Saturday, November 16, 2013

Shooting After The NBA


 

Former Los Angeles Laker Javaris Crittenton is the latest NBA bad boy.

In his case, really bad -- like in murder.

 I remember watching Crittenton play at Staples -- a high-energy bench player who got minutes and scored some points.

 Yet, a harbinger of things to come should have been heeded when in December 2009, Crittenton and Washington Wizards teammate Gilbert Arenas displayed guns in the locker room after an altercation. Arenas, a bigger star, got the headlines and 6-foot-5 shooting guard Crittenton got a 38-game suspension.
 
Over a couple seasons in the NBA Crittenton’s contracts amounted to $4 million. That’s why it’s strange that Javaris Crittenton became an alleged member of a Crips street gang while in LA. As a result, he faces trial in Atlanta for murdering a mother of four, shot in a drive-by in August 2011, with Crittenton the alleged triggerman.
 
History does repeat itself in the National Basketball Association, or as former NBA star Reggie Miller benevolently calls it during TV games, “the Association.” Unforntunately over the years Association players have been associated with violent groups where flagrant fouls involve guns.

 For instance, it was nearly thirty years ago that another former NBA player reached back to his street roots, connected with gangsters, and ended up being charged with first-degree murder.

I remember watching Michael Donnell Niles of Cal State Fullerton play in the 1978 NCAA tournament, stealing the ball and slamming a dunk to bring his “Cinderella” Titans within two of favored Arkansas. While Fullerton lost, Niles went on to play in the NBA as backup forward for the Phoenix Suns.

When I saw Michael Niles years later, he was downcast, dressed in a dark suit, and appeared out of place. It wasn’t the court he was comfortable in, and he wasn’t playing for a trophy. He was on trial for his life for murdering his wife to gain $100,000 in insurance in Corona, California.
 
On Dec. 13, 1984, he drove to South-Central Los Angeles and visited old friends from Jefferson High School, where Niles had been a basketball star. He was willing to pay $5,000, he said, because “I want the bitch killed.” Gangbanger Noel Jackson took the bargain.
 
Jackson got a 12-gauge shotgun, rode back to Corona with Niles, and waited for the woman in their apartment. Niles fetched her from work and then faked an argument, storming off, leaving her at home. Jackson confronted Sonja Rose Niles, 29, but she ran down the street. He chased her, stuck the shotgun against her skull and blew her head off. As there always seems to be in these cases, a nosy neighbor saw Niles’s car speed away. And later, when Niles returned to find cops on his doorstep and was told about his wife, they claimed he “faked” grief.
 
Both men were convicted of premeditated murder, with the special circumstance of murder for hire, making them eligible for the death penalty. In the trial Niles and Jackson ratted each other out, claiming the other was the shooter. Jurors found Jackson was the gunman and gave him to death. Surprisingly, Niles, without whom there would have been no murder, was spared death and instead sentenced to life in prison without parole. I say surprisingly because in murder-for-hire cases it’s the person who hires the killer who is viewed by prosecutors as the real heavy.
 
Today as Niles sits in his cell it is easy to imagine that he often daydreams about his glory days in the NBA and how far he crashed. Feelings, potentially, not unlike those of another ex-professional basketball player facing murder charges thirty years later.

(From a new memoir by R.D. Byron-Smith to be published by Pilar Publishing in January 2014.)