Jeff Pearlman

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The hardest story

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Today Bleacher Report ran an article I’ve been working on for about two months. It’s the story of Bryce Dejean-Jones, the former New Orleans Pelicans guard who was shot and killed last year when he entered the wrong apartment. Here’s the link.

This was both the hardest piece I’ve ever had to write and the hardest piece I’ve ever had to watch come to life. That might sound odd, but here’s what I mean: Reporting this story was a beast. Death carries weight. Young death carries significantly more weight. When the piece was initially assigned, I decided I wanted to find out who, exactly, Bryce Dejean-Jones was, and what led him to apartment 1345, where he would ultimately be shot and killed. So I met first with his step-father, K.C. Jones. We sat inside a Starbucks, and he told me of this wonderful young man with a boundless curiosity and boyhood dreams of inventing a flying car. He talked about Bryce dribbling the hours away, Bryce longing for the NBA, Bryce excelling at chess. I told K.C., with 100 percent sincerity, that I aspired to tell this story correctly. That, beyond the violence of his death and the glitter of the NBA, there was a guy. Who was he?

So I reported. And reported. And reported. Bryce loved Chipotle. He was passionate about video games. He used to bowl in a league. He was a dazzlingly proficient trash talker. He had a lovely laugh. And, through the fabulous stories, I came to appreciate Bryce Dejean-Jones, and understand the loss that his family and friends felt.

But there was also this thing that lingered. His death was violent. It hung there, like a thick cloud, and I had to address a question that loomed and loomed and loomed. Namely, why would he have behaved in such a violent way? What brought him to barging through a door, then partway through another? It was unavoidable. I couldn’t write about chess and Chipotle, but not this other side. Hence, I started to ask. And people talked. Bryce was a terrific person—with a light switch that could go flick in a second’s notice. He had a dark side. People saw it during practices. People saw it when he drank (which wasn’t often, to be clear). He was, the vast majority of the time, a kid you’d want as your kid; a friend you’d want as your friend. “But am I shocked he died that way?” someone said to me. “No. I mean, it’s a shocking death. But am I shocked he lost his temper in a bad moment? I’m not.”

I couldn’t ignore that, or pretend it didn’t exist. I also couldn’t ignore the incidents scattered throughout his life, or pretend they didn’t exist. I desperately tried to keep them in context (the arrest at Iowa State, for example, was bullshit), but they happened. They mattered. And, for good or for bad, they helped explain.

Still … they don’t define. This was a kid who clawed after the NBA; who pursued it with everything he had; who wanted to make it more than he wanted anything else in the world. Was he the absolute greatest athlete? No. Best shooter? No. Best defender? No. What he had—more than anyone I’ve ever written about—was heart. Miles and miles and miles of heart. That’s no joke.

•••

I knew I had to try and find the shooter. I had a name. I had an address. I didn’t have a phone number. I told Bleacher Report I wanted to go to Dallas and knock on his door. My wife said, “He’s not going to talk.” I agreed with her—but I needed to try.

I flew down the day before Easter, and that night I went to the apartment complex where he now lives. I wanted to check out the security situation, the guard situation. On Easter morning I returned. I lined up by a gate, waited for a car to pull in, then followed. I parked, found the escalator and took it to his floor. I held a copy of my book, Gunslinger, in one hand and notepad in the other. Why the book? To show him that I wasn’t just some goober; to establish credibility. I won’t lie—I was nervous. Hands sweaty. Heart beating. Knocking on a strange person’s door is jarring. Knocking on a strange person’s door (who shot and killed someone—through a door) is … um … uncomfortable, times 100,000. I gulped, knocked.

No answer.

Knocked again.

No answer.

I wrote a note, placed in inside the book and leaned “Gunslinger” at the base of the door. Here’s a sliver of the letter …

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And here’s the book at the door …

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I went to a nearby book store, sat for a bunch of hours, returned once again. The book was gone, and I thought, “Hmm … maybe he’s home.” I knocked again. No answer. Knocked again. And again. Leaned up against the door and said, “Hey, so this is Jeff—the Bleacher Report writer. If you’re there, I’ve left you another note. I just want to talk to you about what happened …”

I sat around for a while, then left. The next day I went for a tour of the apartment complex where the shooting took place. To be blunt, I didn’t tell them I was a journalist. I was a guy wanting a tour. It was extremely helpful, because it laid an imprint of the setting that was badly needed.

Before leaving Dallas I was sitting in a coffee shop when an unfamiliar number hit me with a text. It was the shooter. He was guarded and nervous, but willing to talk. We wound up chatting for about an hour. I found his story completely believable.

•••

Stories change. In fact, stories should change. I began this odyssey thinking I would be writing about Bryce Dejean-Jones, misunderstood NBA player. And, in a sense, I did. But everything about his life, and death, was confusing and hard to grasp. His father in law told me very early on that Bryce was “an onion”—and it’s a perfect description. How could someone so good have a moment so bad? How could a guy with so much untapped potential be gone so quickly?

I heard from Bryce’s family and friends today, and many hate the story. This crushes me. The last thing you want to do—the absolute last thing you want to do—is make life worse for the parents of a deceased young man. If I’m being honest, I’m filled with regret. From the very beginning, I said I wanted to find out who Bryce really was. That search, however, wound up messy, dark, uncomfortable. People can have multiple sides—we can be loving and hating, pleasant and miserable, euphoric and devastated. It doesn’t reduce the good. It just means that we’re complicated entities.

So here I sit.

PS: Here’s a more detailed account of finding the shooter …

  • Ted Mark

    I read the BR piece. Nice writing, Jeff.

  • Sanford Sklansky

    You don’t have to name names, but can you explain what they didn’t like about the story

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