Basketball

Memory of her mom — murdered by her dad — fuels Ajanae' Thomas

North Central Panthers' Ajanae Thomas, third from left, stood with teammates during the national anthem recently.

North Central Panthers’ Ajanae Thomas, third from left, stood with teammates during the national anthem recently.

Ajanae’ Thomas had almost drifted off to sleep in the early morning hours of June 6, 2009, when she heard her mother call her name from the other side of the wall. “Ajanae’! Ajanae’!” Nicole Thomas shouted from inside their home on Ashton Avenue in the Warrendale neighborhood of western metropolitan Detroit.

Ajanae’, 10, nudged her brother, 6-year-old Paul. “Paul, scoot over so I can get up,” she said. As she got to her feet, Ajanae’ heard two gunshots from the other side of the bedroom wall. She stood there, still as could be, then retreated back to bed. Ajanae’ pulled the covers over herself and wrapped her arms around her little brother.

Seconds later, a figure filled the doorway. Paul looked up at the shadow. “Did you just kill my mom?” he asked. Ajanae’ gently covered Paul’s head with her hands. She whispered, “Paul, just go back to sleep.”

Ajanae’ doesn’t tell this story often. For six years, she didn’t tell anyone. Not even close friends such as Alexis Johnson and Tiarra Watkins know the details of what happened that night. Not even her own grandmother, Debra Hawkins, who raised her from that day forward, has heard all of it.

Then one afternoon, before her junior basketball season at North Central in the fall of 2015, Ajanae’ let her teammates in on at least some of her background. Her coach, DeeAnn Ramey, had the team pass around a basketball, one by one. On the ball, each player wrote the name of the person they were going to play for that season.

Ajanae’ wrote “Mom.”

“I feel like I’m playing for her and for me,” Ajanae’ said.

The figure moved into Ajanae’s room in the darkness that June morning. “Come here,” he said. Ajanae’ followed him through the living room, where her mother lay dead on the floor. Ajanae’ never saw her. She followed the man through the kitchen, to her mother’s bedroom.

It was there that Deshawn Smith pulled Ajanae’ close. He hugged her.

“Love hurts,” her father said.

Ajanae’ didn’t hug him back.

A photo of Ajanae (right) has been superimposed next to one of her mother, Nicole Harris, taken shortly before she was slain.

A photo of Ajanae (right) has been superimposed next to one of her mother, Nicole Harris, taken shortly before she was slain.

Debra Hawkins has a photo of her oldest daughter, Nicole, and granddaughter, Ajanae’, smiling with their arms around each other. It’s a Photoshop job: one side taken shortly before Nicole was killed. Ajanae’s photo, a recent one, is superimposed on the right, next to her mother’s image.

They look like sisters. Best friends. Even now, every time Ajanae uploads a photo of herself on Instagram or posts an old one of her mother, family members or family friends will comment on the jaw-dropping physical similarities. Those eyes. That smile. So much Nicole in Ajanae’, even beyond appearances.

“They are pretty much the same kind of people,” Hawkins said. “Except Nicole was all over the place. She had the highest ACT score on the block, but she didn’t know what she wanted. Ajanae’ is a better student. She’s more focused. She knows what she wants.”

If Nicole could only see her now. She was always so proud of Ajanae’. But now. Would she believe it? Ajanae’ still dreams about her. In her dreams they are back in Detroit: Nicole, Paul and Ajanae’. There are real memories in those dreams. She’s at the park with her cousins or at home for a barbecue. They are laughing, enjoying their time together.

The happiest days are the ones she dreams about.

“Take me to my grandma’s house,” Ajanae’ told her father. She climbed into the back seat, next to Paul. Her father told her to move to the front. She did. “I’m about to die,” Ajanae’ thought. After a 20-minute drive, her father dropped Ajanae’ and Paul off at his mother’s house. It wasn’t Grandma. That’s Hawkins. Her father drove off without a word, leaving Ajanae’ and Paul to figure it out from there.

At least he was gone, she thought.

North Central Panthers' Ajanae' Thomas (34) warms up before the Panthers' game at Carmel High School on Dec. 16, 2016.

North Central Panthers’ Ajanae’ Thomas (34) warms up before the Panthers’ game at Carmel High School on Dec. 16, 2016.

Ajanae’ Thomas is one of the state’s top senior basketball players on one of the state’s top teams, averaging 14.8 points per game. The Panthers went into the holiday week with a 14-0 record, sharing the No. 1 ranking in Class 4A with Homestead. At 5-9, Thomas is exceptionally strong and also has a soft shooting touch from the perimeter. Last year, as a junior, she averaged 12.4 points and 7.0 rebounds on a team that went 18-6.

In November, Ajanae’ signed with Indiana State.

