Justin Shephard: Things Fall Apart
December 2002 – SLAM magazine
Justin Shepherd was two days away from a prep school scholarship and a shot at big-time college basketball when the Toronto hoops star was found slain on a footbridge near his house. Why did it happen? Those close to him are still searching for answers.
By Morgan Campbell with special reporting by Adam Matthews
Saturday, June 23, 2001, 1:10 a.m.
On the warped wooden planks of a footbridge in downtown Toronto, a basketball star lay dying. A hundred yards north someone hopped into a waiting car and disappeared into the night. Half a mile south the star’s mother sat in her apartment, staring at the closed circuit TV channel, waiting to see her son stroll through the lobby. A thousand miles away his half-brother, Charlotte Hornets center Jamaal Magloire, recovered from shoulder surgery.
And on the bridge, 19-year-old Justin Shephard lay helpless as blood oozed from two bullet wounds in his head.
Shephard’s journey was supposed to end in the NBA. He was 6-foot-5 and ambidextrous with a crossover so deadly his friends named it after him: “the Shep.” Quick as a point guard on the perimeter yet strong as a power forward in the paint, Shephard seemed destined for Division I.
He just didn’t have the grades.
Shephard had just graduated from Toronto’s Eastern Commerce High School and was scheduled to visit a prep school in Maryland on June 25 (officials insist that the school remain anonymous). He’d already faxed his transcripts. He planned to complete the paperwork that summer and enroll in September. He’d spend a year there improving his grades and his game, then jump to a D-1 school. Right about now he’d be playing his first college game. Before you knew it he’d join Jamaal in the league.
Yeah, he had plans, but they died with him that night. Alone. On a footbridge half a mile from home.
Even before he hit high school Shephard collected trophies by the armful. At 13 he carried 185 pounds of sculpted muscle on a 6-foot-3 frame. In the summer of 1996 he led the Mississauga Monarchs to the Ontario Basketball Association championship. Shephard dominated that weekend, and soared so often above the rim that reporters covering the tournament counted his dunks. In his story on the title game, a reporter from the Sarnia Observer points out proudly that although Shephard dropped 44 on the home team, he didn’t flush once. After the tournament OBA coaches named him the top eighth-grader in the province.
“He was a phenom when he was growing up,” says Ro Russell, one of Shephard’s AAU coaches. Russell met Shephard at an OBA game when the kid was 13. That day Shephard’s team faced a squad led by 15-year-old Jesse Young, then the OBA’s dominant post player, now a senior power forward at George Mason University. Most people in the gym came to watch Young, but Shephard scored 40 and after the game a new name was on everyone’s lips.
“He was already more physical and tougher than everyone else and he had a lot of confidence in his game,” Russell remembers. “He would just dominate teams, put 30s and 40s on them. He couldn’t shoot too well, but you couldn’t stop him from driving to the basket. He’d post you up, rebound and finish in the post. He had the same gift Jamaal has – just natural strength.”
It’s funny, but a lot of folks didn’t even know the two players were related. Sure, Justin told people who his half-brother was, but they didn’t always believe him. The two teens didn’t appear to share much besides uncommon basketball ability. Magloire grew up in Toronto’s east end with his younger brother Karlon, their mother and their father, Garth. Shephard, meanwhile, lived with his mother, Audette, about 20 miles west in suburban Mississauga.
Furthermore, just as Shephard gained his first local fame, Magloire ascended to full-fledged celebrity in Toronto. He was already among the best Canadian high school players ever, and in March 1996 he led Eastern Commerce Saints to the Ontario high school title. A few weeks later, he became a local legend when he committed to the University of Kentucky.
Shephard’s eighth-grade classmates thought he was lying about being related to someone so famous, but Justin and Jamaal knew the truth.
Garth Magloire never hid Justin from his other kids, so Jamaal always knew he had a little brother across town. They didn’t see each other much, but Jamaal says they grew close over the phone.
“I spoke to him as often as I could,” Magloire says. “I’m his older brother and we have a respect and a love for each other that brothers have.”
Not much changed when Shephard reached high school. In 1997, the summer after his freshman year, 15-year-old Shephard attended Tubby Smith’s basketball camp at the University of Kentucky.
He won the MVP.
A month later he traveled with the Mississauga Monarchs to the Eastern Canada championships. His team won the title; Shephard won the offensive MVP even though most players were two years older.
