Pulse shooting’s youngest victim left teammates with a mission

Basketball team aims for third straight championship to honor Akyra Murray

After the captains met at midcourt, Morgan Kennedy, the lone senior on the girls basketball team at West Catholic Preparatory High School in Philadelphia, was sobbing. She gathered herself together during the pregame prayer before audibly losing it again, head shaking, lips quivering, during the national anthem.

Beautiful Murray-Bey, a sophomore forward, squeezed Kennedy’s shoulder. Zayda Wilson, a sophomore guard, bit her lip and reached for Kennedy’s hand. The Lady Burrs were hosting their first home game of the season last week, but the night’s emotions were over a former teammate who last played on this court more than six months ago.

In the early-morning hours of June 12, Akyra Murray, 18, was celebrating her graduation from West Catholic at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. She was the youngest of the 49 people killed that night in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

During a four-year career that spanned two schools in the Philadelphia Catholic League, Murray had scored an astounding 1,199 points, most of them in her two years at West Catholic, helping to legitimize a program that had long been irrelevant.

Now, after sleepless nights and many tears, Murray’s teammates were ready to honor her memory with what they hope will be the program’s best season in decades: a third-straight district championship and a deep run in the state playoffs.

West Catholic girls basketball player Morgan Kennedy cries and is hugged by a teammate after a ceremony to honor Akyra Murray during the team'

West Catholic girls basketball player Morgan Kennedy cries and is hugged by a teammate after a ceremony to honor Akyra Murray during the team’s first home game. Pulse nightclub shooting victim Akyra Murray graduated from West Catholic just days before she was killed, and led her team to two district championships and scored over 1,000 points during her career at the school.

Charles Mostoller for The Undefeated

“I, personally, am not going to let anything she’s done go to waste, and I know it’s not just me,” said Wilson, 16. “It’s deeper than basketball now.”

The mission is simple for Kennedy, an 18-year-old forward: “We’re here to finish what she started.”

The team is wearing special, red warm-up shirts – her favorite color – with her initials and number emblazoned on the front. Wiping away the tears that trickled down their cheeks, it’s soon time for tipoff. KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy is overmatched from the start, and West Catholic’s fast-break offense leads to easy layups in front of the hyped home crowd.

By the end of the first quarter, West Catholic leads 25-0 and the game, which already felt secondary, is well in hand. The team believes – and hopes – Murray would have loved it.

In the summer of 2012, Murray, about to start her freshman year of high school, told her mom she wanted to start playing basketball. Murray knew her parents, Natalie and Albert, were both high-school standouts and wanted to try and follow suit.

Framed photos of Akyra Murray at her parents home.

Framed photos of Akyra Murray at her parents home.

Charles Mostoller for The Undefeated

But first she needed to learn how to dribble. And shoot. And just about everything else.

Murray asked her mother if she could shoot around with her at a nearby playground. The first attempt Akyra put up that day turned out to be a memorable one. She didn’t make it. In fact, she didn’t come close: Her shot went over the backboard, over a gate and into a neighbor’s yard.

“We had to knock on the people’s door to get the ball back,” said Natalie Murray, a general manager for Summerwood Corp., which operates fast-food restaurants such as Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut in Philadelphia and Baltimore. “I said to her, ‘We’ve got a lot of work here, kid.’ ”

It was a sentiment echoed by others, including her cousin Tiara Parker, who laughs now at how bad her cousin once was: “She sucked.”

During her freshman and sophomore seasons at Bishop McDevitt High School, Murray was a serviceable role player. But she wanted more. When that opportunity didn’t come at Bishop McDevitt, she went looking elsewhere.

In the summer of 2014, she started showing up to open gym sessions at West Catholic. At the time, the girls team was regularly getting blown out, with fans laughing at them, the Murrays say.

“In the beginning, no one thought they were going to win, because they hadn’t before,” said Albert Murray, a cook at Legal Sea Foods. “Even the faculty were like, ‘We’re not going to win anything.’ ”

West Catholic coach Beulah Osueke first saw Murray, 5-feet-7 and 190 pounds, during those open-gym runs. She was not a great player, but an average one with the hunger to get better, Osueke said.

Coach Beulah Osueke poses for a portrait after girls basketball practice at West Catholic High School.

Coach Beulah Osueke poses for a portrait after girls basketball practice at West Catholic High School.

Charles Mostoller for The Undefeated

“It was almost like staring at a young me,” she said. “For Akyra, I wanted to be the coach I didn’t have when I was in high school.”

The path to West Catholic was not a traditional one for Osueke. The 27-year-old went from one –adelphia to another: graduating from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, where she played for the women’s basketball team, and moving to Philadelphia to begin a master’s degree program in clinical psychology at La Salle University. A year later, Osueke landed at West Catholic for her first head-coaching job. Osueke, who is also communications director for a local social services organization, is just one of two black head coaches among the 13 schools that play girls basketball in the Philadelphia Catholic League, one of the city’s premier leagues.

