Jamar Board: A D.C. playground legend who never got out

Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Bobby Maze talks about his cousin, Jamar Board, at Jamar's family home in District Heights. Shoes that belonged to Board are seen at left.

Buy This Photo

Candlewax still flecks the viridian concrete at Barry Farm like the remnants of a mid-winter snowfall, the vestige of a memorial for a man known affectionately as the Silent Assassin. Born 28 years ago, Jamar Leon Board was called Silent because, as the stories went around the District’s neighborhood basketball courts, he killed foes quietly.

Ask anyone to name the area’s three greatest scorers in recent memory, and the stock response reads Steve Francis, Kevin Durant and Jamar Board. Francis was an all-star three times in his 10-year NBA career, a local legend at the University of Maryland. Durant has become one of the NBA’s brightest stars.

(Coutesy of the Board Family) - Jamar Board was called Silent because, as the stories went around the District’s neighborhood basketball courts, he killed foes quietly.

Join the discussion in our forums

Join the discussion in our forums

Talk about your favorite teams, start your own debates and discuss all the latest news in our new forums.

And Board? He died at approximately 2 a.m. on Dec. 29, when a single bullet pierced his temple in a bedroom along the 2100 block of Roslyn Avenue in District Heights. Police ruled it a suicide. There were no witnesses and there was no note.

Few outside the D.C. basketball fraternity have heard of Jamar Board, but in many ways, everyone knows him well. He’s every child who fantasized about basketball stardom; who taped posters of Michael Jordan dunking over Patrick Ewing onto their basement walls; who counted down from three to two to one-point-five to one, until the game-winner swished and the buzzer blared; who danced alone around the driveway or playground or local gym, high-fiving the heavens as the imaginary crowd chanted “M-V-P. M-V-P.”

Most of those kids grow up and find real jobs, because for how many can basketball truly become a career? One in a thousand? One in a million?

Board was a Dream Chaser, his obituary said. While his childhood peers found wealth and fame playing professionally,he kept waiting, torching local summer leagues and running open gyms, hustling money through games of one-on-one, wondering whether the game he loved would ever love him back.

Pictures, and memories

January afternoon cold seeps through the cracked windows, slithering under Bobby Maze’s ashen sweatpants and hood. It slaps his shins, where he has tattoos of his cousin’s face and a cracked tombstone, and tugs his haircut, where a barber buzzed “RIP SILENT.” Slouched in the driver’s seat outside a local Wendy’s, Maze flips through the pictures, and the memories, of his fallen cousin.

Bobby Maze and Jamar Board. B-Maze and Silent. Cousins by blood. Brothers for life. Maze grew up among Suitland’s Homer Avenue housing projects; Board on the 1200 block of Benning Road in Capitol Heights, separated only by neighborhood allegiances and a short drive, past rundown liquor stores and steel signs proclaiming, “We Have Joined Neighborhood Watch and Operation Identification.” Venturing alone into uncharted territory meant getting jumped, mugged or worse. But Maze’s people knew Board, and Board’s knew Maze. So everything was good so long as they journeyed together, which they always did.

Basketball was their engine of survival, a permanent distraction from drug trafficking and gang violence. Each played in college — Maze at Tennessee — and developed reputations as some of the baddest streetballers in the District.

Homer Avenue is desolate now, the single-story apartments demolished, the government’s only idea for ending the street’s murder, prostitution and drug use. Maze’s eyes look across the emptiness.

Locals saw talent in B-Maze and Silent, ushering them away from the streets and onto the courts. Occasionally they walked to Suitland High School, where Board and Maze graduated together in 2005. They scaled the chain-link fence and leaped onto an awning, slipping into the locked gymnasium for full-court one-on-one. Typically they were joined by Devin Tyler, a former offensive tackle with the Baltimore Ravens. Their other best friend never participated in the high jinks, though he grew up a three-pointer away in the Pennbrooke Apartment complex — a wiry teen named Kevin Durant.

Otherwise they lived for the local Run N Shoot fitness center, open 24 hours at the intersection of Marlboro Pike and Kipling Parkway. They slept on mats in a hardwood yoga studio, because regulars arrived at dawn for the morning’s first game. Board sometimes rose at 5 a.m. anyway, hoisting a few extra jumpers and then curling back beside his cousin. Folks called them the Two Heartbeats, an unstoppable tandem for the ages.

“It was love, man,” Maze says. “It was love.”