As a sophomore he transferred to Toronto’s Oakwood Collegiate, where he carried the JV squad to a city title in 1998.
The word was out now about Jamaal’s younger brother. The kid could play. But as his reputation spread, so did the rumors.
Justin’s a hothead. Justin’s a jerk. Justin’s a thug.
Shephard’s friends and coaches swear the rumors weren’t true.
A hothead? Never. Shephard was just an intense competitor.
“It’s just the way he plays,” says Fordham PG Jermaine Anderson, Shephard’s high school teammate. “Always screaming, always arguing with the refs.”
“Justin was misunderstood,” Russell says. “People felt that he was uncoachable because he was very competitive. But he felt that he alone could get it done. People didn’t understand that.”
A jerk? No, just a joker. Like that time in high school when he played one-on-one for 50 bucks. Shephard let the kid go up 9-1, then scored 10 straight and laughed him out of the gym. It happened three years ago but Anderson still cracks up when he tells the story. And a thug?
“Kids are going to be kids,” Magloire says. “I got in trouble. Everybody’s going to get in trouble. Even the trouble they say he got in was nothing big at all in the bigger scheme of things.”
Justin’s trouble was an assault charge in the summer of 1997, when he was arrested after a schoolyard brawl in Mississauga. More than 20 teens were involved but only a handful were charged. Shephard was one of them, and Audette says he served four months in late 1999. He was released in time to enroll for the second semester of his junior year.
Between his arrest and the end of his sentence, Shephard underwent a number of changes. In 1999 he and Audette left their Mississauga condo for an apartment in St. Jamestown, a downtown Toronto neighborhood notorious for its drugs and prostitution. In one area building seven tenants were murdered in a two-year span, a huge number in a city that averages about 50 murders per year.
They moved so Shephard could transfer to Eastern Commerce. After he enrolled he persuaded coaches to un-retire Magloire’s number 21 jersey so he could wear it.
And friends and relatives say Shephard matured, that he young man emerging from jail wasn’t the impulsive kid who joined that schoolyard brawl. So what if he had cornrows? His mother says he read his Bible regularly. And the kid had his mother’s name tattooed across his left pectoral.
Nevertheless, the kid who spent years trying to shed his thug rep would have to prove himself once again. Even worse, Shephard went to detention on the eve of his junior year. So instead of showing out for college scouts, Shephard and his NBA pedigree sat in a cell.
Some folks thought he was just that good. “For his age he was far better than I ever was,” Magloire says. “He was definitely an NBA prospect. I’ve played at every level and I’ve seen talent and there’s no doubt that he would have been an NBA star.
“A lot of guys can shoot and a lot of guys have a left hand, but it’s that drive. It’s the will to go out there and prove yourself and excel. He had that hunger. He had the same drive I have.”
Shephard topped out at a shade over 6-foot-5 but he still stood out, even when he was no longer the biggest kid on the court. As he grew he honed his handles while retaining the post moves that first made him so dangerous.
You could call him a big, strong two, or you could call him a small, fast three. Either way, call it a mismatch when Shephard played. Put a tall guy on him and Shephard would beat him off the dribble and dunk. Defend him with a quick kid and Shephard would abuse him down low. His jumper was still suspect but most days it didn’t matter. Shephard loved contact. He’d even bring it to bigger players in the post. He’d go through you, get to the stripe and score three points the old-fashioned way.
He just didn’t do it too often at Eastern. Locked up for the first half of his junior season, Shephard showed up at Eastern out of shape. He played limited minutes in the team’s final 15 games.
And his senior season was even shorter.
Shephard was leaving school one afternoon in November of 2000 when he saw a group of kids beating up his friend. He joined the fight and everyone involved was suspended indefinitely. School officials investigated the fight and expelled the kids who started it. They concluded that Shephard fought only to help his friend, so he returned to school in late January 2001.
He played only 10 games that season.
“He was always a team player and he did whatever we asked,” says Eastern assistant coach Trevor Bullen. “His last play at Eastern was an assist. He made the pass that led to the basket that tied the city championship (game). But coming to the team so late his role was diminished.”
Shephard averaged only 12 points and 8 rebounds in the 25 games he played at Eastern. But recruiters still knew who Shephard was because he always found places to play outside school. He traveled Canada and the U.S. with his AAU squad, and the summer before his senior year he won the one-on-one title at the Five-Star camp in Pittsburgh.
