In the last few months, Anthony Pierson and Bryant “BJ” Lee Jr. had a favorite topic of conversation: the future. The soon-to-be graduates of McKinley High School would talk about going to college together. Majoring in mechanical engineering together. Trying to walk onto Southern University’s football team together. They would laugh about their plan to introduce themselves as actual brothers.

They would also talk about how their college education would be the path for them to make it out — out of the hood, out of Baton Rouge.

“We talked about it too much,” Pierson said, trailing off. “That’s all he’d talk about, getting his degree.”

Just days before their graduation, a bullet shattered their plans, their dreams. Lee was fatally shot outside a party in the early hours of May 13. Despite a packed party and a crowd outside, police still have not identified any suspects or determined a motive.

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"He was going to be the one to get his mom out of the hood,” Pierson said, his voice shrinking to a whisper, a tear slipping down his cheek. “I never thought I'd lose him — not BJ — I just keep asking myself, why? Why BJ? I don't understand."

Instead of walking across the stage together on May 17, turning their tassels to signify their completion of high school, Pierson and two friends carried a portrait of their slain best friend across the stage, while the crowd at Southern University's Activity Center gave them a standing ovation.

Pierson said he was numb during the ceremony.

"High school really ended in one of the worst ways imaginable,” the 18-year-old said. “Why'd it have to end like that?"

He is not the only person with that question.

Lee was an honors student with a 3.5 GPA, set to graduate cum laude, with honors. He was a dedicated athlete, having earned the role of starting quarterback for McKinley’s football team after transferring there as a sophomore, and was acknowledged as a leader on and off the field.

“He was an athlete, so I would see him late after school, early on Saturday mornings. He was a great student to have around,” said McKinley Principal Herman Brister. “You want to see all your kids be successful … and here’s a kid that could have done that.

You start asking yourself what could one do, what could one do different?”

Early hopes, dreams

Lee’s parents fondly remember when they realized their son was meant for the football field — he was 2 years old.

As Bryant Lee Sr. was coaching a youth football league, their toddler ran onto the field near the 10-yard line, as the padded, older children rushed toward that end zone, said Carla Lee, his mother.

"That boy just took off across the field and I couldn't catch him,” Carla Lee said, laughing. “Everyone was like 'A baby! A baby!' and (the players) just ran over him.”

But he was alright, his parents said. And five years later, he was padded up himself, ready to play.

Lee’s youth coaches said even as a 7-year-old there was something special about him.

"All the kids looked up to him; if a kid was out of line, he would put him back in place,” said Shawn Bates, who coached him from age 7 to 10. “He was the field general.”

And, Bates said, BJ was really good.

“He was an athlete, even in baseball,” Bates said, who also coached him in baseball and basketball. "He had so much potential."

A few years later, progressing to the older-age group coached by Bates’ brother, Marlon Bates, BJ continued to stand out.

"He did not miss a day of practice, baseball or football," said Marlon Bates.

BJ also didn’t miss fellowship on Sundays when they went to church as a team, Marlon Bates said.

The Bates brothers, who have been coaching in the Scotlandville area since 1993, said one of the big differences was the constant support of Lee's parents, support that not all their players had. Lee's parents came to all his games, from BREC league though McKinley High School. 

But it was on report card day — when they would make sure their athletes were doing well in school — that Shawn Bates said BJ really shined.

"He was a student athlete too; that's what I liked about him the most,” said Shawn Bates. “He had good grades. He had the book sense too; he was all around. … You don't get that too many times.”

BJ's mother said she was always proud: teachers often commenting on his promise, how she almost never had to discipline him. This past year was the first time she heard her son say he was struggling with a class: his senior project. 

"That's the only time I ever heard him say something was kicking him," Carla Lee said. 

Days after he confessed he was struggling, she said, he came home and announced that he had figured it out. 

"He worked so hard," Carla Lee said. 

She was also happy that on many Sundays her son would join her for church at Fairview Baptist, even though that was often his only day off from school and sports. He had recently played three roles in the church's Black History Month play for their Youth Program, the oldest participant. 

"Some kids stray away at church, (at age) 12, 13, but BJ came,” said Darlene Heard, Fairview Baptist’s youth director and a Sunday School teacher. "Anything I asked him to do — read a scripture, read a poem — he did it.”

“And his voice was so strong, like thunder, that everybody (would) look and pay attention," said Heard, who is also BJ's aunt. "That’s how he was.”

The tragic night

During the week of May 7 word spread on Snapchat and Twitter about a party planned at a Kingfisher Avenue building, where one of Lee’s best friends, an up-and-coming rapper, would perform. Seniors were out of school, done with classes and finals, and just waiting for graduation.

On the morning of Friday, May 12, the night of the party, Lee sent their friends’ group text message a voice recording of him “freestyling,” Pierson said, joking about how he was good enough to rap alongside their friend that night.

Lee later sent those same voice recordings of him rapping to the friend, Justin Weatherspoon, who performs under the name "Geaux Justin."

“He was texting me, telling me to put him on the tracks,” Weatherspoon said, laughing. Lee had always been a huge supporter of his music, he said.

Lee's parents said BJ spent most of that day in his bedroom, music playing, coming out just for food, which had become typical for their teenage son. He left that evening for the party, his mom said.

