Tyresse Williford might be Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s best basketball player. That’s not exactly a headline-grabber, and there was absolutely no fanfare when SIUE traveled to his hometown of Chicago for a mid-December game against another struggling team, Northwestern University. The afternoon contest itself was unremarkable and Williford finished with 12 points in a 72-54 loss.
Williford’s story is compelling, however, because of a shocking statistic the NCAA does not track: Six of his high school teammates have been murdered in acts of gun violence. He’s lost friends and family who weren’t ballers and knows others who have been shot and survived. “The number of people I’ve lost,” Williford says, “is a lot to process.”
In many ways, earning a Division I scholarship has given Williford a new life. He’s on track to graduate in May with a degree in criminal justice and is a minor celebrity on a campus where Division I basketball is relatively new. His school is paid for, of course, and there are other perks. Williford gives away much of the free gear — the T-shirts, hoodies, warm-ups—that the athletes get. He keeps the free Adidas shoes, though, and like with a lot of players, they pile up in his closet. His shoes, however, serve a special purpose, each pair a tangible tribute to former teammates and friends.
“It’s hard just knowing everybody who got killed,” he says. “Every year, here comes another bad phone call.”
“Holy City.” That’s what locals call the pocket of the Lawndale neighborhood where Williford grew up on Chicago’s West Side. The moniker implies that the area is a spiritual haven. It’s not.
The Vice Lords street gang named it Holy City after forming there more than 50 years ago, and an Old Testament-like plague of poverty and violence has a choke hold on the area. There are derelict homes, empty lots, boarded-up storefronts, closed public schools, and men standing on busy street corners, regardless of the weather. 21st Street cuts through the middle of Holy City, and those young men often greet each other by flashing two fingers on one hand and one on the other, then adding a little rhyme: “Twenty-first, there ain’t no worse.”
Arrest records, often for marijuana possession or disorderly conduct, are common among the young men here. If Williford, who has never been in a gang, paused for quick handshakes with guys he grew up with, he got unsolicited advice. You need to leave, they’d say. He took their advice, and that might be why he’s still around to tell his story. “I knew not to hang out on the corner,” he says from his apartment in Edwardsville,
The violence in his old neighborhood was unavoidable, he says. “I’ve seen guys get jumped. And I’ve been jumped on after a playground game, where I’d been talking smack.”
Before any of his high school teammates were gunned down, Williford witnessed his first murder while he was bicycling with friends. It was a drive-by shooting in Holy City and the victim was a friend of his mother’s. “The first shots hit him in the head.” He quietly counts backward. “I was 12, I guess.”
The scariest incident happened on a walk to the corner store, when a young man put a gun to Williford’s back in what may have been a case of mistaken identity. “Don’t turn around,” the man told him, “just hand over your money.” Williford feared he would be shot on the spot. He got a reprieve when somebody called out to the assailant from a car: “That’s not him!”
Shawn Harrington, one of Williford’s assistant coaches in high school, says, “Anyone who reaches the age of 18 on Chicago’s West Side has already seen a world of trouble, and Tyresse has seen his share.”
Marshall, Williford’s high school, has traditionally had an undersized team of scrappy overachievers. Patrick Beverley and Cappie Pondexter are both Marshall grads. The boys teams have won three state championships, the last in 2008, and the girls teams have been state champs 10 times. Marshall was featured in the 1994 hit documentary Hoop Dreams, as well as last year’s sleeper, Chi Town.
From the start, Williford felt comfortable at the school because of Harrington.
“Shawn Harrington was the cool coach,” Williford says. “He could be strict, but he could get you to laugh and keep you motivated. We all knew he was a college star, and he was the reason I’d stay late and work on my game.”
Harrington had been a standout player at Marshall in the early 1990s, had a cameo in Hoop Dreams, and went on to play in junior college, then at New Mexico State, and finally Northwest Missouri. A few years later, he returned to Marshall to work and earned a reputation for making even the most overlooked kids, his special ed students, feel special. He built bonds with the players, combining the tough-love approach of his own coach, Luther Bedford, with the compassion of a man who has struggled through hard times: Harrington’s mother Frinda was murdered in 2003 by a burglar. The shooting netted the gunman $40.
