LAS VEGAS -- They strolled into the auxiliary gym at Rancho High School with backpacks on and the message clear on their shirts: I AM TRAYVON.
Every player on Game Elite's 17U squad was donning the T-shirts during warm-ups and didn't remove them until it was time to tip. The AAU program based out of Atlanta first displayed the shirts Wednesday night, and per program co-director Ryan Falker, they'll wear the shirts before and after games for the duration of their stay for tournament play in Las Vegas this week.
"We all wanted to wear the shirts because, even though the right thing didn't turn out in court we wanted everyone to know we haven't forgotten about this," Avery Patterson said.
The team became emotionally connected to the Trayvon Martin story/George Zimmerman trial as it progressed into July. And while at an AAU tournament in Georgia two weeks ago, every player sat in one hotel room to hear the verdict late on a Saturday night. When George Zimmerman was found not guilty, the reaction from the team was emotional and intense, according to the players I spoke with.
"It really impressed me because I didn't realize how connected the team was to the story, the social issue, they were all informed," Falker said. "Just based off their emotions and reactions, I was trying to think of something we could do as a team to show a united front for that situation."
Falker, 38, said it was the idea of the players to make the shirts and wear them. Coaches and spectators alike noticed immediately on Thursday -- and Wednesday as well.
"We have to respect Trayvon in his death," John-Carlos Reyes, 17, said. "He died for no reason. I don't like the way it turned out to be, and we're trying to represent him as a team."
"This is out of respect purely for Trayvon and his family," teammate Antonio Lang added. "Justice didn't [come] in his trial, but it's important for us as a group to show support for his family."
And that's what the players remain charged about. They explained why this is an issue of pride but also something that is stemmed in fear.
"Whether you're white or black or Hispanic, it's their generation," said Falker of his team, which is comprised of 11 African-American players and one white player, Alex Bearup. "Trayvon Martin, he looks just like them. He was a 17-year-old kid. These kids are 16 and 17. They identify and say, 'This could have easily been me.'"
Said Bearup, a 2014 player from Alpharetta, Ga., "If they want to support it, I support the cause with them. We talked in that hotel room, we were shocked and discussed how we really felt about it. It could be anyone."
Falker said the reaction to wearing the shirts has been very positive. At the very least, this group has gotten as much buzz as any other in Vegas, where more than 1,000 teams have been summoned to play in a litany of tournaments all over the area.