PULLMAN – Noah Williams is deliberate with his pregame routine, because as difficult as it was to see his friend go, he knows it would be even worse to let Trevon McKoy’s memory disappear.
More than an hour before tipoff, the Washington State freshman plugs a set of ivory Powerbeats Pro headphones into his ears, then scrolls down a playlist of songs produced by McKoy, who went by the stage name, “JuiceTheGod.” Williams cycles through the tracks and ingests the lyrics as he dribbles a basketball through his legs, tests out his jump shot and loosens his limbs.
When he returns to the court, moments before tipoff, Williams removes his warmup shirt to unveil a jersey with the No. 24. There’s significance to this, too.
Williams and McKoy grew up in the Delridge neighborhood of West Seattle, and the intersection of 24th Avenue and Kenyon Street was a popular landmark. It’s where McKoy filmed a number of his music videos. It’s where a broken community later set up a memorial for a local music icon.
It’s also where Williams taped a video announcing his commitment to WSU last May. Williams adopted the number before his final high school season, then proceeded to win a State 3A championship at Seattle’s O’Dea High, lifting a golden basketball above his head while wearing “24” on his back.
After the national anthem plays and starting lineups are announced, Williams’ routine is down to one last thing: carrying out McKoy’s vision.
“He knew I could go (Division I),” Williams said. “He knew since I was a kid I was going to be D1. He used to say it every day, ‘You’re going to the league, bro. You’re going to the league.’ Just got to make it happen for him.
“… That’s what he wanted me to do. I can feel him smiling down on me right now. Just me playing on the court, making plays and now me getting the starting position, I just feel his spirit’s with me on the court.”
You can bet Williams’ pregame routine won’t change Friday when the West Seattle native, O’Dea product and former Seattle Rotary (AAU) standout makes an emotional return to his hometown for a 6 p.m. tipoff between WSU (14-14, 5-10 Pac-12) and Washington (13-15, 3-12) at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Williams tagged along on April 1, 2018, for the private birthday party in downtown Seattle, where JuiceTheGod was performing. He lingered around at the all-ages Vera Project music hall past midnight, only because McKoy urged Williams to stick around for the final song, even though he’d planned to leave early. When McKoy finished the set, he told Williams he’d give him a phone call when he got home.
The 21-year-old hip-hop artist and junior college basketball player never made it there, and the call Williams received was not the one he was expecting. Not more than 5 minutes after leaving his friend, Williams was informed McKoy had been shot outside of the same building where the two had spent the evening, enjoying each other’s company for what would be the last time.
McKoy’s death, a single gunshot to the head, was confirmed by Seattle Police, jarring Williams, who refused to believe the news even after opening his Facebook feed, where many were already offering condolences.
“I’m like, ‘What do you mean? I was just with him 5 minutes ago,’ ” said Williams, who got the news from his girlfriend at the time. “I didn’t want to believe it at first until another person called me and said, ‘Bro, Juice just got shot.’ My heart just dropped and I didn’t know what to think.
“My stomach was turning, I was throwing up for two weeks straight.”
At just 21, McKoy had already established himself as a rising star within Seattle’s hip-hop climate, and he was not far from reaching a few of his aspirations in the music world. According to Williams, the day McKoy he was shot, the rapper was supposed to fly to Los Angeles to begin a project with nationally renowned, Grammy-nominated artist Nipsey Hussle, who was killed nearly a year later, also the victim of a fatal gunshot.
“When I say that boy could rap, he could rap,” Williams said. “You ask him to spit a quick eight bars right now, he’ll rap it real quick off the top of his head.”
McKoy was a hidden talent from Seattle who was just beginning to make a name for himself outside of the Pacific Northwest. Williams, a hidden talent from Seattle who’s just beginning to make a name for himself outside of the Pacific Northwest, might as well be picking up where his childhood friend left off – only with a basketball clenched between his hands rather than a microphone.
Precisely where McKoy wanted him.
Williams lived just down the street from his friend in the Delridge neighborhood, but the two didn’t become close until Williams was in the third grade and McKoy, a few years older, was in middle school. At Denny International, located on the campus of Chief Sealth High, Williams’ sister, Myah, and McKoy held more status than their peers because of what they could do on a slab of hardwood.
