Sidney Gilstrap-Portley: 25-year-old posed as high school basketball player
This story appears in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
In a small garage right off the Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway, Sidney Gilstrap-Portley is finally getting what he always wanted. His name has churned through the morning-radio and evening-news shows, stories about his days on Dallas’s high school basketball courts retold across the world. And now here he is, in early June, walking onstage for his first interview, however smalltime it may feel. Illuminated by a $500 light wall, he sinks into a plush lounge chair and starts taking questions from the off-camera members of RealLyfe Street Starz, a self-described “underground” entertainment outfit with 35,000 YouTube subscribers. He pulls a microphone close to his sharply angled jawline, revealing a cursive tattoo on his left hand. Someone in the crowd shouts, “Aay! He’s a legend!” and Sidney laughs three octaves above his baritone, screaming, “Killin’ ’em!”
For much of the next 25 minutes Sidney speaks about the year he became weirdly famous. The RealLyfe crew compares him to LeBron James and asks whom he wants to portray him on the big screen. (“Michael B. Jordan. He’s on some s—.”) When Sidney recounts the time he scored 40 points in a game, one interviewer weighs in, “You’re a cold dude, bro.”
The next afternoon Sidney’s interview posts online. That it fails to attract even 10,000 views is one thing. The danger, for Sidney at least, is how many of those viewers are angered by the clip. After what you did, comes the prevailing response, How could you go onstage and brag about it? Sidney takes to social media in protest. The narrative that landed him all this attention—that he, a 25-year-old man, had posed as a high schooler to relive his basketball glory days, and possibly to pursue other, darker motives—was simply untrue, he says. Or parts of it, at least.
When he tells it, Sidney Gilstrap-Portley’s story does sound like a movie. The fuller version of this tale, though? That’s far more complex.
When Sidney and his mother, Angela, talk about his childhood, they tend to come back to the same few scenes. The first takes place in a northeast suburb of Dallas. This is February 1993; Sidney is three months old, Angela almost 17. (The boy’s father, also named Sidney, is absent, in and out of prison on what will eventually add up to 16 felonies and misdemeanors, ranging from aggravated assault to attempted burglary.) Mother and son have been bouncing from one relative’s home to another, and on this night they end up in a three-bedroom house that can barely contain its inhabitants—Sidney; Angela; her mother, Brenda; several uncles; a great aunt and a great uncle; plus a few other family members. Sidney sleeps with his mom and grandmom in the garage, cold air whipping beneath the door. Brenda promises her child and grandchild: You will never have a night like this again.
For the next several years Brenda works as a school custodian. Angela squeezes in shifts at McDonald’s while she finishes high school and then finds a home for herself and Sidney. The neighborhood they settle in, 64 Ferguson, is known for its trap houses and aggressive policing. (If you Google it, the top search recommendation is “64 Ferguson Crips.”) One day when Sidney is in elementary school, Old Sidney stops by. Old Sidney considers himself a wheeler-dealer, and on this day he has his son bag up some weed and make deliveries, correctly assuming, No one’s gonna stop a little bitty kid.
It’s around this time that Young Sidney begins to take shape as a character. At home he won’t talk when family comes over, won’t smile when they call him by his nickname, Nunu. But put Young Sidney into certain public situations and he transforms. Before 400- and 800-meter races at Charles A. Gill Elementary, fifth-grade Sidney will approach competitors and declare, “I’m coming in first, second or third . . . nothing less.” He is rarely wrong.
Most of Sidney’s childhood stories, though, are about basketball. He joins his first team in sixth grade and sits on the bench, coaches say, until he learns to pass. Avoiding certain street corners and apartment staircases, he walks home at night and watches the NBA or cues up More Than a Game, a 2008 documentary about LeBron and his high school teammates. In the latter, Sidney sees a path: someone like him—a serious kid with an absent father and a food-stamp diet—who became the Chosen One. He keeps a DVD in his backpack and rehearses the movie’s plot as if it’s an escape route, working out in the morning at a rec center and running drills alone after practice. He helps form an AAU team and rides in the bed of an old Dodge Ram to games, where he and his team of neighborhood friends beat the rich kids all over town. He starts telling teammates he’s going to the NBA too.
