Hawks’ DeAndre’ Bembry Turns Family Tragedies into Fight Against Gun Violence

CHARLOTTE -- It’s a busy, noisy day for DeAndre’ Bembry. With NBA All-Star Weekend about to get underway, the Atlanta Hawks wing has returned to his hometown to visit family and friends, and surprise the students at Hornets Nest Elementary School—where DeAndre’ spent his second-grade year—with awards, adidas sneakers and inspiration to know that if he could make it big in his life, they can, too.

“I always thought and wondered how fun it would be if I was in elementary school, and an NBA guy came in and was talking to us and giving stuff away,” DeAndre’ tells CloseUp360. “So it was a humbling experience and I enjoyed it.”

After the pep rally has subsided, the kids have all gone home by bus and the autograph seekers have peeled away, DeAndre’ finally gets to spend a quiet moment in a closed classroom. He reflects on the journey that’s brought him back here after 17 years, the people who are here with him—among them, his mother, Essence, and his second-grade teacher, Ms. Riley—and those who are not.

He turns over his left arm to reveal a slew of tattoos dedicated to his brother, Adrian Potts, and his cousin, Hezikah Kelly. Adrian was lost to gun violence in 2016 and Hezikah passed away following an accidental shooting in 2017. There are portraits of them both, whom DeAndre' calls his “two best friends,” along with a lit candle, an eye, an angel and a pair of warriors.

“Just got to make sure to keep them in my mind at all times,” he says.

Though so much has changed for DeAndre’ since those moments of loss, the pain still sticks with him, well beyond the eight hours or so he spent getting these tributes etched in ink. In so many ways, he’s made his life an homage to those loved ones who left him, just as he was starting to realize his dream of playing professional basketball.

Essence would rather not spend much time in Charlotte, let alone expound upon her reasons for that reticence.

“It's hard to come back to Charlotte, being that we lost Adrian here,” she says.

On that fateful night in June 2016, Essence was in Union, New Jersey, roughly 600 miles northeast of Charlotte, when she awoke to a phone call at 2 a.m. It was Rodney Potts, Adrian’s father, reaching out to deliver the grim news. Adrian, then 20, had been shot and killed at a party near the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus. DeAndre’, who was with his mom amid a frantic pre-draft schedule, came in to her room to hear the same devastating update.

Less than two weeks later, the Hawks took DeAndre’, the reigning Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, out of Saint Joseph’s with the No. 21 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Roughly seven months after that, Hezikah suffered a fate similar to Adrian’s.

“It was crazy,” DeAndre’ recalls.

By that time, he had already begun honoring those he’d lost. In Atlanta, he chose to wear No. 95 in honor of the year (1995) that Adrian was born. Eventually, he started emulating his brother and cousin however and whenever he could.

Amid myriad frustrations—the personal ones of the deaths in his family, the professional ones from dealing with injuries early in his NBA career—DeAndre’ turned to prayer, just as his cousin had prior to his passing.

“Every game before I pray, I obviously talk about these two and other people that I know that passed away just in remembrance of my loved ones,” he says.

DeAndre's Tattoo Dedications

DeAndre Bembry Adrian Potts tattoo

DeAndre's brother, Adrian Potts.

DeAndre Bembry Hezikah Kelly tattoo

DeAndre's cousin, Hezikah Kelly.

DeAndre Bembry angel tattoo

An angel.

DeAndre Bembry eye tattoo

An eye.

(Photos by Griffin Harrington)

The tattoos left an indelible reminder on DeAndre’s exterior. But even on the inside, he decided to make changes.

“I started eating certain foods that they ate that I used to hate,” he says, “and now I can eat them.”

Those salads that he used to avoid, but that his brother gobbled up? “I love salads now,” DeAndre says.

Those mushrooms his cousin couldn’t get enough of, but that DeAndre’ detested? “Now I can’t stop,” he says.

