It’s the same routine they’ve enjoyed for years, the back-and-forth repartee that often causes strangers to confuse them for brothers. Renard Owens will crack a joke and laugh uproariously, only to be greeted by disapproving stares and embarrassed head shakes from his 17-year-old son, Tariq.
“He thinks my sense of humor is a little off,” offered Renard, a Baltimore police officer of 15 years.
“It is,” Tariq volleyed back, before easing up. “But he just has one of those laughs. If he’s laughing around you, you have no choice but to laugh. It’s infectious and outrageous.”
Tariq is a burgeoning basketball star and rising senior at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, a hyper-athletic 6-foot-9 power forward with a conference championship, nine Division I scholarship offers and an oral pledge to Ohio University to his name. They were part of a stable and supportive family, hosting neighborhood sleepovers and kickball games along their Odenton cul-de-sac until heartbreak threatened to detonate the family’s foundation three years ago.
In February 2009, Tariq’s mother and Renard’s wife, Cassandra, passed away following a nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Her death made them stronger men, but the pain still seeps in. They’ll hear her favorite song, or dream about something as rudimentary as her famous meatloaf, and suddenly find themselves crying. But it’s in those moments when Tariq and Renard seek comfort in each other, rallying together and forging forward.
“Because we laugh a lot, because we joke a lot, we have that balance,” Renard said. “That helped us get through the tragedy. We could laugh, even when we were crying.”
It was the early 1990s when Renard Owens waited outside a thumping club near Utica College in Upstate New York, a single flower tucked behind his thigh. He first spotted Cassandra Wallace across the quad and asked friends to gather intelligence, learning her name before finally mustering the courage to ask her out. They dated for roughly three weeks until that fateful night, when Renard dispatched someone inside the club to fetch Cassandra, gripped the flower and thought about the information he had gleaned before the relationship even began.
“The first man to give her a yellow rose,” Renard was told, “she’ll marry.” He and Cassandra eventually tied the knot in Utica in a small ceremony officiated by her uncle, right in his living room, their two daughters perched on the couch.
Cassandra dreamed of seeing all three kids — Tariq was born in 1995 — enter college. Napheissa went first, to Bowie State. But with Cassandra’s health rapidly disintegrating in February 2010, Arundel High School arranged a private ceremony for Sadiyyah, months before her classmates would graduate. “Mom, you mean so much to me, and to all of us,” Sadiyyah told her mother, according to local papers. “My biggest fear was that she wouldn’t be able to come and see me graduate.” As Cassandra cried from the front row, the cancer was metastasizing to untreatable levels. She was laid to rest on March 5, buried in her casket with a single yellow rose.
Tariq withdrew during his mother’s illness. Each afternoon, he dropped his backpack by the front door, walked upstairs and sat quietly beside his sleeping mother until she woke up and they could watch television in silence. On the hardwood, however, Tariq was king. Basketball focused the mind and healed the wounds. “This is what saved Tariq,” Renard says of his son, who considered quitting the sport after his mother’s death. “He found a sense of peace out there.”
Renard loved basketball in his younger days, until his left knee gave out from three separate injuries. So if Tariq ever chose to play, Renard decided, he’d never allow his son to let go. He hired trainers and watched Tariq blossom into a highly recruited prospect, one who received offers from Miami and VCU, among others, before committing to Ohio on an official visit in early June.
“I was only playing because of him, because I knew he played,” Tariq says, pointing across the Pallotti basketball office to his father, who like him wears a No. 11 jersey. “I never told him this, but he played, so I wanted to play because he played.”
They call each other Pop, for bygone reasons neither can fully explain. This hardly helps clarify their relationship to strangers. Renard is “Pop” because he’s the father, but he has called Tariq “Pop” since childhood, too. “For no particular reason,” the elder Owens says. “It just happened and it just stuck.”
Between Tariq’s practices, tournaments, college visits and his own graveyard patrol shifts, Renard power-naps when he can, which on some afternoons means curling up on the couch, 30 minutes at a time.
But Renard is refreshed and energetic while courtside on a recent Saturday as B’More’s Finest, Tariq’s AAU team, competes in a tournament championship game. After his parents separated when he was 4 and his father remarried, Renard swore he would take an active role with his kids. “That’s why I’m a fanatic at my kids’ games,” he says. “They’ll never feel what I felt.”
So he barks constantly during the action, shouting “stay aggressive” as Tariq backpedals on defense. A shot goes up. “Box out, Pop,” Renard yells. “Box out.” This used to annoy Tariq, so they made a deal to keep Renard quiet. If he yelled too much, Renard owed Tariq some new electronics. He bought several video games and a cellphone upgrade before nixing the bets.
After the game, another comfortable win for Tariq and his teammates, Renard crossed the sideline and greeted his son by the three-point arc, engulfing him in a bear hug. Soon the Owens family nest will be empty, their worlds invariably shifting with time. Tariq will move out next June, the third and final child to achieve Cassandra’s dream. But until that moment of separation comes, they soldier on together, Renard laughing and Tariq playing along, perhaps becoming more like his father than he’d care to admit.
“Everybody’s like, you act like such a little kid,” Tariq says. “Well, do you see how my dad acts?”