This yearslong training montage hits its peak on the rec courts and playgrounds of East Dallas, where Sidney comes to be known as the 6’ 1″ guard who gets more rebounds than assists, who outscores and outfights the older guys, earning nicknames like Baby Baron Davis, Baby Josh Smith, Baby Monta Ellis. . . .
Old Sidney, fresh out of prison, sees this basketball promise and persuades Young Sidney to live with him in Plano and attend mostly white Plano Vines High. (“You’re gonna be the only black guy,” he says. “You’re gonna kill it.”) But there a white girl calls Sidney “n—–,” and a few weeks later Old Sidney is incarcerated again.
Flash-forward a year. Sidney is back with his mother, playing JV ball for North Mesquite High, where his coach demands that he learn to drive with his left hand. Sidney responds, “But they can’t stop me going right.”
On the rare occasion he does play for the Stallions’ varsity, as a senior, he flashes promise: 22 points and five boards off the bench against Rockwall-Heath; 15 and five against Carter. But Young Sidney never becomes a varsity starter. He passes too little, fights his coaches too much. He takes off his jersey once at halftime and leaves. On Facebook he goes by Sidney Too Elite Gilstrap and kids comment, “Too elite at what?”
Sidney can see his escape route disappearing. He starts drinking before tip-off and fights a teammate in the locker room. Midway through his senior year he’s called in to see coach Phillip Randall, who, he says, tells him, “You’re toxic to the team,” before kicking him off.
Walking out of Randall’s office, into a concrete tunnel, Sidney sits down under a giant painted horse and starts crying. When Sidney Gilstrap-Portley tells his childhood story now, this is the scene he comes back to the most.
Six years after graduation, in August 2017, Sidney is sitting in his girlfriend’s living room playing NBA 2K, leading the post-Kobe, pre-LeBron Lakers against a Warriors barrage, periodically checking his phone for updates about Hurricane Harvey.
A lot has changed since North Mesquite High, and he has cataloged much of it with tattoos. Under his hairline is BOU, one half of the handle he’s using as he starts to experiment with rapping: SynBou, from his full name, Sidney Bouvier Gilstrap-Portley. On his calves, in big gothic characters, are his initials, S and G. He calls his left arm his “love arm.”
On the forearm, alongside ANGELA, is BRENDA, who died two years after his graduation, plus the names of two boys Angela adopted; on that hand is the name of Sidney’s three-year-old son. And on his nonlove arm, next to a skull and his 214 area code, is an outline of Texas. In the north is a star, with a man dunking into it, and the words BALL TILL I FALL.
But in at least one sense nothing has changed for Sidney. At 25, he still hasn’t escaped the region outlined by that star on his arm. He tried out for a few community college and Division III teams, but the rap against him was always the same: talented rec-ball slasher, strong to the basket and hard to stop, but way too difficult to coach. He showed little interest in socializing with prospective teammates, let alone passing to them. He lasted a single year at Dallas Christian, a deep-suburban Bible college that competes in Division II, but he couldn’t pay tuition, so he is working temp jobs in East Dallas, stocking at Walmart and at a discount store. Those positions don’t bring home enough to keep his son clothed, though, and so Sidney has started bagging up weed and selling it.
Playing 2K, Sidney finds himself depressed. He has tried to escape by becoming somebody, but here he is, more in common with his dad than with the pros running around on the TV.
His mind flashes to the street games he plays and to the courts at 24 Hour Fitness, where he still feels close to becoming the Sidney he’s always aspired to be. He thinks back to earlier that summer, to how he’d joined a younger friend’s AAU team, the Elite Ballers, and pretended to be 17, not an unusual move at these little tournaments. And how he’d absolutely dominated. The coach, unknowing, had told him he’d be a D-I prospect if he were more team-minded.
