Life After Death
Surviving one of the nation's roughest neighborhoods and still dealing with the murder of his mother, Southern Carolina's Tre' Kelley is learning to live in the hope of Christ.
By Joshua Cooley
Retracing the steps of Tre’ Kelley’s childhood is a sobering, sometimes harrowing, task.
Name: Tre’ Kelley
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
High School: Dunbar
Major: Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management
To start, you must visit the areas of Washington, D.C., that aren’t in any travel brochures. You must go into the neighborhoods of the Northeast where vice is readily available — where the sounds of “Pop! Pop! Pop!” and the ensuing drone of police sirens, like banshees wailing in the night, are a familiar dirge. Only a short drive from the city’s majestic monuments and stately halls of legislature, it is worlds apart. No one goes sightseeing in this part of town.
Start your journey on Gault Street, nestled between the eastern bank of the Anacostia River and crime-riddled Prince George’s County, Maryland. This is where Tre’ lived for a time with his mother, Monica, and father, Alfrie. It’s a small street where a group of locals will stare down a visitor with quizzical looks that border on intimidating.
Now, travel five miles northwest into the city, to the intersection of Saratoga Avenue and 14th Street. This is the Brookland Manor apartment complex in the infamous Brentwood neighborhood, where Tre’ lived as a teenager with his grandmother. It’s a low-income area where the drab, three-story apartment buildings feature iron bars on all first-floor windows. It’s a place where, in 2005, bullets ended an argument over the ownership of an expensive jacket.
Hop onto New York Avenue and head two miles southwest to Dunbar High School. Here’s where Tre’ became a basketball star despite the decrepit conditions of the athletic facilities that prompted several recent articles in The Washington Post. Pay no attention to the penitentiary look of the place, the condemned track surrounding an unkempt football field or the broken windows around campus.
Now, go back the way you came, toward Gault Street, only make a slight detour — less than half a mile away. Stop at 822 48th St. Take a look at the three-story house on the left side of a slightly sloping residential drive.
Tre’ never lived there. It’s the house where his mother was murdered.
A Lifetime of Loss
Any way you look at it, Tre’s spiritual journey, which has led him to great success on the University of South Carolina’s basketball team, began on Aug. 21, 1996. Sadly, to anyone outside his circle, that fateful night simply marked another statistic in the grim reality of inner-city life in the nation’s capital, which has averaged 258 murders a year over the last decade.
Violence and drugs permeated “almost every aspect” of Tre’s childhood. “My entire life, I’ve always been around that,” he said.
Tre’s Uncle Edmond and Aunt Saundra died two months apart in 1991 — Edmond the result of a drug-related shooting, and Saundra from a mysterious drug overdose. Lee Marshall, a family friend, was killed in the jacket dispute. Another friend, Nathaniel Holmes, was shot down in a feud. Tre’s cousin, Nate, is currently in jail after a long string of violations.
Asked if there was anyone else he knew who fell prey to drugs or violence, Tre’ said, “We could be on the phone all night.”
But no other time in Tre’s life was more devastating than 1996. By the time he was 11 years old, his parents’ marriage had grown so strained that Monica turned elsewhere for fulfillment. As Tre’ put it, “That summer, things got crazy.” Tre’ moved out of the family’s home on Gault and in with his grandmother, Lila Haythe. Monica, who was having an affair, separated from Alfrie.
Tre’ saw his mother for the last time on Aug. 20. He vividly remembers the unexplainable feeling that something wasn’t right. “I felt negative vibes from her,” he said. “She told me — she kept stressing — ‘I’ll be back. Don’t worry.’ It didn’t flow right.”
The following evening, Monica arrived at the house on 48th Street to meet her boyfriend. An argument broke out — Tre’ thinks she was trying to end the relationship and salvage her marriage — and things quickly escalated into violence. When the police arrived the next morning, they found Monica’s battered, lifeless body and arrested the man. She was 38.
Early that afternoon, the phone call came to Brookland Manor. When Tre’s grandmother heard the news, her weeping filled the apartment. Tre’ ran into her bedroom. Through the howls, she told him his mother was dead. He flew out of the house and down the street, groping for answers that weren’t there.
Over time, Tre’ anesthetized the pain with heavy doses of basketball, spending endless hours on the city’s gritty blacktop courts. Monica had loved to watch him play.
He quickly became one of the prep legends at Dunbar, a talent factory that has produced quite a few NBA players. As a senior in 2002-03, he averaged 29 points, eight assists and five rebounds a game and led Dunbar to a D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship. He was named to The Washington Post’s prestigious All-Met team twice and was recruited by a number of big-time programs before choosing South Carolina.
“He was head over heels better than any other guard in the D.C. metro area,” said six-year Dunbar coach Lorenzo Roach. “He had his way. He scored so many different ways. He was so much more polished than anybody else.”
A New Life
Amazingly, Tre’ didn’t stumble down the same dark paths of so many others he knew. The pitfalls were everywhere. Questions, doubts, fears and bitterness from the ubiquitous death and pain could easily have overwhelmed him. How did he survive?
|Tre’ ran into her bedroom. Through the howls, she told him his mother was dead. He flew out of the house and down the street, groping for answers that weren’t there. |
“I felt as though I had to,” he said. “I saw a lot of negativity around me with friends. Once I grew up, I saw my friends go in other directions that wouldn’t make me a good person, that wouldn’t make me a successful person. At age 11, basketball was beginning to be what I did best. I met a lot of people who really helped me get along. They didn’t help me get over it — I’ll probably never get over it — but they helped me move in the right direction.”
