For Kicks

The darkened employees’ lot behind The Daily Hub was as dull and gritty as a prison yard. The crushed rock of the lot; the concrete entrance; the building’s dingy steel paneling. It all blurred together in a wash of gray in the pre-dawn gloom, giving the impression that the world had not yet discovered color.

Paige disrupted the drab scene the way she did every morning: wheeling her ruby red Mustang in before 5 a.m., kicking up gravel and dust, the muffled thump of heavy bass announcing her arrival to no one. She emerged from the car — a graduation gift now three years old — into air so steamy, it might as well have been a Cambodian jungle. But she was in the dead-center of Mississippi, a good half-hour before the sun would break over the trees that lined the Pearl River to the east. She offered a silent prayer that the tin building’s decrepit, fickle central air unit had decided to play nice today. It was the second week of July, and the daytime temperature had been in the triple digits for five days straight. Nighttime brought almost no relief. 

Paige was always the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. It wasn’t that she was more dedicated than the rest of the newsroom staff. It’s just that being single and young meant she didn’t have the distractions that everyone else had. No kids to feed and hustle to school; no husband with whom to coordinate child pickup and band practice and dinner. No boyfriend; no girlfriend, for that matter. She didn’t even have a dog to walk.

Sure, there were times she missed the thrill of a new romance. She sometimes woke with still-fresh, erotic images of being in the arms of an old boyfriend or a celebrity. She once had a particularly lascivious dream that involved her septuagenarian boss — a disturbing hallucination that left her feeling gross and vowing to get out more.

Truth is, she had never had much time for romance in real life. In college, she was too busy reaching for the next brass ring to give much time to chasing boys. And she never quite fit in with the drama-laced, hair-flipping girls her age, try as she might. She gave sorority life a shot, but even the most mundane things about her seemed at odds with the preppy social aspects of it. Her parents, bless their hearts, had found the prospect of an alliterative name too cute to pass up, and so saddled her with: Paige Percy Powell. This gave her the ridiculous monogram of PPP. Not exactly sorority material.

She and her college boyfriend had parted ways just before graduation. He was heading to law school on the West Coast; she had plans to head to the opposite coast. Better to make a clean break of it. It was just as well: His last name was Anderson. Meaning, in the unlikely event that they could have made it all the way to the altar, her monogram would be an even more ridiculous PAP. 

These days, her job was her life, and she was OK with that — especially in this climate, when journalism jobs were hard to come by. Nearly all of her journalism school classmates had gone into public relations or some sort of internet marketing. She knew of one other girl who’d gotten an actual job in journalism, as a television reporter for a local station in Greenville, Mississippi. It paid even worse than the newspaper. Sucker.

Paige had graduated from the University of Mississippi two years earlier, intent on being the Next Big Thing at The New York Times. The Times, it seems, had other plans. She had made the trip to New York the week after graduation, gunning for a summer internship and the fantasy that they’d be so impressed with her keen news sense and writing prowess, she would be offered a permanent slot before the three-month stint was done. 

But the editor who interviewed her in the Times’ grand conference room oscillated between thinly-veiled contempt for her hillbilly roots in eastern Tennessee and mean-spirited amusement at her Ole Miss degree. He’d been sure to point out — twice — that he had a master’s from Columbia some 80 blocks up Broadway, and then squeamishly picked through her portfolio of news clips as though they might give him leprosy. Paige had been taken aback. It’s not like she walked in without any credentials. She had led her college’s student paper for an unprecedented three years. In that time, the newspaper had amassed a couple dozen awards, including those from Hearst, the National Student Press Association, and the Mississippi/Louisiana Associated Press Media Editors. Paige herself had headed a team that took home a Scripps Howard for documenting the sex trafficking of minors across the southeastern United States.

But this guy had clearly doubted she could find her way around a Manhattan block, much less the political minefield that was the Times’ newsroom. She was interviewing for a measly unpaid internship, not managing editor. He had all but shoved her from the building with a “don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

So, she had instead landed back in Mississippi, just north of the capital of Jackson, at the Flannery County Daily Hub. 

And she loved it.

The pay was abysmal; just enough to afford a shabby, one-bedroom basement apartment and a diet of Ramen noodles. Were it not for her mother’s pity and occasional checks — always accompanied by a note riddled with hyperbolic fears that Paige would otherwise starve — she would likely have already made the jump to public relations herself. But she reveled in the drama of local politics and crime, scandal and tragedy, compassion and redemption.