Sitting here alone, he decides that if he’s going to become somebody, he’ll have to start by becoming somebody else.
Sidney arrives the next morning at Skyline High in East Dallas, a mile from his mom’s apartment, wearing Nike slides, basketball shorts and a long-sleeved Rockets T-shirt that covers most of his tattoos. He walks into the front office, leans on the registration desk and lies: “I’m Rashun Richardson, the Harvey refugee from South Houston High. I called yesterday.” The hurricane, he says, took his home and everything with it—backpack, ID. . . .
The registrar hands him paperwork. He indicates that he’s 17.
For the next two months Sidney stays under the radar in anticipation of basketball season, showing his face at Skyline just enough to maintain his eligibility. Sometimes his girlfriend drops him off. Often he’ll leave early to take care of his son. Inside, he puts on headphones and disappears into the shuffle of 4,700 kids. He sits in the back of classrooms and works through credit-recovery packets. He wears what he’s supposed to wear, eats what he’s served and uses a hall pass when he has to go to the bathroom. Later, when he tells his story, he’ll say the main thing he learned at Skyline was how high school prepares you for prison.
That Sidney does not stay at Skyline more than two months is more of a wrinkle in his story than a plot twist. In October, driven to find a better basketball situation—a different coach, less competition for minutes—he fills out a residency questionnaire at Richardson High, 25 minutes north of 64 Ferguson. One day later he shows up at Hillcrest High, 15 minutes to the west of 64 Ferguson, and registers again as 17-year-old Rashun. Without paperwork, he’s deemed a freshman. He doesn’t confirm any residency. He just says he’s homeless.
Rashun arrives that morning on potholed Hillcrest Lane, surrounded to the west by green grass and McMansions and to the east by cheap apartment buildings and strip malls. Four decades after crosstown busing transformed the Dallas Independent School District (DISD), many of the nearly all-white neighborhood’s teens go to private schools, and most of Hillcrest’s students come from different parts of town. The school is severely lacking, though, in athletic prowess, and when Rashun shows up in a gold Puma jersey showing off his thick frame and tattoo sleeves, he immediately stands out.
In gym class that afternoon he introduces himself to basketball coach Von Harris, whose players compare him to Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Coach Carter: morally upstanding, formally dressed, warm but unlikely to smile. Later Rashun, in jeans, is sitting against the gymnasium wall while Harris’s team warms up. The coach throws him a ball. “Show me your shot.”
The new kid caresses the orb and the coach half-jokes, “Rubbing the ball like that? You must got something.” Rashun shuffles to the right corner of the three-point line and drains a jumper.
“Shoot it again.”
He sinks this one too, no rim. By the time he makes his third in a row, the team has huddled around.
At his first full practice Rashun is the main attraction. The Panthers are an undersized team with few upperclassmen, and he can score more or less at will. One varsity guard, a New Yorker who grew up watching pickup games at Rucker Park, can tell Rashun is an elite streetballer by the way he drives to the basket in complete control of his dense body, looking for contact. Another player will later describe him as “a walking bucket” and recount Coach Harris’s reaction to that first display: “You know what an old dude looks like when he raises his eyebrows?”
Even with the Walking Bucket, though, Hillcrest loses its first game 68–44 and the next one 35–24. Rashun is testing how much he can score without being exposed, and he restrains himself to the tune of 19 and 13 points. After these defeats his teammates are especially dreading a weekend road trip to the Louisiana Hardwood Classic, and on the bus to Shreveport the kids wonder aloud whether they can last four quarters against the likes of Huntington (La.) High and Southwest Christian Academy, out of Little Rock. Rashun, listening to Kevin Gates and Aretha Franklin on his Apple earbuds, isn’t so worried. Later that night he and a few teammates will share a hotel room, playing 2K on PS4, snacking from a vending machine and bragging about how they just took down one of the top teams in Louisiana.