Williford showed promise as the only freshman on Marshall’s varsity squad. The school was a safe haven, but outside, anything could happen. On a Sunday afternoon in early May, his best friend from grade school, Tywon Jones, a 16-year-old boy everyone called “Blackman,” was shot and killed by Chicago police. Jones, who was likely bipolar, had been riding his bicycle, when, according to witnesses, he fired a gun into a crowd and then at police.
The following season, Williford established himself as Marshall’s best sophomore. The team hovered around .500 as it waited for a charismatic kid named Tim Triplett to be declared eligible in mid-January. Williford had known Triplett since elementary school because Triplett’s kid brother was Blackman.
Triplett had a sharp tongue, breathtaking quickness, and the deft ball-handling skills that undersized point guards need. Blackman’s death had been the catalyst for Williford and Triplett, who was two years older, to become close friends. Every Marshall player knew that Blackman had been killed, but few people knew that Triplett’s father had been shot and killed in nearby Douglas Park when Triplett was a toddler.
A few weeks after Triplett was certified eligible to play, the team appeared ready to turn the corner. Then, Harrington’s two-toned SUV got stolen off the school parking lot.
On the morning of Jan. 30, 2014, Harrington was driving his daughter Naja to Westinghouse High School, where she was an honor-roll sophomore. The commute was part of the coach’s daily routine, but that day they were in a rental car because the SUV was still missing.
At a stoplight, two young men walked up to the car and opened fire. Harrington dove on top of his daughter, pushing her down in her seat and shielding her — an instant before a bullet pierced her headrest. (This act of heroism is at the center of my 2017 book, All the Dreams We’ve Dreamed: A Story of Hoops and Handguns on Chicago’s West Side.)
Harrington had saved his daughter’s life. But he’d been hit in the spine, and since then, he’s used a wheelchair, due to paralysis from the waist down. It was a case of mistaken identity — a senseless shooting that the whole neighborhood talked about. Perhaps as a result, the young perpetrators were quickly caught, a statistical rarity in Chicago.
“We were all upset,” Williford recalls, “but nobody took the news harder than Tim Triplett.” Triplett had great affection for Harrington. Now, he’d lost his father, his kid brother and his coach.
Harrington — who has never returned to the court at Marshall — had a cellphone full of contacts for college coaches. But with the coach incapacitated, Triplett’s options to leave Chicago for college fell apart. He enrolled at local Wright Junior College.
The following year, a month after Williford’s junior season in high school, he got a phone call from Triplett’s mother. Her son had been murdered just before noon, she told him, shot in the chest at close range just four blocks from Marshall High. Triplett left behind three children. He was 20 years old.
Williford learned something after his first teammate was killed, something most teens wouldn’t have to consider. “You don’t realize how heavy a casket is until you’re a pallbearer,” he says.
Days after Williford got fitted for his high school graduation gown in 2016, another former teammate, Marcus Patrick, was murdered. Patrick, 22, and a second man were standing outside about 5:30 p.m. May 18 when someone shot them from a passing vehicle, according to police.
Patrick had been rated as one of the city’s top point guards as an eighth-grader, so Williford always observed him closely. “Marcus was high-energy,” Williford recalls, “and he was funny, always cracking jokes.” The high expectations for Patrick never materialized — he was 5-feet, 6 inches in eighth grade and he never grew after that. He was on and off the Marshall team for various reasons and, according to a police source, had a handful of arrests for possession of marijuana.
Williford began talking about getting out of Chicago. That summer, he accepted a basketball scholarship to Williston State College, located in an oil-boom town 400 miles west of Fargo, North Dakota. He’d still be in Chicago all summer.
In June, two weeks after Williford walked across a stage to receive his high school diploma, another Marshall teammate, Terrell Allen, was shot and survived. Allen was walking home in Holy City at dusk when a black truck swerved to a stop and someone inside opened fire. He ducked behind a car for cover, but a bullet grazed his hand. Today, he works at a Walmart in the suburb of Cicero, where his blue work shirt covers a tattoo on his shoulder commemorating Tim Triplett.
A month later, on July 26, Keyon Boyd was gunned down, the third of Williford’s teammates to lose his life. Boyd, 18, had been standing with two younger boys on the sidewalk about 11 a.m. when two males emerged from an alley and fired more than a dozen shots. The two other boys were hit, too, but both recovered.
