If you combined their two tattoos — sad as it is to say — you would have a realistic depiction of their hometown this year.
Stretching all the way across his chest, Josh Cunningham has the skyline of Chicago topped by the words “Windy City.”
His University of Dayton teammate, Kyle Davis, whose body is an art museum of colorful ink work, has a new tat on his right arm. It’s one of the popular Day of the Dead skulls — a calavera, it’s called — from the All Soul’s Day celebrations in Mexico.
“I have relatives in my family from Mexico and I took Spanish in school, so I did a little research and learned about the Day of the Dead,” the 6-foot senior guard said. “I went with the skull to remember everybody in my life who was close to me and I lost.”
And this year Chicago has lost more people to gun violence than any other city in the nation. More than New York and Los Angeles combined.
According to DNAinfo Chicago, which tracks every shooting in the city, over 3,000 people have been shot and more than 520 have died. Thirty victims have been under 13.
It’s the city’s deadliest year in decades.
“Every city has violence, but not to the extent we are having violence,” Flyers forward Kendall Pollard, also from Chicago, said quietly. “People are dying left and right. I know it won’t ever stop — and that makes me sad — but I hope the numbers decrease so pretty soon we won’t be the murder capital of America.
In a real change-of-address coup for UD, Pollard, Davis and Cunningham not only have all ended up in Flyers uniforms, but all three likely will be starters this season.
But as they took some time to talk just outside the basketball offices on campus the other day, each had his hometown either on his body or his head and all three had Chicago deep in their heart.
Pollard wore a Chicago Bulls cap and Davis — along with tattoos of the Bulls and White Sox and the Michael Jordan Jumpman logo — sported some new work: The street sign from 86th and Union, the corner where he grew up on Chicago’s South Side.
Each player revealed he had been touched by gun violence over the years. Then again, it seems as if almost everybody on Chicago’s South Side has now.
Other cities — like Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit and Newark— have more gun murders per capita, but by sheer numbers, Chicago is tops.
Last month 92 people were shot and killed there, the most since July 1993. Last weekend eight people were killed and 35 wounded.
One of the fatalities was Dominice Hallom, who had been a standout point guard at Corliss High School a decade ago. When he was 18 he was shot twice in three months and survived. Over the next few years he was shot three more times and lived.
Finally, last Saturday afternoon — while sitting in a parked car in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood — the 27-year-old Hallom was shot a sixth time. This time it was fatal.
Earlier this month, eight people were killed by gunshots on one day. A ninth victim, an 11-year-old boy, died playing with a gun. Ironically, both his father and before that his grandfather and been shot and killed.
On another day this month, Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s Church on the South Side, got three calls from community members, each wanting to schedule a funeral for a victim of gun violence.
What’s especially troubling is that crime across the nation remains at historic lows. And until the past few years that had been the case in Chicago, too. Long gone, it seemed, were years like 1974, when there were 970 homicides and the span between 1990 and 1995 when the city averaged over 800 homicides a year.
But as things began to revert back in recent years, Pollard, Davis and Cunningham — all high school basketball players of note — found themselves all too close to one of the more publicized murders of 2013.
It happened in a showdown of public school powers when Pollard played for Simeon Career Academy and Davis and Cunningham played for rival Morgan Park.
“Simeon ended up beating us by two points and during the handshakes at the end of the game, one of my teammates got into an altercation with a Simeon player and it just went south from there,” Davis recalled.
“Security and police officers escorted both teams to the dressing rooms and the fans who had been getting into it were moved outside. And before we could even get dressed, a police officer came in and told us not to move. Somebody had gotten killed outside.”
Cunningham said his godmother was close to the shooting:
“She was going back to her car with my godsister after the game when the guy got shot a few cars in front of them. As soon as she heard the shots, she lay on top of my godsister on the ground and prayed they wouldn’t get hit.”
Davis remembered walking into school the next morning: “I didn’t realize until I saw how sad everyone was that it had been my friend.”
He was referring to Tyrone Lawson, an honor student and a big fan of the basketball team, who had been waiting for his mom to pick him up after the game. When the shooting started, he ran and was shot in the back.
“The day before in class I’d asked him if he was coming to the game,” Davis said. “He said, ‘Of course I’m coming out to support you all. I love going to the games.’ ”
‘You and me kid’
Innocent people are becoming victims more than ever this year.
Last month, Nykea Aldridge — the cousin of NBA star Dwyane Wade and a 32-year-old mother of four — was killed pushing a baby stroller with her 3-week-old child in it near the school where she had just registered her oldest children for the coming school year. Caught in the crossfire as two guys began firing at a nearby car, she was shot in the head.
Cunningham — who 11 years ago lost his father, Johnny, to a gunshot in unclear circumstances, he said — recalled a more recent time when he and his mother, LaTanya, stepped out of their house in mid-afternoon and were met by gunfire.
“We saw gunshots firing from one side of the block to the other,” he said. “We had to run back to our driveway and get into the house so we didn’t get shot.”
As for Davis, his Day of the Dead tattoo honors, among others, his great uncle Freddie who was killed several years ago when someone tried to rob him outside the shoe store he ran.
More recently, when he played at Hyde Park, before transferring to Morgan Park, he was a teammate of Fabyon Harris, a top college recruit whose brother, cousin and friend all were shot and killed in separate incidents a few weeks apart.
And Pollard said he will never forget the neighbor kid the next street over who was murdered in the alley behind his house.
