From Division 1 to dead: How opioids claimed the life of a once-promising baller
David Lunn Jr. was a star hooper in Baltimore and headed in a good direction after a modest college career. Then fentanyl took over.
BALTIMORE — David Lunn Jr. died alone on Jan. 5, 2019, his body pressed against the basement door of the laundry room of a rundown apartment building not far from the famous Pimlico Race Course. Officials said the cause of death was a fentanyl overdose, making him one of the first of what Baltimore officials expect will be more than 800 opioid fatalities last year.
Lunn’s death at age 37 brought a tragic end to a promising life. His basketball prowess and magnetic personality brought him no shortage of opportunity. He attended an elite private school, earned a scholarship to the University of Delaware and played professionally in Denmark, where he also dabbled in modeling.
Later, Lunn worked helping to market his family’s welding business. He traveled widely and collected a broad array of friends. But it all was undermined by his hunger for drugs — heroin and eventually other, more lethal, opioids.
It is a story that is becoming more and more common among African Americans across the country. From 2016 to 2017, the latest years for which the federal government has statistics, the number of opioid overdose deaths for African Americans increased by more than 25% to 5, 513 — the largest percentage increase among any ethnic or racial group. (Deaths among non-Hispanic whites increased 11% to 37,113.) Meanwhile, in the same time period, the number of African Americans who died from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which can be 50 times more powerful than heroin, increased by nearly 61% (to a total of 3,832 deaths), compared with a 45% increase for whites (for a total of 21,956).
In Baltimore, the city with the nation’s highest overdose fatality rate, the toll has been particularly devastating. Through Sept. 30, there were 639 opioid related deaths in Baltimore, a city with just over 600,000 residents. That put the city on track to exceed the 814 deaths in 2018, 692 in 2017, and 628 in 2016, according to Baltimore’s Health Department. (Year-end numbers will not be available for another couple of months.) Opioid fatalities are more than double the city’s notoriously high number of murders, which in recent years have topped 300 annually.
The drug deaths are a quiet catastrophe that often ensnares people like Lunn who otherwise were leading productive lives. Donnell “Mookie” Dobbins, who runs the Team Thrill AAU basketball program in Baltimore where Lunn was a high school star, grew up playing with and against him.
“His death is by far the hardest death I have ever been associated with,” said Dobbins, who was among the pallbearers at Lunn’s funeral. “Where we are from drug addiction is almost normal, but that is something even now I cannot fathom David being part of.”
When politicians and others talk about the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic, they frequently cite the carnage in largely rural, white areas. Places such as West Virginia, or eastern Ohio, or the small towns and hollows of Kentucky. And the damage to those communities is real, as opioids have killed thousands, contributing to an alarming decline in life expectancy and altering life for those left behind.
The white face of opioid addiction has prompted a flood of attention, and evoked a measure of empathy that has been lacking in places like predominantly black Baltimore. Here, the long-festering opioid problem has destroyed families and sped the decline of entire neighborhoods for many decades. Now, the crisis among African Americans is quietly growing more deadly with the advent of hyperpotent drugs such as fentanyl, which is often mixed with heroin and cocaine before being sold on the streets.
For too long across black America and in Baltimore, addiction was largely framed as part of a larger crime problem, and its victims were seen mostly as faceless junkies. One thing is for sure: To the many people who knew and loved David Lunn Jr., he was no faceless junkie.
Beating the odds
The odds were stacked against Lunn from the beginning. But for a long time, it seemed that he had beaten them. His parents were still teenagers when they found themselves married with two children — David, and his sister, Tameika, who is four years older than him.
Teen parenthood is often a precursor to a hard life, but Lunn’s parents managed to pull through, even if they had more than their share of struggles. Not only did they wrestle with the financial and other problems frequently faced by young parents everywhere, they also had close, personal encounters with Baltimore’s long-standing drug and crime problems.
Lunn’s father, who is also named David, was a welder, but he struggled with a heroin habit. The addiction tore at the family, causing money problems and constant disruption. At times, he and his wife Tammy split up, but Lunn would always go find his dad.
“Sometimes, David would leave school and instead of going home, he would come to where I was at,” said Lunn Sr., who said he has been clean for the past 26 years. “He would come by on a regular basis. He always would get to me somehow. If I was at my mother’s house, he would come up to my room. Sometimes there would be paraphernalia in there, and he would run downstairs crying to my mother and she would console him.”
Lunn Sr. said he would talk to his son about his addiction “all the time.” His parents remember the boy becoming president of a Just Say No to Drugs campaign in elementary school, something they attributed to Lunn Sr.’s struggles.
