Keleaf Tate stepped out of the white Mercedes SUV, right around the corner from where his father was murdered in Northeast Washington, and flipped up the collar of his coat. A voice called out from a window, but Tate stared straight ahead at the cement path separating two aging red brick low-rise buildings in the D.C. public housing project he calls home.
The metal front door was unlocked, and darkness greeted Tate and his ride, Cesar Chavez boys’ basketball Coach Malcolm Battle, as they entered.
“I don’t go outside here like I used to,” Tate said.
He used a cellphone as a flashlight and walked past the closet full of awards that led to a flight of stairs up to his bedroom. Chipped maroon paint dotted the walls, empty except for a collage of magazine cutouts featuring NBA players. Two twin beds lined the walls. Tate unplugged a lamp and carried it back downstairs.
The light flicked on, and the room came to life. Two small children walked in from another room and sat on a couch. Tate’s 2-year-old nephew straddled a remote control car. A woman discreetly delivered a pan of food for dinner. Tate’s sister emerged carrying her newborn. A neighbor walked in and, upon being introduced to Battle, made predictions about the house Tate could afford with the earnings from his future professional basketball career.
Then Latissa Tate began to explain why she needs Keleaf, the sixth of her 10 children, to be the savior for a family decimated by seven deaths, four murders and two prison sentences while living in Kenilworth-Parkside, one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods.
“I always say, ‘You’re going to be the one to get me out of the projects,’ ” she said. “I just want something better for my children. I’m ready to leave now. I can’t take no more.”
Basketball has long been seen as a vehicle for socio-economic improvement within low-income inner-city communities, and Keleaf Tate, 17, is its latest test case from D.C.
The 6-foot-2 junior is an emerging point guard enjoying a strong season at Cesar Chavez and could be in line for a Division I scholarship opportunity before his high school career is complete. He would be the first member of his family to go to college, no small feat given the accumulation of personal tragedy in his life.
But the pressure to deliver on such promise is always far greater near the poverty line in a basketball hotbed such as Washington, where players from Tate’s background often veer off track despite their considerable talent. After a rare visit to his star player’s home last month, Battle worried what conversations like this one, in which so much is placed on a boy’s shoulders, could mean.
“They’re hinging everything on him making money, and that scares the hell out of me,” Battle said. “Because if that doesn’t happen, then what? Just getting out of here and going to school is a success story. ”
Nestled near the Anacostia Freeway, a park that was once a landfill and a decommissioned Pepco plant, Kenilworth-Parkside drew national headlines in 1988 when it became the country’s first public housing project to be sold to its residents. But it remains one of the more isolated and under-resourced areas in the city, according to a September 2015 report conducted by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit organization commissioned as part of the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative.
The survey conducted for the report concluded a vast majority of the nearly 1,400 families in the community are headed by single females and the poverty rate hovers above 40 percent. Unemployment is three times the city average, and police have designated the Kenilworth Public Housing Complex “a high crime area where illegal narcotics . . . are frequently sold, purchased and used.”
Keleaf Tate felt the effects of all these factors growing up in a five-bedroom unit that housed as many as 15 family members at one time.
He was so quiet as a child that his mother thought something might be wrong with him. Battle took his one-word answers for distrust when he first played on Cesar Chavez’s varsity basketball team as a freshman in 2013-14. Tate only began receiving consistent minutes once coaches noticed him picking up teammates’ dirty uniforms and toting them to the bus without being asked.
But he could always shoot the ball better than the other children his age and, along with his freckles and red hair, the sport became part of his identity within the neighborhood. So did his family’s undoing.
Over about a decade, almost every adult male figure in Tate’s life died, including four by homicide. Two of his older brothers are serving jail time for felonies committed within a few blocks of the Tates’ address.
Both were promising football players, and Keleaf Tate considers their missteps to be at the core of who he has become.
“I’m not going to go on the wrong path like they did,” he said.
But nothing rocked Tate like his father’s death in May 2012, right around the same time his hair mysteriously turned black. According to a police report from court records, Lamont Devore was stabbed to death with a steak knife by another man in a fight over Latissa Tate. David Bolden was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2013.
Keleaf Tate has not spoken much about the incident, which occurred just a few hundred feet from where he sleeps. Then just a seventh grader, he remembers his “heart was broken” when his mother woke him in the middle of the night to explain what happened. He missed weeks of school and teachers came over to console him. Basketball, Latissa Tate said, was the activity that “got his mind better.”
