The bullets missed. So it was not his time to die. That is what his mother would say. Jamil Dowdell was leaning into the trunk of his 1977 Cutlass, getting a pair of gym shorts to play basketball. Suddenly, gunshots shattered the windows. Someone screamed. The kid they were shooting at ran past Jamil’s car, and Jamil ducked behind the rear bumper. He waited until the firing ceased and the air was quiet. Then, still holding his shorts, he walked around to survey the damage.
“Are you OK, Jamil, are you OK?” yelled his brother-in-law, Tyrone Dozier, who came running when heard the shots.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m OK,” Jamil said.
“Let’s get out of here.”
“Nuh-uh. Not until somebody pays me for these windows.”
“Not until somebody pays me for these windows.”
Maybe where you come from, you’re not moving at this point. Maybe you’re shaking with fear. Jamil Dowdell was not. He lived in the wilderness of Detroit, where breaking glass and sudden gunfire are part of the nightly concert, played over and over until you tune out the anguished melody and focus on the few notes you still control.
The bullets missed. Now there were windows to be dealt with.
“Somebody’s gonna pay for these,” Jamil said again, looking toward where the shots were fired. “I’m not leaving until they do.”
He showed no fear.
He was 18 years old.
Tyrone Dozier shakes his head now. After that night, he thought, “Jamil is a man.” He says this, looks over at his wife, Jamil’s sister, India, who is wiping away tears. She sits next to Jamil’s mother, Sheila, hands folded in her lap, and across from Bettye, Jamil’s grandmother, who used to cook his favorite meal, hamburger soup. There are cousins and aunts and four young children running around the cramped living room here on Martindale Street. A plate of cookies sits on the table, and a Christmas tree is in the corner, sparsely decorated, without a star on top. It is late December. In the middle of the floor is a basket full of memories, a jersey, a prom photo, newspaper clippings.
“It’s funny,” says Bettye, the grandmother. “I keep waiting for him to come back from college. I keep saying that’s where he is, and he’ll be home one day.”
She begins to cry. “That’s how I deal with it.”
This is a story about dreams sawn in half, about a city kid who crawled through the barbed wire and somehow emerged uncut, a handsome, athletic, honorable young man who was going to be the first in his family to attend a university. The scholarship was in his pocket. The basketball was under his arm.
The bullets missed.
But his time was almost up. He had a place to go
“He was gonna make the pros.”
Tyrone Dozier — who helps coach basketball at Murray-Wright High — says this sincerely. Don’t they all say it sincerely? It is the dream that keeps inner-city athletes going, through the metal detectors at school, through the dope dealers in the playground, and some do make it, and maybe Jamil had a chance. He was a full-ride scholarship at Georgia, where his signing was statewide news. He averaged 17 points and nine rebounds at Northern High. He was second-team All-PSL. He had a sweet shot and quick moves that defied his 6-foot, 6-inch frame. India used to come to his games and yell, “Dunk one for your sister!” And Jamil would oblige with rim-rattling jams.
Still, you don’t know a person from the shots he takes, but from the kindness he makes. Like the time, at The Dancery, a Detroit teenage nightclub, when a stranger was shot in the middle of a crowd. Everybody ran — except Jamil, who carried the bleeding man until he reached a pay phone, then called 911.
Or the time, on Jamil’s recruiting visit to Georgia, when he phoned from the airport and told his family he was going to help another recruit, a tall kid from the Caribbean, who was lost. A little while later, Jamil called back. The Caribbean kid made his plane. But Jamil, in helping, missed his.
On some nights, when other teens were out raising hell, Jamil, who had reassuring eyes and a thinly trimmed mustache, would stay home in the small house on Martindale, singing with his mother, matching her note-for-note on Al Jarreau songs:
“We’re in this love together
We got the kind that lasts forever.”
“He used to tease me, tell me his voice was better than mine,” Sheila Dowdell says. She laughs, then exhales, folds her hands again.
Every clan has that one special member who lights up the room, who delights the children, who, when he’s not there, has everybody saying, “When’s he coming?”
This was Jamil Dowdell. The baby of his family, the tallest of the bunch. He did push-ups at night and shot hoops early in the morning, trying to get an edge. “Basketball is your way out of here,” Tyrone had told him, and Jamil knew he was right. He played in all the summer programs, the hotbox church leagues, the AAU showdowns. College coaches started calling. And when Jamil committed to the Bulldogs, he stuck a “Georgia” decal on his bedroom door. He now had something half the kids in this city do not.
A place to go.
All he needed was the time to get there. Making the grade
One week after they shot up his car, the day before his high school graduation, Jamil got into an argument with Tyrone and India. Tyrone wanted him to get a cap and gown for the ceremony, said it would make his mother proud. Jamil, who had missed the cap-and-gown measurements, hated dressing up anyhow, wanted to get his diploma in regular clothes.
India, meanwhile, was angry that he still hadn’t turned in his last English paper.
“You’re gonna blow the scholarship. You’re gonna lose everything.”
Jamil said, “No, I’m not.”
He left. But that afternoon, he appeared at India’s workplace, D’Mongo’s Hair Salon. He was waving a paper.
“Look,” he said, grinning.
It had been written the whole time. He had raced down to school with it that morning, and the teacher had marked it quickly. He got an A. Graduation was assured.
“Well, all right then,” his sister said, smiling despite herself.