Now, in her fourth year at West Catholic, Osueke said she credits her relationship with Murray as the turning point for the program.

“For her to trust in me, I think that was the first time in which someone put that much faith in me,” Osueke said. “I talked a lot with her how people were going to assume things about her before they even knew her, just by her being a black woman or being from a certain neighborhood. It isn’t fair, but we talked about how you have to work through that and she took that to heart, on and off the court.”

In her first season at West Catholic, Murray, working with her teammates, coaches, parents and older brother, Alex, made a jump that surprised just about all of them. Murray averaged more than 20 points a game, filling stat sheets and transforming into the heart and soul of a program that was competitive for the first time in two decades. On Jan. 18, she became the 12th player in school history to score 1,000 points in a career – and most of those points came in just a season and a half. (The opponent when she made the mark? Bishop McDevitt, her former school.)

By the end of her two years at West Catholic, Murray had led her school to back-to-back district championships, the first for the girls program.

“She was the first player who embodied what I wanted in a program,” said Osueke, who keeps Murray’s away jersey in her backpack. “Our program merely existing is us holding on to that.”

Her influence went beyond the box score. At practice the day before the last week’s home opener, Murray’s DNA is on full display in this year’s team. Kennedy, who worked out with Murray regularly and played with her on summer teams, barks from the baseline. “Deny! Deny that! Come help!”

A banner highlighting 1,000 point scorers hangs on the wall of the gym during girls basketball practice at West Catholic High School.

A banner highlighting 1,000 point scorers hangs on the wall of the gym during girls basketball practice at West Catholic High School.

Charles Mostoller for The Undefeated

Wilson, who said Murray gave her the confidence she needed at school when things weren’t the best in her personal life, is among the most vocal in her defensive rotations.
“If she was doing something, I wanted to do the same thing, because she made it seem like that was the right thing to do,” Wilson said. “And it always was.”

As practice winds down and the first-team players make a one final defensive stop, Kennedy bends over, spreads her arms and lets out a roar: “Aaaaagggghhhhhhh!!!!” It’s something the senior forward took from Murray.

“She kind of paved my path for what I do now,” Kennedy said. “I think, OK, what would Akyra do? I still look up to her and think, OK, I gotta get it together, because I’m doing this for Akyra.”

In less than four years, she’d gone from comically shooting a basketball to earning a full ride to play for Division II Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. She planned to study criminology, wanting to someday work for the FBI and figure out what triggers people to commit acts of terrorism.

On June 6, Murray graduated third in her class of 45, barely missing becoming salutatorian. As an incentive, her parents awarded Murray money every time she made the school honor roll. By the time she turned 18, she had collected $300, which she put toward a tattoo on her back – a dove with angel’s wings that read, “God’s Gift.”

The living room of the Murrays’ home is a shrine to their three children. About 20 minutes away from West Catholic in the southwest part of the city, the condominium highlights their children’s achievements and personalities, whether it’s older brother Alex’s time as a standout high school football player or younger daughter Ayonna’s collection of toys. The biggest collection belonged to Akyra, from medals she earned as a runner to the commemorative basketball she was given with when she scored her 1,000th point.

Natalie Murray looks at a collection of her daughter Akyra'

Natalie Murray looks at a collection of her daughter Akyra’s sports memorabilia in her home.

Charles Mostoller for The Undefeated

Six months after the Murrays lost Akyra, every one of her items in the living room remains in place.

“Ayonna doesn’t let anybody touch [Akyra’s] stuff,” Natalie Murray said of her 5-year-old daughter. “She’s really adamant about it.”

When it came to traveling, Murray was always a last-minute packer. Twenty minutes before heading to Philadelphia International Airport for the family’s June vacation in Orlando, she was still drying her clothes.

Leading up to the trip, she went with Parker, her cousin, to pick up new clothes and get their hair and nails done. They wanted to look, and feel good in Orlando.

The next morning, a Saturday, Natalie Murray was frying chicken and prepping salads for the family in their Orlando rental property when Osueke called to see whether Murray was doing her workout regimen for Mercyhurst. Osueke told her she’d look forward to seeing her when the family returned north.

Murray, Parker and Patience Carter, a friend who had joined the trip, decided they wanted to explore Orlando’s 18-and-up nightlife scene and Murray called Pulse, a popular LGBT nightclub that was holding a Latin Night that evening. The girls didn’t identify as LGBT, but it didn’t matter to them. They just wanted to dance.

Albert Murray adjusts his t-shirt, which features his daughter Akyra, as he watches the first home girls basketball game at West Catholic High School.

Charles Mostoller for The Undefeated

At around 10:45 p.m., they had yet to leave and Natalie Murray wondered if her daughter still wanted to go. Murray reassured her that she did and that they’d be meeting up with her brother Alex, who worked as a model and actor in Miami. After they learned he’d gotten delayed at work and couldn’t make it, Murray woke her father and said they were ready to head over to Pulse. He, too, asked if they still wanted to go out that late.

