Almost every day, growing up around 19th and Carpenter Streets, Dion Waiters and his friends would spend hours playing hoops in Southwest Center City and Point Breeze. The Marian Anderson Rec Center on 17th Street. The Christian Street Y. The Chew Playground on Washington Avenue, a citywide proving ground.
"If you were a basketball player, you knew you had to go to 19th and Washington," said Malik Tappe, who in the early 2000s played against Waiters, now a key reserve for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder. Back then, when the area's luxury condos and artisanal coffee shops were still boarded-up rowhouses, the neighborhood was characterized by another constant:
But even as Waiters ascended to the NBA, the bloodshed in his old city kept making victims of his family and friends. In unrelated incidents, two cousins and a close friend were murdered. A third cousin died in a motorcycle accident.
Last week, it continued. Waiters' brother Demetrius Pinckney, 21, was fatally shot at 2300 Morris St. in an apparent dispute over a dirt bike.
Tappe, now a sports director at a YMCA in North Philadelphia, said the violence tore through their group of friends. "I can name 10 guys I grew up with playing basketball who got killed from gun violence," he said.
On Thursday, Waiters, 24, returned to his old elementary school, E.M. Stanton at 1700 Christian St., to pledge $10,000 toward renovation of the playground. But the memory of his brother - who died less than two miles from the school - wasn't far from Waiters' mind.
"It's going to take a while for me to get over that," he said in the cafeteria after the afternoon's festivities, surrounded by a swarm of students. "It's just sad that my family's got to go through this."
The neighborhood where Waiters grew up - commonly called Graduate Hospital, between South Street and Washington Avenue on the southwest side of Center City - is almost unrecognizable compared with a decade ago.
Holly Shaw, who was Waiters' computer teacher for four years in elementary school, said that although half-million-dollar houses and upscale pubs have flooded the neighborhood, it once was overrun by open-air drug markets, vacant homes, and sketchy corners.
Steve Bandura, a recreation leader for nearly three decades at the Marian Anderson center, said scores of children would come in knowing someone who had been swept up in violence.
"It was a rough neighborhood," he said in his office last week. "A tough neighborhood."
Basketball was one of the few escapes, Tappe said. And he and Waiters took to it obsessively.
In elementary school, recalled Ilene Heller, another of Waiters' former teachers, he would walk the halls with a basketball in his hand.
As a teenager, Tappe left a party one night, only to walk past a startling sight: "I saw [Waiters] at the playground on a bench," he recalled, "sleeping with a basketball."
As Waiters' profile grew - he made national news by committing to play college ball at Syracuse as a high school freshman - people in Southwest Philadelphia began to recognize his talent, too. Some called him "Headache" for his unrelenting mind-set, Tappe said.
But for all the good things, a series of deaths happened around the same time. Waiters' cousin Antose Brown was shot dead in 2006. Another cousin, Isiah Brown, and a friend, Rhamik Thomas, were killed a few months apart in 2007. Cousin Karl Brown died in a motorcycle accident in 2009.
None of the killings was solved, said Chris Clayton, Waiters' business manager.
Waiters' mother, Monique Brown, said the drumbeat of funerals took a toll on her son.
"Nobody expects that as a kid, trying to play basketball and deal with death at the same time," she said Thursday.
Kenyatta Johnson, a lifelong South Philadelphia resident who represents the area in City Council, said conflicts once resolved with fistfights are now too often taken up with a gun.
"When I was a young man growing up, maybe one, two, or three guys in the neighborhood had guns," Johnson said. "I have watched the proliferation of the access to illegal guns in the hands of young men . . . play a major role in the shootings and murders that have been going on in the Point Breeze, Grays Ferry, and Southwest Center City neighborhoods."
Pinckney, Waiters' brother, died last week after he was shot in the head, according to police. Commissioner Richard Ross said at the time that the killing may have resulted from a years-old dispute over a dirt bike.
"Some of these feuds will last for years, and then people will choose to exact revenge in whatever way they can," Ross said.
A police spokeswoman said Thursday that no suspects had been identified.
Shaw, Waiters' teacher, said he teared up Thursday when she hugged him and mentioned Pinckney's death.
Waiters said that one thing was clear after dealing with so much tragedy: "The streets don't love you back."
That's part of the reason he wanted to help his old school's playground, he said. And it's why he hopes he can serve as a role model for how to get beyond a tough neighborhood's grip.
Tappe, who made it out after handling challenges of his own, thinks his and Waiters' shared past has helped boost them to where they are today.
"You remember the tragedy," he said, "and use that to fuel you."
Waiters echoed that sentiment before exiting the school Friday, amid a sea of autograph requests from kids half his height.
"Make sure you never forget where you come from," he said. "And I'll never forget where I come from. Ever."