Just a boy playing basketball
I came to Carroll County five years ago after spending several years working in Pine Bluff. That was actually my third stint at the paper in Pine Bluff: I served as sports editor there in the mid-1990s, then was a night editor and city hall reporter from 2001-2004 before serving as managing editor from 2010-2014.
During my time as sports editor, I also coached a youth basketball team of 10- and 11-year-old boys.
Iíve written about that team before. They were all African-American boys from the inner city. Many of them had very difficult home lives and even at that age, a couple of them had an edge to them. Initially, I was concerned that keeping them in line might be a challenge.
I learned pretty quickly, however, that they appreciated structure and positive reinforcement. One young man in particular would absolutely light up when I or my assistant coach told him he had done something well.
The young manís name was Alton Randall Jr. And on a basketball court, he did a lot of things well. Long, lean and quick, he was a rebounding machine and a defensive ace. We called him our Dennis Rodman. Alton was a key to our halfcourt press, quick enough to cover the inbound passer and then follow the ball to set a quick double-team after the pass. He wasnít a shooter, but he scored a fair amount of points off offensive rebounds.
Alton could get a little worked up sometimes in practice, and weíd have to step in and calm him down. Most of the time, though, he was fairly quiet. He played with an intensity that you donít often see in an 11-year-old kid.
I never saw Altonís mom, and I knew that his dad was in prison. Iím not sure how he got to practice; I distinctly remember picking up some of the players occasionally in parts of town that I otherwise would never have visited but I donít recall doing that for Alton. Still, he was always there for practice and games.
We had a heck of a team, especially the first season. The only games we lost were in tournament play against older kids. I can still name our starting lineup: Alton in the middle, Kendrick at point guard, Kenneth at the off guard, Aaron at power forward and Greg at small forward.
Ultimately, I left Pine Bluff and went to work for the Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. When my oldest son was old enough for organized sports, I coached his baseball and basketball teams.
I kept up as best I could with the guys I had coached in Pine Bluff. Kendrick and Aaron both switched to football. I even took my sons to watch Kendrick play for Pine Bluff Dollarway in the state championship game. His team lost but Kendrick made a one-handed interception that is one of the best plays Iíve ever seen. Aaron became a star defensive end at Pine Bluff High School and went on to play for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. They are both doing well today, and Iím incredibly grateful for that.
When I returned to Pine Bluff, I saw Kennethís and Altonís names occasionally on our news pages. They were both in and out of trouble and ultimately Alton served some time in prison.
In the fall of 2014, not long after I came to Carroll County, I learned that Kenneth had been shot and killed in Pine Bluff. I was deeply saddened but not entirely shocked.
Last week, I experienced many of the same feelings.
Shortly after midnight on Tuesday, May 28, Pine Bluff police officers responding to a report of shots fired in the 1200 block of Maple Street found 33-year-old Alton Randall Jr. suffering from a gunshot wound. He died at the scene.
I donít know what happened that resulted in Altonís death. I have no doubt that he made many, many poor decisions in his life. But I also wonder how much of a chance he really had to go down another path.
I do know that under the right circumstances, with the right support system, with the right permanent role model, Alton Randall could have had a better life. He could have been a positive, productive member of society.
Sports mean different things to different people. For an almost 50-year-old white man like me, they might mean a chance to relax on the weekend in front of the TV. For an 11-year-old black kid in Pine Bluff whose father is in prison, they might mean a chance to forget about all that for a little while, to run and play and smile and not worry about anything else.
My lasting memory of Alton is his reaction after I had given him some small compliment.
ďGreat defense, Alton!Ē I might have said.
In that moment, he smiled broadly. He was just a boy, happy and free, playing basketball.