Basil Shabazz left Pine Bluff two decades ago not knowing if or when he’d return to his hometown. Thanks to Theron “Pearl” Eckwood, his childhood friend and Pine Bluff High School basketball teammate, that time was last Friday night.
Eckwood, who was the starting point guard on the Zebras 1990 State Championship team, founded the Z’s Dynasty Basketball Networks. Since 2017, he’s organized a weekend where alumni return to raise money for a scholarship fund with a banquet and alumni game. The group also volunteers to conduct a youth basketball camp that supplies free lunch and T-shirts to more than 200 kids.
The group also honors distinguished alums. The debut event included a tribute to that 1990 team that finished the season nationally ranked and last year former Zebra and University of Arkansas legend U.S. Reid was the honoree.
Late last year, Eckwood decided to honor his teammate Shabazz and women’s basketball standout Juliet Jackson, who starred at Pine Bluff and the University of Arkansas.
The dinner that kicked off the night at the PBHS student center was a festive but emotional affair that was limited to a tight-knit group of family and close friends of each honoree.
One of Shabazz’s great friends and neighbors, Torii Hunter, shared a long embrace with Shabazz. Arkansas-Pine Bluff baseball coach Carlos James was also among the first to greet his longtime friend. There was a long list former Zebra standouts who played with Shabazz in early Saturday morning pickup games and at the varsity level in different sports.
“I buried my whole family and that is painful within itself,” he said. “But to see so many guys I’ve known since I was eight makes it much smoother. Those guys are like family as well. That was the most relieving part of it all. To have that selected group I’ve known my whole life, that’s why you saw so many smile and so many hugs.”
Also in attendance were former Zebras basketball coach Joe Ball and football coaches Marion Glover and Joe Hart as well as former Arkansas quarterback and Hogs football radio analyst Quinn Grovey.
Eckwood became emotional when he took to the mic to present Shabazz with a Zebras 19 (the number he wore in high school) helmet, football, basketball and track baton signed by current members of those respective teams.
“It was good for Basil to see that people still love him [in Pine Bluff],” Eckwood said. “I don’t usually show my heart, but it brought tears to my eyes to see him seeing all of his brothers in that room and the smile that was on his face.”
Shabazz was a four-sport star, who as a senior was one of the top prep football players and sprinters in the nation. He also was a Division I basketball recruit. In an effort to help his mother Khaleelah support their family of four, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, who drafted him in the third round.
He rose as high as Class AA in four seasons in the Cardinals’ organization and one with the Milwaukee Brewers. Shabazz then tried football at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff but sustained a career-ending neck injury and his athletics career was over at age 24.
As much as he loved his hometown he knew too many friends that been ruined by the city’s pitfalls. So, he left for Texas to start a new life with girlfriend, now wife, Reca, who was pregnant.
The more time went on and as he and Reca started a family, Shabazz had less and less desire to return to Pine Bluff or even the state of Arkansas. Too many people were disappointed he didn’t “make it” to the pinnacle of at least one of the sports he played and there was the fact that his two brothers and mother had all died. The sadness that was overwhelming and the easiest way to block it out was to avoid the city. There were close friends of Shabazz who didn’t know where he lived in Texas or how to reach him. For many years, that’s how he preferred it.
Then, about 10 years ago he did his first interview with an in-state media member and in 2013 an in-depth cover story with now-defunct Sync Magazine.
The feedback he received along with a deeper Christian faith made the thoughts of returning to his hometown less daunting.
When Eckwood reached out to him three months ago, Shabazz’s reaction was positive.
“He said, ‘I am coming home for you, brother,’” Eckwood said. “And that was basically the conversation.”
Shabazz was struck by the warm reception he received from his friends and former teammates and from fans when he was introduced at halftime of the Pine Bluff/Watson Chapel varsity boys basketball game.
Shabazz toured the city and visited the homes he lived in growing up. His own feelings of sadness and despair had dissipated but now his concern is for the youth currently growing up in the city.
“It’s disturbing that the young people don’t know the history of Pine Bluff, and that’s why I think there is so much crime. You need someone to help lead those guys. Nobody wants to see a 13 or 14-year-old life taken away. I want to do anything I can to help the youth [of Pine Bluff]. You need one guy for them to look up to, but you need more than one guy to help make that change.”
After a positive weekend, Shabazz is keeping the door open to a return soon and possibly working with kids. He’s a youth sports performance coach in the Dallas metro area and works with kids building football, basketball, baseball and speed and agility skills.
He’d like to bring some of that knowledge to Pine Bluff and has left the door open to doing camps in his hometown. He wants to make his presence known and be a factor among the next generation.
“The most important thing is for the youth,” Shabazz said. “So many young kids from the ages of 8-14 could use the advice to help them move forward. We can help them and be role models and show them how we did things at a high level. It’s great to see what the city still has.”
Decades later Shabazz realized Pine Bluff will always be his home and while his biological family is gone his Zebra family will always love and cherish him and welcome him to be a part of the community again. The community needs him as much as he needs them.
“I was just happy for him that he came back home and people got a chance to see his new look and how successful he has been in life being a husband and father,” Eckwood said. “I am proud of the man he has become and the maturity he has shown now as a man. He can make a big impact on a bunch of different kids’ lives with how he has dealt with the walk he has had go through to get to this point.”