Sharing the same court with Bradley Beal is an existential experience.
Being from St. Louis, we knew about Brad well before the rest of the world. My longtime friend, William “Hump” Humphrey, grew up with Brad in U-City (University City, St. Louis) and would talk about him as if he were a reckoning of some sort. He shared stories of Brad’s grueling after-school workouts with his mom as if it were folklore.
He let me know Brad came from a family full of athletes. As he put it, “The mom’s a dog. Dad’s a dog. His siblings are dogs. And they all got jumpers.” Hump’s THE unofficial official ambassador of U-City. A dutiful one. And as his friend, there was no way I wasn’t going to know just how good Brad was at basketball. So when Hump randomly pulled up to the gym with Brad one day, it didn’t matter that I had only planned on lifting. He didn’t care that I wasn’t wearing hooping shoes. They needed five, and he made sure I was the fifth.
‘Fee’ Clemons didn’t fear Bradley Beal on the court
I’ve played basketball virtually my entire life. I’ve shared the court with D-I athletes, pros on all levels, even NBA players, and never really left too impressed. Yes, they were very good at the game but their abilities all seemed achievable in some way. The experience was inspiring in a sense. I always left feeling as if I could close the gap between me and them through hard work. More ball-handling drills, more shooting drills, playing more basketball. This was different. Being on the court with Brad felt like being on the court with a superior being. I knew for a fact, that no matter what I did in my life, at any point, I would never be able to do what this man was doing in front of me. It was an exercise in unfairness. None of us deserved to be on the same court as him, except one person, Flynt “Fee” Clemons.
Fee was the only person that could do anything with Brad. Brad was a much better player but Fee didn’t care, it meant nothing to him. Brad was a dog. He came from a family full of them. But so was Fee. And towards the end of the run, it began to feel like a full-court game of one-on-one between Brad and Fee. Everybody on the court kind of just stood around and watched. Kids in the gym pulled out their phones and started recording. If Brad got by Fee, it was a dunk. If Fee got by Brad, it was a bucket. I don’t know if either of them ever really thought about it afterward, but I’ll never forget it.
Fee was shot two summers later while picking up a pizza from Domino’s. I love St. Louis. It’s the center of my universe, and being able to call it home is one of the greatest gifts of my life. The majority of my favorite people are from St. Louis or connected to it in some way and all of my favorite personal attributes are connected to my experiences there. But living there can be difficult. It always felt like trouble could find you at any moment, and the costs of trouble finding you were far too high.
A short but fulfilling life
I knew Fee through his best friend Tony “PT” Woolfolk. To know PT is to love PT, he’s just one of those dudes. You’d hardly ever see one without the other. In fact, PT was on the court with him during the game. They called themselves The Goodfellas. They mentored kids. They had food and toy drives during the holidays. They worked to change the community that raised them. They met while at Beaumont High School, creating a bond over particular shared principles. And PT’s mom would jokingly refer to them as sisters because they were always so open and vulnerable about their shared struggles.
I recently talked to PT about Fee, I wouldn’t have written about this without his blessing. He told me Fee was his insurance, but not in a monetary sense. He was selfless and protected those he loved to no end. He mentioned that after high school, Fee went to college on a football scholarship, but came home immediately after hearing that PT was involved in a shooting. PT was fine. But their friend, Slimm, lost his life. And Fee never went back to school. I asked him why he never went back and PT responded “Sometimes we limit our good, to help others. … The more we become a king, the more we become a servant.”
We usually tell stories like Fee’s as a cautionary tale, leaving out the context. This isn’t that. Fee was a king and a protector. So of course he went back home and stayed to do just that. As long as he could. His life was short-lived, but his life was full.
PT’s a football coach at St. Mary’s High School now and continues to mentor kids, doing good in the city that raised him. Before we got off the phone, he left me with this, “Fee lived fearlessly. At his own funeral, he didn’t cry.” he said “If my mans was there in spirit, he didn’t cry. I rocked out, I did everything to the fullest potential. I’m outta here cuz. I gotta go.”
I always think about Fee when I see Brad play. The two of them are forever connected in my psyche. The way Fee played basketball was a microcosm of how he lived. I knew Fee before the game, but I knew what he stood on after. He competed the same way he lived his life.
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