Aijha Blackwell could have run from the comparisons.
No one would blame her if she picked that path.
Adults struggle to grasp what happened on that August afternoon more than 14 years ago. The topic still makes eyes well and voices pause. Imagine if it happened before you turned 4 years old.
She was just starting to store moments in her memory. She recalls hearing a boom. She remembers jumping on her younger brother, she thinks to shield him from the sound. She remembers they had bunk beds.
Everything else, she has pieced together over time. The painful knowledge came with a choice.
How would she remember Ernest Blackwell?
Would her father’s last name become a burden, or a blessing?
Aijha Blackwell is the next great basketball talent to come out of St. Louis. The 6-foot senior guard at Whitfield was pursued by every notable college program. ESPN ranks her as the No. 8 player in the 2019 class and the No. 3 player at her position, which is a bit misleading because she can play any position. She averaged 24.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists last season while shooting 62 percent from the field. She spent her summer outperforming more experienced teammates and opponents on USA Basketball’s U18 national team.
Aijha Blackwell is also the daughter of the late Ernest Blackwell. Many will remember the name. The former University of Missouri star running back and Kansas City Chiefs draft pick was 29 years old when he lost his mind and then his life.
The details are as painful today as they were then.
Ernest Blackwell snapped on Aug. 11, 2004. The former football star at Eureka High and Mizzou shot his 9-year-old stepdaughter, Adrienne Thompson, in the chest with a shotgun. He then ran out of his family’s north St. Louis County home and attacked a 14-year-old neighbor while screaming about the end of the world and the devil. He attacked that girl’s stepmother. He attacked the policemen who rushed to the scene and used tasers and pepper spray and batons against him. He died in an ambulance after the outburst. Everyone else survived. An autopsy cited agitated delirium, which can occur after an extreme mental and physiological event. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery. He left behind a young family and countless questions that will never be answered.
Even shattered lives find ways to move forward. Amy Blackwell wrapped her arms around her babies and, day by day, a family devastated by an inexplicable tragedy started to heal. Adrienne Thompson, the little girl who was shot, is now a college student in Chicago. Aijha Blackwell, the little girl on the bunk bed, became a basketball star who had to decide how to handle a package of athletic gifts as easily connected to her father as her last name.
Whitfield girls basketball coach Michael Slater will never forget the first month of Aijha’s freshman year. He started receiving phone calls from area codes he did not recognize. Kansas. Kentucky. Texas. Tennessee.
“Do I owe people money?” he thought.
Not quite. College coaches wanted to hear more about his talented guard.
Aijha can splash threes and deliver no-look passes on a dime. She can dominate forwards for rebounds. She can really shoot. But her best attribute might be her elite combination of strength and speed.
“I really love being dominant,” she said before a practice this week. “Some people say I should play with the boys. I don’t really care when people say that. It used to get to me. I’m not going to lie. I thought we were all supposed to be aggressive, you know?”
Before the world went picking through Ernest Blackwell’s hardscrabble life to search for clues about how it ended, he was a football force. Former Tigers quarterback Corby Jones once referred to the 6-foot-3, 235-pound bowling ball of a back as the most talented player on the team. While playing for the Tigers between 1996 and 1997, Ernest Blackwell averaged seven yards per carry. He ran downhill, as if his pads were armor. His punishing style turned tacklers into hitchhikers.
Those who saw him carry the ball can’t help but see him in his daughter.
“They run the same,” Amy Blackwell said. “They have the same stride. I think she looks a lot like him.”
It was the mother who introduced the daughter to the game. Amy, a former Harris-Stowe basketball player who started dating Ernest Blackwell when she was 15, sought to provide as much normalcy for her children as possible after their father’s death. The hardest moment of her life forged her dedication to her kids.
“I never wanted to see them using it as a crutch,” Amy said. “I had to put how I was feeling aside.”
Basketball became normal for Aijha. Easy, even. Mom spotted the talent. She noticed Aijha’s hand-eye coordination. She handed her a ball. She became her first coach, leading her daughter back to the court when Aijha would get upset and quit in the middle of a game. Now Mom has a voicemail on her phone tailored to college coaches.
“She is the strongest woman I know,” Aijha said about Amy. “I don’t even know how she is doing it, how she did it. She kept life going. I could not imagine doing that. She didn’t stop. She didn’t quit. She kept raising us.”
Her father also played a part.
There was a time when Aijha tried to hide. Before she spoke defiantly about wanting to be the best player in the WNBA, she just wanted to blend in. She loved basketball, but not the complications that came with it. When you are bigger and faster and stronger than everyone your age, people tend to get mad, then mean. She has felt the hot shame of opposing players’ parents request a glance at her birth certificate. Her hair became her camouflage on the court.
“I remember wearing my hair down, and not wanting to put it into a ponytail,” Aijha said. “My coaches would ask me to. I would say no. I was scared.”
Aijha grew up with Google. She has been able to fill in as many of the gaps as she wants when it comes to her dad’s death. She has also declined to let his last day define him. She has studied his other chapters. She has asked her mom questions. She has learned about his big heart. And yes, she has watched some of his signature runs.
“His size was not normal for a running back,” Aijha said. “He could do things he should not have been able to do. It’s kind of weird. I’m also big. I can also play multiple positions. That’s where it connects.”
A godfather first introduced her to the football highlights. A reporter from a local TV news station provided more. She understood the comparisons. She embraced them. She now plays with her hair up, so she can look opponents in the eyes.
“I feel as if I continue to play in his name,” Aijha said. “That name, it means so much to me. Blackwell. I really want to carry on his legacy, and cherish it. It makes me emotional sometimes.”
One day before she celebrated her 18th birthday, Aijha could be found hanging with friends outside Whitfield’s gym. She was just another senior, eating snacks, laughing and singing. Practice would start in an hour. Meanwhile coaches from Kansas, Louisville and Missouri were headed to the school for a final meeting with her coach.
Yes, that said Missouri.
Robin Pingeton’s Tigers are one of three finalists on Aijha’s recruitment list. She plans to announce her commitment Monday. Mizzou is in her top two.
She has thought long and hard about what it would mean to share a college with her father.
One decision has been finalized.
Wherever the game takes her, she will proudly wear his name on her back.