LAFAYETTE — The day Jo’Nathan Delacroix died, his friends committed to keeping his memory alive.
How does a group of kids reconcile with suddenly not being insulated from the cold truth of life? That a 19-year-old friend, so vibrant and warm-hearted, could vanish because of a terrible accident? How do they realize that life goes on, regardless of the pain the world can randomly inflict on those who inhabit it?
They do it together.
They’re doing it for Jo.
The Northside High School boys basketball team is dedicating the 2015-16 season to the memory of Delacroix, who was accidentally and fatally shot by a friend in May, just two weeks before his high school graduation.
They are constantly reminded of a vow that is sacred to them. Each huddle is broken by the team chanting “Do it for Jo!” The backs of their pregame warmups are emblazoned with the same words.
“The kids remained very strong throughout the situation — and it’s still a tough situation,” coach Ross Rix said. “I do, and I’m sure the kids do as well, think about Jo every day. Dedicating the season to him was a great way for the kids to do something in his honor. The tragedy brought this group together even more.”
And that cohesiveness, according to those who knew him, is what Jo would have wanted to see.
In death, as in life, Jo forged a strong bond for a group of young men.
‘They didn’t measure his heart’
Dealing with Jo’s loss has not been easy for those who were close to him, but remembering him hasn’t been an issue. The stories they tell drip with character, even if some of the specifics have already gotten a bit fuzzy with time. What sticks out about the memories is their uniqueness. They paint a picture of a young man whose influence carried over a broad spectrum of life.
Senior guard Darius Randell’s favorite memory of Jo came in a win. The team was playing Port Allen in a tournament at Madison Prep last season, and Jo came up with some late heroics to steal a victory.
That story follows the scripted dream scenario every kid plays out on the driveway hoop. Northside trailed by one with about 30 seconds to go.
“Delacroix with the steal! Delacroix goes coast-to-coast for the go-ahead score! And the crowd goes wild!”
The lasting memory for senior Brandon Ellis came in a loss. It was Ellis’ sophomore year, the Vikings had made the Top 28 tournament and he was in the game at a crucial moment.
“I made a horrible mistake, turned the ball over and we were down only five with two minutes to go,” Ellis said. “We ended up losing that game, and I felt like it was my fault.”
Jo was a junior then, but he was older than most people in his class. He acted like it, too. His teammates took to calling him Uncle Jo, and Rix described him as a 40-year-old stuck in an 18-year-old’s body. He showed that wisdom when he approached Ellis after the game.
“This dude picked me up, talked to me, telling me it wasn’t my fault and that it was a team effort,” Ellis said. “I never expected that from anyone. Nobody. Then Jo came and did that to me and picked me up. That whole time I was crying until he came.”
For senior forward Jonté Morrison, the memory isn’t something specific but something routine. It was the way Jo would clown around before games, telling funny stories to loosen the team up.
Rix simply remembers Jo as a precious commodity, a guy a coach would want 10 or 12 of. Last season was Rix’s first with Northside, and he said Jo acted as a sort of medium between the players and the coach, helping both understand the other side better.
Devan Clark, who coached Jo in his sophomore and junior seasons before taking a job at Southern Lab, remembered him as a charismatic kid who loved basketball, even though he wasn’t necessarily built for it.
“He was small in stature — not in terms of height, but physically,” Clark said. “He was really thin; nobody thought he was strong enough to be effective as a varsity player. But they didn’t measure his heart.”
Jo grew up in a basketball-loving family. Particularly, a Northside basketball-loving family. His mother, Sheila, is a 1985 graduate, and she couldn’t wait until her only child had the opportunity to wear Vikings red and black. She is, in Clark’s estimation, Northside’s No. 1 fan.
Sheila does not dispute that notion. The only thing that has kept her from watching the Vikings ball recently was a hospital visit, and she said she was about ready to leave the hospital prematurely before a friend streamed the game back to her via the FaceTime application on her phone.
Jo was in the gifted program as he was coming up through school, which put him in line to go to Lafayette High despite residing in Northside’s zone. Sheila was having none of it.
“I was like, ‘No, you’ve got to be a Viking. You can’t be no Lion,’ ” Sheila said. “He said, ‘Ma, I’m going to Northside.’ ”
Clark remembers when Jo went to one of his basketball camps as a middle schooler. Sheila approached him then, and Clark said the prospect of her son playing for Northside’s varsity “was all she talked about.”
“To have her son there was a really big thing, and she embraced it,” Clark said. “She’s the type of supportive parent that you want. She’d come to the games extra early when he was playing (junior varsity).
“She was such a proud parent. It was such a proud moment for her to see her son experience what he did.”
‘The night was devastating’
It was the day before Mother’s Day 2015. Jo was at home with his friend Anthony Beloney. It’s unclear where Beloney got the gun, but he pointed it at Jo and pulled the trigger, thinking the weapon was not loaded.
He was wrong. The weapon discharged.
Rix was at a state track meet in Baton Rouge when he was told what happened. He immediately made his way back across the Atchafalaya Basin.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Rix said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Clark was at a basketball practice in Baton Rouge. It was a Saturday, and he had turned his phone to silent to focus on his work. When he got back to his phone, he saw a long list of missed calls and text messages from his contacts in Lafayette. He knew something was wrong.
