In conjunction with the Boost Mobile Elite 24 on Aug. 28, ESPNHS is profiling California's 24 greatest streetball players. Some went on to become NBA stars, some were high school stars and pro flameouts, while others were beset by unlucky breaks or tragedy. The countdown continues with No. 6 on our list, 1990 Lynwood (Lynwood, Calif.) graduate Earnest Killum Jr.
The life of Ernest Lee, a previously profiled California streetball legend, was beset by tragedy.
The life of former Lynwood (Lynwood, Calif.) standout Earnest Killum Jr., was cut short, too, but Killum's circumstances differed.
Lee saw no hope without an NBA career and thought he had nothing else to offer. Killum never had a chance to live out his basketball dreams, but his life inspired more people than he could possibly imagine.
"Earnest stood out and made a difference on the court," said Kim Barfield-Hawkins, a classmate at Lynwood and Oregon State, where Killum played. "Everyone knew him as an impact, NBA-type player, but he also had a magnetic personality that drew people to him and made them feel comfortable."
There would be no comfort for Killum's younger brother Marcus Woods Jan. 17, 1992, when Dominguez (Compton, Calif.) played Downey (Downey, Calif.).
Something wasn't right to Woods, a Dominguez reserve. His mother, Thelma Woods, wasn't present and usually was.
"It was so strange; something was wrong, but I couldn't figure it out," Woods said. "The team already knew what happened."
After the game, then Dominguez coach Russell Otis told the junior guard words he'd feared for seven months: "Marc, you're brother is in the hospital."
The 6-foot-4 OSU sophomore guard suffered his second stroke, the first occurring in July 1991. Woods didn't need anyone to tell him it was serious.
"I broke down, I didn't know what to do," Woods said. "It was a long bus ride home."
On Jan. 20, four days after his final college game, a 13-point performance against Harold Miner and USC, 20-year old Earnest Killum Jr. died.
"I remember I was asleep, woke up and it was on ESPN that he passed away," said Juaquin Hawkins, a teammate of Killum's at Lynwood who played for the Houston Rockets. "Man, I cried so hard I couldn't stop.
"I actually had a premonition of him being in the hospital. I was devastated and didn't understand how that could happen to someone so good."
Killum definitely was good on the court – a devastating first step, a 42-inch vertical leap and an underappreciated jumper – but it didn't happen overnight.
Across the street from his home in Watts, Calif., he worked religiously on his game at Markham Middle School. His family lived in a gang-infested neighborhood off 107th Street between Central Boulevard and Compton Avenue. Kids there have to be tough just to walk down the street with confidence.
"Honest truth, when daylight would break, he would walk across the street and wake me up to get in some jumpers at Markham," Woods remembers. "He would wake up the neighbors to the sound of the ball. It could be dangerous at certain times out there. My mom was real afraid of that.
"I would look at this guy like, 'Are you crazy?'"
His sophomore year of high school, Killum Jr. dedicated himself to religion and showed the same drive on the court. He played in streetball games at Will Rodgers Park and venture into the nearby Hacienda and Nickerson Gardens Housing Projects in search of stiff competition. The place where his game grew the most, however, was at 109th Street Recreation Center. He played with local legends like Ed Catchings, a former UNLV player, and Stephon Davis, the 1988 L.A. City 3A Player of the Year.
"Stephon wanted to play with Earnest," Woods said. "He had so many friends from all over like Ed O'Bannon of Artesia and Willie McGinest from Long Beach Poly. That was his thing -- he cared so much about people."
And people cared about him.
His underclassmen teammates didn't just respect him – they idolized him. His funeral at Lynwood High was more packed than games, which spoke volumes.
His OSU teammates served as pallbearers. McGinest showed up, as did playground peers from 109th. Otis and other rival coaches were present. Even coaches that lost the recruiting battle from Long Beach State and Oklahoma paid their respects.
It didn't take long for hundreds of Watts residents to sign a petition to rename the 109th St. Rec Cen the Earnest Killum Jr. Community Building.
Killum Jr. had special talent. Hawkins gives credit to his fallen teammate for lasting inspiration.
"Everybody was hurt when E.K. passed," Hawkins said. "I learned so much from Earnest. He's the reason I made it to the NBA."