Lee met Pierson and other friends there. They took pictures, danced, laughed. It got packed, a mix of college students and high schoolers. Geaux Justin performed about 12:40 a.m., some of his new songs mixed in with others his classmates had come to know.

"The whole night we were sweating bullets, just having the time of our life; we were having too much fun,” Weatherspoon said. “I knew it was too good to be true."

They started to leave about 1:30 a.m. Pierson, Weatherspoon and Lee walked outside together.

“We walked out and there was just beaucoup people,” Weatherspoon said. “They had a whole lot of people inside, but they had a good amount of more people outside."

Weatherspoon said he remembers stopping to take some pictures with people while Lee and Pierson walked ahead, crossing the street. Weatherspoon eventually met back up with them, but then turned to go back toward the party. 

Accounts of what happened next get jumbled: gunfire blurring memory, adrenaline distorting actions. The only thing that was clear: Many shots were fired.

Weatherspoon dropped to the ground, as did most people. He crawled back inside the building.

Pierson ran away, ran as fast as he could from the gunfire, never looking behind him, not realizing BJ had been hit. Once the shooting was over, Pierson called BJ on his cellphone. There was no answer.

Pierson would soon find out that BJ had been struck in the head by a bullet.

Two other people were hit and injured by gunfire.

When Weatherspoon came back outside, people were calling out for him, telling him Lee had been hit. Weatherspoon walked over to his grievously wounded friend.

“I said, 'BJ, don’t do this to me' … You could tell he was fighting for his life.”

Where you come from

Weatherspoon and Pierson both said they’ve been to parties where shots were fired, but never that many and never so out of the blue.

“There’s a million reasons why someone shoots at a party,” Pierson said. Sometimes it’s after a fight, sometimes it’s to try to get everyone to leave, sometimes someone is jealous. But that night, everyone had been getting along; it didn't make sense.

“It's the community, but you don't have a choice over that,” Weatherspoon said. “Like (Lee) was outside, chilling, and someone came through shooting. … That's just something he really couldn't avoid."

Weatherspoon said violence is a big problem in Baton Rouge, especially north Baton Rouge where the shooting occurred.

"I'm not scared but I know I'm not protected,” Weatherspoon said. “A lot of us worry about that, but it happens everyday, so I don't really know how to explain it. We just try to stay safe as much as we can."

BJ grew up on 75th Avenue, in the Banks neighborhood near Southern University.

Lee’s father said he learned the hard way about navigating what he calls the hood. He dropped out of high school in ninth grade after being expelled and then took to the streets, having gotten into drugs. Lee Sr. said he used to talk truthfully to his son about where they live and how to stay safe, like keeping a distance from people who are caught up in the wrong crowd. That can be hard because sometimes those people are childhood friends.

Lee Sr. said he used to advise his son to not stick around too long with untrustworthy people. Once something starts going downhill, Lee Sr. said, it doesn't matter if you're involved or not, it will be assumed you are involved if you're standing there, hanging out with them.

The Lee family had already seen that happen once, when BJ was shot in the leg in a drive-by shooting in November. His family said he was two blocks from home, on 73rd Avenue, in the wrong place at the wrong time when some neighborhood kids had gotten into a fight.  

"It's unfortunate, our friends, some go straight, some (don't)," Lee Sr. said. 

He said always hoped his son would make it out.

The Bates brothers, who also live in the Banks area, said they continue to coach, hoping that sports can give the neighborhood children the structure they need to choose the right path.

"Save lives and keep kids out of trouble," said Shawn Bates. "(We try to) give them something positive instead of doing the other."

But they also acknowledge they lose many of their players as they get older; the once promising young men ending up on the streets or in prison. 

Principal Brister said he's aware that many of his students aren’t growing up in the best environment, and he hopes community leaders will begin to make this a top priority.

“Some of our kids live in some of the tougher parts of the city,” Brister said. “All we can do is love them to the best of our abilities while they're here; we can't control what happens at home and on the weekends."

Call for change

There was not an empty pew for BJ's funeral Saturday at Greater King David Baptist Church. As church leaders called for a celebration of the teen’s life, the resounding message was a call for change.

"This terrible tragedy is an opportunity for each of us today to come face to face with the reality of evil in this society that has specifically targeted our young people, and especially our young black men,” said Johnny Anderson, deputy chief of staff for Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Anderson called the frequency in which young people are killing each other a “crisis in our community.” He also called for a change in how young people are dressing, with baggy pants and over-sized shirts, and the type of music they listen to. He called for less "mean mugging" and more smiles, more respect for women.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome also spoke about how the city’s neighborhoods must improve and promised to dedicate resources toward that mission.

"There are pivotal moments in the life of a community … and the death of Bryant Lee marks such a moment in Baton Rouge,” Broome said. “This moment demands we the people of the city, with a united voice, say that senseless violence that robs us of the vast potential of our children is not acceptable, not anymore.”

Parents and adults nodded along with both Broome and Anderson, their applause often breaking up the testimony. But the response to those platitudes from the youth at the church service was less enthusiastic. 

Bringing real change to their community didn't seem like an viable option to either Weatherspoon or Pierson, both of whom would like to move, get out.

"It's Baton Rouge, man, everyone's trying to live reckless. ... That's why I got to leave,” Pierson said. “Where I live, that's my whole life — only thing I can do is deal with it.”

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.