The Philadelphia policeman had a question. Unarmed, but still in uniform, the officer, who had spent his shift ushering basketball fans through metal detectors and into the Ben Franklin High gymnasium, was ready to call it a night. Before checking out, though, as the clock approached 10 on a late December night, he decided to knock on the door to the locker room where the American Christian (Aston, Pa.) team was celebrating its most recent win.
"Is Tyreke Evans in there?" he asked bystanders waiting outside the Eagles' locker room. "I have something to ask him."
Typically, the only questions that Evans fields after games are from reporters or adoring fans seeking autographs or photos. No doubt the same attention was warranted for this night's 27-point effort, which earned him Sneaker Villa Holiday Classic MVP honors. During the contest, Evans, a 6-foot-6, 205-pound shooting guard, split defenders with slippery crossovers and finished drives with striking athleticism.
After the officer knocked, the locker room door was opened by an assistant coach, and the officer made his way through the doorway. "No, nothing is wrong," he told the team. "I just wanted to see if Tyreke and his family wanted an escort to their cars. We'd be silly not to offer."
Evans was not being offered the escort to evade a quick-strike, camera-phone paparazzi. Rather, the officer was attempting to ensure that Evans, who earlier in the week had been identified by a local paper as a witness to an alleged gang-related shooting, made it to his car without incident. "I really don't think it is necessary," said James "Reggie" Evans, Tyreke's 35-year-old brother and guardian. "But we'll take it."
A little more than a month earlier, while in the driver's seat of his gold Ford Expedition, preparing to go to his mother's house for fresh-baked pie, Tyreke Evans had been joined by his 16-year-old cousin Jamar Evans in the front passenger seat. In the back were friends Dwayne Davis and Rasheen Blackwell. Tyreke told police that as he prepared to leave, he heard Davis and Blackwell yell as they saw someone approach the car: "Go, he's about to shoot." When he heard a shot fired, Tyreke said he ducked and stepped on the gas, nearly hitting a fire hydrant. He also told police that he heard a second, louder shot and saw Jamar putting a silver-handled gun in his sweatshirt pocket.
It has since been reported that 19-year-old Marcus Reason, the person who had approached the car, was killed by a single gunshot to the chest in the incident. Jamar Evans has been charged with first- and third-degree murder.
According to James and Tyreke, whose record is unblemished other than a few traffic violations, the two sat down with Delaware County detective Mike Palmer the next day at James' house. After corroborating Tyreke's story, the police have accepted Tyreke's wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time explanation and are not expected to file any charges against him. They believe the shooting to be related to an ongoing feud between gangs from the Toby Farms and Madison Street sections of Chester.
"It was weird because I am never really around the streets," said Tyreke, whose cousin is being held in the Delaware County prison. "I have too many games to play."
But in a case of life imitating a LeBron James marketing campaign, Tyreke Evans is now a witness. Hailed as the next great thing since starting his first varsity game as a seventh grader, he is now dealing with newfound infamy. "I have a clear conscience," said Evans, who is averaging 34.1 points per game. "I just hope the fans still come."
They're still coming, but with word circulating that Tyreke was at the murder scene, precautions are now being taken at American Christian games. Extra security was employed at a December tournament in Chester, but contrary to published reports, the family says no bodyguards have been hired to sit on the bench. And none were on hand in Philadelphia, when the off-duty policeman made his way to the Eagles locker room.
Subsequently joined by another officer, the two accompanied the team out a back door, walking the Evans family to their cars in a parking lot across the street from the school. Over his head, Evans wore his shirt, more for a fashion statement than for cover, and carried his MVP trophy in his right hand.
It was not always like this for Tyreke or American Christian. In 2002, the summer before Tyreke entered the seventh grade, James Evans helped coach his brother in a summer league. After one game, then-American Christian coach Ty Taylor, who had been in attendance to evaluate potential players, spotted Tyreke's ability. Taylor offered Tyreke a scholarship on the spot. "He told me my baby brother had a special gift and that he would put the school and team on the map," said James Evans. "I said sign him up. I already knew the academics were good because my daughter went there."
From Day 1, Tyreke was the varsity's main attraction. Playing for a small Christian school (enrollment: 340 in grades K-12), Tyreke created a buzz. The youngest of five brothers who came from three fathers, Tyreke had learned the game at the Seventh Street Park in Chester and on the rim that his brothers first bought for him.
"When I was getting out of college and working out to try professional ball, he would be in the gym doing a good amount of the same workouts," said 30-year-old Eric "Pooh" Evans, who was a two-time All-America at Cheyney University and now runs his own player development company. "You could tell he was different."