Boyd, a year older than Williford, hadn’t been much of a scorer. He stood 6 feet, 3 inches and 150 pounds, with wide shoulders and big hands, and he rebounded with gusto. Boyd’s nickname was “Smiley,” because of his infectious grin. Williford had been friends with Boyd before either enrolled at Marshall. The season after Harrington was paralyzed, Boyd dropped out of Marshall, but eventually got a diploma elsewhere. “Keyon was always trying to do things for himself,” Williford says. “He wouldn’t ask anyone else for help.”
Although he averaged more than 10 points per game at Williston, homesickness and typical freshman issues frustrated Williford. The news from Chicago wasn’t exactly uplifting and things would get worse.
On Oct. 30, 2016, a fourth Marshall teammate was murdered in a drive-by shooting in the Old Town neighborhood, a mile and a half north of downtown. Bryant’s twin brother, Edwin, who played football, was killed in the same incident. At 6 feet, 5 inches, Edward Bryant had long arms and a fluid style that made college coaches take notice, and he almost certainly would have been a Division I player.
Unlike with the previous shootings, which had taken place during the day, the Bryant brothers, age 17, were standing outside when they were shot about 3:15 a.m. on a Sunday. The scene of the crime was not the impoverished West Side, but a more upscale North Side neighborhood. And unlike the other Marshall shooting victims, the twins were still in school. Police said at the time that although the boys didn’t have any documented gang affiliation, they were with people who did, leading to speculation that the shooting was gang-related.
The murders were accumulating so fast that Williford decided for his own sanity he would stop attending funerals.
James King had been Marshall’s undersized senior center when Williford was a sophomore. They were close because of what happened on an early-season bus ride in 2013. Marshall’s head coach Henry Cotton was polling the team: Who did the Commandos want as team captain?
Williford nominated King. The suggestion got shouted down, and Williford sank back into his seat. King was too quiet to be captain, others said. That was precisely why he was a potential leader, Williford thought. “James never got mad at anyone, never talked trash,” he recalls, “and kept to himself, minding his own business. That’s what we needed.”
Even though, King was not picked as captain that day, he played the best basketball of his short life in each of the next two games, registering his first and only triple doubles. The reason for the improvement was obvious. Someone had publicly recognized King’s value, Harrington says.
In the summer of 2017, just before Williford returned to Chicago and a job delivering pizza for Domino’s, King was murdered. That made five murdered Marshall teammates for Williford. King was 22 years old when he was fatally shot around midnight. The killing happened in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, near the home of one of King’s cousins, which led police to believe it was a case of mistaken identity. The previous daytime shootings, always at close range, made it difficult to believe they were accidents.
After his frustrating freshman year, Williford transferred to Wabash Valley College in southern Illinois. That November, he signed on for a full ride at SIUE, a school that has been competing in Division I for about a decade. Signing a national letter of intent was the culmination of Williford’s quest — few accomplishments are as coveted on the city’s West Side as a Division 1 basketball scholarship. He was a long way from ecstatic, though.
In May 2018, before Williford left Chicago to travel the 300 miles south to Edwardsville, another former Marshall player, Cedrick Williams, was shot and killed on the West Side. This murder mostly matched the old pattern: Williams, 19, was no longer playing ball, and he was shot during daylight hours. But unlike the other incidents, where the victims had been unarmed, this time police said Williams had participated in a shootout.
During his first year at SIUE, Williford got more bad news in three phone calls from the West Side over the course of a week. The first informed him that his great-grandfather, Jesse Williford, had been the victim of an armed home invasion. Three men broke in, duct taped the 89-year-old to a chair and cleaned out his apartment. The next call notified Tyresse Williford that the gunmen must have believed they missed something, or perhaps they were after his great-grandfather’s Social Security check, because they returned to repeat the pathetic procedure. The final call was to tell him that Jesse Williford had died of a heart attack.
Williford spent plenty of time during that first year in Edwardsville in private conversations with Brian Barone, the SIUE assistant coach who recruited him. The son of Tony Barone, the former Creighton, Texas A&M, and Memphis Grizzlies coach, Barone had been a good point guard on great Marquette teams. He was able to connect with Williford in a way that no other coaches had since his days at Marshall.
Williford stands just 5 feet, 11 inches, but he averaged a solid 13.1 points per game at SIUE as a junior, which put him in the Top 20 in the Ohio Valley Conference. He is a natural leader whose elite speed and grasp of the game helped him lead his team in assists and steals last season, his first in Division I. The year was marked by sporadic stretches of phenomenal play — such as the night he dropped 33 points on Murray State and current NBA star Ja Morant. He also had occasional emotional outbursts that had fans and coaches scratching their heads. You hardly need a scoreboard when he is playing because the score can be read on his face. The Cougars finished last season at 10-21.