If Huntington provides a pick-me-up for the Panthers, then the next morning’s game against Southwest, the top-ranked Christian team in the country, is more like a showcase for Rashun. No one on Hillcrest believes they have a chance. The Lions, with five players 6’ 8″ or taller, look like the Monstars from Space Jam, and right from tip-off they asphyxiate Hillcrest’s pass-heavy Princeton offense. But quickly Harris starts calling a new play: “Give Rashun the ball.” And without changing his facial expression Rashun crosses over a 6′ 5″ guard, cuts right, throws his body into the 6’ 8″ trees, scores and repeats. He hits all kinds of layups: Kyrie Irving layups, Baron Davis layups. . . . One teammate will describe his performance that day as like “the point-guard LeBron James,” and a local scouting site will tweet about his 40 points in three quarters, punctuated by flexed-muscle, battery and gasoline emojis.
“Damn, young man,” Sidney will later recall Southwest Christian’s coach telling him even after the Panthers get rolled. “Were you trying to go for 60 on me?”
Rashun returns to Hillcrest the new Big Man on Campus. He has an infectious smile and a highly competent rap mixtape that he shares with his new school friends. The Panthers start racing toward .500, with Rashun leading the scoring in almost every game. He’s making friends with teammates, the manager and players from the girls’ squad. People know him; he doesn’t put on headphones and disappear into the hallways anymore. Cheerleaders start calling him by name, and one student asks to be his rap manager.
Gossip, meanwhile, starts to focus on a few biographical details. The S and the G on Rashun’s calves? Those, people come to assume, stand for “shooting guard.” When asked about his story, how he got here, he recaps Hurricane Harvey scenes from TV and tells classmates he’s found a temporary apartment in Dallas, with his sister and nephew. But when that nephew comes to games, why is the kid calling Rashun “Daddy?” Then there are the rounds of Fortnite he plays online with classmates—Rashun always dies quickly, and instead of building structures, he typically gets a pistol and announces, “I’m tryna cap somebody.” And his Instagram account. Rashun is prom-king good-looking, but his selfies are weird. Any high schooler knows you hold your phone above your head and look up into the camera, but Rashun takes pictures old-man-style, staring down into the lens as if he’s trying to read a book.
Victories, though, have a way of distracting. A year earlier Hillcrest went 4–10 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The 2017–18 season is feeling different. Rashun scores 27 and 39 points in consecutive wins over Samuell and Spruce, and he’s proving a coach’s dream, passing willingly and following orders. By late January he even has his teammates convinced they can beat Kimball, the crosstown rival that scheduled Hillcrest for an easy Senior Night beatdown.
That game stays close—Kimball plays small, fast and high-IQ; the Panthers space the floor and let Rashun freelance. And of course Rashun has the ball at half-court on the deciding possession, guarded man-to-man. He leans right, crosses over, and for a moment appears to drive left—finally—but he comes back right and takes his man to the basket, elevating above collapsing defenders, laying the ball in.
Once Hillcrest’s players stop screaming, they tell one another it all feels like a movie. Rashun Richardson, the Hurricane Harvey refugee, has scored 28 points in a 50–48 win.
After all that soaring and yearning, Hillcrest loses in the first round of the playoffs, 57–53 to Seagoville. The Walking Bucket only has 17 points, but he’ll later be named District 11-5A Offensive Player of the Year. He mostly stops going to class or playing below his age group. He does join the Elite Ballers for one more tournament, but they lose to the Dallas Police Department team.
Then, a little before midnight on Friday, May 11, back at his girlfriend’s apartment in Mesquite, Sidney, again himself, unwraps some Taco Bell. His son is asleep in the next room when someone bangs on the front door. The porch is too dark to see the visitor, and Sidney ducks into his room. (Of his neighborhood, he says, “Every time you wake up, there’s somebody robbing or killing somebody.”) When he hears “Police!” he throws his “protection”—he chooses this word carefully—back under his bed. He’ll later recount that 10 officers came in and handcuffed him, in front of his girlfriend and son. He is arrested for tampering with government records.