As Tyreke grew, the reps increased and so did his reputation. All the while, the brothers created an insular lifestyle, calling their support group Team Tyreke. If he needed something, whether it was a T-shirt or the 1999 Ford Expedition, complete with tinted windows and chrome rims, purchased by his brother Eric and a friend, Tyreke's brothers gave it to him. "We're his bodyguards, his marketers and anything else it takes to help him," said Julius "Doc" Evans, 37, the oldest brother, who has a photo of Tyreke as his cell phone's wallpaper.
His family may have been first to embrace Tyreke's talents, but it was not the only one to notice. At the beginning of Tyreke's sophomore year, Nike approached James Evans about running an AAU team that the shoe company would sponsor, providing free travel and gear. By establishing Team Final Inc., a non-profit company of which James is listed as the director, James Evans says he is able to protect his brother from unsavory types. "It was a win-win situation where I could assure that no one would take advantage of Tyreke," he says.
As the family gained fame, it also endured a loss. On Labor Day weekend 2006, Tyreke played in the inaugural Elite 24 at Harlem's Rucker Park. On the way home, the family stopped at a diner in New Jersey just before the Ben Franklin Bridge. After placing their orders, one of the brothers received a call that Tyreke's father, 78-year-old John Holmes, had passed away. He had gotten out of his truck and collapsed from a heart attack. Not wanting Tyreke to worry, they ordered the meal to go and did not inform him until they got home. "Tyreke just got real emotional for days," says his mother, Benita. "I think it made all of us even closer."
Soon thereafter, Tyreke's brothers assisted in bringing in a new coach to American Christian since the school wanted an outsider, not a teacher, to run the team. Knowing that the school was searching for a full-time coach, Tony Bergeron, an ambitious 35-year-old seeking a new challenge, first contacted James Evans through a mutual friend. Intrigued by Bergeron's resume, Evans invited him to a pizza shop in West Chester, Pa. "I laid out my plan during what was essentially a three- to four-hour job interview," said Bergeron, who built Wings Academy (Bronx, N.Y.) into a New York City power but was seeking a move following an attempted home break-in. "The program is more than Tyreke. It will continue after he leaves."
Bergeron, who typically dresses in black from head to toe, earned the Evans' approval and has surrounded Tyreke with six teammates from New York, each of whom live with assistant coaches. Bergeron says some 90 players expressed interest in coming to the school to play basketball and 50 actually applied. Ten joined last fall. "This all started with Tyreke and his star power to draw players wanting to play with him and gain exposure on a national scale," said Bergeron, who scheduled 43 games in 10 states this season.
The sudden high profile of American Christian has raised questions. Some coaches have labeled the program as just another rebel prep school. Adding fuel to that theory is the case of Michael Glover, a Bronx, N.Y., native who attended two high schools before enrolling at American Christian when Bergeron arrived. After graduating from American Christian, Glover signed with Seton Hall but has been declared academically ineligible by the NCAA this season. Bergeron and Glover say the hang up is about how much Glover's GPA jumped when he enrolled in American Christian. "You take a kid out of the Bronx River Projects and put him in my house in the middle of nowhere, of course his grades will jump," said Bergeron, who has invited the NCAA to investigate his school. So far nothing has come of the invitation.
"I think Tyreke is fine there academically because he did not parachute in from somewhere else," said one Division I head coach. "If they're doing anything with grades, Tyreke's whole transcript is there."
On the court, there is little more that Tyreke can do. He has reached a point in his prep career where only high-degree-of-difficulty shots evoke oohs and aahs. He has scored 50 points or more twice this season and has eclipsed the 3,000-point mark in his career. As a prep school, there is no state title for American Christian (which was 21-2 through Thursday) to chase, so what is there to play for?
"That's the problem we have with him," said Julius Evans. "He doesn't have that Kobe Bryant killer instinct to compete at the highest level, even when the competition is beneath him."
Perhaps American Christian assistant and Tyreke's personal trainer, Lamont Peterson, puts it best when talking about the school's basketball program these days. "This is a rock tour with Tyreke," Peterson said before a recent game. "Someone should have been taping all of this."
If the cameras had been rolling, they would have caught Jon Bon Jovi attending two games at the Tri State Sports Center, where American Christian plays its home games and where the Philadelphia Soul, the AFL team owned by Bon Jovi, practices. They could have followed him up and down the stadium steps at nearby Villanova University's football stadium, where Evans trained this summer.