“If you don’t know Tyresse,” Barone says, “I mean really know him, he can come off as the villain.” Williford says, “Coach Barone really took the time to get to know me and learn about what’s happened in my life. He gave me space to cope with my issues.”
Last spring, SIUE fired its head coach. That meant Williford would be playing for his fourth head coach in four years. When a poor team makes a coaching change, an outsider is usually brought in. But the administration must have sensed what Williford already knew: In Barone they had someone who knew the game and could motivate the players.
Barone became convinced that Williford was worth the trouble, not after seeing him play, but after observing his point guard interact with kids. “He’s absolutely charming with children,” the coach says. “Tyresse has a secret handshake he does with my son, but he’s like that with all the kids, making them feel important. He’s out doing community service and playing dodgeball with the kids at the rec centers.”
But Barone isn’t blind. He estimates that his point guard has been tagged with seven technical fouls in just a year-and-a-half of Division I ball. “You can see he’s got this balancing act going on in his head,” Barone says. “He’s an emotional kid, and it can boil over.”
Just after Williford returned to Chicago for the summer of 2019, his grandfather Lonnie Williford, 70, died of a gunshot wound. Police called it a suicide. But the family doesn’t believe it because of the location of the wound — in his torso, and the fact that he was found in his bed. The bullet hit a main artery and he must have quickly bled out.
Barone accompanied Williford to the funeral, where he witnessed another side of his point guard — a maturity and wisdom that was not apparent back in Edwardsville. “It was clear from that funeral that Tyresse was now the man of the family,” Barone recalls. “Now everyone is counting on him.”
Williford doesn’t know the total off the top of his head. He knows there were six high school teammates killed, but teammates and childhood friends?
“The number of people I’ve lost is a lot to process.” — Tyresse Williford
He quietly walks to his closet in his Edwardsville apartment. He’s not avoiding the question: He’s counting. That’s why he saves the shoes — he’s memorialized each person by writing his name on the side of a shoe. He sifts through the pairs of Adidas, citing each Marshall teammate until all six are accounted for. Tim Triplett, Marcus Patrick, Keyon Boyd, Edward Bryant, James King and Cedrick Williams. After each name, he tosses a shoe back in the closet. No one has been charged for any of their murders. The shoes land with a thud.
What about the others? The non-ballers?
“There was T-Y,” he says, tossing another shoe back. “Next was Blackman. Then Rio. Then Danny and Switch. And Twin. OK, here’s Mario. Then Rock.”
He closes the closet door. “How many is that?” he asks.
Fourteen. Also, a former coach in a wheelchair, and a teammate with a scar on his hand. And Jesse Williford, the old man who died after being confronted by gun-toting burglars twice. And the gun death of his grandfather, Lonnie Williford.
In the summer of 2019, Barone’s father died after a marathon battle with cancer. It awakened something inside him. “My dad’s dying sort of centered me and made me realize that our players have feelings that I have to accept,” he says. “The truth is I’m still struggling, too.”
When Barone arrived at St. Margaret Mary Church on Chicago’s North Side last June to give his father’s eulogy, he was stunned to see the SIUE team bus pull up, a trip that the players and administrators secretly patched together. Barone broke down at the sight — he still hadn’t led them in his first game as head coach, and here were the Cougars supporting him. When it was his turn to speak to the congregation, the players had to prop him up so he could begin the long walk to the church’s lectern.
“They saw me at my most vulnerable,” Barone says, “and it’s allowed us to become close because they’re willing to open up now. Not just with me, but with each other.”
A common piece of wisdom among coaches is to tell players to leave personal problems off the court, but Williford and Barone are instead trying to embrace the trouble. “We’re all figuring things out,” Barone says. “When I see Tyresse get overly emotional, I think, you know what, my dad just died. And I don’t go two hours without thinking of my dad, so who am I to tell him to forget about his problems?”
Williford wants to look ahead, he really does. But there are all those shoes in his closet.
