CHESTER, Pa. -- The newest hope of a sagging Sacramento Kings franchise is a teenage basketball prodigy from decayed urban streets where no one -- no matter how gifted -- truly escapes unscathed.
At 19, Tyreke Evans is a celebrated, 6-foot-5-inch point guard bound for Arco Arena with a personal narrative both harrowing and uplifting. The player Kings fans hope to see is an NBA version of the shy but powerful athlete who has dominated all previous opponents and soared to the rim at will.
"It hasn't really hit me yet," Evans said last week "The night of the NBA draft, I got 185 text messages. I don't know that many people."
Not that many people know Tyreke Evans, either. Not really. He looks like a kid in baggy pants, New York Yankees cap and size 14 basketball shoes. He carries two cell phones, one of which is always pressed to his ear. He can play video games all day and be happy. When Evans speaks, he seems younger than he is. "When you hear him talk, you think, 'That's the future of the Kings franchise?' " said his trainer, Lamont Peterson. "But put him on the court and see what happens."
Said Kings president Geoff Petrie: "He has a great chance to be a star."
For this Evans has been groomed since he was 4, when his older brothers made his development a family quest.
Gunshots nearly destroyed it all. Evans' cousin was convicted of killing a young man from a vehicle Evans was driving in 2007.
Before the Kings chose him as the fourth player in the NBA draft on June 25, Evans was virtually convicted as an accessory to murder in the online court of public opinion.
"Here is a guy who has never had a fistfight in his life and people are looking at him like he's a thug, a murderer," said James "Reggie" Evans, Tyreke's older brother.
The contrasts of Evans' life -- raw basketball talent and a brush with death -- are emblematic. On the court, Evans was dubbed "Too Easy" because his explosive fluidity made basketball seem effortless. Off the court, nothing has been easy during Evans' trek to the brink of an NBA payday.
Evans' hometown hosts rusted buildings and abandoned shipyards and automobile manufacturing plants along the Delaware River. A short drive from Philadelphia's airport, Chester was declared a financially distressed municipality by Pennsylvania in 1995. Nearly 30 percent of Chester lives below the federal poverty line, in faded, brick row houses dotted among vacant yards where tall weeds mingle with boarded buildings.
Everywhere you go in Chester, locals warn visitors to "be careful." The city seems desperate in the daytime. It seems dangerous at night.
Evans' talent got him out of Chester and into the University of Memphis. Before that, his ability spirited him to a private school in nearby -- and far more affluent -- Aston. His future has been guided and protected by a shield of brothers and handlers who follow his every move, sit in on every interview, guard every family detail.
His brother Reggie Evans is his legal guardian. The other three older brothers only let people in so far. Their mom, Bonita, is off-limits to the media -- as is the family home where Evans grew up and where he stayed last week.
In the Philadelphia area, they call Evans' protective cocoon "The Circle." Some might call this arrangement paranoid or unnatural. But the Evans' family makes no apologies. They saw their brother as a target and his talent as a vehicle for economic emancipation for Evans and his family.
The player recalls that his father -- John Holmes -- was a truck driver constantly on the road when Evans was little. His older, half brothers filled the void.
"It was almost like a brother-son," said Reggie Evans, who at 37 is 18 years older than Tyreke.
Reggie Evans was talking about his brother-son last week at a private gym in Aston, where Tyreke Evans played many of his high school games. He remembers spotting Tyreke's ability and then harnessing it. When Tyreke was only 4, Reggie Evans tied one of his arms to his side with duct tape and made him dribble the ball one-handed until he mastered the art. Then he taped the other arm until the child was ambidextrous.
"It was a living hell for him," Reggie Evans said. "He used to cry. He fought me for a couple of weeks until he knew he wasn't going to win. He stopped crying and started doing it."
"By the time he was 6, he was doing stuff you'd see on 'Ripley's Believe or Not.' He was putting the ball between his legs, stuff you couldn't imagine. That was the foundation."
By age 12, Evans was a hot commodity in the youth basketball world. He'd star for youth teams sponsored by Reebok. Nike wanted him too. Soon he was traveling around the country.
