Henderson, N.C. — Most of the teams playing in Saturday’s state championship games will want to win championships for school-related reasons. They want banners raised, rings sized, curses lifted, history written.
Then there’s Henderson Collegiate.
They want one for No. 33.
You won’t lay eyes on Elijah Brown on Saturday but you’ll see him in a number of ways.
Eli, as his teammates called him, died last fall in a car crash. He was 17.
And he’s sorely missed by his former teammates.
Even after the joy of winning last week’s N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A East final, their thoughts turned to him. Akhiris Holden fielded a postgame question about his two fourth-quarter dunks that punctuated the victory over Washington County, but he flipped it into an answer about Eli.
“The first thing I thought of was Eli,” Holden said of his dunks, “because that’s the main motivator for me to play.”
Javonte Waverly reflected similarly.
“Obviously, I’m happy, but I feel like I would be happier if my brother was here with me,” he said. “It’s a hard feeling to go through because also (in addition to) him, I lost (another) very close friend. I’m just doing it all for them.”
Brown and two other friends were driving on Highway U.S. 1 in Henderson last May when they were hit from behind. The driver, who had already had his license revoked, was later charged with a number of crimes, including second-degree murder and DUI.
Kasi Thompson, 16, died immediately.
She and the others were celebrating her 17th birthday, which was the next day.
Brown was airlifted to Duke Hospital but succumbed to his injuries later that month.
“Eli was like a brother to us. I started with him in seventh grade,” JaQuaveon Venable said. “To see him progress through the years, how his game developed, and then when he left it just broke me down a little bit because I had watched him grow through the years.”
Brown would have been part of the first graduating class at Henderson Collegiate, a charter school in Vance County.
“He was the person that comes in the locker room and makes everyone laugh, he had jokes all the time,” Waverly said. “When we lost him it was like we don’t know we gotta work for him and we turned it around this season and worked as hard as we can for him.”
The team has honored Brown in two main ways: one outward, and one inward.
The first comes in warmups, when the silver-and-blue Pride wear red hoodies with “Ball for Eli!” in big letters at the bottom of the back.
“His favorite color was red,” coach George Marshall said.
The next comes when the game starts.
No matter what the play is, be it a defensive rebound, a 3-pointers, a layup, a forced turnover, or a dunk, a number of Henderson Collegiate teammates will stand on the bench and whoop, yell, holler, and gesticulate in any number of ways to keep the positive energy going.
“He always had energy, that was his thing,” Micah Lewis said. “He might not have played as much as everyone else but he kept all of us up. He had energy that went throughout the entire team. We went into this year saying we are all going to do what he did to help each other out to get where we’re going to go.”
That togetherness is a big part of why the Pride’s boys basketball team is 29-2 overall heading into the NCHSAA 1A title game against Kernersville’s Bishop McGuinness.
“It’s part of our identity,” Marshall said. “Even though you may be the last person on the bench, you matter a lot. And if you think you don’t matter a lot, that’s a problem we need to address.”
Win or lose Saturday, I hope the players know that they’ve more than honored their friend.
The things Eli left behind — being the best teammate he could be — will carry them farther in life than a jump shot anyway.
I think back to how Venable eloquently described his passing as simply “when he left.”
If you watch Henderson Collegiate this Saturday the Smith Center, you’ll see how he hasn’t.