Underneath sophomore Bryant Ramirez’s Columbia blue and white basketball jersey, a small word is inscribed onto the right side of his chest wrapped around a chained locket with the initials V.R. in the center. Pura Vida, it reads. In Costa Rica, this can mean hello or goodbye, but to 16-year-old Bryant it means love and life.
It’s the middle of a game and Bryant is on the free throw line. He pats his chest three times over the intertwined tattoos before he shoots. Everything else around him is quiet. This world is the only one where his mom still exists. The world where she didn’t die of a drug overdose when he was nine. The world where he can still hear her cheering him on—a voice inside of his head.
C’mon Bryant! You can do this.
His mom, Valarie, died of a drug overdose when he was nine, the same year that he discovered basketball. He noticed that his dad’s new house had a basketball goal in the driveway just before she died, so one day he decided to pick up a basketball and give it a try. He began to shoot there in his driveway every day after school for fun—for a place to escape to.
“When I first started playing I was like, this is something I can do and feel like I’m doing good at,” Bryant said, “that was when everything started.”
The day Valarie died was just an average day. He had just been dropped off at his dad’s house when he grabbed his basketball and headed outside, now a daily routine. The weather was nice and he could hear the squeaking ball bounce up and down on the concrete as he dribbled. Bryant was shooting baskets when Will, his dad, called him inside.
Will was standing in the kitchen. He put the phone down.
“When my dad was telling me ‘oh we all love you we’re all here for you, me and your family,’ I noticed that he wasn’t mentioning my mom in that conversation,” Bryant said. “My first thought was she was just in jail again.”
It wouldn’t have been the first time him and his dad had that talk. His mom had gone to jail for drugs in the past, so it was easy for him to think that was the case.
Yeah, he thought. Jail again.
But that was when his dad told him what had really happened. She had gone into her bedroom and chugged a bottle of pills, killing herself. The family had recently confronted her about her addiction to crack and medication, but she reacted harshly to what they were telling her. Bryant had just been with his mom the morning she passed before he went to his dad’s house. When Will told him the news, he ran back outside and kept shooting…and shooting…and shooting. It just wouldn’t sink in.
“Your mother, you always think she’s going to be the life for you…you always think she’s going to be there,” Bryant said. “When my dad said that she died, it was really shocking.”
After his mom’s death, Bryant started playing basketball all the time. The sport was how he coped.
“I just wanted to get away, and when I play basketball I go into another world,” Bryant said. “I just try to go to the happy places with me and her…all the good times we had together. I try not to think about all the bad things that happened.”
Though a lot has changed since his mom’s passing, as soon as he gets home from school, he grabs his basketball and heads outside to shoot in the same driveway. His driveway is his sanctuary. If he’s bored, he shoots. If he needs to clear his mind, he shoots. And if he needs somewhere to remember his mom a little better, he knows that the good times they had will bounce back to life when the ball is in his hands.
Bryant was born in the U.S., but moved to Costa Rica shortly after. He moved back with his parents when he was nine and has gone to 11 different schools since.
His parents had been divorced since he was five. He spent time living in crack houses with his mom when he was little. At night, he made his own dinner. He got himself up for school, and while only 11-years-old he had to act as if he was a grown man. When he stayed with his dad things were better, but since his dad was a construction worker at the time, he couldn’t be around that much.
It was during his first grade year that 6-year-old Bryant started to think something was different. His mom came home almost every night stumbling around drunk or strung out on drugs. He later found out that she had been doing drugs since before he was born. But as a kid, he didn’t understand she was addicted. And eventually, over the years, it was the pills that took over who she was.
“It was really bad, she came home almost every night like that,” Bryant said. “I mean, I basically had to take care of my own mom.”
Fast forward to Bryant’s second grade year. Since the divorce between his mom and dad, his mom had accompanied a new boyfriend. He was abusive. It was another fight. Another beating, and when tiny 50-pound Bryant mustered up the courage to try and stop this man from hitting his mom, he only ended up being struck by this man too.
“Mom, let’s just run away,” he said to her that night. “We could do it.”
But she was too scared to run. So that night, Bryant ran away to his friend’s house. He stayed away for two weeks without his mom noticing. When he decided to come home, nothing had changed. At this point—the drugs had consumed her.
There was no more catching frogs by the creek with Bryant. No more playing baseball outside or listening to music. During those last three months before her passing, she wasn’t the same person. Things just got increasingly bad in a short amount of time.
Though it wasn’t always bad.
“She was just like me. We were the exact same when we were around each other having fun,” Bryant said. “She gave me my first CD, 50 Cent, ‘Get Rich or Die Trying,’ that is something me and her really enjoyed, was listening to hip hop together.”
Bryant lived with his dad in Florida freshman year when he found out he was moving. He moved to East last year just in time for basketball try-outs. While a freshman at East, Bryant played on the Freshman A team. This year, during the off-season, he meets with his trainer in Olathe every day; striving to make JV. His mom is the reason he plays.
“She’s been my big motivation,” Bryant said. “I just want to be someone and I feel like this is my chance to really get out of my past and what has happened.”
During each game and during every practice, as he stands at the free throw line he takes a moment to remember his mom. Each pat he does over his chest before he shoots is his way of showing her that she’s still close to his heart. Something his favorite college basketball player Darnell Jackson does in memory of his mom too, who passed away from the same kind of incident.
He got his first tattoo in memory of his mom at the end of his freshman year, and the second in September. He feels like that was something he can say he did right. And each time he plays, he thinks of her.
“It always feels like she’s standing right next to me,” Bryant said.
Today, his life is right where he wants it. He lives with his dad and is happy and thankful for what he has.
“I love my life right now. I have really good friends, I’m in a safe place, I’m not in the ghetto anymore, I have a father that takes care of me.” Bryant said. “And me and him—we make it happen.”
Before his mom passed away, back when things were rough, Bryant didn’t have a clue that basketball was what he wanted to do. His best friend wanted to be a firefighter, but Bryant didn’t have any idea what he wanted to be. But now the answer is easy. Basketball player.
Since he played with East during last summer and freshman year, Coach Hair says he doesn’t have an entire feel for what kind of player Bryant is, but he can definitely see Bryant’s passion when he plays.
“I think he’s driven and he wants to be successful but at the same time he has a love of the game naturally,” Hair said. “I think he has a chance with basketball in the future.”
Bryant doesn’t know where he will end up with basketball, but it will continue to be the center of his life. And he will continue playing for his mom.
“I’m going as far as I can go with it, “Bryant said. “If I make college basketball, I’m going with it. If I make it further than that, I’m going with that too.”
His mom’s green eyes and dirty blonde hair are still vivid in his mind. He hasn’t forgotten catching frogs by the creek or throwing the old baseball with her. He hasn’t forgotten her smile or laughing face, and wherever basketball takes him, he most importantly won’t forget who she was and what she taught him.
“If there’s anything that she ever said that stuck out in my mind…” Bryant said. “It’s Pura Vida.”