“It took me some time to get over it,” Keleaf said, “but I just told myself I was going to push myself.”
For just a moment, Tate lost his cool on the court earlier this month in a game against Thurgood Marshall. He didn’t like a traveling call and picked up a technical foul for barking an expletive at an official. Battle pulled Tate from the game, and the guard untucked his jersey as he stomped to the bench.
Tate later sought out the official to apologize, and the Eagles, who face IDEA on Thursday in the D.C. Public Charter School Athletic Association semifinals, still won the game. He is the smooth-shooting playmaker with tattoos and the team captain of a roster that includes six at-risk youths from the neighborhoods surrounding Cesar Chavez.
But the outbursts concern Battle.
“My greatest fear is that it unleashes itself at the worst possible time and somebody who doesn’t know the story tries to figure, ‘How the hell did that happen? How did he just explode?’ ” Battle said. “It’s like the kid didn’t get any help. He’s walking around with all this for so long.”
He paused and thought carefully before sharing the next detail.
“My dad killed himself when I was 16, and I haven’t got over it.”
Battle, 43, grew up not far from Kenilworth-Parkside in Southeast Washington. Players gravitate to him, Tate said, “because he knows how the streets is.”
But their coach carries scars beyond the gunshot wound below his left jawline, suffered when he was an innocent bystander in a 1991 drive-by shooting. Tate is around the same age as Battle was when his father killed his grandmother before taking his own life in Hampton, Va., in 1988 for reasons Malcolm Battle will never know.
The tragedy fueled turmoil. Battle was kicked off the Carroll boys’ basketball team his final two years of high school in D.C., and, once a coach helped him latch on with Maryland Eastern Shore and Salisbury State in college, he got booted from those teams as well. Battle said he continued on a downward spiral, even after getting a job as a substitute teacher in Prince George’s County, until his first child was born in 1995.
“Am I the type of man I would want my daughter with?” Battle asked rhetorically. “And I wasn’t, in any way, shape, form or fashion.”
More than 20 years later, he’s a pillar in the Kenilworth-Parkside community. Driving around Cesar Chavez, the eighth-year coach will stop and remind students to text him once they have walked home safely. He stocks “a breakfast box” in his office with snacks so his players have access to food. He checks in on children who have stopped coming to class, hopeful he can save them like he was saved.
But he can protect them only so much.
In December, when Cesar Chavez returned from an early-season game, the team was greeted by a brazen gunfight on a corner near school grounds. Last month, a man was found dead outside the gates of the school parking lot.
“As soon as you open your door, you’re in it,” Battle said. “Just getting to school every day, it’s like going to a maze. Playing basketball is the easy part.”
Latissa Tate began to list the names of the deceased with so little emotion it jarred Battle. One of her brothers was murdered in broad daylight over a North Face coat. The father of Keleaf’s half-brother died in a drive-by shooting while buying cigarettes at the corner store. Her father died of cancer the year after Devore was killed.
Tate, 41, is proud that, to this point, Keleaf has avoided the pitfalls of the neighborhood. But all this death has taken a toll on her. It’s rare that she makes the short walk over to Cesar Chavez. While her son develops into one of the city’s basketball stars, she’s rarely in the crowd to watch it live.
“Some days, I just sit in my room and talk to God,” Latissa Tate said. “I do get depressed.”
Keleaf has four younger siblings, and his mother also must help raise some of her 16 grandchildren with two sons incarcerated. Latissa works in the spring and summer at Nationals Park, and Keleaf’s 21-year-old brother, DeMarco, is a janitor at Burrville Elementary School. He has been a role model for the family because of his high school diploma, but the reality is they “only make ends meet,” DeMarco said.
Which is why so much is being placed on Keleaf’s basketball dreams.
He has become an honor roll student at Cesar Chavez and is beginning to take over games. Battle is convinced a Division I school already would have offered a scholarship if he played at a more visible private school. But Battle has no visions of grandeur. The goal, he said, is for Tate to get a free college education and perhaps set the stage for his younger siblings to do the same.
At times, Tate’s expectations seem grounded, too. He’s aware that “schoolwork will take me and basketball is just going to make me keep going,” he said.
But in a room full of family, Tate is still the same quiet boy who never had much to say, even as others map out the future for him. He doesn’t want to let them down.
“They’re watching me,” Tate said, pointing at the younger children sitting beside him. “I’m going to lead everybody else to the right path. That’s what I’m trying to do: Lead everybody to the right path.”