-- The cheer of the Spingarn boys basketball team before every game for deceased teammate Nathaniel "Fatts" Holmes.
Greta West is struggling for the right words--something that will bring meaning to the shooting death of her son in November. She is looking at the shrine assembled for Nathaniel Holmes on a makeshift mantel in her Southeast rowhouse, with pictures and trophies of the former Spingarn guard carefully placed to bring forth memories.
But on this afternoon late last month she remains choked, emotions still too fresh from her loss. "Some people might have took his attitude the wrong way, but he was real sweet," West said. "I never had problems out of him. . . . He liked to joke a lot. He'd give you [things] if you didn't have them."
Tonight, before No. 2 Spingarn (10-1) hosts No. 18 H.D. Woodson (11-2) at 7:30, the Green Wave will honor Holmes in a ceremony, giving his mother his team jersey and a plaque. His former teammates have dedicated this season to him.
What West has trouble saying about Holmes, his teammates and coaches say for her. The 18-year-old emerged last year to help Spingarn to the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship game for the only time in the 1990s. He showed flashes of talent both during the season and over the summer that had people eager to see where his skills could take him in his senior season.
"He was magical," said senior forward Chakowby Hicks. "He was the emotional leader. Every time we needed a big play, he'd deliver. His play was indescribable."
While he had a warm, sweet nature and was working hard to do right, Holmes also was trying to overcome academic struggles and a drug arrest to make something of his basketball gifts. Like many, he dreamed of the NBA.
Except Holmes, who carried the nickname "Fatts" since he was a chubby newborn, could not escape the streets. At 3 a.m. on Nov. 13, gunmen in two vehicles opened fire on the car Fatts was driving on Brentwood Road in Northeast, according to police reports. He was shot at least once and died two hours later at D.C. General Hospital. Police have made no arrests, and have few leads.
In the wake of the shooting, his family, friends and coaches have been left to make sense of Holmes's death, keep alive his memory--and maintain faith in a philosophy that you can eventually break from the status of the 'hood if you take the right path. The shooting, however, only shows how hard it can be to stay on that path.
At the time of his death, Holmes had successfully completed the first phase of a year-long juvenile drug program to which he was sentenced after being arrested and charged with possession of marijuana over the summer.
"All he wanted was to have somebody have faith in him," said Spingarn Coach William "Doc" Robinson, who, in his third year at the school, is as much a father figure to many of his players as he is guidance counselor and coach. "Nathaniel had come a long way, and had finally grasped on to positive things when this tragedy occurred. They shot him down like a dog. This boy hadn't done anything to anybody to shoot him like that."
In his memory, teammates wear black knit caps with a red patch that simply reads "Rest in Peace Fatts." Others wear T-shirts with a photo of him and the inscription, "In memory of Fatts, you were taken from us too soon." At practice, players can be heard uttering his favorite word, "Son."
"When we lost Fatts, we lost a lot of motivation and intensity," said starting senior guard and close friend Dominic Jones. "When things would go wrong, he would pick us right back up with his intensity. He was very aggressive and was the team's hardest worker on the court. Everybody loved Fatts."
Last season, Spingarn went 24-3 and made it to the DCIAA title game thanks, in large part, to Holmes. A transfer from Eastern (where he played on the junior varsity), he beat Coolidge in the DCIAA semifinals with a put-back in the final seconds. A slender, 6-foot-3 shooting guard, he was what basketball people refer to as a slasher, the type of player who scored by doing what was necessary to get to the basket.
Now, even without the guard, the Green Wave has its sights set on its first city title since Sherman Douglas led it to a 31-0 finish in 1985. And if it wins, it will be for Fatts.
"He was a good person," junior forward Anthony Williams said. "He didn't mess with nobody. He always liked to have fun and stuff. He was a hyper player. He'd come down the court dribbling and take it to the hole."
Holmes's game seemed to mature as he did. Last season, in just his first of varsity high school basketball, he started for one of the city's top teams and averaged 15 points per game. Last summer, his game continued to improve in the Kenner League at Georgetown.
For many players, this might be a fairly normal progression. For Holmes, it was much more. Two years before, he had spent time at Hamilton, an alternative public school where the city sends youths with academic and discipline problems. Holmes had both--though friends and coaches described him as about a "C" student--he frequently skipped class in favor of the playground.
School officials "would find him on the basketball court, instead of in school," West said. "He just loved to play basketball."
He arrived at Spingarn in the fall of 1998, hoping to fulfill a dream of wanting to play basketball for the Green Wave. But he soon would learn getting into Spingarn would prove much easier than playing for Robinson.
Robinson is a strict disciplinarian whose practices are more like a school lecture. His players don't scrimmage; instead, they spend most of their two-hour workouts executing their plays over and over. It was a new environment for Holmes, who had developed his basketball style on playgrounds, where the games are looser and discipline is among the first things forgotten.
"Doc Robinson on the high school level is like Bobby Knight," said Jones, referring to the legendary Indiana coach. "He doesn't cut us no slack. He is teaching us things now so that we won't be lost on the next level."
Sometimes, Holmes grew frustrated with Robinson's regimen. In a game last season against Eastern, the coach pulled him out for failing to run the team's offense as he was told. The player stormed off the court and into the locker room, where he broke down and cried. He eventually returned to the bench at the cajoling of his mother.
"He was my whipping post," Robinson said. "I stayed on him because he had talent. If I hadn't done that, he would have left to go into the streets and his death would have happened earlier."
Slowly, Holmes started to embrace the rules, and his teammates noticed. He used the court time offered by the Kenner League to improve his jump shot and spent hours after summer practice working on his game. When practice started this season, he attended regularly. His judgments on the court improved.
District Drug Court Judge George W. Mitchell said Holmes had passed three months of twice weekly drug tests and attended group counseling sessions once a week as part of the program in D.C. Superior Court designed for nonviolent, first-time offenders.
"He had stopped using drugs and was very responsive and bought into our program completely," said Mitchell, who attended the teenager's funeral. "It has a toughness that does not tolerate excuses for bad behavior."
Holmes still was allowed to continue playing basketball under the program. "Basketball represented a stability in his life that was really good," Mitchell said. "His strength was in basketball. I really thought he was going to be one of those million-dollar players."