“Just a bunch of random stuff that I know that they used to like, and I just try to force myself to eat it and see if I can like it,” he adds. “It's been working, to be honest. It's actually helping my diet.”

To that end, it’s a far cry from the DeAndre’ that his mom used to know.

“He would make his lunch because he was a picky eater and he didn't like to eat the school lunch,” Essence says. “So he made peanut butter and jelly every day for a year.”

DeAndre' and Adrian, Through the Years

Though DeAndre’ and Essence didn’t come back to Hornets Nest specifically to honor the loved ones they’ve lost in Charlotte, those memories remain ever-present.

As she hands out awards to the most improved student in each class, Essence wears a shirt that reads “AP World” (AP for Adrian’s initials), with a cartoon of Adrian holding up a fist with his right arm and the Earth with his left. That same shirt pops up all over the assembly room, worn by family and friends in support of AP and the mission his passing has inspired.

In 2017, DeAndre’ and Essence established AP World as a charitable organization whose mission is to address issues related to gun violence. The foundation began with a basketball camp and community event in Charlotte, and has since expanded by way of prevention and education initiatives in inner-city neighborhoods like the one (Beatties Ford Road area) where DeAndre’ and Adrian grew up.

“We're just starting with going deep into these certain neighborhoods, and trying to start with the younger youth and hit 'em before they get to hit the streets,” DeAndre’ says.

Going forward, the Bembrys will look to make AP World a resource for families victimized by gun violence. From grief counseling and arranging services to ordering food for other mourners, they hope to help those who are struggling in the aftermath of tragedy—just as they were in 2016, coping with the logistics of laying loved ones to rest.

“A lot of times, you just don't know what to do. I know I didn't know what to do,” Essence says. “My cousin planned the whole service because I couldn't, you know. How can I write an obituary about my son?”

Essence Bembry

DeAndre's mother, Essence, oversees the family's AP World foundation. (Griffin Harrington)

Though DeAndre’ is involved in the bigger picture of AP World, his duties with the Hawks make it difficult for him to have a hands-on role in directing the non-profit’s day-to-day operations during the NBA season. Instead, Essence has taken on the bulk of building the foundation since its inception nearly two years ago.

“I think he trusts me a lot,” she says.

Essence admits that she’s “exhausted” from the process of learning how to establish and grow a non-profit. Fortunately, she’s had plenty of support along the way from other NBA mothers, including Lolita Ariza (Trevor Ariza’s mom), who's at Hornets Nest for DeAndre’s triumphant return.

“I love them,” Essence says. “[Their support] lets me know I'm doing the right thing. They let me know when I'm not, so that's good because they've been there. So I'm like a sponge.”

As much as she’s done to honor the lives and legacies of those she’s lost to gun violence, there’s one length to which Essence hasn’t gone that DeAndre’ has: getting a tattoo.

“She has yet to get a lick of ink on her,” DeAndre’ says. “Everyone else is getting them. Even my grandmother got it before her, my little cousin. She's not ready for that, that pain. But I know sooner or later, she'll make it around for sure.”

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 21: DeAndre' Bembry #95 of the Atlanta Hawks dunks the ball against the Orlando Magic on January 21, 2019 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

DeAndre' Bembry is averaging career highs in points, assists, rebounds and steals in his third season. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Even now, Essence goes back and forth on the possibility, clearly grappling the tragedies in her life that remain all too fresh nearly three years later.

“I'm scared. I don't have any [tattoos], so I don't know,” she says. “I keep saying I'm going to do it. Maybe I'll do a tattoo party. I love a party. But then it's going to hurt and I won't have fun. I don't know.

“I represent Adrian every day, so I don't really need it.”

Essence is still considering getting Adrian’s name etched into her skin somewhere. But just as DeAndre’ has kept his brother and cousin’s memories alive through his diet, so too has Essence internalized her son’s existence through her thoughts.

“I was thinking initially I'll remember him,” she says, “but I can't forget him because he's in my head everyday.”

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.