But on Saturday, she arrived at the court at East 40th and Wayne Avenue where her son’s name was recently painted on the asphalt, along with “#RYANSLIFEMATTERS.”
“I could just sit on here all day,” Stokes-James said at the dedication ceremony held Saturday.
It has been eight years since her only son was shot and killed by police near the Power & Light District. Eight years of her not wanting to go to the basketball court where Ryan Stokes played on a daily basis growing up.
Stokes was shot and killed July 28, 2013, at the end of an early-morning foot chase near 12th and McGee Street. The officer who shot him, William Thompson, thought Stokes had a gun in his hand.
A grand jury declined to indict Thompson and the shooting was ruled justified. Thompson and another officer at the scene, Tamara Jones, received a certificate of commendation for the shooting. The Board of Police Commissioners voted to rescind the award in 2018.
A police shooting panel that reviewed the incident made no recommendations for training or department policy changes. Stokes-James has long said that the shooting was not justified and filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2016 in federal court. The case is still pending.
But Saturday, Stokes-James wasn’t focused on the lawsuit. She was on the basketball court — the one where Stokes learned how to shoot 3-pointers — his name emblazoned across it, along with his nickname “Fat Back.” The court was dedicated to Stokes, who loved basketball, “like it was his girlfriend,” Stokes-James said. The mural design on the court was painted in blue and white, which were Stokes’ favorite colors.
Stokes’ 9-year-old daughter, Neriah Stokes, who was 1 when her father was killed was at the unveiling of the court. So was his high school basketball coach and about 100 other community members, including former teammates and family friends.
“I wanted to used sports as a catalyst to educate the community, and I always wanted to do this, to bring people together,” said Chris Harris, who established the basketball court and the golf course at Harris Park after years of fundraising. “I had the pleasure of watching Ryan play here for probably 10 years. We were here every Wednesday, without a doubt, Ryan was here. Good kid and I was glad to have the pleasure to meet him.”
Harris said the idea to dedicate the basketball court to Stokes started coming together about one year ago. The basketball court was painted last week.
Stokes-James was nervous heading to the basketball court Saturday, not knowing what it would look like. She also didn’t know how she would feel going back to basketball court for the first time since her son was killed.
Stokes started playing basketball when he was 5. He also played football and baseball. But basketball was his favorite. He’d walk the three blocks from their house on 43rd Street and Flora Avenue to Harris Park every weekday evening. Stokes-James would then walk over and get him to come home so he could do his homework.
“I knew if he wasn’t at home, he was around here,” Stokes-James said.
Stokes played at Southeast High School. His coach, Derek Howard, spoke to the crowd, telling them when he first saw Stokes play, as a ninth grader, he didn’t think he was very good. But slowly, as Howard watched Stokes play, he realized he was. Stokes could shoot, rebound and talk trash to opponents — though the one thing he didn’t like to was playing defense.
“We were bad and we went from being bad to being pretty dang good, winning playoff games and having some success, and it was because of the passion of Ryan and that crew,” Howard said.
Before the court was open for kids to play on, Rev. Vernon Howard blessed the court.
“An unjust, inadequate, immoral law enforcement system took and stopped his body,” Howard said. “But though it took his body, his name lives on. His love lives on. His legacy lives on. And his seed lives on.”