“She’s our leader,” Ramey said. “She’s dominant on the boards and she can come out and shoot the 3. She’s very versatile. We’ll go as she goes.”

Ajanae’s love for basketball is exceeded by only the love for her family. They are intertwined. Nicole loved basketball, too. She was good. In the 1990s, Nicole bounced to several Detroit high schools – Central, King and Western International – where she was known as an aggressive, strong, hard-charging player. Nicole wore No. 34, like Charles Barkley. Teammates called her “Lady Barkley.”

There was a fire burning within Nicole. She wore her emotions on her sleeve, for better or worse.

“She got into some trouble with other students,” said DeLawrence Thomas, Nicole’s older brother by three years. “But she was able to go from school to school and they would take her because coaches knew about her basketball skills. They thought they could get a counselor with her and calm her down and try to make it fit. She had some social issues. But it was Detroit in the 1990s. A lot of kids did.”

A knee injury ended Nicole’s basketball career. She had one surgery but didn’t want to go through another as a high school senior. She seemed to be OK with it. There was more than an athletic side to Nicole. She was handy at fixing things and later operated her own construction company. She could tear apart a computer and put it back together.

The grass didn’t grow under Nicole’s feet. At the time she died, Nicole was just a few months from graduation at ITT Tech, where she was working toward a computer programming degree. Nicole’s mother, a lifelong educator, spoke at what would have been Nicole’s graduation ceremony.

“When I was growing up, I always wished I had a brother,” Thomas said. “But Nicole was like a brother and sister all in one. She could be just as tough as a guy could be. Just as competitive. Then she could turn around and put on a dress and be just as girly on Sunday as she needed to be.”

Ajanae’s uncle sees the same thing in her. “As tough as nails,” he said.

North Central Panthers' Ajanae' Thomas (34) waits to be introduced before the Panthers' game against the Carmel on Dec. 16, 2016. Thomas wears the number 34 in honor of her late mother Nicole.

North Central Panthers’ Ajanae’ Thomas (34) waits to be introduced before the Panthers’ game against the Carmel on Dec. 16, 2016. Thomas wears the number 34 in honor of her late mother Nicole.

Ajanae’s father’s family didn’t believe her at first. They drove over to the house to see for themselves. By the time Ajanae’ and Paul got back to the house, it was surrounded by yellow caution tape. Family and friends were outside, crying.

There have been two constants in Ajanae’s life from June 6, 2009, to now. One is Paul, who remembers how his mother would hold him on the couch while they watched movies. The night his mother died, Paul thought the gunshots might have come from next door. Before the gunfire he, too, heard his mother call out for Ajanae’.

The other constant is Debra Hawkins.

***

People who know the story tell Hawkins all the time what a great grandma she’s been to Ajanae’ and Paul. They know there were other options. She didn’t have to adopt her grandkids. It says something – says it all – about Hawkins, 61, that she can’t see what others see.

To her, there was no option. There was no alternate path.

“You can say there were options,” Hawkins said. “Where is the option? Your daughter is killed. I don’t see any option except to do what is best for her children. It’s what you do.”

It’s what she did. By choosing this path, she’s no longer Grandma. She’s not Mom, either. She cries sometimes that she can’t be Grandma anymore to Ajanae’ and Paul. Maybe someday. She smiles when she thinks about how that might feel.

After Nicole was killed, Hawkins first tried to be everything. She’d moved to a new home in Southfield, a northern suburb of Detroit. She was still Grandma, or at least still playing that role. It lasted for a couple of years.

“I spoiled them rotten,” she said. “I spent money that would be been better spent going into their bank account.”

Ajanae' Thomas' grandmother Debra Hawkins watches as the Panthers play against the Carmel Greyhounds on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

Ajanae’ Thomas’ grandmother Debra Hawkins watches as the Panthers play against the Carmel Greyhounds on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

Hawkins was an educator in the Detroit Public School system. She loved it. History and English, mostly. She was an assistant principal at times. Schools opened and closed often. One year she’d be an assistant principal and the next back in the classroom.

Hawkins, a 1972 graduate of the once-renowned and since-shuttered MacKenzie High School, was a product of the Detroit Public School system. She took pride in going into the toughest schools, like McMichael Middle School, and getting them turned around. Or at least fighting the good fight.

“I loved teaching,” she said. “I felt like it was truly my ministry. We had rival gang members in the same classroom at times. But they knew it was my classroom. I bought them all white shirts with pins on the collar and when they walked down the hall, they walked in a straight line. I loved teaching. To walk away … it was a challenge.”

Hawkins had to walk away. It was her option. But there was only one. For the sake of Ajanae’ and Paul, she had to get out of Detroit, the only home she’d ever known.