Paige had handled her share of sleuthing, uncovering petty corruption in the form of nepotism within the county board of supervisors and malfeasance at the top levels of city government. But that wasn’t her passion. Her joy came from writing about those who overcome adversity, and the people who would help society’s most disadvantaged with an outstretched hand. She loved playing a role in bringing together those in need and those with the ability to help. It demonstrated to the world how we all benefit from empathy and kindness.

That had been the central theme of her most recent series. It began months ago as so many of her stories do: with a phone call from a reader who had heard something interesting at Rotary or a party or from a coworker and thought, “This should be in the newspaper.”

The call had come in early May from a local clothing charity volunteer named Jim. The group was trying to raise money for a 15-year-old boy who had no shoes. Sounded simple enough, but, as with the best stories, there was a twist. This kid was a giant at 6-foot-9, with a size 22 shoe. 

“No one makes a size 22 shoe,” Jim said. “His mother can’t just run down to Foot Locker and pick up a couple pairs.”

A size 22 shoe has to be custom-made, Paige discovered, and a single pair of sneakers could run nearly $1,000 — out of range for a single mother working as a hospital orderly who was barely able to put enough food on the table for her gargantuan son. And more than one pair? Forget about it. That would be out of range for most middle-class families.

“And, believe me, this kid still has growing to do,” Jim said. “He may need even bigger shoes down the road. There’s no way his mother can afford that. Look, she works hard; pays her bills. This thing would be impossible for a lot of hardworking people. I mean, who expects their kid to become Goliath?”

The kid had been living the last few months in a worn-out pair of size 18 Adidas with the toes cut out, Jim said.

Paige remembered all too well how cruel kids that age can be. It broke her heart to think of what they had no doubt put this boy and his hobo shoes through.

If there was good news to be had from his plight, it was that the child’s bane was also likely to be his salvation. Along with his height and huge feet came some real talent on the basketball court and decent grades. D1 schools were already clamoring for a commitment. LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, USC — all had put out feelers for this kid. They were watching, and a full ride to a top-notch school was his for the taking, as long as he kept his grades up and his nose clean.

He even had a name seemingly hand-picked for basketball stardom: Darius Grimm.

“This kid is something, Paige; I’m telling you,” Jim had said. “This is a great story.”

She believed him. She was on the phone with the kid’s mother within the hour. The hook was as good as Jim had promised. Darius and his mother lived on what would be considered by some as the wrong side of the tracks — proverbially speaking, as the town no longer had any tracks or running trains. Corella Grimm was a single mom raising an only son after life threw her the cruelest of curves. The boy’s father had been killed in a U.S. Marine training accident when his helicopter went down near Camp Pendleton. Darius had been an infant, and Corella a stay-at-home mom. Her husband’s death changed that, and Corella had moved back to her hometown and found work at the local hospital as an orderly. She had wanted to get a degree and her RN license, but there was never enough money or time to make a go of it. So, she stayed in the job, taking on side jobs as a seamstress and scrambling to eke out a living while taking care of Darius.

What she lacked in money, she made up for in determination and high expectations for her son. She kept a keen eye on who he called friends, and she did not suffer back-talk or sloth. Church every Sunday was a given. So were daily chores and good grades. Darius was expected to be home by the time Corella got off work, with his homework done. Only then could he go down to the ball court on the corner and play. Later, when basketball practice took up Darius’ after-school hours, Corella had a heart-to-heart with the boy’s middle school coach, then later his high school coach.

“I don’t allow Darius to carry bad grades or hang with sorry, good-for-nothing friends,” she had told them. “I can’t be here when school lets out, but you can. I expect you to make sure he’s here working on his game, then going straight home. If his grades drop below a B in anything, he won’t be playing ball, you hear? If you want him on the team, you better make sure he’s doing his school work and stayin’ away from any bad influence.”

They were happy to oblige.

But what they couldn’t do was buy the boy’s shoes. Certainly the school couldn’t fund the expense. Even raising the money privately was a problem. The school had a sparsely-funded booster club that couldn’t afford such a gift. Taking the money from a college booster was, of course, out of the question.

That’s how the local charity had gotten involved, and its leaders hoped a column in the local newspaper would raise enough to get at least one pair of shoes.

Paige’s story had done more than that. The article — along with her photos of Darius and his cut-out shoes — had gone viral online, shared thousands of times. Within a few days, Paige got another call. This one was from the agent of DeShawn Johnston. Yes, that DeShawn Johnston: star center for the Miami Suns. 

It turned out, the 6-foot-11 Johnston also wore a size 22 shoe, and wanted to donate some of his brand-name sneakers to Darius.