That night, Jamil — who also got the cap and gown — talked about the haircut Tyrone would give him the next day. Then he went to pick up his mother at the Ford Plant where she worked. It was a routine trip for mother and son. But when she got into the car, she sensed something wrong. He asked her to drive while he sat in the back.
“He’d never done that before,” Sheila Dowdell says now. “It was like he was afraid of something.” The fateful day
There are those who believe in fate, even when it’s horrible. They would not miss this: Jamil Dowdell walked his mother into the house. She offered him rice and beans for a late meal. He might have stayed, but his best friend, Michael Parker, who was living with them at the time, wanted McDonald’s. So he and Jamil went for a ride.
It was the wee hours of Friday morning, the 10th of June.
On the same day, 10 years earlier, Jamil’s father, Carl Matlock, had driven his car to a gas station on the east side. He was filling it up when a stranger appeared. The stranger had a gun.
And Jamil became another kid with a memory for a father.
Now, here, a decade later, Jamil was in the car, with 15- year-old Michael alongside him. They were heading southeast on Grand River, just west of Greenfield, when they noticed an oncoming vehicle — coincidentally, also a 1977 Oldsmobile — heading their way. It was swerving and going too fast.
“Look at that guy,” Michael said, “he’s driving crazy.”
It happened in a heartbeat. The swerving car crossed the center line, made a turn and smash! The metal crunched and the engines died and the hood of Jamil’s car bent clear over the passenger roof. In the terrible stillness that followed, Michael somehow kicked open the door and struggled around to Jamil’s side. He was smacking his friend, pleading with him, grabbing his hand and saying, “Don’t die! Don’t die! Don’t die!”
Then, dizzy, the world spinning, Michael lay down in the street, still whispering the words, “Don’t die, Jamil.”
But his time had come. Bitter memories
At the Northern High School graduation that night, there was a moment of silence for the kid who almost made it. A prayer was offered. Students and teachers wept.
“There was nobody that didn’t like Jamil,” Parker says. “Nobody.”
The diploma he wanted so much went unclaimed. The paper the family received instead was a police report, which showed that the cops smelled alcohol on the other driver’s breath. But for some reason, that driver, a lawyer, was not given a Breathalyzer. He is charged today only with negligent homicide. He is yet to be tried.
“The police didn’t do their job,” Tyrone Dozier says, bitterly. “Why else would a man drive like that? . . . In my heart, I know he was drinking.”
At least the part of his heart that isn’t broken, the part that doesn’t sag like a heavy sack when he watches a Georgia basketball game on TV. Jamil’s mother, Sheila, cannot bring herself to watch such things. Sometimes she looks at her son’s red and blue No. 24 jersey, or the photos from his prom, or the English paper that he turned in that last day, the one with the “A” on the front. Ironically, the topic was “Teenage Pregnancy.” Jamil knew all about it. He had had a baby son with his girlfriend last year, a boy named Kaheem Kafi.
Another child without his father.
On June 10th.
“The End of the Road”
There are a dozen ways to die in this city, and they find you quickly if you are young, black and male. You can spend a childhood here dodging bullets, drugs and abusive parents. So when a bright light like Jamil Dowdell scrapes past all that, gets to the finish line, scholarship in hand, only to be mowed down by a driver, well, you almost wonder if the game isn’t fixed. When is it enough? How can anyone take a drink and drive? Isn’t there a story like this every five minutes?
“The strangest thing,” says India, the sister who spent the most time with Jamil, cooking for him, talking about girls, jobs, the future. “He wasn’t himself the weeks before he died. He was almost sad. He told some friends,
‘I’ll never make it down to Georgia.’
“Then I heard he told some kids from the neighborhood, ‘Y’all better wear suits when you come to my funeral. Don’t be wearing no old clothes.’ “
What does she think, that it was a premonition?
“Maybe that. Or maybe he had so much going right that, given everything that goes on around here, it was too good to be true.”
In the end, it was. They buried Jamil Dowdell three days after graduation. Inside the True Faith Baptist Church, a friend sang “The End of the Road.” A coach from Georgia came up to speak. A basketball opponent from a rival high school — who also wore No. 24 — laid his jersey in Jamil’s casket, a salute.
And later, when Michael Parker — who survived the crash and lives with the nightmares — went up to Jamil’s bedroom, he lifted the Bible that Jamil read every night. And there, underneath, was $240.
The money for the windows.
The shooters had raised it and given it back.
Remember that Al Jarreau song that Sheila and Jamil sang together? It has this lyric:
“We got the whole thing working out so right,
and it’s just the way we planned it.”
A nice song. But wrong. Sometimes you plan it, and it still doesn’t work out right. In the small house on Martindale, there is noise now, but not as much, and laughter, but not as loud. They talk about presents and they remember how Jamil loved getting new basketball shoes, and soon they need Kleenex too wipe away tears. Someone was driving crazy, someone made a mistake, and now there is no star on the Christmas tree, and no star coming home for the holidays, and there is nothing they can do about it, nothing at all. CUTLINE: Sheila Dowdell, above left, fights back tears as family friend Tyria Dozier consoles her over the loss of a son, Jamil, pictured at left before his prom in June. Jamil’s sister said, “He had so much going right that, given everything that goes on around here, it was too good to be true.” India Dozier and her son, Tyrone Jr., sort through a basket full of memories, mementos of Jamil’s Dowdell’s life.