“He would talk to people about his dad’s addiction and what we were going through as a family,” Tammy Lunn said. “So David was clearly aware of, you know, what it looks like and what happens.”
Young David found a refuge in sports. He started by running track while he was in elementary school. “He was fast,” said Tameika Lunn, who is now an administrative law judge. “But you couldn’t yell his name at a meet, because he might stop running!”
By the time David was in sixth grade, he was almost 6 feet tall, and nearly everyone was encouraging him to play basketball. He started at a small Catholic school in South Baltimore, and he was a natural.
“That’s when the love kind of started,” Tammy Lunn said. “He was good from the beginning.”
Lunn played at many of the locally famous recreation centers and parks around the city: Bentalou. Cecil Kirk. Mount Royal. The Dome. Through the years, those courts have spawned serious ballers, including NBA stars Muggsy Bogues, David Wingate, Reggie Williams, Sam Cassell, Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay and Will Barton. Many people thought Lunn’s name had a good chance to be mentioned among them one day.
“David was superior. You could see the talent when he was young. You saw that he was going to be a great player,” said Darrell Corbett, who has coached youth basketball for 30 years and was an administrator at Lunn’s middle school. “He was athletic as all get-out. He had the height, and he was also very astute. He was a great student.”
Lunn was sought out by citywide all-star and traveling squads. Before long, the big-time Catholic and prep-school programs in and around Baltimore started recruiting him for their high school teams.
But even as basketball was offering Lunn paths to a new world, the often harsh realities of Baltimore were pulling him back in.
Lunn was about 14 when he and a friend were riding a bike on the city’s near-East Side during a hot July afternoon, when they were approached by five other boys. They beat Lunn’s friend with a stick and made off with the $300 bike.
Lunn told his father about the theft when he got home late that night. He recognized one of the boys, and his father knew the family from growing up in East Baltimore. He headed straight over to the house, and the boy’s mother returned the bicycle.
The next afternoon, Lunn and a friend were nervous about going to the park to shoot baskets, so his father dropped them off. He was leaving, but something told him to stay. Sure enough, several of the boys who had stolen the bike showed up. They seemed to be walking toward David, when his father intervened. They exchanged a few words, then the boys appeared to be walking away. The next thing Lunn Sr. knew, one of the boys pulled out a gun and fired on him six times, hitting him in the arm, back and pelvis.
A group of boys ages 11 to 15 was eventually convicted in connection with the shooting. “One thing I remember is that the youngest one in court, his feet would not even touch the ground from his chair,” Tameika Lunn recalled. “He was so little. Like, his feet were just swinging.”
Luckily, Lunn Sr. survived, and he was able to return to work within a month. But the Lunn family knew one thing going forward: From then on, they wanted their son off the streets of Baltimore as much as possible.
They ended up sending Lunn to the McDonogh School, an exclusive private school that sits on 800 rolling acres in suburban Baltimore County. Lunn’s budding skill on the basketball court meant that he had many other offers for high school, but as far as the Lunns were concerned, McDonogh’s boarding option set it apart. “We would pick David up on Fridays, and take him back on Sunday nights,” his father said. “That way, we didn’t have to worry about David through the week.”
By most measures, Lunn thrived at McDonogh — although, at first, he experienced a bit of culture shock. He had attended predominantly black and low-income schools in the city, and McDonogh was mostly white and upper-income. Also, some of the classes were unlike those he had experienced in public school.
“I remember him saying about Spanish, ‘How am I going to learn if she’s speaking it all the time?’ ” his mother Tammy said. “I told him, ‘I think that’s how it goes.’ ”
Eventually, she recalled, Spanish became one of his favorite subjects. And, soon enough, he found his place at McDonogh. “He ended up making a lot of friends there,” Tammy said. “He connected well with everybody. By the end of his ninth-grade year, he loved it.”
Lunn was an exceptional athlete. He ran track and played some football. “He was a great guy and a great athlete,” said Wes Moore, a bestselling author and former Army officer who is now CEO of the New York-based Robin Hood Foundation. He and Lunn met when Lunn dated his sister, and they remained friends for more than 20 years. “But he played football like he did not want to get his nails dirty.”
But he excelled on the basketball court. Lunn played on McDonogh’s varsity for four years, and led the school to three consecutive conference championships, marking one of the best careers in school history. In 2015, he was inducted into McDonogh’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
“We would sneak out of the dorms early to play basketball,” said Shani Moore Weatherby, Moore’s sister, who dated Lunn when they were both at McDonogh. She went on to run track and play basketball at Princeton University. “He put his all into everything that he did. He was one of those people you wanted to be around because he made you feel better about yourself.”