Lila, his saintly grandmother, played the biggest role of all. After Monica’s death, Tre’ and Alfrie lived with her for several months, and when Alfrie moved out, Tre’ remained. Monica was Lila’s third child claimed by the city — Edmond and Saundra were also hers — so she poured herself into her grandson.
She’s “the greatest person I know,” Tre’ said.
Still, despite his good judgment early on, there was something missing inside him that went much deeper than the loss of loved ones. In 2004, after Tre’s freshman year of college, God’s grace intervened. That summer, during a 10-day basketball mission trip to the Dominican Republic with Score International, he was confronted with the gospel every day. Before returning home, he accepted Christ.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “When we got there, it changed the way I thought — the different places we went, the orphanage and seeing different people less fortunate than we are here.”
The following year, Tre’ met Jack Easterby, the FCA campus director at South Carolina. Through Easterby’s care and Tre’s dedication, the once shy young man with trust issues has now become a maturing spiritual warrior. He is memorizing verses, leading Huddle prayer times and initiating accountability with Easterby. Last summer, Tre’ went to five different basketball camps and shared his new faith.
“For Tre’ Kelley to do that — it’s nothing more than God, because he is a man of very few words, and that’s not in his comfort zone,” said Tommy Kyle, the Score International trip leader and one of Tre’s close friends.
As Tre’ grows in his faith, coping with the past remains his biggest challenge, one that often keeps him up — searching, struggling — into the wee hours of the night. He is not immune to the inevitable question of “Why?”
“That question has run through my mind,” he said. “I’m 21 years old. I’ve been without my mother for 10 years. I have older friends who are 35, 40, 45 years old, and they talk about all the things they got to do with their mothers. I haven’t been able to do that.”
But Easterby has seen much spiritual fruit in Tre’ — and much growth in this area.
“The reason he’s growing is his joy level,” Easterby said. “Tre’ has gained so much joy over his spiritual journey. He seems really happy doing what he’s doing. Earlier it seemed like he was burdened. Now, it seems like he’s more free.”
The basketball court has always been Tre’s shelter from the storm. There, between tip-off and final buzzer, life’s haunting cruelties fade away and are replaced by the adrenaline of competition and the roar of the crowd.
|Tre' made the 2006 SEC and NIT All-Tournament teams.|
His comfort level there shows. The 6-foot, 188-pound senior point guard is easily one of the top players in the Southeastern Conference. A full-time starter since his sophomore season, he averaged 12.5 points and 4.6 assists per game last year while setting school season records for minutes played (1,330), games started (38) and games played (38). He also led the SEC in assists (174).
What’s more, he led the Gamecocks on an incredible run to the 2006 SEC Tournament final, earning all-tournament team honors. The Gamecocks lost to the eventual NCAA champion Florida Gators but qualified for the National Invitation Tournament, where Tre’ averaged 15.6 points through five games and powered them to their second straight NIT title.
“He has a quiet confidence, but he’s gritty tough,” South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. “He’s the kind of person and he’s the kind of basketball player that when tough times come, you want to be in the trenches with him.”
For Odom, the most memorable image of the NIT championship came long after the final buzzer. After the Gamecocks’ celebration moved off the hallowed floor of Madison Square Garden and into the locker room, Odom noticed one player was missing. It was Tre’, who was still on the court with his grandmother.
“Don’t go get him,” Odom told the team. “Let him be out there as long as he wants.”
A Plan for the Future
NBA scouts were out to see Tre’ before this season started. There’s a swarm of talented 6-foot guards out there vying for the few NBA positions available, but Odom believes his star senior can make a living playing somewhere.
Tre’ has worked half his young life to dazzle with a ball in his hands. And in an ironic — and divine — turn of events, his marred childhood has served to galvanize him in basketball. After all, what can faze him on the court? It’s just a game. Out there, on the streets of D.C., that was real life. In the SEC’s arenas, the worst crisis you can imagine is like a sunset cruise compared to the dreadful trials of his youth.
Odom, a four-decade veteran of college coaching, lists Tre’ among the toughest competitors he has ever coached.
“The one thing I’ve always felt is that the common denominator in those players is a sense of fearlessness,” Odom said. “They look death in the eye, and they don’t blink. And he’s right there with any of them.”
Looking death in the eye and not blinking — that’s what Tre’ has been trying to do for most of his life. The piercing memories will always be there. Will he ever be able to go home and pass 48th Street without feeling the pain of 1996? Not likely. His mom will never be far from his mind. But he knows that in Christ the future is always greater than the past. And now when you retrace the steps of Tre’ Kelley’s life, the focal point is not the horrors of Northeast, D.C., but the life-changing grace of the cross.
“God had a plan to make me a stronger and better person,” Tre’ said. “I’m still going through a lot with my family now. But He put me in these situations, and ultimately, this is what [Mom] wanted me to do.
Photos courtesy of Allen Sharpe and Joshua Cooley
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit