All James Anthony Smith wanted for Christmas was a pair of bright red Nike Air Jordans. His mother paid $220 for the sneakers and gave her 17-year-old son his gift a bit early.
They went from store box to James's feet without ever passing under the tree at his Southeast Washington home. The Ballou High School sophomore enjoyed them for four days.
On Monday evening, police said a gunman shot James on a basketball court at the Frederick Douglass Community Center. His mother, Benita Smith, said whoever attacked her son took the sneakers. He was found a block away, on a street, shoeless. He died less than two hours later at a hospital.
"He was an all-American kid," said his mother, who works at a day-care center. "He loved his red shoes. He loved basketball. He loved his computer games. . . . I can't believe he was killed, all over a pair of shoes."
The shooter, Smith said, "just wasted another person's life, as well as his own."
Police Chief Peter Newsham said detectives "tentatively think it may have been a robbery," although the investigation is ongoing. No arrests had been made as of Tuesday evening.
The shooting occurred shortly before 6 p.m. on an outdoor basketball court at the community center in the 1900 block of Frederick Douglass Court SE, a cul-de-sac lined with newer-model homes with grass plots off Alabama Avenue and near Suitland Parkway. Police did not say if the shooting occurred during a game.
Police said James ran about a block after being shot, taking a path that cuts through a line of homes to the 1800 block of Bruce Place SE, where he collapsed. He lived with his mother; older brother, who works as a mechanic at Joint Base Andrews; and stepfather about one mile from the recreation center.
Smith said her son enjoyed Spanish classes and was working to shore up his grades. She said she allowed James to have his Christmas gift early "because he asked and he's a good kid." Before he left to play on Monday, Smith said he "told me he loved me."
D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), met with Smith and later called for more resources — police and otherwise — to combat crime in his political subdivision that struggles as among the most impoverished and crime-ridden in the District. He also called on teenagers to stop senseless killings.
"We need some new re-education as to how we should act as a people," White said. "We shouldn't devalue ourselves to an Air Jordan."
Killing over designer sneakers and jackets had been the motive in several killings a number of years ago, but hasn't surfaced in too many crimes recently. In 2012, $450 Helly Hansen jackets were prime targets for burglars and robbers in the Washington region. An Olney, Md., teenager was fatally stabbed at the Woodley Park Metro station after confronting another teen who was wearing his stolen jacket. That same year, a 19-year-old was shot to death in Northeast Washington by a man who wanted his white $200 Nike Zoom Rookie sneakers.
James was the District's 110th homicide victim this year, with killings citywide down from 129 at this time in 2016, a 15 percent drop. There were 135 homicides in the District in all of 2016.
But while homicides have declined overall in the District, they remained unchanged in Smith's Ward 8 — 44 so far this year, compared to 44 at this time last year. They represent about 40 percent of the total number of slayings in the entire city. Violent crime is down in all other categories, including armed robberies and shootings.
James was the sixth teenager under the age of 18 killed this year in the District and the second student from Ballou to die in violence in 2017.
The other, MyAngelo Starnes, 16, was fatally shot in September during a gun battle when he returned to a neighborhood his mother had moved away from. In 2015, another Ballou student, Malek Mercer, 15, was killed when his mother said he refused to give up his designer belt in a robbery.
Ellie Silverman and Perry Stein contributed to this report.