A trigger is pulled. As another Cincinnati teen is buried, what happens to the young people who survive? And how much, really, separates those below the ground from those above? This is the story of five teens who have survived -- and the story of what they hope no one forgets.
NORTH COLLEGE HILL -- "Every time Ike's somewhere, I'm with him,” said 17-year-old Mike Mitchell. “If I was with him that day, the bullet could've gotten me too."
Mike plays small forward on the boys’ basketball team at North College Hill High School.
He sat with his four other senior teammates on this fall day: Dionte Sheckles, 18; Hakeem Griggs, 17; Zander Harvey, 17; and Benneet Harrison, 18.
Mike had the quietest personality of the five seniors, but on that particular day, he was the one with the most to say.
"I was on my way to him, to the park, when it happened," Mike said.
Mike was on his way to Crutchfield Park in August to meet his longtime friend and teammate, Isaac “Ike” Moore, 17. Before Mike could get there, an argument broke out between kids at the park before Jochar Dillard, 21, allegedly pulled out a gun. Ike, an innocent bystander, was shot and killed. Dillard was charged with murder in Ike’s death, though his attorney said Dillard’s sister was involved in a fight and the shots were fired in self defense.
Ike would’ve been playing his senior season at NCH this year. Now Mike and the other seniors plan to keep Ike’s memory alive on the court, while also living with the trauma gun violence leaves behind every time this happens.
And it happens a lot.
Ike was killed just outside the city limits. But, in Cincinnati alone, police data show there have been over 300 shootings in 2019. Thirty percent of the victims in those shootings were teenagers.
Eleven of those teenagers died, including No. 44: Ike.
Even Zander, an outgoing, bubbly spirit who plays shooting guard, couldn’t ignore the impact the gun violence had on him or his teammates.
“I always feel scared,” Zander said. “I just stay in the house and play games.”
The impact, for all of them, hits close to home.
When asked if they knew someone who had access to a gun, all five of them raised their hands.
“I know they keep it for protection, so I can’t really tell them don’t keep it, because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Benneet, who plays center/power forward.
But why do they feel like they need to protect themselves?
“‘Cause so many die,” Benneet said. “That’s why.”
For so many teens in Cincinnati, that’s life: Wait for the worst and hope for the best.
So when Hakeem asked me if I would come to a game this year, and all eyes focused on me, I realized just what showing up could mean.
I said yes.
Aaron Pullins runs Men Involved, an organization for young men 18 and under to get back on track after finding themselves on the bad side of the justice system.
Pullins has spent nearly three decades mentoring thousands of teens in Cincinnati.
On a cold November morning, he was printing photos of his work and putting them on his massive dining table, which looked to be about 50 feet long.
There were hundreds of photos. Crime scenes. Obituaries. Vigils. Funerals.
“I think we might run out of ink,” he said.
They covered every inch of the table -- the kind of table that could fit all 12 of your cousins for Christmas dinner without anyone feeling cramped.
“I’ve been to over 800 funerals,” he said.
Some of those funerals were the result of shootings. All of them were homicides in Cincinnati in the last 10 years.
“I’ve seen the shooters and the victims, becoming younger and younger. Like I said, this is happening in high school," Pullins said. “There’s always a black market on almost anything. People that are boosters, [then there’s] gun shows, [and then] people steal guns and they can sell them on the street.”
Assistant Chief of Police Paul Neudigate agreed.
“I think we brought in over fifteen, sixteen hundred guns last year... It’s not uncommon four to five guns every day off the streets,” Neudigate said. “If you look at the number of homicides per hundred thousand, unfortunately it puts us in an unenviable position because we are right near where Chicago is.”
How does he fight it?
Neudigate pointed to his department’s work to build police-community trust. Their most recent initiative has been the “Shoot This, Don’t Shoot That” program. The program, run by the CPD’s Homicide Unit, encourages young people to come forward with information instead of trying to solve problems with guns.
“We work very passionately and very diligently to try to bring resolution to all of these [shootings and cases],” Neudigate said.
Like Neudigate, Pullins has found his own way to fight teen gun violence. After experiencing its impact early in his childhood, he said it was mentorship that pointed him in the right direction.
“Once I encountered my sixth-grade gym teacher, who showed that he cared about me and wanted to teach me how to be a man and make the right decisions, I wanted to give that back,” Pullins said.
For the NCH boys basketball team’s five seniors, they have that mentor in their head coach.
'Long live Ike'
When I showed up to the basketball game in early December -- just as I said I would -- it was clear what kind of an impact just doing what you say you will do has on these teens.
“I know the kids really get excited when teachers and other staff members come to games, they want to show off,” Minor said. “And show that they’re worthy of somebody coming and watching them play.”
Show off they did. The team took home their first win of the season that night, 60-45, against Norwood High School.
Minor spends a lot of time throughout the year with his team off the court, from fishing trips to challenging them to coach young children in basketball summer camps. He said this is how he keeps them out of trouble.
“It does make a huge difference that I’m here,” Minor said. “You know, the day doesn’t end at 3, it doesn’t end at 5 after practice, it continues on until 9 or 10 o’clock at night.”
The seniors said they feel his commitment, too.
“He cares about us,” said Dionte, a point guard. “All the coaches call us. They make sure we’re safe.”
“I saw him everywhere [over the summer],” Hakeem said.
Minor talks to the boys nearly every day through texts and calls. He said losing players to gun violence has motivated him to do more. Ike is the second player in his 20-year coaching career who was shot and killed.
“You always ask yourself what could I have done differently to avoid that,” Minor said.
The motivation has become contagious on the team. Anyone who attends NCH games will see a reference to number 44.
Players wear his number on their warmup shirts and ink his number on their sneakers as students hold up “Forever #44” posters.
They say they don’t ever want him to be forgotten.
“[Ike would] say it’s movie year,” Benneet said. “It means we got a highlight tape.”
Mike nodded toward his teammates and the group he calls his brothers, then said:
“Long live Ike.”
The team will be paying tribute to Isaac “Ike” Moore before their home game against St. Bernard-Elmwood Place on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m.