Sometimes Justin Kier writes his mother's name on the side of his basketball shoes, sometimes on the athletic tape hugging his ankles. It's always there, not so much as a reminder — for she never drifts from his mind — but as a tribute.
K stands for Keley, who, for 12 years, has been confined to a hospital bed inside her own mother's small house in a small town on the western edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
She is paralyzed, blind and unable to speak, the result of what doctors said was a fluke medical emergency at age 27 while driving her son to a family cookout.
"She's here with me," said Justin, a starting guard for the George Mason University Patriots. "I know she is proud of me. I've gotten to the point where I am doing everything for her now. Anything I do, I do for her."
He is a sophomore, still a teenager, but through life experiences, stepped onto an accelerated emotional path at an early age.
"Given what he has gone through," Patriots Coach Dave Paulsen said, "he has the ability to maybe take a wider view and a more balanced perspective than you and me, let alone the other 18- and 19-year-old kids."
With their mother disabled and their father out of the picture, Justin and his big brother, Rasheed, were raised by their grandmother in the same town where they had been living: Grottoes, Va., a hamlet of 2,700 residents, known for a limestone cavern, 15 miles south of Harrisonburg.
Beyond family, the boys were embraced by the community — a network of neighbors, relatives, church members, coaches and teachers who kept them on the proper path.
"They say it takes a village," said Justin's grandmother, Evelyn Kier. "I believe the Lord placed me right where I need to be because I had so many people step up. When I couldn't take them, somebody was always there. They both did so well because they had that support system."
The bond between family and community has remained firm. In each of Justin's first two seasons at George Mason, large groups have bussed to EagleBank Arena in Fairfax — this year, for the season opener against Lafayette.
The annual basketball outing used to be for a Washington Wizards game. Now, it's to watch Justin, the first male player from greater Harrisonburg to sign a Division I scholarship before high school graduation in more than 25 years.
"People like him and want to support him," said Chad Edwards, Kier's coach at Spotswood High School in Penn Laird. "He's first-class. The support system was important to him and his family, and he's appreciative. He has said thank you to everyone."
Edwards paused and, with a touch of emotion, said, "There's something about Justin."
When George Mason visited Harrisonburg a few weeks ago to play James Madison, a few hundred Kier supporters attended. Said Edwards, "I told him, he should get a cut of the gate tonight."
Spotswood was 88-9 during Kier's high school career and advanced to the state final twice. James Madison didn't recruit him very hard. He chose George Mason over the likes of Coastal Carolina, UNC Greensboro, Radford and Fairfield.
At George Mason, the 6-foot-4 guard has appeared in 46 of 47 games and started 42. He averaged 5.8 points and 4.5 rebounds last season and is contributing 10.6 and 3.8 through 13 games this winter. His early-season superlatives have included an 18 point game on 6-of-9 shooting at Louisville, and a career-high 22-point outing on 9-of-12 shooting against Morgan State last Friday.
Kier's track to George Mason was not easy.
He was 7 when the white Jeep Cherokee his mother was driving veered off a neighborhood street a few blocks from his grandmother's house and lurched into trees and bushes.
"It was just the two of us in the car," Justin said. "I remember leaving from the driveway. We were maybe two streets up from the house. She was having like a seizure. The car started to turn and ran into some trees. I didn't know what was going on. I was freaking out. The doors were locked. I couldn't get out. My door was slammed against the tree. I saw a window was open, so I crawled out."
Residents rushed to help and called 911.
"I was crying," he said. "They stayed with her. I ran to get my grandmother."
Evelyn raced to the scene while neighbors watched Justin and some cousins who were visiting.
"Devastating," Evelyn said.
According to doctors, Evelyn said, Keley had suffered a heart attack. Deprived of oxygen to her brain, Keley suffered irreparable damage. Movement is limited to her face and head.
"She hears you, but she cannot speak to you," Evelyn said. "She can follow; you can tell she is there. She can't see; she listens."
For more than two years, Keley received care at a nursing home in nearby Fishersville. After school, Justin and his brother took the bus to a bank where their grandmother worked. They did homework in the back of the office while she finished, then got into her car and stopped for a bite to eat before visiting Keley.
They were there so often, Evelyn said, "the people at the nursing home became part of the family. Everyone knew the boys."
Eventually, Keley joined the boys in Evelyn's house. A red wooden ramp was built from the driveway to the front door. Evelyn and visiting nurses provided care, with the boys helping out. Keley is mostly confined to bed but, on nice days, is taken outside in a wheelchair.
Unable to communicate with his mother, Justin said: "At first, I didn't really understand what was going on: Okay, my mom is in the hospital and she's going to get out. As I got older, it was tough. It hit me: Everyone's parents are supporting them, helping them."
Justin's support came from his grandmother — "my favorite human in the world" — and grandfather, who lives in Staunton. "He taught us life lessons," Justin said. "He taught us how to grow up faster. We couldn't wait any longer."
Said Evelyn: "He was never really given a chance to sit back and go, 'Boo-hoo-hoo.' "
Additional support came from Mill Creek Church of the Brethren in nearby Port Republic, as well as Spotswood coaches and teachers.
"They let me know I am not getting to college without my grades," Justin said. "I am not getting here without working hard and pushing through adversity. I don't know where I would be without them."
Edwards said he first learned of the family dynamic when Justin was in eighth grade. Justin's brother, Rasheed, was also a basketball player. (He ended up playing at a community college.) During the offseason, Rasheed missed several conditioning activities.
"I'm starting to get a little irritated," Edwards said. "I called him into the office and said I need to know what's going on. He said, 'Someone has to watch our mother and Justin has a brighter future than I do with basketball, so he needs to be here and I'll watch Mom.' It was a kick in the stomach."
During the recruiting process, Paulsen and assistant Aaron Kelly drove to Grottoes to meet Justin's mother and grandmother. Edwards had told them the backstory, but until they arrived, "You don't have a sense of the severity," Paulsen said. "That's when it struck home."
For his official campus visit, Justin rode with the coaches back to Fairfax, quality time in a quiet car for about two hours each way. "It gave us a better sense of who Justin is," Paulsen said, "and what's going on."
Despite the distance, Evelyn attends most George Mason home games. For the away games, she watches on TV or streams the play-by-play audio off the internet, turning up the volume, so her daughter can listen, too.
"You can see her eyes moving," Evelyn said. "You can really tell she is tuning into what's going on."
If she could speak, what would Keley say?
"Wow, oh my goodness," Evelyn said with a smile, "she would say how excited she is."