This season, SIUE is off to a slow start at 4-13. Statistically, though, Williford is doing well. He had 14 points, six rebounds and four assists in a Jan. 2 upset of Belmont, which had been picked to win the conference. He had 18 points in a close loss to Northern Illinois, along with a game-high eight assists. But he was hit with a technical foul at a crucial point late in the second half, and soon after he missed an important free throw. Still, he is leading the team in steals (1.5 per game) and assists (4.0 per game). Not surprisingly, his scoring has dipped (to 9.9 points per game)—the Cougars have more talent to support Williford in his final year, including the talented Tulsa transfer Zeke Moore.
Even without Williford, the SIUE team’s emotional makeup is complicated. Gun violence has affected other SIUE players, too. This year’s team features the promising freshmen twins Shamar and Lamar Wright. Their father, former NBA star Lorenzen Wright, was murdered almost a decade ago, a crime that went unsolved until recently. Junior guard D’Quan Applewhite’s cousin, Tai’Jean Hall, was murdered in Chicago — a tragedy captured on a convenience store’s security cameras.
But it’s unlikely anyone in college basketball carries as much baggage as Williford. “It’s amazing,” Barone says, “when you learn what’s happened to Tyresse, how much he’s accomplished already. Once you know his story, it makes you want to fight for him.”
The Barone family has extensive NBA contacts, although few think Williford is good enough to play at that level. Perhaps the charismatic Williford would do well in a front office or in community relations. Maybe he could play in Europe, although point guards are harder to place than big men. And there’s this option: Williford is dynamic and talkative, a natural leader, and he has a good reputation in the recruiting hotbed of Chicago. “It’s possible,” Barone says, “that Tyresse would make a good college coach.”
Ten minutes before the December matchup against Northwestern — Williford’s first and last college game in the Chicago area — the stands behind the SIUE bench were filled with his friends and family, including his mother, Felice Williford, who graduated from Marshall in the 1990s. Although Holy City is 11 miles from Welsh-Ryan Arena on the Northwestern campus, it was easy for her to get there: It’s near the rehab center where she worked that morning, one of two jobs she holds. Williford would not visit Holy City on this trip, and that was fine. “Coach Barone won’t let me go to the West Side, anyway,” he says, “and I don’t even like being back home right now.”
Williford’s coaches at Marshall, Henry Cotton and Shawn Harrington, were there. Harrington no longer has the stamina to coach at Marshall, although he helps run a new midnight league at a West Side community center called Breakthrough. The league is for young men who are done playing high school basketball.
Williford was looking forward to seeing familiar faces in the stands, but he also knew it would set something else in motion. “It’s who I won’t see,” he says.
Tim Triplett should have been there. He’d be 24 now, and he might have had his son along, but he’d still be cracking on Marcus Patrick and Keyon Boyd. They’d all laugh and holler encouragement to their old Marshall teammate. The Bryant twins might have been there, if Edward was not playing Division I ball himself. The twins might have been sitting with Cedrick Williams, urging Williford to cross his man up. James King probably would have been sitting quietly by himself, his feet propped up, leaning back in his retro Buck 50 hat.
Of course, none of them were in the stands. They were all gone.
Williford struggled in the early going. He didn’t make his first basket until 10 minutes into the game, and by then he already had two turnovers. At halftime, SIUE was down just six points. He had six points himself, but he’d been charged with five turnovers, far too many for a point guard.
He had only one turnover in the second half, but also only one more basket. Still, SIUE was within seven points with 11 minutes remaining. Then Northwestern’s 6-foot-11-inch freshman, Ryan Young, proved too much for the undersized visitors. In the end, Northwestern won, 72-54. Williford finished with 12 points in 31 minutes, a respectable showing. Twice, when teammates bumbled passes, Williford seemed about to get emotional, but instead clapped encouragingly.
Williford got the hero treatment from family and friends when he emerged from the locker room after the game, and he happily chatted and posed for photos. An 18-point road loss after going 1-for-6 from the 3-point arc could have ruined the brief reunion. In this case, though, it was clear that Williford’s crew thought he’d won — by defying the odds, by simply playing a basketball game on a Big Ten campus.
While his teammates trudged to the bus for the five-hour drive back to Edwardsville, Williford hung back. Despite the plummeting temperatures in the parking lot, he wanted one more photo with Harrington. Home wasn’t home anymore, but still it wasn’t easy to go.
The bus driver finally tooted the horn. Everyone was on board but their point guard, the last man standing in the frigid wind.