A community loses its champion in killing of Victor McClinton

"I was, like, 'Victor, you're a guy from Watts trying to communicate to white, black, Asian, Latino. … There's no way you're going to do this,"' recalled close friend Jacques Bolton. "Well, he did it."

McClinton did it by communicating through the universal truths of fairness and compassion. Growing up without a father, he viewed his coaches at L.A.'s Verbum Dei High as fathers, and so that is how he coached and led the kids of Pasadena.

"He saw the best in every child he worked with," said Bakewell. "I would say, 'That kid's no good,' and Victor would say, 'Oh no, we can figure out a way to make him good."'

His leagues were conducted wherever he could beg or borrow space, in middle-school fields and church gymnasiums. Some of his kids wore shoes he would give them out of a camper attached to his Dodge Durango. Some of his kids were playing the sport for the first time. Yet all of his kids were stars.

For all the paperwork involved in the league, nothing was more important than the participation chart. Every kid would not only play at least half of the game, but every kid also would have a chance to make big plays.

Candace Lacy, a Pasadena singer who sent three children through the Brotherhood league, remembers when her son Israel, now a star running back at La Salle High, was the best player on his Brotherhood basketball team.

"He was scoring all the points in the first half, then Victor pulled him aside and said, 'I know you can make all the baskets, but let's pass the ball around and see who else can make the baskets,"' Lacy remembered. "Even now, Israel remembers that story as his most important lesson in teamwork."

This teamwork was stressed to the point where the gifted kids were expected to not only share with the others, but help mentor them as well.

"You would walk into a practice where the coach was late and you'd see the older kids working with the younger kids," said Pamela Simmons, who has had two children in the program. "The program was filled with this kind of warmth."

When the coaches bent the rules — as youth league coaches sometimes do — that warmth became heat. If the coaches fudged the participation chart, McClinton would publicly challenge, scold or even suspend them. If they yelled at the referees, they would be immediately embarrassed. More than once, folks remember McClinton running down out of the stands into the middle of the court or field while shouting, "Everyone shut up!"

"At first glance, he could be real prickly, with no bedside manner," said Tim Genske, a Pasadena businessman who had three boys go through the program. "But then it became so clear, this all worked because he had such a big heart."

Genske remembered when his oldest son Grant's team played in a championship game, McClinton sat at the scorer's table and shouted out play by play over the loudspeaker.

"Even when the last kid off the bench touched the ball, Victor would announce it with all kind of hyperbole," he said. "He made everyone feel special."

In the saddest of testaments to this legacy, on Christmas morning, Victor McClinton died while making someone feel special.

One of his Brotherhood coaches was visiting McClinton with his two grandchildren. The visit last about 30 minutes. As they were walking to the door, McClinton insisted on finding two large candy canes for the children. Then the group headed outside, as McClinton always walked his guests to their cars.

The coach buckled the children in the car and was conversing with McClinton on his front lawn when two cars roared down the street in alleged gang activity. Shots were fired, and a stray bullet pierced McClinton in the skull, dropping him to the sidewalk.

His wife Shelly and sons Kristian, 22, and Kameron, 19, rushed outside from the Christmas celebration to find him unconscious and unable to speak, leaving them unable to say goodbye. He was soon declared dead at Huntington Hospital. Three men have since been charged in connection with the murder.

The sudden senselessness of the act sent shock waves through an entire community. Hundreds of weeping mourners showed up two days later for a candlelight vigil on the steps of Pasadena City Hall. Later, at Pasadena's Assumption Church, more than 1,000 attended a funeral in which people were standing on the street. Clearly, by taking care of their children, this unassuming man had captured a city's heart.

"My husband would have been stunned by all this," said Shelly. "He didn't want recognition or applause, he just wanted every kid to have a fair chance to be a kid."

There are no plans for a permanent memorial for McClinton other than a proposed banner that will hang in a middle school gym. But his mark will remain in this town forever. You can find it there next weekend. Walk into the most unassuming church or school gym where kids are playing basketball. Pick out the most unathletic child on the floor. Watch him anxiously hold the ball. See him fearfully throw up a shot. Listen to his coaches and teammates shouting for the ball to find the basket. Feel the triumph that was Victor McClinton.

You can contribute to the Victor McClinton Family Fund through JPMorgan Chase, Cheryl McMurray, branch manager, 1405 Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena, CA, 91030.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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