Living for ‘right now’

As the Golden State Warriors’ team bus winds along a California road, Jarrett Jack explains why children love sneakers. Brilliant colors attract the most attention, especially on the court. The newest editions are the envy of everyone.

“You might have a girl in your class you liked, and Jordans. Those are the only topics of discussion,” said Jack, a lifelong friend of B-Maze and Silent. “When you’re young, you live for the stuff you can achieve right now.”

For Board, “right now” never became more than “some day,” no matter how bright his future — or his shoes. Those sneakers now sit in countless boxes cascading off his mother’s washing machine, his dream commodified into three words: Just Do It.

Except it’s never that simple, no matter what the shoe advertisements say. Basketball is hardly a meritocracy and rarely grants quarter. Most players plateau in high school. A lucky few reach college. At the apex sit transcendent talents such as Durant. The next tiers are murkier, filled with the B-Mazes and Silents, where the difference in skills doesn’t match the divergence of fates.

“A lot of people have talent to make it to the league,” Jack said. “Making it to the league doesn’t mean you’re better than any one other person. Talent-wise, I think Board could have. Some people just don’t get those breaks for whatever reason.”

Board played at Alderson-Broaddus, a small West Virginia university of 800, and led Division II in three-pointers. Then he suited up for NAIA Mountain State (W. Va.) for one season, finally landing at the University of Pikeville in Kentucky. He lasted just nine games.

His former coaches all agree on the scouting report: elite shooter, at times uncoachable.

Board’s thoughts often drifted, wondering why teams never called or scouts never showed or that friend who actually reached the NBA never approached his bosses and commanded, “Give my man Jamar a chance.”

Issues arose off the court too, no longer the childish break-ins of a Suitland dreamer. In July 2005, a woman took Board to court for child support. Another did the same four years later. Police arrested him for marijuana possession in 2008, and again last June for drug distribution.

Each encounter humbled Board a little more, his friends say. Silent grew quieter over the years, the feistiness regressing with age. He quit smoking pot and got his body ripped. Those close to him say he longed to become a better father for his two sons. His work ethic intensified.

Few noticed. Board was a famous player — but almost exclusively among famous players. Not many decision-makers knew the Silent Assassin.

“It feels dark, empty,” Maze said. “You’re by yourself, looking at yourself in the mirror, thinking about hours spent in the gym, the games played, the obstacles met, the adversity overcome. When you love something so much, love makes you do crazy things. The game’s the same way. It makes you a little crazy.

“I felt like we had so much more left to do together.”

‘He was the gatekeeper’

Below the sympathy cards and teddy bears in Valerie Board’s kitchen — behind an innocuous red bag about which she remarks, “Those are my son’s remains” — rests a framed collage of 13 pictures. In every image, Board is alone. Dribbling at Barry Farm. Leaning on his mother’s stoop. Always staring into the abyss, eyes heavy with thought, like he’s drawn toward something brighter than the flash.

Friends dispersed after high school. Durant became a superstar. Tyler received a scholarship to Temple, latched on with the Ravens and recently played in the CFL. Maze attended the 2004 Capital Classic, on a regional team including Roy Hibbert and Jeff Green, and joined an AAU team with Ty Lawson and Durant. Then he bounced from prep school to the University of Oklahoma to a community college in Kansas, finally finding a home under Bruce Pearl at Tennessee.

Board often traveled with Maze, and they lived together during Maze’s junior year at Tennessee. To friends, however, Board represented home. Flights home meant seeing Silent, who could always be found in the gym.

“When you’re talking about basketball, you think about Board,” Durant said. “While everybody’s off playing in their respective countries, people like him hold it down for everybody back home. They’re like the godfathers. Especially Jamar. Most definitely, he was the gatekeeper.”

The literal gatekeeper of Barry Farm is Miles Rawls. A straight-shooting government employee who grew up in the adjacent housing projects, the Goodman League’s commissioner now emcees every summer game. It was Rawls who gave Board his nickname, one humid night six years ago.

Silent played fearless, a lefty shooter with unlimited range. But where others saw confidence, Rawls suspected anger, a chip on Board’s tattooed shoulder. Board loved measuring himself against the big names, the NBA stars who returned over the summer, but his attitude and swagger sometimes brought trouble.

“Ain’t nothing wrong having a bad attitude, but you just have to be able to control your attitude,” Rawls said. “He was one who couldn’t control it. His attitude would get the best of him. I would tell him, ‘You have to do something different. You never know who’s watching.’ People don’t like baggage.”