Kyle Jacobe was a 5-foot-3-inch guard hoping for a spot on McDonogh’s squad when he first met Lunn. “I went to our summer workouts and I saw this 6-foot-4 black dude running the floor, dunking, stealing the ball, and I asked who he was,” recalled Jacobe, who went on to play four years of Division III basketball and now owns a training center for athletes outside Baltimore. “Someone told me, ‘Kyle, that dude is a freshman.’ That was my first exposure to playing against an elite guy.”
Jacobe, who is white, and Lunn eventually became best friends. Lunn would take him into some of the city’s all-black neighborhoods and get him into pickup games he otherwise would not be able to participate in.
“I was very undersized. I guess David was fascinated because I was out of my mind,” said Jacobe, who eventually grew to be 6 feet, 3 inches. “I would never back down from anyone. I guess David wondered what was wrong with me.”
By the time he graduated from high school in 2000, Lunn was heavily recruited by Division I schools. He ended up going to the University of Delaware, an unheralded basketball school, mainly because he had attended several summer camps there, his family said.
“By him going to camp there every summer in high school, he took a liking to it,” Lunn Sr. said.
Parties and disappointment
Delaware may not have been known as a basketball powerhouse, but it was frequently rated as one of the nation’s top party schools. Apparently, Lunn did his part to hold up the school’s party image.
All through high school, friends said, Lunn would not so much as take a drink. “He had always told me about his dad’s struggles with addiction,” recalled Moore Weatherby. “He said he would never go down that path because he saw how hard it was for his father to get out of it.”
But at Delaware, that changed. His parents remember getting a call from one of the Delaware coaches, who said that their son had mistakenly drunk-dialed him.
Calvin Smith Jr., a college teammate of Lunn’s who is now an administrator at Johns Hopkins University, said there was much more than drinking going on. “As I reflect back, yeah, there was weed, there was the alcohol, but there were some other recreational drugs too,” he said. “My dad too had struggled with addiction, so I was always like, ‘Eh,’ that is not my thing.’ Several of my teammates engaged in that and it was something that surprised me about David, knowing what I know about his family.”
Basketballwise, things did not go well for Lunn at Delaware, which his family thinks could have contributed to his drug use. He had a series of injuries — shoulder surgery, knee and hernia surgeries, a sprained foot — that caused him to miss a lot of time on the court. He also played with a broken bone in his hand, a sore wrist and other injuries. During his career at Delaware, he averaged just 6.6 points a game.
By the time he was a senior, the coach asked him to step aside and help with the coaching staff, even though he had a year of eligibility remaining. After graduating from Delaware, he played a final year at Division II St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, where he averaged nearly 17 points a game and led the team to a NCAA berth in 2006. He was named the conference MVP and Newcomer of the Year.
But that was the Heartland Conference, in Division II. It was not what Lunn had envisioned when he was in gyms around Baltimore holding his own with big-time players. His disappointment was evident.
“I kind of saw it,” his mother said. “I saw that he wasn’t himself. I could see the hurt in his eyes. He would always try to put up a good face for me. But there were times he would cry and say he wished he had been a better player, or had a better opportunity. But the injuries really kept him down.”
A rise and a big fall
After St. Edward’s, Lunn spent a year playing professionally for the Jonstrup Basketball Klub, northwest of Copenhagen, Denmark, where he seemed to enjoy himself. “He even did some modeling,” Tameika recalled with a chuckle. “I think they had him in eyeliner in some of those shots.”
After that, he came back home, hooping in pro-am tournaments between Baltimore and Washington. “He had to be the most highly recruited dude ever for men’s league teams,” said Jacobe, who often played with him. “He would really frustrate people in games with his intensity and defense, but after the games, it was all love. He just had a way to cross every situation.”
Before long, Lunn married Alexandria Taylor, a volleyball player he met at Delaware, with whom he had a son, David III. He also started to carve out a career with D&T Welding Contractor, a company his parents had recently launched. He was lead estimator and head of procurement for the firm, and he led the company’s efforts to partner with larger firms on big contracts.
He represented the firm in coalitions to push for offshore wind farms and other clean energy projects that would bring welding work to the firm and others like it. He testified before legislative committees in Annapolis, Maryland’s capital, and traveled with a business group to Europe.
“I was putting together a coalition to lobby for wind energy, and David was the first one who handed me a membership check,” said Elizabeth Burdock, president and CEO of the 350-member Business Network for Offshore Wind. “He had this combination of real charm and coolness and niceness. It was really his charisma that helped convince legislators in Maryland to put money behind an offshore wind project.”
