As three of his Blue Collar U teammates sat in the postgame media room talking about their 74-69 victory over the Red Scare in the semifinals of The Basketball Tournament at UD Arena Saturday night – “big boy basketball” they called it against competitors they respected like Scoochie Smith and Darrell Davis – Blake Hamilton stood outside in the hallway talking about “something bigger than basketball.”
It was the circumstance that bonded the two teams and the two cities – Buffalo and Dayton – that they represent.
This Thursday in the Oregon District – on the third anniversary of the 2019 mass shooting there – survivors of the horrific act that left nine victims dead and 37 injured are joining other people from the community for a “Celebrate The 9 Lives” event that will include musical performances, speakers and 9 minutes of silence.
Two days earlier – Tuesday night at UD Arena – Blue Collar U will meet Americana for Autism in the $1 million, winner-take-all TBT championship game.
Blue Collar U is made up mostly of former University of Buffalo players and the team wears blue and white-trimmed jerseys with the names of the 10 African-American victims killed in a mass shooting at a Buffalo grocery store this past May 14 by an 18-year-old white supremacist who has been charged with hate crimes.
The Dayton shooter – a 24-year-old white man from Bellbrook who, like his Buffalo counterpart, was wearing body armor and firing a semi-automatic assault weapon – was momentarily slowed by Jeremy Ganger, the bouncer at Ned Peppers, and then killed on the bar’s doorstep by police.
When the shooter began his 32-second rampage, people on Fifth Street, at Ganger’s urging, scrambled into the already crowded bar. It’s been estimated some 200 people were inside when the shooter made his dash for the door.
One of those inside was Red Scare forward Trey Landers, then a University of Dayton basketball player.
Outside on Fifth Street, Ryan Mikesell, another Red Scare player who also was a UD player then, was with two Flyers teammates. They had just been in line at a taco stand set up on the sidewalk in front of Blind Bob’s bar.
They had called an Uber and were maybe 30 feet from the stand when the gunman stepped out of a walkway from the alley and opened fire on the taco stand.
He killed three people – including his own sister – all of whom had been in line with the UD players.
‘We had to represent those people’
When the Buffalo shooting occurred, Hamilton – who played his final two college seasons for the Bulls and won All-MidAmerican Conference honors as a senior – was just finishing a pro season in Mongolia. Two months later he would be the captain of the Blue Collar U team.
He said he really was shaken when he heard what had happened:
“The guy targeted African Americans and our whole (Blue Collar) team is African American men. That could have happened to any one of us or to a cousin or our aunties or uncles.
“I thought we had to do something. We had to represent those people.”
In a group text with other Blue Collar players, he suggested the victims’ names on the backs of their jerseys and everyone agreed.
And so Saturday night, Wes Clark, who led Blue Collar with 22 points, wore the name of 67-year-old Heywood Patterson, a longtime Deacon at the Tabernacle Church of God and a father of three.
Across his back, 6-foot-8 Nick Perkins – who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds and wore a blue hard hat to the postgame session – had the name of 72-year-old community activist Katherine Massey, who just last year wrote a letter to the Buffalo News following the death of a 38-year-old man gunned down at a Buffalo gas station.
Pushing for more federal regulations of firearms, she wrote: “It is another gut-wrenching account of the escalating gun violence in Buffalo and many major U.S. cities.”
After Saturday’s victory, the Blue Collar U team had their traditional post-game remembrance. The players took off their jerseys and arranged them in a circle on the sideline of Blackburn Court. They then huddled over them and said The Lord’s Prayer.
“We want those names to live on,” Hamilton said.
That will be the intent Thursday night in Dayton, too, as the names of the Oregon District victims will echo along Fifth Street:
Nicholas Cumer (who was 25); Megan Betts (22); Derrick Fudge (57); Thomas McNichols (25); Lois Oglesby (27); Saheed Saleh,(38); Logan Turner (30); Beatrice Warren Curtis (36) and Monica Brickhouse (39).
Ganger was one of the many people wounded that night.
The former Troy High and Urbana University running back, who had also been a pro wrestler, suffered shrapnel wounds as he stood like an impenetrable force in the Ned Pepper doorway when the shooter came sprinting toward him and then momentarily paused.
That’s when police shot him.
Huddled in a doorway just a few away were two more college athletes, Cameron Campbell, a track athlete at Wright State and Kasey Hughes, a basketball player at Baldwin Wallace. They’d been friends since they met on a soccer field at age eight and then had gone to Springboro High together.
That night a person was shot dead right in front of them. The doorway where they hid was marred by bullet holes.
After the shaken Flyers players escaped the carnage, they returned to campus and in the wee hours that morning, coach Anthony Grant brought them together. He comforted the players and called all their parents.
Later he would give all the players on the team a pair of rubber bracelets to wear, one remembering the tornados that had ravaged parts of the Miami Valley some two months before the shooting. The other bracelet honored the Oregon District shooting victims.
The players wore them that season in what became a magical 29-2 campaign that rallied their wounded city.
That’s what the Blue Collar U players are trying to do as well for Buffalo.
“This city was always behind us,” former Bulls star CJ Massinburg, who had 10 points Saturday, told reporters at the start of the TBT. “They supported us and this city will always have a special place in our hearts.
“People lost their lives. It was a tough moment for the city of Buffalo, so it’s important for us to honor it. And with basketball, we bring a lot of joy to the city.”
‘They shouldn’t be forgotten’
Saturday night Hamilton said it’s about more than just bringing joy and remembrance:
“Tragic gun violence is something that unfortunately happens in our nation. This is about raising awareness and having those uncomfortable conversations we need to be having in America, if we want to evolve as a country.”
According to the Gun Violence Archive, as of Saturday night – in what’s been an especially deadly summer– there have been 382 mass shootings in America this year.
Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill banning assault weapons. It almost certainly will fail in the Senate.
The House vote went along party lines. Only two Republicans – none from Ohio – joined the Democrats in the passage.
New York Republican Chris Jacobs, whose district includes Buffalo, voted in favor of the legislation. He’s not up for reelection because he’s faced severe backlash for his support of gun control measures.
While he said he strongly supports the Second Amendment, he said in a written response that he “does not support easy access to high-powered semiautomatic weapons and large capacity magazines that have time and time again resulted in mass casualty shootings.
“We have a duty to provide for the safety of all Americans. These weapons do not belong in our communities.”
While the politicians squabble and end up mostly doing nothing, Hamilton and his teammates are doing all they can.
“At the end of the day we’re all lucky to be alive,” he said. “A lot of people just like us aren’t living because some racist or some bad guy killed them. They’re gone, but they shouldn’t be forgotten. They mattered. That’s why we’re proud to wear their names.
“This really is bigger than basketball.”
As Hamilton walked down the Arena hallway to rejoin his teammates, you saw the name on his back:
Mackneil once made a name for himself as a basketball player at Buffalo South Park High. At 53, he worked as a cook and had a 3-year-old son, Andre Jr.
He had gone to the grocery store to buy his little boy a cake.