Clean-cut with no tattoos, Evans has appeared on seven magazine covers, including Slam and Dime. But he has yet to commit to a college. Though he has watched as his former summer circuit opponents have enjoyed instant fame, he is the oldest 18-year-old, experience-wise, on the prep scene. "His peers were always his elders, even on the playgrounds," said James Evans. From Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley to Eric Gordon and Derrick Rose, Tyreke has played with or against them all, but not all scouts believe he will travel the same path.
"I think those players were all sure-shot one and dones," said one Big East coach. "Tyreke separates himself from pure athletes because he also has a skill set. I'm not sure that Tyreke is gone after one year, though."
Evans' short list of schools includes Villanova, Memphis, UConn, Louisville and Texas. Coaches still cozy up and talk with him after games, striking up innocuous conversations during the quiet recruiting period where they are permitted to evaluate but not talk with recruits. At least one college coach has picked up the tab for the brothers while in the same restaurant. Bergeron says he has thrown two runners for agents out of gyms in the last year, and to his knowledge, no one has been able to penetrate the perimeter set up by the brothers.
Still, there are the constant whispers that after Evans visits Memphis on Feb. 23 for the Tigers' showdown against Tennessee, he will commit to Memphis because of his family's friendship with influential facilitator William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley.
Wesley, who speaks in "we" and "us" when discussing Memphis, looks the part of a successful businessman and tells those he advises, "I would be doing you a disservice if I did not share this information with you." A mortgage broker by trade, he has counseled Memphis coach John Calipari on creating a sphere of influence in China, helped guide Camden, N.J., native Dajuan Wagner to Memphis and has advised Derrick Rose and his brothers along the way. "Wes is the guy who is there for the kids when they don't make it to the NBA," said one major Division I coach. "I have no problem with him in the picture."
"The family has known Wes for years before we knew Tyreke would be what he is today," James Evans said. "Blogs and papers love to associate his name with us. At the end of the day, Tyreke's commitment will not be about his brothers or Wes. It will be his decision."
Onlookers still buzz, though, whenever there is a sighting of Wesley with an Evans. There was Wesley, dressed to the nines with his arm around Eric Evans, outside the Memphis locker room following the Tigers' early-season win over UConn on Nov. 16 at Madison Square Garden. Carrying a green "Participant" credential in his left hand, Wesley huddled with Eric Evans and then Calipari in the bowels of the Garden.
As one major Division I coach says, "At least when you go up against North Carolina and Duke you know what you are up against. With Memphis and Wes, that's a wild card."
Last Monday at the Big Apple Basketball Invitational in New York City's Baruch College gym, fans, college recruiters and old-school icons like Howard Garfinkel and Ernie Lorch looked on as American Christian made its second trip of the season to the Big Apple.
"Is Tyreke Evans here tonight?" asked one Division I coach looking to evaluate the star.
When informed that Evans wouldn't be playing due to a concussion sustained while attempting to block a shot a week earlier, the coach rolled his eyes and departed out the gym's back door.
As the headliner on American Christian's nationwide tour, Tyreke's absence was notable, but he is scheduled to return to the New York metro area on Saturday when the Eagles take on St. Benedict's postgrad team in Newark, N.J. Tired and still recovering, Tyreke knows that the show must go on. Since the shooting, he has neither run nor hidden, seemingly unaffected by the near-death experience.
On Sunday, Evans and the Eagles are scheduled to play at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Just another weekend on tour. "It's a little tiring," said Evans about the travel. "But I just focus on the basketball."
No one in the family is saying where they expect Tyreke will wind up next year. With family roots in North Carolina, they are Tar Heel fans, but Tyreke felt he would not fit in the system that Roy Williams runs. Villanova pitches a vision of Tyreke staying home on a campus he knows so well, being the next star in Nova's four-guard offense.
Memphis would love Evans to follow Rose, who will likely leave after his freshman season, and enjoy the freedoms that Calipari affords his guards. Louisville, which was the apparent leader for so long, wants to pair him with signee Samardo Samuels, and will see him up close again when American Christian plays at Freedom Hall for the second time this season on Feb. 16. "After the Memphis visit I will sit down and make a choice," Evans said. "All are so good, but I have to see what is best for me."
Still, some question Evans' motivation on the court and whether he'll have a killer instinct at the next level. Because he has played at such a high level for so long, his uninspired nights have coaches wondering if he can turn it on next year as easily as he turns it off. "No matter the shooting or any nagging injuries, I just have to play my game," said Evans. "I just want to play. No questions asked."