Rakeem Wilson was shot and a freak accident threatened his playing career. But he’s thriving now on the court.
Recovering physically and mentally from a traumatic injury is difficult—sometimes too difficult. But, Wilson had been through worse.
As a high school sophomore, he should have been primarily focused on his blossoming basketball career. Instead, he was getting phone calls from his younger siblings complaining of hunger. That’s because his mother, LaChrystal Wilson, died of cancer in 2006.
Rakeem Wilson, at the age of 17, had to explain to his two brothers and sister that their mother would not be coming home from the hospital.
“My mom left me as a child,” Wilson says. “I wasn’t fully developed as a grown man, yet. It’s tough trying to grow up on your own.” Then he paused and sniffled.
He looked down. There was a long pause. His best friend passed away, but because he thinks about her all the time, that wasn’t something that happened years ago. Her death happens over and over again.
Wilson gathered his emotions. “I have no one to share my feelings with,” he says, admitting to having trust issues. “You know that one little thing that you keep to yourself, but you could tell one person? I don’t have anyone to talk to. I keep everything inside… and I don’t think I’ll ever feel that again.”
The loss accelerated his maturation and made him more family-oriented. He has a son named Zyeon now, and he’s more enthusiastic when talking about him. In fact, most of the underside of his left forearm is covered by his son’s name and birth date. Zyeon’s mother, Fatima Sidbury, became pregnant as a junior in high school. The parents are still together—a luxury Wilson never had.
If anyone can fill the emotional void in his life, it’d be Sidbury. But Wilson is reluctant to have much dependence on anyone. The last time he did that, she left him forever.
“The further along we go on, I believe she probably could fill that spot,” he says. “It probably could take her a little while.”
They’ve been together for about ten years.
Basketball is just a game, right? It’s played for enjoyment. It’s played for competition. It’s played for an escape from reality, sometimes.
A successful player’s guarantee of ample playing time doesn’t translate to a guarantee of anything off the court. Wilson was always a star athlete, but his life outside of 32-minute high school games couldn’t be solved with a three-pointer.
When Wilson got shot in the leg at a 2008 New Year’s party, the shooter didn’t take his life, but basketball was temporarily taken away. To him, those are one in the same.
When asked where he got shot, Wilson rolled up his right, jeans pant leg. He looked for a scar around his knee, but nothing was there. His demeanor was surprisingly casual.
“Oh, it must be my left leg,” he said, pulling up his other pant leg. “Yeah,” he muttered after he saw the slightly discolored, about six-inch scar.
Wilson and a group of friends had walked to the party in downtown Wilmington. When he got there, he had a bad feeling about it.
“By the time we got to the party, there was a whole bunch of altercations,” Wilson remembers. “People fighting and all that. We was basically at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He wasn’t there long before he heard a shotgun fire from someone leaning out of a passing car. Chaos ensued. Wilson took off running, trying to get away.
When he thought he had run far enough, he stopped to catch his breath. Blood dripping down his left leg caught his eye. “I didn’t even feel it until I stopped,” he says. The person who fired into the crowd didn’t intend to shoot Wilson, but pellets from the spray of the shotgun hit the 18 year old and a couple other people at the scene.
He went to the hospital where the pellets were “popped out.” As he explains, his tone remains nonchalant. “They never knew who it was,” he continues.
Would he like to know? “I don’t care,” he says. “It was a while ago.”
Wilson admits he took the incident personally. “I was just wondering, ‘Why me; is this a sign?’” he says. “It must be a sign of who the people I’m with.”
He changes the subject to talk more voluntarily about basketball. The 5-foot-9-inch point guard talks about missing the next two games after the shooting. One of them was at a cross-town rival’s sold-out gym, he says with a hint of lingering animosity.
Two games succumbed to the sidelines—two games without an escape.
It’s a feeling Wilson was all too familiar with. He was watching athletes play at the YMCA, while being reduced to a spectator. They ran at full speed, jumped with ferocity and drove to the basket with reckless abandonment. All things he used to be able to do.
An athlete’s greatest fear is not being good enough. Once a decorated high school player, Wilson now felt like a pariah on the court.
“I felt like if I ever went out there, I’d embarrass myself,” he says. So, Wilson was faced with a choice.
“In the spring, he showed up in my office and said, ‘Coach, I want to play basketball,’” Mantlo says. He started playing in five-on-five games at the YMCA, and began living up to his promises to attend open gyms at CFCC.
“He got out there the first time and was OK,” Mantlo says. “He was a little rusty with our guys, but you could see every time he stepped out on the floor, he became more confident and became the Rakeem Wilson that won a state title.”
Wilson never officially got medical clearance to play basketball again. When he looks far to his left, he gets double vision, and when he moves his left eye from right to left, the eyeball slightly “slides up.”
But, if he could make at least some degree of a successful comeback, Mantlo had just been given the best player he hardly had to recruit. “It was awesome,” Mantlo says with a smile. “It was a blessing in disguise that he got hurt kind of for us, and I think for him too. I think he’s in a great situation now.”
Just like he had done at Louisburg, Wilson went from obscurity on the depth chart to starter by the end of the preseason. Although his basketball life was returning to form, his persistent off-the-court issues were not resolved.
He missed six games because of two family-related problems, and CFCC lost four of those. His father, who is currently incarcerated, fell ill in what was initially feared to be life threatening. Later, one of his cousins was stabbed and killed.
Wilson took being shot as a sign that he was allowing himself to be caught up with the wrong crowd, but he says this is different. “My family comes first, no matter what now,” Wilson says. His natural, reserved nature turns brazen. “My mom was all I had; she was my whole family. So, whatever has to do with my family, I’m going to be there.”
That can be cause for concern with Mantlo. “It’s hard because he deals with a lot of that stuff,” Mantlo says. “He deals with… whoever it is. He deals with that. And that’s kind of scary. But, Rakeem is solid is in beliefs and he stands for what he believes.”
On the court, the 2010-11 season was a success for Wilson and CFCC. The team won the Region X regular season championship and finished eighth overall in the NJCAA national tournament. He led the team in assists (3.5 per game), steals (2.4) and free throw percentage (76.1), finished third in points (8.7) and was sixth on the team in rebounds (3.4). The average height of the players that collected more rebounds than him was 6-foot-7-inches—10 inches taller than Wilson.
To Mantlo, there were many other aspects of his game that helped CFCC finish with a 26-9 record. “He just makes so many small plays that don’t even show up in the box score,” he says. “The poor kid has been through so much turmoil, but I think, honestly, that’s what makes him so special.
“I think that’s what makes him so strong. He wills teams to victories, because he’s faced so much adversity that stuff on the basketball court is nothing.”
The court offers an escape from sadistic doors, personal tragedy and violent neighborhoods. The ants can’t find him there.