Still Board kept scoring, his legacy building. Before a crowd at Spingarn High School in 2011, he put on a legendary show one August afternoon. Fans leapt onto the floor while Rawls swooned over the speakers, oohing and ahhing at the Silent Assassin’s finest concerto. He finished with a Goodman League record that afternoon, 75 points, even though Rawls ended the game with four minutes left.

Maze played that day. So did another close friend, a future second overall NBA draft pick named Michael Beasley. “With the publicity, this might be the move you’re looking for,” Maze told Board afterward. Then Beasley walked over and whispered into his ear, “That was the greatest performance I’ve ever seen.”

Seventeen months later, Beasley grabbed his Phoenix Suns jersey and uncapped a permanent marker. In the white space of the number zero, he wrote, “I love you boy. You will never be forgotten. Nobody will ever be loud as Silent.”

Beasley shipped the jersey to the District. It was cremated with Board’s body.

RIP Silent

Maze lives comfortably now, playing overseas in Cyprus for Keravnos Strovolou. On a recent visit home, he unwraps a wad of twenties at Wendy’s. His black Audi trunk is crammed with the latest shoes, gifts his cousin should have received too.

But something happened last summer that left Maze and Board ticked off. Maybe it was the final straw. Nike brought its World Basketball Festival to town in July, and as Maze tells it, Team DC selected him and Board to anchor the team that would face Team Los Angeles. But 20 minutes before tip-off, a group of players not on the roster used their connections with the Team DC coach to weasel their way into the game. One started over Board. Wearing the forest-green No. 11 jersey now framed in memoriam beside the ashes and stuffed bears, Board played just five minutes before halftime, humiliated on his turf.

“That right there, was when I knew these people don’t give a [expletive],” Maze says. “They use you like a puppet.”

So when Maze moved to Cyprus, Board tagged along, searching for a fresh start. He practiced with Keravnos, each day growing a little more frustrated while he watched Maze dominate, convinced he could be doing the same. Opportunity finally knocked in early December, just before Maze was to fly home for winter break. Keravnos cut an injured player. A team official approached Maze. Keravnos wanted Board to try out.

But Board wasn’t around anymore, having headed home with a foot ailment. “I’ve got business to take care of,” Board told Maze.

Days later, the news hit: Silent was gone.

Maze was on Keravnos’s winter break, visiting a friend’s house in Memphis, when a flood of crushing text messages awoke him. Valerie Board was four hours into her graveyard shift as a special police officer when she broke into tears.

Later that evening in Houston, Durant inked “RIP SILENT” onto his brown Nikes, right next to the big, orange swoosh.

Whether Board’s death was intentional, a Prince George’s County police spokeswoman said, might never be known. An autopsy report is pending. Valerie Board insists it was an accident. The baby she raised wouldn’t jam a barrel into his forehead, cock the hammer and pull the trigger, even in his darkest of hours. Jamar Board, she says, had too much ahead.

On New Year’s Eve, hundreds flocked to Barry Farm for a vigil. Mourners erected a shrine beneath the west basket, where his jumpers splashed through the net. They stood along the three-point arc — Board’s territory — passing around a Bible to offer testimonies, and later applauding because, as someone testified, the Silent Assassin deserved one final standing ovation.

‘After Glow’

Cruising through his old neighborhood, Maze grips the steering wheel and nibbles a chicken sandwich, pondering the future. He plans to win a championship with Keravnos. Then he’ll see what summer brings. He wants to establish a charity event in Board’s honor at Tennessee. And he’ll certainly return to Barry Farm, where the Goodman League will venerate its Silent Assassin in similar fashion.

Parking outside their favorite clothing store, in the shadows of Homer Avenue, Maze opens the center armrest and cups a laminated funeral card the family handed out. Two pictures are printed onto the card’s front. In one, a shirtless Board turns away from the camera. He palms the basketball and stares into the ridges, like he’s Hamlet grieving to a leathery skull. On the flipside, two doves soar above a poem called “After Glow” by Helen Lowrie Marshall, which includes the words:

I’d like the memory of me to be a happy one.

I’d like to leave an echo

Whispering softly down the ways.

Maze now views Durant the same way Board did Maze: a source of inspiration representing a tangible, attainable goal. Board’s never materialized. Now Maze forges forward, bearing the load.

“I picture him saying, ‘Go for it. Go all the way for me,’ ” Maze says, sliding the card against his heart and opening the car door, his breath a ghost against the unforgiving cold.

 
Read what others are saying