Football's the easy part for Basped

6/10/2010 - NFL New York Jets

A crowd of mourners gathered in the lobby of Thompson Funeral Home, none willing to be the first to enter the viewing room. The group was paralyzed by shock and sadness. Or maybe it was dread, the thought of seeing a 21-year-old man, shot in the face by a street gang, laid out in an open casket.

So they waited ... until the deceased's younger brother, a child in a roomful of adults, opened the door and started a one-person funeral procession.

"Imagine being just 14, walking down a long aisle, in a room by yourself, in complete silence and seeing your role model -- your hero -- just lifeless," Kevin Basped says now, eight years later, a fully grown rookie linebacker for the New York Jets.

Yes, imagine.

Imagine being raised in a dysfunctional home in Sacramento's most notorious neighborhood, a place where the night air was filled with two sounds -- crickets and gunfire.

Imagine the shame of having coaches from your dream school, Arizona State, trapped in your house on a recruiting visit because rival gangs were shooting at each other in the street.

Imagine being afraid inside the house whenever your father came home.

Imagine losing an older sister to diabetes only five years after your brother's murder, and being so distraught that you skipped the funeral because you couldn't bear the pain of another forever goodbye.

That Kevin Basped has made it this far -- at 22, an undrafted free agent with intriguing long-term potential -- might be a small miracle. He seemed so lost, so alone that day at his brother's funeral, when he sobbed for the man who shielded him from harm and introduced him to football.

Relatives feared for Basped, thinking he would endanger his life by seeking revenge on the street, but he walked peacefully into the darkness of his altered life. He managed to avoid the sinister temptations of his neighborhood, motivated by a small photo and saved by the big heart of an unlikely guardian angel.

• • •

Kathy Navarro was a secretary at Florin High School when she first met Basped. It was the start of his junior year, and she was immediately taken by his respectful nature. He wasn't like the other football players, who acted like they owned the place. He was understated and upbeat, but there were hidden scars. A grandmother with two grown children, Kathy's maternal radar sensed it immediately.

"Just listening to him, I could tell he was looking for love," Navarro says. "He wanted somebody to appreciate him. At the time, he had no self-esteem."

It didn't take a psychologist to figure out why, considering Basped's turbulent home life. His mother, Frances Basped, worked two jobs and wasn't around much. She never attended any of Kevin's football games, according to friends. When he needed a parent to accompany him for a ceremony on Senior Night, he asked Navarro.

Basped said his relationship with his father, Mohammed Tanko, was "real sour." According to Kevin and his mother, Tanko was prone to alcohol-fueled rages and physical abuse of his wife and children.

The one constant in Basped's life was his older brother, Demetris Whiteside, who gave Kevin a scuffed football helmet and a pair of beat-up shoulder pads when he was 7. They played in a nearby field, and they felt an instant connection to the game. To this day, whenever Basped suits up, he travels back to those innocent days.

"It brings me back to the first time," he says, smiling.

Basped played pee-wee ball for the Sacramento Raiders and was starting to make himself a name when, suddenly, everything stopped. On May 26, 2002, Demetris was on a couch at a friend's house when somebody broke in. Nobody seems to know what happened next, but Demetris ended up with a .22 bullet in the face.

Police, only a block away when they heard shots, found the body under a stairway leading to a nearby alley. Curiously, it took some time for family to be notified. Frances Basped remembers hearing about a murder victim on the news the next night, thinking, "I feel sorry for that family." Now, she adds, "That family was me."

It devastated Kevin, who was supposed to join his brother the next day for a fishing trip.

"It was overwhelming for me, not having a father figure around," he says. "It felt like your world is crumbling and you're alone."

The murder occurred in a South Sacramento neighborhood called Franklin Villa, an eight-block area that was producing about 6,000 calls per year to the police. Whiteside was the Villa's 31st homicide victim in 19 years, stirring the emotions of longtime residents who were tired of the gang violence.

"That neighborhood swallows up kids every day," says Abe Snobar, an assistant coach at Florin High and one of Basped's confidantes.

A day after the murder, a homemade sign was hung above the stairway where Whiteside was found. The sign read:

"Remember the Children."

• • •

Basped remembers his older brother with a wallet-sized photo that was snapped a week before the murder. The picture, taken at Kevin's 14th birthday party, is one of his prized possessions, a reminder of their last day together. He uses it for inspiration, and it's rarely far from his reach. After a recent Jets practice, he reached into his locker for the photo, showing it to a visitor.

After the murder, Basped made decisions that shaped his life. He ignored the eye-for-an-eye mentality of the street, deciding not to retaliate even though he says he knows who pulled the trigger. According to Basped, the killer never was charged.

Next, Basped decided to get out of his neighborhood, transferring from the local high school (Hiram Johnson) to Florin. It was a brutal commute -- nearly two hours on the bus each morning -- but he believes the change saved his life. He tries to envision what might have happened if he had stayed at Johnson, one of the roughest schools in the city.

"I would've been still stricken by poverty and I maybe would've fallen into gang activity or had a juvenile record," he says. "You wouldn't see me today. I'd be locked up. I'd be like many others."

At Florin, Basped met Navarro, and they clicked.

Recognizing Basped's potential as a person and a player, Navarro made it her business to get involved in his life, offering guidance and a loving family. After graduation, she welcomed him into her home, a respite from the chaos and peril of his old neighborhood and life.

They turned a lot of heads, all right. Still do.

Even though she never legally adopted him, Navarro introduces Kevin as "my son." She's a white divorcée, the mother of a 40-year-old son and a 36-year-old daughter. Among strangers they get a lot of "weird looks," she says, not minding at all. He's part of their family. Period.

Basped's story has a Hollywood feel to it, a West Coast version of "The Blind Side." He found a new home, a new family and a new view of the world. He was given his own bedroom, and still stays there whenever he returns to Sacramento. He still visits his mother, but he tries to avoid that part of town; too much potential trouble over there. He prefers to be with his "second family," as he calls them.

"It took a whole family to make this kid realize he's worth something," says Navarro, who made the two-hour drive to Reno to attend every home game during Basped's college career at Nevada.

Actually, Basped wanted to play for Arizona State, but on signing day his mother did a 180 and refused to co-sign the letter of intent. She says the school was too far from home, but others believe she changed her mind because she's a Jehovah's Witness and wouldn't sign anything with the words "Sun Devils" on it. She didn't deny that was a factor.

Snobar reached out to Basped's father, hoping he'd give the parental signature, but he also refused. For Basped, it was another dream shattered.

After the initial disappointment, he persevered at Nevada, recording 19½ sacks as a defensive end over his final two seasons. He skipped his senior year, seeking NFL riches, but he went undrafted. He doesn't regret the decision, claiming the opportunity to play for a defensive guru like Rex Ryan has validated his gamble.

The Jets moved him to outside linebacker, a new position. He has a lot to learn, but he's 6-foot-4, 254 pounds with a burst off the edge -- and that's hard to find. He's the kind of player who would benefit greatly from a year on the practice squad.

For Basped, there's a lot of stake, more than just his dream of playing pro football. He wants to succeed in the NFL so he can create his own charitable foundation, assisting at-risk youth in his hometown by starting after-school programs.

"I wouldn't say I'm a hero or anything like that," he says. "I just feel like I'm inspiring others, telling them it's not a dead end."

Basped, a one-person funeral procession on the loneliest day of his life eight years ago, has plenty of people behind him now, cheering.

Imagine that.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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