Johnathan Burroughs-Cook – a standout basketball player for Ridgeway High School – speaks about the murder of his assistant basketball coach (Jimmy McClain), the disappearance of his teammate (McKenzie Sewell), the married adult who posed as a teenager and enrolled to play on the team, and an end-of-season "blessing."
This is for real life and not something birthed from the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter, so hold on. We have to begin this somewhere, so let's start with the murder.
"Our coach, Wes Henning, came into the locker room and broke the news to the entire team about coach (Jimmy McClain), that he had been murdered at his home (February 22). We knew something was up because coach McClain hadn't been to school in a few days," said Johnathan Burroughs-Cook, Ridgeway High School's star point guard.
"There had been a substitute teacher. When we heard that news we all broke down into tears. It was so hard because we had all just went out to eat at Chili's restaurant the night before it happened. We were celebrating winning the District Championship, He was his normal self, telling jokes and just having fun with us."
"What did he mean to your team," I asked.
"He meant a lot to our team because we knew that he had played basketball at a very high level and that was where we were trying to make it to one day. He played with (former Chicago Bull) Scottie Pippen, so that was big. This was his first year with us, but that didn't matter, we all were family."
McClain, said Johnathan, was the one who would encourage them during practice to work harder and be the best they could be. He wanted them to leave it all on the court when they played.
"I can still hear his voice and all he was talking about this year was that we have got to win that state ring, you know win the championship. So when he was found dead, we really were focused in on our assignments. We wanted to win it for him."
McClain, who starred at the University of Central Arkansas, was killed by his 19-year-old stepson, Dwayne Moore, who shot him multiple times with a .40 caliber weapon, investigators say.
Johnathan's mother, Debra Cook, provided more context.
"Prior to that, Overton High School and Ridgeway High School got into a brawl during a basketball game and so many of the players got kicked out of the game," she recalled. "Johnathan wasn't one of them, so he was able to stay in the game and help his team win. We virtually had just JV players on the court, but still won.
"So following that was when coach McClain died, and that's when we all were like 'we know God has got to have something good in store for us' because things kept happening."
I wanted to know if this was all leading up to the illegal basketball player being found out by the school administration, actually snitched on by his 35-year-old wife.
"Yes, I still remember that day, I will never forget it," Debra Cook said. "It was a strange day. I received a call from Johnathan that day and he said, 'Mom, we have been disqualified.' I was like, 'for what?' He was really upset trying to explain it to me. I rushed over to the school and it was heart breaking."
She made it into the library and saw all of the coaches, parents and basketball players.
"The kids were stretched out on the floor and their moms were on the floor with them, crying and sobbing. They couldn't believe what was happening. We all felt like they were being punished for something they hadn't done."
At that point, Johnathan and his teammates had learned little more than that teammate McKenzie Sewell had been ruled ineligible to play because he was too old.
"We were told that we were being disqualified from the playoffs because of it. So while we were crying, a lot of us were like, 'where is he because we want to talk to him, right now.' But he had disappeared like a ghost. We haven't seen him since."
Debra Cook was among the parents and supporters who tried to find a way around the disqualification.
"These kids had put in the work... and we had four seniors on this team, so this was the end of their high school careers," she said. "We went to the Board of Education and voiced our concerns, but it didn't help. I mean, this man came out of nowhere and messed everything up for them. It wasn't fair. I understood later what the rules stated, but it was still hard.
"That man, posing as a student might have scored ten points the entire season and may have played a total of 15 minutes," she said. "We still don't even know how old this man was. Now I hear that this man's wife is looking to write a book about this entire thing and I think that's just horrible."
I looked around and noticed all the trophies and medals that collectively reflected that Johnathan had been playing ball – and doing it well – for a long time. I wondered if he had been able to cope with all of the distractions and stay focused on his goals.
"Yes sir, I have," he said, introducing me to real-life pillars that had helped him build a foundation for doing just that.
"We had a neighbor by the name of Joe Ferby Sr. when I was little who introduced me to the game of basketball. My mom worked a lot back then, so he really looked out for us and taught me a lot about the game. Then as I grew up, I kept playing through middle school and I originally went to high school over at Kirby High where coach (Roy) Spears was instrumental in my basketball I.Q. and skill set," said Johnathan.
"I want to also add that around the ages of 9 through 15, I played for Lorenzen Wright's basketball team."
Yes, that Lorenzen Wright, the Memphis basketball legend and NBA stalwart whose killer still has not been found.
"And I still haven't gotten over that either," said Johnathan. "But yes, Lorenzen Wright looked out for me and sent me to basketball camps and more because he believed that I had a gift. Not just me, he also looked out for a lot of us.
"After that I had the opportunity to play on Penny Hardaway's team and we have traveled all over America playing basketball against some really great talent. In fact I know that the time that I traveled with Penny's team prepared me for this opportunity I have now by signing with The College of Charleston," he said.
Last Friday (April 19) at the ATOP Church on Riverdale Rd., Johnathan – with family, teammates and other supporters nearby – signed a letter of intent to play basketball at The College of Charleston.
"They recruited me in a first class manner and head coach Doug Wojcik is a family man and I appreciate that because I know that there will be a lot that I will be able to learn from him, on and off the court," Johnathan said.
"He feels a lot like coach Henning. They love you and talk to you like you're their son and motivate you to be all that you can be."
Johnathan's senior-season stats were impressive, great combo-guard numbers – 19.5 points, 5.3 assists, and 3.2 rebounds. Will they translate to college? Is he ready to move into a new season of his life?
"Do you think that those numbers will translate to college? Are you ready to move into this new season of your life?
"I'm so ready to head off to college and see what I can accomplish there," he said. "I can't do anything about the things that I didn't have any control over, but I can do my best at the things that I do."
I decided to cap my time with Johnathan by getting him to engage in some word-association. I started with Ridgeway High School.
"Interesting," he said.
To hard to deal with?