By all appearances, Lunn was successfully making the transition to life after basketball. But once again, Baltimore’s harsh realities got in the way.
Lunn struggled in his marriage, and about two years after the wedding, his wife moved with their son to her home state of New Mexico. “That is when the spiral started,” Tameika Lunn said.
Business was thriving at D&T, in a large part because of Lunn’s interpersonal skills. But he was unhappy. He dated a string of women, and went back and forth to New Mexico to see his son. He started drinking heavily.
The first unmistakable sign of trouble was when he got back-to-back DUIs around 2015. By then, his parents could recognize he was not himself. He moved back home, but would be out at all hours. When he was home, he had all kinds of women coming and going, his parents said. He eventually fathered a second son, Davion.
Over time, he stopped grooming himself carefully. “That’s when it really hit home for me,” Tammy Lunn said. “My son changed his clothes and had to be meticulous every day. But now, he started wearing the same thing all the time.”
One day Tammy Lunn spotted him driving the company truck and followed him to a housing project. A girl hopped out and went inside, while Tammy went to confront her son. He claimed the girl was an old friend from college. But when she came back, Tammy could see an abscess on her leg. “Something’s going on here,” she told him. “There’s nothing I can do. I can’t stop you from doing what you are getting ready to do.”
From there, things got worse. Lunn would disappear for days at a time. Sometimes he would call home to say he was OK, and other times have friends contact his worried parents. It went on like that for more than a year, before his father managed to talk him into going away for treatment in Annapolis.
He was in a residential facility for 30 days and came out looking good. Then he moved to a halfway house, seemingly doing well. But weeks later, he disappeared. He was back using. It went on that way for many more months. Sometimes, he would clean up and come back home. But the problem lingered. Once he and a friend stole his mother’s purse, and his parents put him out.
Still, they could not completely let go of their son. At one point, Lunn called home for help. During his playing days, he was normally a robust 210 pounds. Now, he was down to maybe 150, so small his father could pick him up in his arms. His parents took him home, bathed him and got him cleaned up. They gathered his longtime friends — Moore, Smith and others — to join them in an intervention. Lunn’s friends also kicked in money to help the family cover the insurance co-pay of more than $10,000 for another round of residential drug treatment.
‘He’s already gone’
Once again, drug treatment seemed effective. After 30 days, Lunn moved into a recovery house in suburban Baltimore and got a job working at the drive-in window of a fast-food restaurant. For a while, things went well. He was saving money and getting overtime at work. But over time, he ran afoul of the strict rules of the recovery house. Once, he left cereal on the counter. Other times, he was out working past curfew. Eventually, he was kicked out. The program, which collected and held onto most of the earnings of its clients, gave him more than $4,000 he had saved, and sent him on his way.
“Which was the most ignorant thing you could possibly do,” Tameika said.
Lunn did not call his parents, and instead went to live with a girlfriend. His parents suspect that he immediately went back to dipping in drugs, although he did not fall as far as he had previously.
His family was worried. But Lunn was still working. He was journaling, going to meetings and doing other activities he had learned in treatment. Whatever drugs he was using did not seem to be taking an obvious toll.
He got together with his family for Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2018. “We were worried about the holidays,” Tammy said. “For some reason, they’re triggers for addicts.”
The day before that New Year’s Eve, Lunn spent the entire day with his mother, something they had not done in ages. “I took him home, and I said, ‘You’re going to be good?’ ” she said.
He went inside, and that was the last time she saw her son alive.
They didn’t hear from Lunn for a few days and the family began to worry. On Jan. 3, there was a report of an unidentified body found in downtown Baltimore, not far from M&T Bank Stadium. The family braced itself, but it turned out that the body was not Lunn’s.
On Jan. 5, Tammy was at Bethel A.M.E. Church preparing the altar for communion, and the people around her could feel her concern. “People said, ‘Tammy, you’re not looking right,’ ” she recalled. “And so I told them, ‘My son’s missing. I haven’t seen him. He’s back out there, I guess.’ ”
Before she went home that night, she drove through several neighborhoods in the city, hoping she would see her son. Finally, she went home to a fitful night of sleep.
The next morning, as she was getting dressed for church, she got a video call from someone she did not know. There was a woman on the phone, a friend of Lunn’s. She was calling with the horrible news the family had feared for years. She said Lunn had been found in the laundry room of her apartment building.
“Where is he?” Tammy asked.
“He’s already gone,” the woman replied.