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Two hoops prospects, a dream and tragedy

Semaj Miller was a prospect from Compton, Fedonta ‘JB’ White was an ESPN 100 player from Santa Fe; gun violence claimed both in the span of three days

Semaj Miller and Fedonta “JB” White were talented teenagers with bright athletic futures.

Miller, a 6-foot-6 guard oozing with potential, was set to begin his freshman year at Compton High School. White, a 6-foot-8 forward and ESPN 100 player, accepted a scholarship to play college basketball at the University of New Mexico this season.

Those close to them bragged that they would eventually be pros. But in a span of three days, both were gone.

On July 29, Miller was shot to death in southeast Los Angeles in broad daylight. He was 14.

On Aug. 1, White was shot to death during an overnight house party just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 18.

Two senseless victims of gun violence.

Two communities devastated.

“I don’t want to believe it, I still can’t believe it,” said an emotional Zack Cole, White’s coach at Santa Fe High School. “I’ve gone from denial to anger. JB was such a special kid, and I can’t believe he’s not here.”

Mourners gathered two weeks ago in Santa Fe to say goodbye to White, whose coffin was draped with four jerseys: three jerseys of the teams he played for, and one jersey of the team he was set to join this winter, New Mexico.

A funeral service for Miller will be held Aug. 29 at Compton City Hall. During an Aug. 5 vigil, people paid their respects, including rapper Master P, whose son played basketball with Miller.

“Yesterday we were smiling, and today we’re in Compton burying kids,” Master P said at the vigil. “We have to stop these senseless killings.”

There’s an oft-repeated line from prominent athletes who make it from rough environments, who explain that without sports they’d either be dead or in jail. It’s a line said so frequently that it almost sounds clichéd. But there is truth in it.

White and Miller, during the course of most summers, might have been traveling on weekends with their club teams. But those activities were shut down because of COVID-19.

“The pandemic was a big factor in Miller being killed,” said Derrick Cooper, who coached Miller with the L.A. City Wildcats and helped develop NBA guards James Harden and Nick Young. “Had the pandemic not happened, Miller would have been with my youth academy, or working out with his high school coach or others who had taken him under their wing.”

Navigating the Instagram page of Miller provides a glimpse of his potential: perfect form from deep, smooth handles and effortless leaping ability.

“He had a little Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis in him,” said Tony Thomas, the coach at Compton who remembers getting an urgent call to come down to the DeMar DeRozan Gymnasium to watch Miller play. “He had a natural feel for the game, and a rare skill set for someone to be that young. He was tall, and growing. All the talent in the world.

“It was the intangibles he had to work on.”

The intangibles, according to Thomas, included learning to navigate the tough streets of Compton, a city whose gang violence has been well-documented.

“He lived in a tough neighborhood, a place where there’s a lot of gangs and drugs,” Thomas said. “He would travel on his bike going here and there, and it’s a lot for a 14-year-old to navigate.”

Ignatius Kabuye, Miller’s godfather, said Miller was a fun-loving kid but represented what he describes as being the worst combination in America.

“He was tall and he was Black and, to an untrained eye, he’s a threat to society,” said Kabuye, who runs a youth organization, Set-Apart Ptown Youth. “In actuality, he was 14 and still a baby.”

View this post on Instagram

My godson @gocrazzysemaj the word that comes to mind is loyalty, authenticity. You and Michael my biggest support system you don’t know what it means, I realize what you meant to me when you were almost killed, it put you in a different perspective a different column in my life. You are now a whoppin 6’6 at the tender age of 14..this is a dangerous combination for someone of our skin complexion, America will look at you and form assumptions that you some kind of monster even though obviously on the contrary, we as young black boys the reality is we have to be that much better and then some..the room for error or mistakes is SMALL..!!! you’re gonna be a great son..nothing less..! Love you #semajmiller #birthdayboy #birthday #14 #setapartptownyouth #godson

A post shared by Ignatius (@theonlyignatius) on

Kabuye said he often worried about Miller, even as he made a name for himself as a basketball player with the Wildcats.

Miller, who Kabuye said was picked on a lot as a kid because of his height, would ride his bicycle through the streets of Compton and Watts in Los Angeles searching for a game. For many young hoopers, that’s normal behavior. For a kid growing up in Compton, that’s putting your life in peril.

Cooper recalls recently driving through Watts and spotting Miller on his bike.

“I asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he told me he was on his way to a pickup game,” Cooper said. “I told Miller that wasn’t cool because he was in the wrong ‘hood. When I was growing up as an athlete, you got a pass if you played sports. It’s different today, and every time he got on his bike and went somewhere, it was a risk for him.”

But those pickup games were an outlet for Miller with the Wildcats having been shut down since March. Cooper watched tape of Miller playing basketball online during the lockdown and said the teenager was beginning to get comfortable with his height.

“After being called spaghetti and string bean, he was just starting to embrace his height,” Cooper said. “You could see he was starting to realize just how good he could be.”

Miller also spent time this summer training with Bryce Cartwright, a Compton native who played two years in the Big Ten where he was a co-captain at Iowa.

“You could tell he had the potential to play D-I,” Cartwright said. “With him getting taller and with four years to develop in high school, he could have been a high major kid.”

