On his daily rounds through North Richmond's Las Deltas Housing projects, Kevin Mccular came to know a special kid.
Night or day, rain or shine, Mccular, a worker with Richmond's violence-intervention agency, would see James Akinjo in the middle of Harrold Street, firing smooth jump shots at a twisted, slumping basketball hoop.
So Mccular, a former college football player, decided to stop and shoot around with the 11-year-old.
"He beat me, straight up, and I was playing hard," Mccular said, with a sheepish grin.
Mccular decided it was past time that James and his friends from the aging 224-unit housing projects got a new hoop and basketball, and on Monday he was joined by about a half-dozen colleagues from the Office of Neighborhood Safety in making it happen.
Mccular trotted to the cinderblock unit James shares with his grandmother, knocked on the door and delivered the good news.
"It's yours, it's for you," Mccular told the boy.
"Oh my God!" James said.
Mccular handed him a new basketball to replace his ragged one, and the boy jogged toward the hoop, dribbling the ball up and down like it was on a string.
Richmond's Office of Neighborhood Safety is working in North Richmond, a tiny, mostly unincorporated community known for pronounced poverty and high crime, as part of a new operation aimed at reducing crime over the notoriously violent summer months.
Three homicides have occurred
It's against this backdrop that James has grown up, in one of the toughest neighborhoods anywhere. His mother died of luekemia when he was 3, and his father lives in Oakland. James is being raised by his grandmother, Evon Stevenson.
"He's a special boy," said Stevenson, a former basketball player and coach in Oakland. "He works so hard at his game and at his school. He has this drive about him."
Stevenson, 54, runs into her tiny apartment to retrieve James' most recent report card, which she brings back beaming. It shows all A's and one B-plus.
"I used to read to James for hours and hours when he was a baby," Stevenson said with a confident nod.
As ONS workers thumbed through the instruction book and worked to assemble the new hoop, kids and adults from around the projects trickled in, eager to join the shoot-around. James worked on his post moves and dribbling, faking imaginary defenders before draining turnaround jumpers through the mangled rim.
James speaks in polished sentences and shakes hands like a businessman.
He says he wants to go to a university, become a pro basketball player and compete in the Olympics, in that order.
"My grandma reminds me every day that education comes first and that I have to give back after I get where I am going," James said.
During a later break from the shoot-around, James said his favorite player was Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul.
"He's a floor general who makes everyone around him better," James said.
Office of Neighborhood Safety Director DeVone Boggan drove up a few minutes later. By then, the street was teeming with people. Boggan stood back watching James.
"Kevin said to me that we need to buy this boy, this neighborhood, a hoop, and I can see he was right," Boggan said. "(James) is a bright light that people are drawn to."