After 15-Year-Old Basketball Prodigy Is Shot and Killed, New Jersey City Decides It’s Time for a Change

Armoni Sexton of Paterson, N.J., was 15 when he was shot and killed. (PHOTO CREDIT: I’m Possible Training)
Armoni Sexton of Paterson, N.J., was 15 when he was shot and killed. (PHOTO CREDIT: I’m Possible Training)

The combatants agreed to meet in a law office, in one of those ancient brick mills that cast shadows of Paterson’s flourishing past over its hard streets. This beef between up the hill and down the hill had to end, now that another child had died of gunfire. A basketball prodigy. A boy.

Street-smart elders had demanded the meeting, so here came teenagers and young adults from both neighborhoods last Monday night, slouching in the conference room’s red-leather chairs, leaning against a wall featuring a portrait of John Lennon. They quickly squared off like aggrieved litigants.

The tension between pockets of the these up-and-down neighborhoods in Paterson, considered one of the most violent small cities in the country, goes so far back that no one remembers how it began. But knives had replaced fists, and guns had replaced knives, and now Armoni Sexton, 15, a silky 6-foot-7 player with a shot at a world beyond, was dead.

“Why this kid?” Kenyatta Stewart, a lawyer who helped arrange the meeting, said, echoing the question that nagged those in the room. “Why do you pick the most talented, the tallest — the kid we all expected to be the next one?”

Armoni continues to light it up only on YouTube now, an exclamation point in a yellow jersey, dribbling with Kevin Durant assuredness, twirling his body for layups and dunks, safe in his hardwood home.

This city of 146,000 has a geographical divide in its famously picturesque gorge, and a territorial divide in the decades-long battles between groups from neighborhoods known as down the hill and up the hill. “This goes all the way back to ‘Hurricane’ Carter,” Jerry Speziale, the police director, said, referring to the Paterson boxer who was notoriously, and wrongly, convicted of murder in the 1960s.

While these groups sometimes go by nicknames — the 230 Boys, the Glock Boys, the Brick Squad — they are more neighborhood clusters than traditional gangs, Speziale said. This does not mean they are any less violent.

A humming heroin trade has taken root at a time when budget cuts have drastically reduced the police presence. Paterson had two dozen homicides last year, and has had six so far this year, including that of Armoni.

The tribal dispute that killed Armoni had no hold on him in life. He spent his first years down the hill, then moved up the hill. You could always find him on a court somewhere, his allegiance only to the game. He joined the elite Playaz Basketball Club, became a standout on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit, and emerged as one of the top players in the country’s class of 2018.

Off the court, Armoni could be an attentive older brother, a boy interested in cooking, a competitor willing to accept the challenge of 25, 50, 100 push-ups to build his body. On the court, though, his temper often got him in so much trouble that he was nicknamed Live Wire.

This may explain why Armoni didn’t go to one of the Catholic high schools regarded as basketball powerhouses; no one wanted to touch the live wire. He played, instead, for the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology, whose coach, Tommie Patterson, had been watching Armoni on the court for years.

“Like a live wire,” Patterson said. “It fit him perfectly.”

To help the boy mature, Patterson would have other players subject Armoni to shoves and trash-talking. Then he’d blow the whistle and say: This is what it’s going to be like, Moni. You have to prepare.

Armoni prepared. As a freshman last season, he averaged 18 points and 9 rebounds a game, leading his team. In one game, against Saddle Brook, he had 41 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocked shots and 5 steals.

He was a talent, but he was also just a kid from Paterson. “He wasn’t an angel, he wasn’t an A student,” Stewart, the lawyer-mentor, said. “But he was just like me.”

When Armoni was arrested this year for trying to sell drugs, his mother, Lawanda Sexton, who grew up down the hill, yanked him from Paterson Charter and sent him to a prep school in North Carolina.

Coach Patterson was taken aback, in part because there were still several games on the team’s schedule. But he also understood, since he had already recommended that Armoni’s mother send him to a prep school.

Why? Because, in the coach’s mind, the Paterson of his youth, tough but protective of its promising children, no longer existed. “I started to realize that people didn’t care,” he said. “You’re a basketball player? We don’t care. You ain’t nothing, and I ain’t nothing.”

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SOURCE: NY Times, Dan Barry

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