“The boy was just 15 years old,” said Bridget Pollard, Kendall’s mother. “His mom had sent him to take the garbage out and someone blew his brains out. Kendall saw him lying back there and it devastated him.”
Yet, with all this going on around them, Pollard, Cunningham and Davis not only survived, they flourished.
Each credits the support of family and friends and, in some cases coaches, too, for his becoming a college basketball player instead of another sad statistic.
“Joshua was 9 when his father passed away, so I sat him down and said, ‘It’s just you and me kid, so we have to help each other out,’ ” said LaTanya, a payroll supervisor for the Chicago Public School system.
“I told him, ‘By no means do I want you to feel you have to take care of me. I’m the parent. I’ll take care of you. The only thing I want you to do is go to school, get good grades … and keep your room clean.’”
She and her son developed a tight bond and today he calls her every day to talk.
Pollard was raised by a mom and dad who were especially active in his life and Davis was raised by his mom, Rhonda, who was a single parent, but involved, as well.
She said the guiding principle she stressed with him was to ‘treat everybody the way you want to be treated.”
Davis did that and he said people responded:
“The community where I grew up, a lot of people sheltered me and protected me. They were proud that I’m not just hanging out in the neighborhood, that I’m doing something positive. They want to see me make it in life.”
A volatile convergence of problems has caused Chicago to erupt this year.
As LaTanya noted, there is a lack of jobs and money in many South Side neighborhoods, as well as minimal parental guidance or positive influence for some young people. And consequently, for many, there is a lack of hope.
That void, say authorities, is filled with guns, gang violence and the fueling of confrontation by social media .
“A gun is so easy to access it’s like going to the store a buying a candy bar,” said Pollard.
The Chicago Tribune reported that over 60 percent of the guns used in murders were purchased out of state, in places like neighboring Indiana, where gun laws are lax.
Another factor is many residents’ deep distrust of police, a long-standing rift that was further exacerbated by the 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald as he walked away from police. Chicago policeman Jason Van Dyke, who had 17 previous citizen complaints against him, shot him 16 times. Police withheld the video of the shooting for 13 months. Eventually Van Dyke was charged with murder and faces trial this year.
Rather than call police, some people take matters into their own hands.
“That’s why things don’t change,” Pollard said. “It’s tit-for-tat gang violence. With them it’s, ‘So if you kill my cousin then I’m gonna try to come kill yours. And then you’ll come back and try to kill my other cousin.’ And on and on it goes.
“Although everyone says ‘stop the violence,’ people should stop feeling the violence. By that, I mean a lot of the music we listen to, we just turn into that artist. But that artist is not out there on the street actually doing all that.”
What has set Pollard, Davis and Cunningham apart — besides a family structure that provided guidance and love and dreams — was that they were all Division I-caliber basketball players.
Davis committed first to UD and Pollard soon joined him.
The 6-foot-7 Cunningham was a year younger, and though he had almost four dozen college offers, his mom said, he initially followed her to her old school, Bradley University.
After averaging 7.5 points as a freshman, he transferred to UD, sat out a season per NCAA rules, and is set to begin play as a redshirt sophomore.
“He told me he should have picked Dayton the first time around,“ LaTanya said. “He absolutely loves Dayton now.”
A whole new world
Coming from Chicago to Dayton was a big transition at first for each of the players.
Bridget Pollard said her son “cried when I first dropped him off down there to go to college. But he’s fallen in love with the place.
“Now when he comes home, he’s ready to go back pretty soon. He says, ‘There’s nothing happening in Chicago. I’m going back to Dayton. I’m going back to the Big O.’”
Rhonda Davis agreed: “Dayton has opened up a whole new world for my son. It’s quiet there, it’s safe and the people there — the fans especially — they really support the players.”
While he agreed with his mom and said he does love Dayton, Pollard, like Davis and Cunningham, still holds a deep allegiance to his hometown
“I mess with the other guys here all the time,” the 6-foot-6 senior said. “I tell ‘em, ‘No matter what, Chicago is the best city in America.’ I especially mess with Darrel (Davis). He thinks Detroit is the best city ever. And Scooch (guard Scoochie Smith from the Bronx) is from New York and thinks it’s the greatest.
“But I can count on Kyle and Josh to support me. They know Chicago.”
Pollard said when he does return home, it’s not only to see his family and a few friends, but to get the food he can’t get in Dayton: “Portillo hot dogs, Harold’s Chicken and lots of deep dish pizza.”
Each of the three Chicago players said their parents seems relieved when they go back to Dayton.
“My mom might joke around about it, but underneath I know she’s really serious,” Pollard said. “She always worries something could happen at home. You can be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Bridget agreed: “Kendall is a good kid. He doesn’t hang out on the streets, but when he’s home I can’t go to sleep until he gets back in the house. You can be walking down the street minding your own business and get shot in the neck or the back of the head for nothing.
“That’s why I’m so glad that he got in the University of Dayton. When Tom Ostrom called and told me Archie Miller was interested in him, it made my day.
“When they came and took him to UD, they saved my baby’s life. Yes, they did.
“Now he was never a street kid, but by him playing basketball he could have been hurt if he stayed in the city of Chicago.
“So the way I see it, they saved my son’s life and they saved mine, too.
“Now I’m not one of those parents out there yelling in the streets: ‘My son is gone!…My son is gone! What am I ever gonna do now?’”