“They were the two best basketball players in the middle school,” Williams said.
At some point, McKoy also identified Williams’ gift and perpetually pushed him to pursue a Division I basketball scholarship. That opportunity was still on the table for McKoy, who was studying business and playing guard at Bellevue College when he was killed, but it was always hard to ignore the pull of the studio.
McKoy also realized the perils of that environment, so he placed figurative caution tape between Williams and the hip-hop scene whenever the young, promising basketball player broached the idea of recording a song together.
“I tell you, he cussed me out so smooth,” Williams said. “He was like, ‘I’d give up all this rap stuff for a D1 scholarship. Boy, you better stop.’ Because he knew getting in the rap game, people are going to hate on you and you can get shot, get killed, which is what happened to him. There’s just a lot of haters in the music industry and it’s just not the route he wanted me to go.”
Even though Williams had family members who’d redirect him if he began to stray down the wrong path, McKoy and many of the older boys in the neighborhood made a concerted effort to protect the young player who had a brighter future ahead of him – a future that wouldn’t have to exist in West Seattle.
Williams won’t go so far to compare his neighborhood to Compton, California, or Oakland, California, where his parents lived before relocating to the Northwest to provide their children with a safer life. But a few missteps in West Seattle could still be costly and despite the area’s bustling basketball scene, Williams makes up a small minority of players who’ve been able to follow through on grabbing a scholarship.
“You could probably count it on one hand, the amount of people that’s made it out for basketball,” Williams said. “So definitely just hanging out with the older guys, they would never let me be on the block with them. Just go stay in the gym, that’s what they always preached to me. Go to late night, go play basketball, just keep a basketball in your hands at all times.
“Because the street life is just going to get you killed or in jail. One of the two.”
When Williams received his first scholarship offer as a high school freshman, from UW, he shared the news on his Instagram account. Thirty seconds passed before he received a FaceTime call, answering to see McKoy’s wide grin beaming through the phone screen.
“He always had a smile on his face, literally every day,” Williams said. “He was the happiest person ever. Just great energy, funny.”
The vibrant musician was notoriously shifty on the basketball court, twisting defenders up, down and sideways with a handle that Williams still raves about.
“That’s what he was known for,” Williams said, “was just mixing people.”
But McKoy didn’t stop at spinning rhymes and twisting defenders. He had a charitable side, too, and gave back to his community by paying in $100 bills whenever he shopped at the local corner market – even if the haul was just a few bottles of Gatorade. It also wasn’t uncommon to see McKoy lending a hand to the city’s homeless, according to an article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
“Him as a person, he always wanted to give back,” Williams said. “… The item could cost $2 and (he wouldn’t) get the change back.”
In West Seattle, they’ve organized annual food drives and holiday backpack giveaways in McKoy’s name. Nearly two years after his death, JuiceTheGod still has unreleased songs and videos that will debut on YouTube and various streaming platforms over the next few months.
By moving his life to Pullman – or merely moving it out of West Seattle – Williams has started to piece together the life McKoy designed and envisioned for his friend at a young age.
He’d be proud to know Williams locked down a starting job a few weeks into the Pac-12 season. He’d be thrilled to know Williams is part of WSU’s most successful team since 2011-12. He’d light up hearing what WSU coach Kyle Smith has to say about his young, charismatic guard, and he’d probably chuckle knowing Williams has developed a knack for driving the league’s officials crazy.
“I just think he’s a big believer, he just really has a lot of confidence,” Smith said of Williams. “He’s still young and has plenty of growing up to do, but I think he’s brought pride in the program. I think he’s fearless.
“I just think he likes to compete, he’s not afraid to fail, lay it on the line. And I prefer guys that have that approach. He’s a trier.”
McKoy, certainly, would be elated to see where Williams is – that is, until he’d remind his friend how much further he can go. That was the other part of their FaceTime conversation four years ago. McKoy wasn’t one to hang up on, “Congratulations.”
“‘Just don’t be satisfied, don’t be satisfied because there’s going to be more (offers) to come,’” Williams recalled. “‘So just stay in the gym and keep working.’”
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