“We thought maybe you could put us in touch with Darius,” the agent, Ken Rutledge, said. “DeShawn remembers what it was like to grow up poor.”

Indeed, the NBA star had grown up in similar circumstances. DeShawn was from New Orleans, and his size and talent had been the only things that had kept him out of the gangs. He hadn’t reached his full height until after high school — after he’d already been signed by Loyola in Chicago. He shot up nearly 5 inches from the summer before his freshman year to the start of his sophomore year, when he became the team’s starting center. He led the Cinderella team all the way to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament and was a first-round draft pick his senior year. He spent a decade in Los Angeles before being picked up as a free agent several years ago by Miami. He had four national championship rings and countless MVP titles. Outside of his professional ball career, he’d made millions in endorsements and had a couple of widely-panned roles in cheesy B-grade movies. Retirement was knocking, and he had plans to parlay his fame into a television broadcasting career. There wasn’t a person alive — basketball fan or not — who didn’t know his name.

Paige told the agent she’d put him in touch with the charity collecting money to help the kid and have them share Darius’ mother’s contact, if she was willing, but would like a phone interview with DeShawn for her trouble.

“I’ll see what I can do and get back to you,” Rutledge offered before hanging up.

The next time Paige’s phone rang that morning, it was DeShawn Johnston on the other end.

“Ms. Powell,” he’d said. “Happy to talk to you. That’s God’s work you’re doing helping this kid out. I wish someone had taken an interest in me and my mom at that age.”

“Mr. Johnston, I believe the whole world has taken notice of you,” Paige lobbed back, trying hard to tamp down the giddiness in her voice. She was star-struck.

“Ha! Not when I was a young teen,” he countered. “I was a lot like this kid; lots of interest from colleges for down the road, but no one in a position to help us when we needed it most. I want to change that for Darius. My nonprofit will send him a couple of pair of Jams.”

“Jams” were Johnston’s signature hightop that sold for just over $200 a pair. A normal sized pair. God only knows how much a custom-made pair would cost.

Paige spent another 20 minutes on the phone with the NBA superstar, taking notes and sketching out a follow-up story in her head. DeShawn told her he planned to pick out the pairs and box them up himself, and that they should arrive at Darius’ door within the coming days. By the time she hung up, the pro baller had risen several notches in her esteem.

“Good guy,” she had thought.

True to his word, the box had shown up two days later. Paige — and this time, the newspaper’s photographer — were there to capture the moment.

The box held more than just the shoes. Packed in with the black and red pairs of size 22 mid-tops was an official Miami Suns jacket, with Johnston’s name emblazoned on the back. A note from Johnston in the box said that the jacket might be a bit big yet for the boy, but that Johnston was sure Darius would grow into it soon enough.

“Best of luck, Darius,” the note had concluded. “I’m pulling for you.”

Darius’ first reaction to the box was what you’d expect from a teenage boy: All excited whoops and jumping and fist pumps. But within a minute he was covering his face and wiping away tears, overcome by his good fortune and the knowledge that somebody he idolized — someone the world idolized — cared about his welfare. This was the money shot, and the photographer managed no less than 50 frames of this hulking, crying kid holding on to a pair of DeShawn Johnston shoes as though they were the Holy Grail.

This time, Paige’s story was more than just a social media sensation. It was picked up by The Associated Press and appeared in newspapers across the country. Other news outlets also took interest. ESPN, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated — all ran stories from the angle of the benevolent DeShawn Johnston giving back after making it big. His agent ate it up — anything that kept his client’s name in the news in such glowing terms meant more marketability and, of course, more money.

There was some chatter about whether DeShawn’s generosity might hurt Darius’ chances of playing college ball, in a climate where buying so much as a sandwich for a recruit could spell trouble for a program with the NCAA. But most analysts agreed that Darius’ case was textbook for an NCAA waiver. His need was genuine, and DeShawn was not a booster to any of the big schools showing interest in the kid.

Paige talked to DeShawn a couple of more times as the superstar kept in touch with Darius. She was certain DeShawn’s motives were genuine and not a play for publicity. It leant an organic authenticity to the story that restored readers’ faith in humanity, if only for as long as it took to read 800 words. Paige didn’t get many feel-good stories. She was thankful to have this one.

If she had any trouble crafting the story, it came from the center of it — Darius himself. Oh, he was a good kid; affable with his friends and respectful of his mother and other adults. But, as large as his figure loomed, he was still just a kid, and like most teens was self-conscious and shy around adults. Then comes this stranger — a reporter, no less — who had endless questions for him. Questions about his circumstances and his feelings and thoughts. Questions he’d hardly examined for himself, much less for this woman he didn’t know and who was planning to broadcast his words to the whole world.