“She said, ‘Dad, you promised,’ ” Natalie Murray said. “He got up without hesitation.”

Dropping off the girls, Natalie Murray remembers seeing people laughing and dancing outside the club. The girls got cash at the 7-Eleven across the street to pay the $10 cover charge. When they entered the club, each of them got a giant X on their hands, signaling that they were under 21. Parker remembers everything about Pulse, from the friendly staff to the techno music played by the three DJs to the three of them drinking water and cranberry juice to stay hydrated.

“We danced to everything. We just wanted to go and have fun,” Parker said. “We had the night of our life.”

Back at the condo where the family was staying, Natalie Murray decided to wait up for the girls. She took to Snapchat, where she had a front-row seat for her oldest daughter’s night out.

“[Akyra] was all over it. They had her on the stage and everything,” her mother said. “I’m like, ‘Look at this girl!’ ”

At around 2 a.m. on June 12, Pulse began serving last-call drinks. The three young women looked into getting an Uber.

“At that moment,” Parker recalled, “we decided to go home, and then … ”

Parker cuts herself off before deciding not to finish a story she’s told too many times. “… Well, yeah.”

The first reports of gunfire came a little past 2 a.m. Murray and Carter initially escaped the building, then went back inside to look for Parker, who had frozen up. Some of the wounded played dead on the dance floor. Others tried to barricade themselves inside the restrooms.

Parker remembers seeing up to 30 people lying on top of each other, trying to keep quiet. The three girls were in the handicapped access stall inside one restroom along with several others, Parker said. When gunman Omar Mateen entered and started shooting, bullets hit Carter in both legs, Parker on her left side and Murray below her ear and in both arms.

Trying to stop the bleeding from her cousin’s arm, Parker bent over and placed her head against the wound, desperate to stop it.

“I wanted to make sure she was comfortable,” said Parker, who played dead with her eyes open as the gunman stared to see whether she had died. “I said, ‘Don’t do nothing, you stay right there.’ She laid there and was grabbing me back in response. That was the last time we communicated.”

Senior Morgan Kennedy is overcome with emotion and holds teammate Zayda Wilson'

Senior Morgan Kennedy is overcome with emotion and holds teammate Zayda Wilson’s hand for comfort before the first home girls basketball game at West Catholic High School.

Charles Mostoller for The Undefeated

The Murrays, who searched Orlando-area hospitals looking for their daughter for 27 hours, finally learned that she was dead. Her autopsy said she bled to death after one of the bullets that pierced her arms severed an artery. On June 24, she was buried at Mount Peace Cemetery in Philadelphia, 11 miles north of the Murrays’ home.

Carter, who was unable to walk for a couple of months because of a shattered femur, has made a full physical recovery. So has Parker, but the days can be hard. She sometimes finds herself reading her cousin’s obituary.

“That night, she could have left me in the bathroom,” Parker, now 21, said. “But she didn’t. She’s my hero.”

Osueke is proud of what her team, up 39-3 at the half, has shown her through 16 minutes of basketball. But she hangs her head. The time has come to retire Murray’s No. 20.

Coaches Beulah Osueke, left, and Maureen Deviney hold a framed number 20 jersey which belonged to Akyra Murray before the first home girls basketball game at West Catholic High School.

Charles Mostoller for The Undefeated

The team meets the Murrays, who are holding her framed home jersey, at midcourt. Each player hugs the family members and the students and families in the stands give them a standing ovation. A couple of the players jog to the back halls of the school to compose themselves.

After the ceremony, the team finishes halftime in the locker room. They pass around Gatorades, bananas and tissues, all of which are needed. Osueke’s voice begins to crack a little.

“I am going to ask of you, those of you who knew her, to truly embody everything Akyra wanted for you and the team,” said Osueke. “I’m not asking you to not be emotional tonight. Be as angry, be as sad as you want. But through that emotion, commit yourself to excellence.”

“We can’t let ourselves down. We can’t let Akyra down.”

The second half is a formality. Albert Murray, still in supportive father mode, is pointing to open players on the court for easy layups.

Natalie Murray chats with family and friends. Alex Murray, 22, wearing a customized West Catholic jersey with his sister’s number and name, is cracking jokes with friends, clutching his sister’s retired jersey.

The horn sounds and the game is, mercifully, over. The final score is 67-8, moving the Lady Burrs to 1-1 on the young season.

Senior Morgan Kennedy hugs Akyra Murray'

Senior Morgan Kennedy hugs Akyra Murray’s mother Natalie after the first home girls basketball game at West Catholic High School.

Charles Mostoller for The Undefeated

The team, family and friends linger for photos by the 1,000-point banner that has Murray’s name on it.

“I just wanted her there tonight,” Kennedy said after the game. “But I did feel her. I felt her on my shoulder the whole game.”

Timothy Bella is a features journalist based in Washington, D.C., whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic and The New York Times.