But Miller never even got the chance to play high school ball. His life was cut short in a southeast Los Angeles driveway on July 29. Police were called to the scene for a shooting at 2:20 p.m. and found Miller unconscious and unresponsive. There is no known motive, and police haven’t made an arrest in the incident that’s being investigated by detectives in the South Bureau Homicide unit.

“You worry about the kids, because this is such a tough area,” Kabuye said. “I’ve experienced a lot of death in my life and I’ve lost three kids from my camp, but Miller’s death hit hard. I have never been this broken before.”

Cooper remembers the time the lanky teen came into his office and saw his Harden jersey on display.

“He was like, ‘You’re gonna have to take the James Harden jersey down and put mine up, because I’m gonna be a bigger star than him,’ ” Cooper recalled. “I’ll be honest with you — and this is no disrespect to James and Nick who both played here — but Miller was better than both of them in the eighth grade.

“He was going to be the next big thing in California.”

JB White (center) was the most highly recruited player out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in decades.

Santa Fe High School

White helped put Santa Fe on the map.

He spent the first decade of his life worshipping football while growing up in Texas, but had shifted his focus to basketball once he moved to Santa Fe to live with his grandmother, Jude Voss.

Kevin Frey, who played four years at Xavier and nine years as a professional overseas, remembers the day White joined his AAU team eight years ago.

“He was early,” recalled Frey, who is now in player development. “And he was doing Mikans. I remember turning to a friend of mine and saying, ‘What 10-year-old comes to a gym and does Mikans on his own?’ …

“As he continued to grow as a player and a person, you knew he was going to be something special. The way he handled the ball reminds me of Lamar Odom, and in the post he was a lot like David West [Frey’s teammate at Xavier]. JB was really competitive.”

By the time White reached Santa Fe High School, where he played for Cole, he was ready to be an impact player in the state. During his three years on the team (he graduated early), he became one of the most highly recruited players out of Santa Fe.

White was smooth. He could take you off the dribble, or drain shots from a long distance. On a team that lacked height, White gave his team a chance and was instrumental in helping Santa Fe High School to three state tournament appearances (including the 2018 state championship game, which he missed due to injury).

“There’s no doubt with JB we would have won the blue [state championship] trophy instead of the red [runner-up],” Cole said. “The entire mindset of our program changed with him. He made everybody believe in themselves.”

As White’s stock rose, Santa Fe’s games became a destination for some of the nation’s top coaches. Oregon State, Utah, Colorado and Texas Tech all pursued him, but White committed to New Mexico early in his junior year.

The decision to play at New Mexico was easy for White, as it provided an opportunity for his grandmother to see him play. Voss had raised White since he was in the sixth grade, and his appreciation for her showed during an emotional television interview in 2018. “She does a lot for me and pays for a lot of stuff for me,” White said, as he struggled through tears. “I just want to see her happy. I just want to make it so I just don’t ever have to see her work again.”

Both Frey and Cole said that while White was a well-mannered teenager who was always smiling, he did attract some haters locally.

“There was some jealousy and envy and some people weren’t OK with the publicity JB was getting,” Cole said. “Players would talk and jaw with him on the court all the time, and adults and fans would say some nasty things to him. Some people didn’t understand the uniqueness and where he was going — from northern New Mexico, you just don’t see that.”

White played through the haters. Those who watched White over time were confident that, had he continued to develop, he was on the path to play basketball at the next level. White averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds while leading his high school team to the state quarterfinals as a junior.

“He was 18, still growing and I’m sure he was going to be a 6-foot-10 guy with point guard skills,” Cole said. “He was a special, once-in-a-lifetime talent who was just scratching the surface of how good he could be.”

White, who graduated from high school a year early in the spring so he could start college this year, often used his Twitter platform to congratulate and encourage his friends and teammates for their accomplishments.

On July 29, White shared his talent on Twitter with a video of him leaping over two friends while finishing an emphatic dunk.

It would be his last post on Twitter. Three days later, he was gone.

While Santa Fe may not be nationally known for violence, White became the third Santa Fe teenager to lose his life this summer in a city where the 2018 violent crime rate per 100,000 residents was above the national average.

The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office said White was involved in a fight just before being shot. Estevan Montoya, 16, was arrested and charged with four felony charges, including murder.

News of the shooting hit Santa Fe hard.

“Since this happened, every day has been difficult,” Cole said. “He had great people in his life, keeping his focus on basketball. And now he’s not here.”

Frey, who now lives in North Carolina, heard the news while driving with his 10-year-old son to a basketball tournament in South Carolina.

“[White’s] grandmother called me really upset, and I really couldn’t understand what she was saying at first,” Frey said. “And then it clicked. I pulled the car over and just sobbed, me and my son. He was like a big brother to my son. It’s just devastating.”

School administrators in Santa Fe returned to work last week, and one of the top topics discussed was White’s murder.

“How we can stop this violence will be a big focus of student governments this school year,” Cole said. “We’ve had a number of vigils after JB’s death. This is a situation where a lot of youth feel they need to carry a weapon, and it’s scary.”

As the community continues to grieve, Cole hopes to memorialize the most talented player many in his city have ever seen.

“We’ll retire his jersey, maybe we’ll rename the floor after him and have annual tournaments in his honor,” Cole said. “We’ll do whatever we can to make sure his name lives on.”

Liner Notes

Correction: The original story stated that Semaj Miller was shot to death in Compton. He, in fact, was shot in the 100 block of East 87th Place which is in Southeast Los Angeles.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.