In the beginning, Paige was lucky to get more than grunted monosyllable responses from him. So she tried just talking — about her own life, her childhood, her teenage years. She did that for two days straight, even as she realized that her childhood in an all-white, tiny Appalachian town only served to highlight how far apart their worlds were.

It was on the second afternoon that Darius finally interrupted her.

“Miss Paige,” he said. “No offense, but … you talk more ’n anybody I ever met.”

They stared at each other for a long three seconds before they both burst into uncontrollable laughter.

By the time they had regained their composure, a wall had come down, and the conversation came easier, although Darius would never be the open book Paige was hoping for. And her efforts to get him to call her Paige fell on deaf ears.

“I’m 10 years older than you. You can call me Paige,” she would argue. She felt too young to be the recipient of the Southern mannerism that requires children to show deference to adults by addressing them as “Miss” and “Mister,“ “ma’am” or “sir.”

“Uh-uh,” Darius replied. “If Mama heard me calling you anything besides ‘Miss Paige,’ she’d have my hide.”

A couple of weeks after the first pairs of shoes arrived at Darius’ house, Paige got another call from the agent, Ken.

“DeShawn has gone a bit around the bend with this kid,” he said, and Paige detected an edge to his tone. “It’s like he’s planning a de facto adoption or something. Anyway, he’s been on a tear, cleaning out his closet. He’s got two boxes of clothes and shoes for Darius. Not just sneaks, either. Dress shoes, top-siders, jerseys, some Suns warm-up suits — everything.”

“That’s great,” Paige had said, noting that there was something about Ken she didn’t like. It was in the way he approached absolutely every situation as either a money-making opportunity or a waste of time. He was oily with greed, and it was clear he thought this meal ticket had run its course.

“So,” she continued, “I’d be happy to talk to DeShawn about it, if he’s got time.”

“DeShawn can do you one better,” Ken said. “He’s coming to Flannery himself to deliver the boxes and meet Darius. We’ll give you a call when all the plans are set.”

A week later, DeShawn and his entourage of handlers had shown up in the small town. They flew into Jackson and stayed at the Marriott, a little more than a half-hour’s drive away from Flannery. In tow were no fewer than a couple dozen reporters, including photographers and film crews from local media and those national outlets Ken had called to make sure DeShawn was the star of that week’s highlight reels. The crush of people meant the presentation had to take place outside Corella’s small home, and she seemed flustered by the to-do, flitting inside and out of the house out to bring out pitchers of sweet iced tea and all the glasses she could find in the cupboards for these visitors.

Darius had a passel of his own “friends” who’d shown up for the occasion, hoping to be a part of the hubbub and maybe have some of Darius’ newfound fame rub off on them. Darius’ star had been rising even before DeShawn Johnston had dropped into his life; he was the Wildcats’ leading scorer last year in his freshman season. Darius had not only the good fortune of size and talent, but a name not even Dick Vitale could have dreamed up. By his second high school game, in which he scored 56 points just by sitting under the basket, the Wildcats’ longtime announcer had dubbed Darius “The Grimm Reaper,” which had stuck. Darius was “Grimm” or “Big Un” to his coaches. But his friends and almost everyone else had taken to calling him “Reaper.”

Until then, most of these kids had never given Darius the time of day. Many had even ridiculed him for his outpaced size when they were younger. The exception was Andre Dozing, Darius’ best friend since grade school and a fellow big man at just under 6-foot-5 who played forward for the Wildcats. Gregarious and a bit of a ham, Andre was a charmer. Until their last year of middle school and Darius’ first real growth spurt, Andre had been the tallest kid in his grade by a foot and had been the one to watch for basketball stardom. Andre was with friends in the sixth grade when one of them badgered him about his last name, noting that Dozing reminded him of Sleepy, “you know, like the Snow White dwarf.” And from then on, Andre was “Dwarf,” a jab at his hulking stature that the kids found hilarious, in spite of — or maybe because of — its impropriety.

Andre and Darius had more than size and court skills in common. Like Darius, Andre missed out on having a dad around, as his father had spent the last 10 years in state prison on drug and assault charges. Both had single mothers who struggled to make ends meet. But their family dynamics ended there, with Andre’s family made up of a decidedly rougher crowd than Darius’.