“Anywhere there was a run or a tournament or a house league, he would go,” Anderson remembers. “He just balled all the time: five-on-five, three-on-three, one-on-one, whatever.”
And as his game blossomed, stories of his feats spread Shephard’s fame across Toronto. Longtime friend Tristan Martin remembers the time Shephard crammed on three guys at Rose Avenue, the downtown playground where he often held court. And folks still talk about the time he and St. Francis (Pa.) University PG Steveroy Daley played one-on-one. As the story goes, Shephard dribbled with his left hand, sipped a beer from his right and still won.
But one night two summers ago remains the freshest in many people’s memories. During Top Gun, an annual Toronto tournament, Shephard’s team faced Magloire’s. People expected Jamaal to score on Justin in the post, and it happened. But people didn’t expect to see Justin – an 18-year-old rising senior – stand up to the NBA draftee and match him basket-for-basket.
When Jamaal, at 6-foot-10, tried to guard Justin on the perimeter, Justin would cross him over, slash to the basket and score. When Justin got the ball down low, he made baskets even though Jamaal stood six inches taller at the time.
“Justin had people’s eyes wide open that night,” remembers Martin, a combo guard who now attends the Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute. “I judge people by heart, and I put Justin first because he had the most.”
Jamaal’s team won by four, but Justin had made his point. Magloire finished the game with a split lip and new respect for his younger brother.
“He was aggressive enough to hit me in my face and make me bleed,” he says. “He was very strong. At that point I realized that he was very competitive, very hungry and didn’t back down.”
Did Shephard back down that night on the footbridge when he saw the gun? If he didn’t, should he have? Would it have mattered? In two days he was supposed to visit that prep school in Maryland, take another step toward Division I and the NBA. So why was he on that footbridge anyway?
Only a few people know for sure. One of them is dead and the rest aren’t talking. Toronto Police Detective Graham Hanlon is handling the Shephard investigation. He says police have no suspects, but know who was on the bridge that night. He calls these folks “people of interest,” but adds that they have stonewalled cops so far.
Almost immediately police offered $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. No luck. Audette has made numerous public pleas for eyewitnesses to speak up. Again, no luck. And in September, Magloire added another $50,000 to the reward, but so far no new evidence has surfaced.
Hanlon won’t discuss details of the murder because he fears “damaging the intergrity of the investigation.” But we know this much about the night Shephard died:
He spent early Friday evening in the courtyard of the building where he lived, talking with friends. The sun set around 9:00 p.m. Justin went upstairs just after dusk.
At home he watched TV for a while with Audette and a female friend, LaTanya Langford. At about 10:00 p.m. someone called. Shephard answered and spoke a few moments. He put on some shoes and told the two women he’d return in 10 minutes.
Half an hour passed. The two women figured he’d gone out to the street to people-watch, or maybe to N.V., a local nightclub.
A while later, the phone rang. Audette checked the call display. “Unknown name, unknown number.” She figured it was Justin calling from his cell phone, so she answered. Silence. She dialed his number but he didn’t pick up. A few minutes later she called again. No answer.
It was after midnight by then so the two women drove past N.V. look for Justin. They didn’t find him. They talked to some of his friends outside the club, but no one had seen him. They returned to the apartment and called more of his friends. Nobody had seen him.
Langford fell asleep on the couch.
But Audette turned on the TV, flipped to the building’s closed circuit channel and just waited for Justin to appear on the screen.
The next time she saw her son was Saturday afternoon, when police summoned her to the morgue to identify the body.
In New York folks still talk about Earl “The Goat” Manigault. An early 1960s star at Harlem’s Franklin High, The Goat blew minds every summer at the Rucker. He had a 50-inch vertical and NBA potential but burned out on heroin after one semester in college.
Ballers in Chicago still wear number 25 in memory of Ben Wilson, an All-American at Simeon High in the early 1980s. He had NBA size and skill, but was murdered just steps from school on November 20, 1984 when two teens tried to rob him.
And in Toronto, you’ll see tall teens wearing t-shirts emblazoned with Justin’s image and the words “The Lord is my Shephard.” Some of them have tattoos that read “R.I.P., J.S., 21.”
Come back in a couple of years and you’ll still hear the stories about the kid from Bleecker St. who loved to dunk left-handed. Yeah, you know him. Jamaal’s brother. Faster than a point guard and stronger than a center. He should be in the league right now. Instead they found him dead on a footbridge half mile from home.
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