowly on the junior varsity, but he envisioned the core of that team, which included the son of NBA star Sam Cassell, contending for multiple league titles. It came as a huge blow when he was laid off. A few months later, the school closed by order of the local parish. The sudden ending hurt Crowder.

But he rebounded to perform well athletically and academically at Mount Carmel. "I was impressed from the beginning with how he carried himself," says Mount Carmel coach Tom Rose. "He was very easy to talk to, very polite."

Rose was impressed when Crowder, by far his most talented inside player, stopped a practice to say, "Coach, I don't know how to do that. Can you show me?"

"That told me that he had goals and he understood what it would take to get there," Rose says.

Unlike Miller, Pratt and Rose felt truly blindsided when their phones buzzed on Monday morning with news of the player's death.

"You think about all the things you ever said to him," Pratt says. "John's family did the best they could to keep him away from that element, but that element is strong in Baltimore. It's tough for someone that age to ditch his friends."

Pratt now coaches the girls' team at St. Vincent Pallotti in Laurel. Last year, he caught Crowder in action for Mount Carmel against the Pallotti boys. Pratt watched Crowder scare away shooters with his long arms and sink smooth jumpers on the other end of the floor.

"You could see his development as a player," he says. Off the court, Crowder greeted him, as always, with a big hug and a smile. "I didn't know that was the last time I'd see him play," he says. "I thought I'd see him play on TV some day."

Now he will be attending Crowder's funeral on Tuesday at Church of the Redeemed of the Lord on Old York Road. "I don't want to go to a funeral for a 17-year-old," he says.

'A good person'

Keron DeShields played with Crowder at Towson Catholic and often hung out with him at Brodie's place in Owings Mills before they moved to York. "That was like my brother," he says. "He had his ups and downs, but he was always John. He was a good person."

A month ago, DeShields went to confront Crowder about moving back to his old neighborhood. He worried for his friend. "He just didn't belong in that environment," he says. "I didn't know the specific things he was doing, but I do know what that environment can do to you."

"You don't need to be back here," he remembers telling Crowder. "It's not where you belong."

"I'm not a kid," Crowder told him. "I can make my own decisions."

Carlton Carrington, one of the coaches for the Nike Baltimore Elite program that Crowder played in during the summer, heard a few rumors about Crowder in the weeks before his death, people claiming they'd seen the player out at 1 a.m. But "he'd be at practice the next day, and everything seemed fine," he says.

Crowder didn't see much game action early in the summer because he'd missed a few practices. Carrington told him that they'd work out in the evening for the rest of the summer, getting his body and spirit in order. The coach thought of that promise when he heard his player had been killed. What if they had been in the gym at that fateful moment?

"You're like, 'No, not John,'" Carrington says. "He had come too far."

But Carrington says it's wrong to generalize Crowder's story to all of Baltimore. "For every John, I see five or six kids, some of whom came from even tougher backgrounds, who are doing really well," he says. "I just point to something like this and tell them there's nothing slick about being dumb."

For all his concern, DeShields understood the neighborhood's pull on his friend. "He's so comfortable there," he says. "As kids, we just want to go back to what we're used to."

He wept when he heard about Crowder. "I think that maybe I could've gotten through to him if I had gone down there every day," he says. "But he felt as if he was a man. Honestly, I try not to think about it, but I know that one of these days, it's going to hit me."

Every effort

No one did more to help John Crowder than Brodie. He saw a lot of himself in his cousin. They grew up on the same block, and both of their best friends were murdered only a few houses from where John was ultimately shot. They both excelled in sports. Neither grew up with an obvious father figure.

Brodie went away to college to play football and basketball. "It took that for me to understand that the place I came from was not normal," he says.

He hoped John, 13 years his junior, wouldn't have to wait so long to grasp that living in the neighborhood amounted to a game of Russian roulette. If he needed any more evidence, Brodie could point to John's brothers, both of whom survived shootings and one of whom was incarcerated.

When John returned from Texas, Brodie, who had built a career counseling at-risk youths, offered to take him into his Owings Mills home. He scoured the state for the right private school and hounded admissions officers at Towson Catholic until they finally accepted his academically troubled cousin, a few hours before classes began.

He was amazed at the gaps in John's worldliness. Once, he asked him if he ate salad. "What's salad?" the 15-year-old replied earnestly. But John progressed so quickly that Brodie couldn't help but grin. When he earned the first good grades of his life, John flashed his report card to family members in proud disbelief. When he received his desired presents on Christmas morning, he proclaimed the week his best ever.

Brodie geared his entire existence to keeping John away from the old neighborhood. It was the primary reason he and his fiancee moved to York at the end of last year and the reason he sent John to small, private schools in the suburbs. He often stuck by him from morning to night, pushing him to work out and finish his homework and talking to him about the future.

But John persistently asked to visit the old neighborhood. "He would get mad at me because I wouldn't let him," Brodie says. "I don't think he understood how bad it was."

Six weeks before John's death, Brodie found cigarettes in John's room and discovered that he had taken things that weren't his without asking. He punished John by keeping him out of a youth basketball tournament. John sulked, and when Brodie texted him to arrange his usual pick-up from Mount Carmel a few days later, John replied, "I'm not coming back out there anymore."

Just like that, he returned to his grandmother's house. Brodie drove downtown every day to talk John into returning home. "It's not that I'm not listening," John told him. "I'm gonna be good."

"I asked him if I could have done anything different," Brodie says. "He said, 'No, I just can't handle the structure.'"

Brodie quickly saw the environment eroding all of John's progress. The 17-year-old stayed out until the wee hours, drinking, smoking marijuana and letting his cherished basketball skills slip. When Brodie confronted him about dealing drugs, he says John didn't bother to deny it. "He was just addicted to the lifestyle," Brodie says.

Countless people tried to steer John back on track. "Even the people in the hood who were living wrong would tell him, 'You need to get back out of here,'" Brodie says.

Brodie hopes John's story will be a cautionary tale for others trying to get away from difficult environments. He wants to start a foundation in his cousin's name to help athletes. "I just don't want this to go in vain," he says.

The night John was killed, Brodie texted him late to see if he'd enjoyed the fireworks at the Inner Harbor and found it strange that John didn't reply. About 2 a.m., another cousin called to say John had been found staggering with a bullet wound to his side. Brodie raced down Interstate 83 to Hopkins. Not long after he arrived, a doctor told the family that John could not be saved.

Brodie knew John had slipped backward and knew from experience that such missteps could be deadly in their old neighborhood. But the doctor's words still shocked him to his core. He expected to save the cousin who had become more like a son.

"I didn't think he would get killed," Brodie says. "I just needed more time."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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