Andre could have his own college basketball career and might even make the draft, if he could keep his grades up enough to stay on the court and get the scouts’ attention. It wouldn’t be easy to shine standing next to the phenom that Darius had become, but his friend’s fortune never seemed to get Andre down. He and Darius were thick as thieves, despite the misgivings of Darius’ mother. She worried about Andre’s influence. He’d been in minor trouble with the law — nothing serious, just some vandalism and, once, a petty shoplifting charge. But still, she did not approve and did not want Darius mixed up with anything — petty or otherwise — that could jeopardize his college chances.

It took Andre no time to win her over.

“Aw, Miz Grimm, you know I wouldn’t let Reaper get in no trouble,” he would rib, grinning from ear to ear when she would admonish them to get home from the court by 10 p.m. 

“He’s gonna win us a championship this year. Got to keep him clean and pretty,” he would tease, making a show of petting Darius’ head, drawing eye rolls and playful shoves from Darius.

Darius had seen no trouble with the law, not even minor offenses. Paige had checked with her source at the police station, a freshly-minted detective named Mike Cormier. Mike was 30, and his French-Indian heritage blessed him with the regal bone structure of the Natchez tribe — high, wide cheekbones and a strong jaw — and the golden complexion and piercing blue eyes of his European forefathers. His forebearers’ genes certainly played well together. Paige had considered asking him out, but had been reluctant to pull that trigger. Not because she held any old-fashioned notions about letting the man make the first move or putting on some coquettish facade — not her style. But she needed to tease out some specifics first. Like, was he seeing someone else? She didn’t wreck relationships. And was there an ethical issue to seeing someone she regularly called on for background information for various stories? There certainly wouldn’t be a case for conflict of interest; it’s not like he was ever even named in her stories, much less the focus of them. Still, she wanted to give it some more thought.

“There’s no file on him at all,” Mike had said when she called following her first story on Darius. “Not even a sealed juvenile record. We’ve had no calls of any kind to the house. I’ve coached him myself in Little League. He’s a good kid.”

DeShawn’s visit to Darius’ home had been gold for both him and those news outlets looking for a story in a week that is historically slow for sports — before the NBA conference finals and any real momentum in Major League baseball. But for Darius, it was life-changing. He couldn’t have been more elated if he’d gotten a visit from God himself.

Darius’ gratitude seemed to only fuel DeShawn more. He no doubt saw himself in the young Darius and imagined how thrilling it would have been to get such attention from Michael Jordan or Patrick Ewing 20 years earlier. Over-the-moon thrilling, and DeShawn wanted to keep the thrills coming. He wanted Darius to know that the moon and the stars could be his for the taking, if he just worked hard enough.

So, when the Suns made the NBA finals, DeShawn had Darius and his mother flown down to Miami to watch two of the games court-side. It was widely thought to be DeShawn’s last season, and he planned to go out a champion. And Darius was going to be there to see it.

Paige, of course, didn’t get to participate in the trip to Miami. The newspaper would never pay for such an extravagance. The story had long since been co-opted by bigger news outlets. She covered it as she did so many things — from her desk phone in Flannery, furiously typing out the excited, breathless wonder of Darius and Corella over their first-class flight, the opulence of the Ritz-Carlton, the thrill of the game played only feet from their seats. It was a delight to write.

The Suns did, in fact, take home the NBA trophy in June. A day after winning the championship, DeShawn announced the worst-kept secret in sports: He would be retiring, and joining ESPN as an NBA analyst. The clamor that followed kept him busy for weeks. There were victory parties and the parade in downtown Miami, tributes to recognize DeShawn’s lengthy career and countless interviews and photo ops. It had left no time for the calls to Darius that had become a frequent occurrence in both players’ lives in recent weeks, but DeShawn was set to meet with the teen today. Ken had called to let Paige know. It was now undeniable that the agent had tired of his client’s devotion to this teen. With DeShawn’s latest and final championship, his mentoring of Darius had stopped generating national attention. Rutledge likely was also worried that DeShawn’s retirement meant he could be on his way out in favor of a media talent agent.

Paige had carved out a few hours this afternoon to drop in on DeShawn and Darius’ meeting. Her plans this early morning were to pull some background from previous stories together for this latest followup.

Others began trickling in to the newsroom over the next hour or so: the head sports writer, lifestyles editor, managing editor, photographer. Paige had gotten most of her background assembled when her phone rang.

“Hey, Paige. I wanted to catch you early.”

It was Mike Cormier. It is kind of early for a source call from a detective, she mused. She’d long suspected he was interested in more than just her reporting. Maybe he was finally calling to ask her out.

“I thought you should know,” he said, his voice taking on a serious tone, “we picked up Darius Grimm overnight on armed robbery and murder charges.”