Ajanae’ had known her father for only about a year. Her parents had split up when Nicole was still pregnant with Ajanae’. Paul had a different father. It was only years later that Nicole and Ajanae’s father reconciled.

“I never actually really liked him,” Ajanae’ said. “I remember this like yesterday. He tried telling me to do something and I said, ‘You’re not my dad. I’m not going to do what you tell me to do.” My mom pulled me aside and said, ‘He’s your father, you have to listen.’ From then on I knew I had to live with it, even though it didn’t feel right.”

North Central Panthers' Ajanae' Thomas (34) listens as head coach DeeAnn Ramey talks during a timeout in a game against the Carmel Greyhounds at Carmel High School on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

North Central Panthers’ Ajanae’ Thomas (34) listens as head coach DeeAnn Ramey talks during a timeout in a game against the Carmel Greyhounds at Carmel High School on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

Before Ajanae’s eighth grade year, Hawkins decided to move the kids to Indiana. Her son, DeLawrence, had attended Indiana University on a track scholarship and graduated from IU in 2001. He was living in Indianapolis after spending three years in California.

Hawkins considered Arizona, where she has a niece. She considered Colorado, where she has an aunt. She considered Ann Arbor, Mich., which would have kept her closer to her sisters in metro Detroit, her youngest daughter, Toyia, and her only other grandchild, 7-year-old Trinity.

Indiana made the most sense, Hawkins decided. Detroit was close enough to visit and far enough away to feel like a fresh start. They found a house in Pike Township, close to DeLawrence. Ajanae’ attended eighth grade at Lincoln Middle School. Almost immediately, Hawkins could sense a cloud had lifted.

“It was new people, new friends,” said DeLawrence, a math and science teacher at Global Preparatory Academy at IPS School 44. “It was exciting for them to be in a new place. It was a distraction from the big tragedy. They could never forget but I think moving helped them get to that next point of healing in the grieving process.”

Ajanae’ never did cry in the weeks after her mother was killed. Well, just once. When she saw her cousin crying on the couch at her grandma’s house, she teared up.

“It hurt me to see her hurting,” Ajanae’ said. “But it was like a dream to me. It was like, ‘When am I going to wake up?’ I don’t even remember sleeping. The next several weeks were like that.”

Ajanae’ thrived at Lincoln in eighth grade, earning all As. Before Ajanae’s freshman year, Hawkins moved into a house in Washington Township. Ajanae’ transferred to North Central, where she quickly made friends with the incoming basketball team during summer workouts.

Basketball was Ajanae’s sanctuary. When she was 5 or 6, her mother coached a middle school team, and Ajanae’ tagged along as the unofficial team mascot. Though she never played in any organized leagues while her mom was alive, Ajanae’ loved the game from that early age.

That mother-daughter connection is with her now when she takes the court, even visibly. Ajanae wears the No. 34 jersey like her mom. This year, she began writing “Lady Barkley” on her shoes.

“I play out of love for my mom because she was a basketball player,” Ajanae’ said. “God has given me the ability for her to live through me. I just want to express her talents and my talents through how hard I play. I want to do everything for her.”

Alexis Johnson, her senior teammate and close friend, has watched Ajanae’ blossom into a confident, driven person from her freshman to senior year.

“She’s bubbly,” Johnson said. “She’ll light up a room. She’s a good, loyal friend. Just an all-round good person. You don’t find a lot of people like her, I feel like. From everything she’s been through and how she’s dealt with it … it’s just amazing to me. I could never do that. She’s just so happy about life. Everything is so positive with her.”

It wasn’t always that way. Anger used to drive Ajanae’ to tears. Anger kept her from opening up to her therapist during weekly sessions. She’d start shaking, then shut down. Anger at her father. Why did he have to take her mom away? There was no answer to that question. At some point, Ajanae’ quit trying to find it. Maybe that was the freedom she needed.

“Once I forgave him, inside my heart, it happened,” Ajanae’ said. “I was able to talk about it more easily. It still upsets me on the inside. God said to forgive. But it’s hard. It’s really hard.”

North Central Panthers' Ajanae' Thomas (34) laughs alongside her teammates after the Panthers' victory over the Carmel Greyhounds at Carmel High School on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

North Central Panthers’ Ajanae’ Thomas (34) laughs alongside her teammates after the Panthers’ victory over the Carmel Greyhounds at Carmel High School on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

Every June 6 since 2009, the family takes a vacation somewhere. Anywhere. St. Louis. Tennessee. The Wisconsin Dells. This year, before Ajanae’ takes off for Indiana State, they are going to Jamaica. Hawkins makes Ajanae’ and Paul write about each trip in a journal.

“If you don’t write it down, you’ll lose it,” Hawkins said.