Evans was the attraction at American Christian Academy, which closed right after he graduated. Here he played a national schedule even though the school didn't have its own gym.
No matter. Evans was featured on the cover of youth magazines. His name was huge on basketball blogs.
By then, Reggie Evans said he encountered coaches who sought to profit off his brother. In the local paper, Evans' high school was accused of being a diploma mill. Reggie Evans was ripped in the blogs for being a profiteer of his brother's exploits.
They could handle it until the shooting at 4:45 p.m. on Nov. 25, 2007, in front of the house where Evans' high school coach lived. An aunt lived on the street as well. Evans and some witnesses said a group of youths shot at Evans' 1998 tan Ford Expedition. Other witnesses say they didn't hear any shots before 19-year-old Marcus Reason was killed.
A 16-year-old cousin of Evans' -- who was riding in Evans' SUV -- was convicted of killing Reason and sent to prison the same week Evans was drafted by the Kings.
Evans' brothers said they spoke to a Chester police detective the night of the shooting and the next day. Reggie Evans said he was about to let Tyreke give his account to detectives when Peterson, his trainer, suggested they get an attorney first.
Kenneth J. Coalson, a Chester Township police captain, corroborated this account. According to police records, Tyreke Evans and his lawyer met with the local district attorney 23 days after the shooting to give an official statement. Coalson said this timeline is correct.
Coalson said Evans had no criminal record and cooperated with authorities. Police have not found evidence to suggest shots were fired at Evans' vehicle. Coalson said the shooting was likely gang-related. Detectives believe rival gangs still seek retribution for Reason's killing.
Coalson said detectives have not heard Evans' name mentioned on the street in conjunction with the crime. Evans said he didn't know his cousin had a gun before the shooting, and no evidence suggests otherwise.
"Because of that blemish caused by my cousin, it has tarnished Tyreke forever a little bit," Reggie Evans said. "There is a code in the streets to keep quiet. (By cooperating) Tyreke was going against every barrier the streets say you are not supposed to cross."
Evans' high school arranged for special security at subsequent games. Some fans yelled "snitch" at Evans during games. His dad had just passed away and Evans was making his push to college.
"I've never seen a kid under so much pressure," said Jim Pepper, athletic director at Evans' high school.
Evans was the MVP of the 2008 McDonald's All-American All-Star game. Slam Magazine named him the top high school prospect in the country. When he committed to Memphis, ESPN carried the announcement live.
"That whole time, I was pretty much thinking about basketball," Evans said. "It was tough, but I was trying to keep everything out of my mind."
Evans is poised to be an NBA millionaire -- the average NBA rookie salary is $3.5 million per year. And he's now spending the Fourth of July holiday with Detroit Pistons star Rip Hamilton in Miami.
On Wednesday, Evans trained at an old gym in Chester with his brother Eric "Pooh" Evans. Pooh had Tyreke running laps and doing drills until 11 p.m. that night. In huge baggy shorts and a white T-shirt, Evans showed what the Kings saw and loved an ability to levitate far above the rim and bolt past much smaller men.
Petrie has praised Evans' "incredible knack for pushing the ball." And he has acknowledged that Evans' shot needs work. In the workout, Evans seems to try to shield the ball behind his head before letting a somewhat crooked shot fly.
The Kings see his other skills.
"We need to get better off the dribble, to break down defenses," Petrie said. "He's been groomed to succeed, and he has at every level."
He plays with joy, though on Wednesday, he complained of a stomachache. It was probably the huge hoagie he devoured just before starting his workout.
The older Evans men still boss Tyreke like a little brother. His brothers have always handled every detail, shielded every move and still call him constantly to check his safety. They do it with love, but it's an open question whether Tyreke the NBA player will put up with it.
Before he left for his Miami holiday, Evans' family worried about his safety -- that retribution for Reason's killing could still hurt him.
The young man was not worried. "I'm going to help my mom out first," he said. "I'll get an apartment close to Arco Arena. And then I'll probably get a little house in New Jersey."
He added: "But not too close to home."