Gazette Feature: Riley's Inspiring Inscriptions
Feb. 10, 2011
By MATT VAUTOUR
Before he put the tragedy out of his mind to focus on the basketball game in front of him, University of Massachusetts guard Freddie Riley put it on his shoes.
In black Sharpie on his white, red-trimmed Adidas, Riley wrote "R.I.P. T.J."
T.J. is Antonio "T.J." Gordon, Riley's childhood friend. He'd been killed in a shooting outside a bowling alley in Ocala, Fla., Riley's hometown, on Jan. 17, two days before UMass played at Charlotte.
Shoes are more than just athletic footwear in basketball culture. They're fashion statements, status symbols and collectors' items. For professional players, getting a signature shoe separates the elite players from the rest.
Riley has two pairs of white shoes that he wears only in games, with similar phrases on both. They serve as a tribute, a memorial to people he cares about living and dead, and a window into a difficult past he's trying to put behind him.
"I started doing it in high school," said Riley, a sophomore, who is a regular off the bench for the Minutemen. "But I really got into it here."
The R.I.P.s are startlingly prevalent. There's one for his father - "R.I.P. Pops" - also named Freddie Riley, who died of a heart attack 10 years ago. The number 46, his father's age when he died, is written nearby. Others for Chyavana Hampton and David McCants, friends who were murder victims like T.J., also stand out.
"R.I.P. Dante Anderson 22" is for a friend and basketball rival.
"He died in a car accident the last week of school in 11th grade. He was actually the No. 1 player in Florida," Riley said. "Our schools were in the same district so we played against each other a lot. We went to the same camps. We were really cool."
The inscriptions don't only recognize the deceased. "Mario," his best friend growing up, "Keywanna," his older sister, and "Willie," one of his two older brothers, are prominently placed.
"Free Bub" is for his other brother, Daryl Bryant.
"He's in prison right now," said Riley. "He's getting out in 2014. I'm not sure why he's in prison this time. It's his second time in prison. The first time was for attempted murder. He did six years for that. He took the rap for somebody. He didn't want to snitch."
Riley said his brother went to jail when Riley was in 11th grade. "I haven't seen him since then. That's around the time I started traveling for basketball," he said. "I went to prep school and now I'm up here. I don't have time to visit him."
Still, Riley said, "It's very tough. We write each other sometimes. He sends me pictures. ... I can't wait for him to get out. I tell him in the letters I write him that he won't have to worry about anything when he comes home. I'll take care of him."
Special place for mom
Among the largest letters are those that spell out "Norma," his mother's name.
"My mom, that's my heart. She's always been there for me," said Riley. "My father was never really there for me. He was in prison until I was 10. Then he died when I was 11. My mom got me into this world. That's who's always been by my side. That's who supports me throughout everything. It's only right that I have her there."
Both brothers have been in and out of jail and his sister has a family of her own.
"She's around but she's not around as much," he said. "It's always been me and my mom."
Riley readily admits the tragedies he's encountered affect him deeply.
"That's shaped who I am a lot," he said. "Growing up, I didn't start experiencing a lot of sad things until my late high school years, when I started becoming a man. It's changed me a lot."
Using his basketball shoes to keep his memories close seems natural, he says. Basketball has been an oasis, a place to escape during tougher times. But it's more.
"It keeps me from forgetting where I'm from. It reminds me I'm lucky to be here," Riley said. "A lot of people where I'm from don't go to college, especially on a basketball scholarship. It keeps me humble and wanting to work hard. It's taught me to enjoy life."
Living in Amherst has taken some getting used to.
"It's a big adjustment coming from Florida and the neighborhood I'm from," Riley said. "There's really nothing to do here. You can't go outside for a nice walk cause it's so cold."
UMass coach Derek Kellogg praised Riley's adjustment.
"He's a good kid. You go through adversity in life and it seems to have made him stronger," said Kellogg, who has tried to help ease Riley's transition. "It's tough, especially for kids from the south. Culturally this is a whole different world. There's times when there's three feet of snow on the ground and you've never owned a winter coat before that it can be a little bit difficult."
Riley said his mother is happy he is away from Ocala's troubles.
"It's a lot safer. When I first got here I didn't hear any police sirens for a long time. I'm used to hearing that every night. I feel a lot safer. I don't have to watch my back when I go around," Riley said. "I know at home because of my brothers and everything that any time she hears police sirens, she'll call me to make sure I'm all right. She knows I'm in good hands with the coaches and my teammates."
Basketball has also helped him avoid some of the trouble that befell so many people close to him.
"A lot of people at home wouldn't mess with me or get me into bad things because they saw how good I was at basketball," Riley said. "They believed I could go to the NBA. I was able to avoid a lot of the peer pressure that people go through because of my basketball skills."
Ocala still represents an emotional tug-of-war for Riley at times. He misses a city that he hopes to never live in again.
"I'm so far away from home and I'm homesick a lot. I'm lucky enough to go to UMass for free. I'm just trying to make the best of that," he said. "Getting out is my main motivation to be successful, to not have to go back to my neighborhood. My city is becoming a bad place. I'm working hard so I don't have to live there again. I don't plan on ever living there again."
But a lot of Ocala will always be with him - and on his shoes.
After writing "R.I.P. T.J." on his sneakers, Riley scored 18 points to lead UMass past Charlotte in a game he dedicated to his friend.
"I used it for inspiration," Riley said.
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