He received the news from one of Jo’s classmates.
“When she told me, it was unreal,” Clark said. “I couldn’t believe that this had happened.”
At that point, Clark said there was still a glimmer of hope that Jo would pull through. Like Rix, he got in his car and made the tense drive to Lafayette, hanging on to that hope.
Midway through his drive, he heard that Jo had been pronounced dead at the hospital. Clark went back to his phone and dialed up his former Northside players.
“I knew the impact that he had was going to be felt throughout, and I didn’t want those players to lose hope,” Clark said. “I wanted them to stay strong for him, because that’s what he would’ve wanted from them.”
Rix and Clark converged on Sheila’s house, as did what felt like half the neighborhood. Sheila was there in her house on the 1600 block of 12th Street, but as she sits in her living room with bright blue walls covered with photos of Jo, the feeling of being home that day still isn’t real to her.
“I was in disbelief,” Sheila said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I was in shock. Really, I wasn’t here. My mind and body was here, but I wasn’t here.”
Jo’s teammates rallied together as well. Some couldn’t be there. Morrison and a few others were participating at an AAU tournament when it happened. If they couldn’t be there, they joined in a group text.
They made a pact together that night, not only for themselves but for everyone who knew Jo.
“The night was devastating, to be honest,” Ellis said. “We talked about it and decided to do it for Jo. It was something to motivate us to go out this season. It made us realize we’re not doing it just for us, we’re doing it for everybody — the city, Jo, Miss Sheila, everybody.”
Beloney pleaded guilty in August to negligent homicide, and in November he was sentenced to three years of hard labor, with all but eight months suspended, and two years of supervised probation. Sheila said Beloney is out of jail but has not come to talk to her about what happened last May.
There have been additional, painful obstacles in their way to recovering from Jo’s death. A benefit was held at the Lafayette Event Center to help pay for Jo’s funeral costs roughly a week after Jo died. A car pulled up to the parking lot outside the event and opened fire. Multiple shots hit a 16-year-old boy, who was hospitalized.
Two months after Jo’s death, one of his former teammates, Dravin Stevenson, was shot and killed in a home on Sunnyside Lane.
“The message really wasn’t received at first,” Clark said. “We heard, we knew it, we think it can’t happen to us, then about two months later we really got the message.”
Jo’s death and the continued violence that followed could have caused those who loved him to go one of two ways. It could have driven everybody apart to grieve alone, isolated with their own brand of personal anguish. Or they could have found comfort in the group, where there were ears willing to hear the question — “Why?” — even if there was no true answer.
They chose to approach it hand-in-hand.
“The biggest thing that helped them was the group being there for each other,” Rix said. “When we got back to school on that Monday, we had a team meeting and counselors came in and everything, but for the most part this group was very strong and they stuck together.
“That was the biggest thing, the easiest way for them to get through it. They knew they had each other.”
It takes her a while to scroll through all the photos of the Northside basketball team in her phone, but Sheila finally finds the ones she’s looking for. They’re dated May 13, 2015 — four days after Jo’s death. One photo has 18 people squeezed in the frame, piled on top of the couches between bright blue walls in her living room. In one of those photos, Sheila is smiling.
“I had a couch full here, a couch full here, people in the back, people in his room,” Sheila said. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m good.’ ”
Doing it for Jo
Northside’s biggest fan has seen a team that has found itself.
The Vikings closed their nondistrict schedule Friday with a record of 13-7, already matching their season win total from a year ago, when they went 13-15.
Sheila Delacroix watches from the stands as the Vikings warm up in those shirts that say “Do It For Jo” on the back, where the players’ names normally go. She hears them break the huddle in remembrance of her only biological child.
“It means a lot,” Sheila said. “They’re keeping his name alive, they’re remembering him. It’s not like they’re just saying, ‘Oh well, another kid gone.’ They’re keeping his memory alive. Jo meant a lot to those kids.
“It’s breathtaking. It’s exciting. It’s overwhelming. I don’t know; I can’t explain it. It’s a whole lot of emotions that go through it.”
She lost her only son, but she now has so many other kids who she calls her own.
“She calls all of us her children,” Randell said. “Jo was her only child, so now she says she lost one and gained more.”
Randell said he frequently receives text messages from Sheila. They range from telling the players to keep their heads up after a loss to not letting the referees get under their skin. The message is always positive.
“That’s her,” Clark said after hearing about Sheila’s continued commitment to the team. “She’s still doing that. She’s been doing it for a long time. I’m just happy that everybody’s still embracing her and celebrating this moment, not looking at it in a negative light.”
The team hopes it can rally around the cause and make something special out of the season. It would be an affirmation that not all was lost on that terrible May night.
“It would mean everything,” Ellis said. “This would put a smile on his momma’s face.”
It would be paying Jo back for the times he was there to lift a sullen teammate. It would be done in memory of a player who helped his first-year coach get to know his team. It would be honoring the kid who liked to play basketball and tell funny stories and who should still be here to do those things.
“The team is doing a really good job of reflecting the type of team that Jo would’ve liked to see them be — playing hard, being good teammates and doing it the right way,” Clark said.
And, because they’re doing it for Jo, they’re doing it together.