The Compton community was rocked last week by another shooting death of a young basketball player, Carl Lewis, who was killed near Compton High. Lewis, 19 years old, was a talented player well-known in the city. He is the third teenaged basketball player to be shot and killed in Compton in the last four months, with the tragic killings of 14 year-old Semaj Miller, killed in July, and 16 year-old Millyon Colquitt, killed in October.
“It was an ambush,” said Compton High basketball coach Tony Thomas. “He was right across the street from the school at the hamburger stand. He ordered his food and he was sitting there waiting. Someone walked up on him and shot him 10-15 times in his car.”
The loss is yet another devastating blow to a Compton community that’s been reeling from violence and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Njemila Williams has been an English teacher at Compton High for 20 years, and was one of the adults who connected with Lewis while he was a student there. She was teaching on Tuesday morning when the shooting happened and one of her student’s typed “Miss, someone just got shot” into the class’ Zoom chat.
“You’re far away from the student, my first concern was for his safety,” she said. “Was someone killed right next to him? He’d heard the gunshots from around the corner from his house. Then all of the other students are watching and you need to tell them what to do. It’s overwhelming.”
The tragedy became personal for Williams when her son, Zafir, FaceTimed her after class to tell her that his friend Carl had been shot. Zafir was a standout at Poly and knew Carl from being a part of the same tightknit basketball community that spans Compton and Long Beach.
“It became personal because I know the kid and this is the third athlete in Compton in four months,” she said. “Man, we’re drowning. And we don’t have strategies because we are not stable. It’s hurting every one of our kids because they either knew Carl, or Millyon, or Semaj, or because it’s their age group. These kids have the same dreams and drive as everyone else, but their environment is smashing them down. And they’re scared.”
After graduating high school, Lewis had been attending prep school in Canada, but had been sent home at the start of the pandemic. Isolated from school and with no place to regularly play or train, his mentors had been worried about him. Lewis had also recently lost his father in a motorcycle accident; Lewis’ father’s funeral was scheduled for the day after Lewis’ shooting.
“He was supposed to be in Arizona for an NBA workout because he was that good,” said DeAnthony Langston, the former Long Beach State hooper who heads the Real Run Basketball League and who was one of Lewis’ mentors.
“I’ve been looking at pictures of him all day and it hurts so much,” said Langston. “Tony, Rock, myself, the whole community, everybody wanted the kid to make it, to fulfill his potential. We were all working and praying that a day like this wouldn’t come, and it came anyway. Carl was a young man and he had his faults just like everybody but nobody needs to be gunned down brutally like that.”
Like Thomas and Williams, Langston said he worries about the toll that the killings are taking not just on the affected families, but on youth all over Compton who are separated from the schools and sports teams that have been their tether to structure and order in a chaotic world.
“There’s a baby girl in the car one spot over from him when he was killed, a little girl,” said Langston. “She saw that. She has to deal with that. All these kids now are seeing the footage of what happened on the news, how are they supposed to feel? What are they supposed to think of things when this keeps happening?”
Thomas said he hopes that this tragedy will be an end to a horrific year in Compton.
“These kids need help,” said Thomas. “Carl was the nicest kid and the sweetest kid, but he got aggressive when he was angry and he was so big it scared people. He needed help–he needed people not to be scared of him but to help him.”
A candlelight vigil for Lewis was held across the street from Compton High on the night of his shooting; funeral services are pending.