From the time they were in junior high school in Northeast Washington, D.C., Stephen Barnes and Purnell Shands had been the best of friends.

They had lived around the corner from each other, and played basketball together at St. Anthony's High School in Washington and at Xavier University in New Orleans, and Purnell Shands thought he knew everything about Stephen Barnes.

Now there are two things that puzzle him: how and why his friend died.

Barnes died May 28, two weeks after some Xavier students found him in his dormitory-room bed, unable to move. Nearby were his clothes, spread out as if he were ready for Xavier's commencement mass that day.

He was taken to Charity Hospital, where he was intermittently conscious for the next two weeks but unable to speak.

"I think he could recognize his mother and grandmother when they came to see him," said Anthony Rachal, Xavier's executive vice president. "At one point, the doctors were hopeful, but he took a turn for the worse. It was a real shock when he died."

A spokesman for the Orleans Parish (county) coroner's office said that Barnes had suffered a cerebral contusion and a clot on the brain, the type of injury generally associated with a fall or blow on the head.

Police are still investigating the case.

University officials say that Barnes received the injury while he and some friends were boxing in a dormitory room the night of May 13 or early in the morning of May 14.

However, other sources say that he and some friends were engaging in horseplay while smoking marijuana and playing a game calle "airplane," in which a person falls backward into someone else's arms after marijuana has been blown in his face.

"But nobody was there to catch Stephen," one source said.

Police reportedly also are looking for Barnes' stereo and for about $130, which his mother had sent him to pay for his transportation home for the summer.

Although classes and final examinations were over, Barnes reportedly was staying on campus to try to line up financial aid because he had lost his basketball scholarship.

Barnes, a 5-foot-8 guard, averaged only 1.6 points per game last season for the Gold Rush, Xavier's basketball team.

"He didn't have any enemies," said Shands. "Stephen wasn't looked to for a lot of scoring. He was unselfish; he was the playmaker.

"I'm just trying to forget about it (Barnes' death). It hit me pretty hard. I can't figure out what happened."