Those trips have helped Ajanae’. So has time, and the perspective on how far she’s come. There were tough days in Detroit. They didn’t have much but each other.

“There were times our lights were off or our water was turned off,” Ajanae’ said. “We saw some bad things. That’s how we used to live. But now I have a shirt with my number on the back of it and I’m wearing Jordans. I never thought I’d be wearing a pair of Jordans. I know my grandma does everything she can for us. Without her … I don’t know.”

Deshawn Smith was convicted of second degree murder and assigned to Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Mich., where he’ll remain incarcerated for at least two more decades. Smith’s earliest release date is June 9, 2036. 

Ajanae’ isn’t ready to talk to him. At least twice, she believes he’s been on the other end of the phone, attempting to reach her from Lakeland. She hasn’t accepted the calls.

“I was thinking, ‘How did he get my number?’” Ajanae’ said. “It costs money. I’m not going to pay for that. Maybe one day I’ll talk to him. But I don’t think I’ll be able to visit him anytime soon. Maybe when I’m paying my own phone bill and I’m in a good mood I’ll have a conversation with him and ask him why. But right now, I couldn’t do it. I feel like he’d try to apologize and give a reason. Right now I wouldn’t want to hear it. I have nothing to say.”

Ajanae’ imagines that moment someday in the future. She’d be close to 30 years old, the same age her mother was when she was slain. She’d be surrounded by her own family, sitting in a nice house. She’d be playing in the WNBA or coaching basketball on some level.

“Maybe then I’d talk to him,” Ajanae’ said. “Maybe.”

There was no template for Debra Hawkins to follow when Nicole died. Love led her here, to her son. To Indiana. It nearly broke her, too.

“I was probably two steps from a nervous breakdown,” Hawkins said. “My therapist said I never allowed myself to mourn. We were just going, going, going. After we moved here, my mind finally just crashed. I’m feeling better now, though. I don’t have anxiety as bad as I used to.”

DeLawrence Thomas marvels at his mother. She’s strict. But the structure she’s provided for Ajanae’ and Paul has led them out of the darkness of that early June morning in 2009.

Paul Lee, Delawrence Thomas, Debra Hawkins and Ajanae Thomas pose for a portrait on Monday, Dec. 19, 2016.

Paul Lee, Delawrence Thomas, Debra Hawkins and Ajanae Thomas pose for a portrait on Monday, Dec. 19, 2016.

“She’s a rock,” DeLawrence said. “I know I’m a guy talking about his mom, but I can’t think of anybody to be more of a role model than her. When she says there are no other options, I say that’s because you are a decent person. It shows that she doesn’t even attempt to think about things that some people do as far as closing off some parts of their family and some parts of their heart when they know they need to sacrifice. I don’t think she’d have a night of peace not knowing how the kids were doing.”

Hawkins quickly deflects any praise sent her way, directing it back to Ajanae’ and Paul. She’s quietly anticipating and dreading Ajanae’s graduation and move to Indiana State. They all are. Ajanae’ and Paul have never been apart. Theirs is a relationship that extends beyond brother and sister in ways they can only know.

“Paul is all I have left from my mom,” Ajanae’ said. “Even though we have family, it’s still me and him. If anything happened to him, I don’t know. I’d probably go crazy.”

There’s one milestone Hawkins doesn’t know whether she’ll ever reach again. Can she be “Grandma” to Ajanae’ and Paul again? She wants that. But she’s given Ajanae’ and Paul so much more. A home. A family. A future.

“I feel like I owe her everything,” Ajanae’ said. “Without her, my brother and I probably wouldn’t even be together. We still have our family and everybody and everything we’ve known. It’s just amazing what she’s done. I’ll always thank her and appreciate her for that.”

It’s a story of strong family bonds and new beginnings. It’s one Ajanae’ is proud to share.

Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649. Follow him on Twitter: @KyleNeddenriep.

North Central Panthers' Ajanae« Thomas (34) breaks a huddle with her team after the Panthers' win against the Carmel Greyhounds at Carmel High School on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

North Central Panthers’ Ajanae« Thomas (34) breaks a huddle with her team after the Panthers’ win against the Carmel Greyhounds at Carmel High School on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

North Central Panthers' Ajanae« Thomas (34) breaks a huddle with her team before the Panthers' game against the Carmel Greyhounds at Carmel High School on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. Thomas wears the number 34 in honor of her late mother Nicole who was known as "Lady Barkley," after Charles Barkley, in the Detroit area.

North Central Panthers’ Ajanae« Thomas (34) breaks a huddle with her team before the Panthers’ game against the Carmel Greyhounds at Carmel High School on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. Thomas wears the number 34 in honor of her late mother Nicole who was known as "Lady Barkley," after Charles Barkley, in the Detroit area.