The LSU basketball team was supposed to begin practice on Friday. The familiar sounds of rubber dribbling off hardwood and sneakers squeaking were supposed to fill the air. Reporters were supposed to be on hand for the first 45 minutes of a season brimming with promise and great expectations.
Instead the media room inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center was filled with an uncomfortable silence, broken only by the sporadic clacking of keyboards, an occasional sob and a few pleasantries exchanged amongst reporters looking for a bit of normalcy on a morning that was anything but.
LSU coach Will Wade was understandably and visibly shaken by living out the worst fears of any coach, teacher or professional that works with young people. He took the podium alongside his boss, Joe Alleva, to provide perspective on the life of 20-year-old Wayde Sims, a life cut tragically short.
Sims was shot during an incident near the campus of Southern University early Friday morning and succumbed to his wounds shortly after being rushed to a hospital. A video released by the Baton Rouge Police Department showed an apparent street fight that ended with gunfire.
Wade was called to the hospital at some point, and after spending time with the Sims family, he broke the news to his team at a scheduled 6:30 a.m. workout. LSU had counselors on hand and suspended all basketball activities as the grieving period began.
“This is your worst nightmare as a coach,” an emotional Wade said. “This is what you’re worried about at all times. There’s problems everywhere, so you just educate your guys as best as possible to stay away from those situations. Unfortunately, sometimes those lessons are the toughest.”
“This world that we live in of athletics has its ups and its downs, and there’s no lower down than what happened last night,” Alleva added. “It is an absolute tragedy when a young life gets cut off so senselessly. I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and this may be the saddest day that I’ve ever experienced in my career.”
Wade and Alleva answered the questions as best they could, whether they pertained to memories of the fallen forward or trying to figure out where the players, coaches and administrators on campus process the events and try to move forward from here.
Basketball isn’t part of this conversation for obvious reasons. It’s the furthest thing from anyone’s mind at this point, but Wade described Sims as a player on the rise, a versatile veteran taking on a leadership role for his young, immensely-talented team.
“He was just growing and growing and growing,” Wade said. “That’s what makes this so tough. He was on an upward trajectory, a big-time upward trajectory. It’s just tough when it’s taken too soon.”
All of that potential and promise vanished in one senseless pull of a trigger. The grizzly details surrounding the shooting aren’t known yet — they may never be — but the loss of life is nothing short of tragic.
How did this happen?
Why did this happen?
Unfortunately, finding the answer to those questions must begin with taking a hard look at the problems faced by our city itself.
Sims grew up equal parts LSU and Baton Rouge. His father, Wayne, played for Dale Brown from 1987-91. Wayde grew into a star on LSU’s campus at University High School, being named the 2014-15 Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year before signing with the school that always felt like family.
“He loved LSU and he loved Baton Rouge,” Wade said. “He had a tiger tattooed on his arm. He had 225 on his arm. He loved everything about it. We did this thing last year where we showed baby pictures or pictures of guys when they were younger. There were pictures of him in purple and gold overalls with the stripes on them.”
The news is shocking because the victim is a well-known figure who touched many lives around Baton Rouge, but a person being gunned down in their prime is sadly a far-too-familiar fact of life in this city.
According to crime statistics from the Baton Rouge Police Department, Sims was the 66th homicide to occur within the city limits in 2018. Of those 66 deaths, 58 have been classified as “actual homicides” compared to “justified” or “negligent” killings.
That equates to only a slightly smaller murder rate than the record-setting 89 homicides recorded within Baton Rouge in 2017. There’s been 564 homicides in the city since the start of 2010, according to official crime statistics.
The department doesn’t keep detailed statistics of how many of those homicides were shootings as compared to stabbings or any other cause of death, but even a cursory following of the news will tell you that gun violence is a prevalent problem in this city.
Google “Baton Rouge shooting” and take a scan of the headlines if you don’t believe me. The death toll is staggering for a city with a population of less than 250,000 people.
And Sims was Baton Rouge to his core, so much so that he inked the 225 area code on his arm, and like far too many people who were born here, his life came to a senseless, violent end way before his time.
I don’t mean this to devolve into the same gun control debate that breaks out along partisan lines any time a shooting makes national news. Neither thoughts and prayers nor righteous bluster is going to bring Sims back.
“Wayde grew up in Baton Rouge and he knew a lot of people, and not just on the basketball team,” Alleva said. “His footprint permeates the whole campus. It even goes down to U-High. There’s still kids at U-High that knew Wayde.
“So this is a terrible experience for everyone, but at the end of the day, we need to make it a learning experience also.”
If any good can come from all this grief and loss, maybe it’s the city Sims loved coming together for an earnest conversation about how we can prevent this from happening over and over again.
The fact is I don’t know what the answer to this epidemic is, but I sincerely believe and hope that we can do better.
We have to do better.