Sidney has never been to jail before, but he will later say that it kind of felt like home: “I sit in the house all the time, so I’m accustomed to just sitting and chilling in my own little world.” Still. Even if his father and the routines of high school have prepared him for prison, he can’t shake one thought: If the detention center where he’s being held were to catch fire, he would be trapped. “That’s the thing I was scared of—nothing else,” he says. Locked up, “my heart was racing because if something was to happen, I would be stuck in [that] room. Because I know they’re not going to open up the doors.”
After Sidney posts bond he retreats to his mother’s apartment. Family members cry when his face appears on the local news. He had called Angela to tell her he’d been arrested, and she’d thought: Thank God they didn’t kill him. Then: He doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink, doesn’t hang out with the neighborhood kids. So why is my baby in jail?
“Mom, it’s O.K.,” he tells her. “God’s gonna rewrite this story.”
On May 15, The Dallas Morning News publishes a lengthy story and the headline—25-YEAR-OLD POSED AS DALLAS ISD STUDENT TO RELIVE BASKETBALL GLORY AT HILLCREST HIGH—sends Sidney into a tailspin. To police he had explained that basketball fame was his means of escape, of a “second chance at life”; he’d told them about his plan to use his Hillcrest highlight reel as an audition for overseas leagues. But the Morning News is saying he defrauded the high school to relive his glory days. (According to that story, Sidney was exposed when a former coach recognized him at a tournament and DISD was alerted.)
Sidney’s story has the kind of scratch-your-head absurdity that makes for clickable content, and so he goes viral: The Washington Post, the London Times, the Daily Mail, People. Charlamagne tha God names him Donkey of the Day on his national radio show. Reporters start parking outside Angela’s apartment, and news trucks line the street across from Hillcrest. Text-message chains blow up on campus, circulating photos and rumors. At the Panthers’ year-end banquet Rashun is not listed on the basketball roster—but then Harris calls the season “definitely memorable, one I’ll never forget,” and there’s laughter.
Old Sidney sees an opening here and reenters his son’s life with some advice: This has all put “something in your grasp.” Sidney sees it—photo requests at gas stations and tweets from fans dreaming about him playing for the Mavericks. Producers start DM’ing Sidney about his upcoming SynBou mixtape. A booker from This American Life calls, and a producer from ESPN flies down to meet him. Sidney’s takeaway from the latter meeting: An episode of E:60 could lead to a movie deal.
All this attention brings risk, though. If Sidney has anything to hide, it’s likely to come to light. And as his visibility increases, he starts to hear more about one detail in that Morning News article: “As a student . . . Gilstrap-Portley dated a 14-year-old classmate.” The girl’s mother tells the paper her daughter “did not have a sexual relationship” with Sidney—but she says she was shocked to learn her daughter’s 17-year-old boyfriend was actually 25. “It’s unbelievable to me that he could get away with this,” she says.
Sidney goes public. He lines up the RealLyfe interview—partly to deny the mother’s allegations, partly to promote his new mixtape, “All Hustle No Luck.” When that goes poorly, he schedules two more sit-downs. In one of these, with Say Cheese TV, an influential Texas-based YouTube channel, he comes across as measured, charming and emphatic. He says he wasn’t trying to relive any glory days; he didn’t kiss any underage girls. He’s asked, “You did all of this to get as far you could in basketball?” and he responds, “I mean, yeah, basketball—if that would have took off, then I would have ran with it. But [I’m just looking for] anything regarding not going to the streets, possibly getting killed or having to kill somebody. I was just looking for a second chance in a different way.” The interview gets 400,000 views in its first weekend, but it’s pulled after a dispute between Say Cheese and one of Sidney’s friends, who’s acting as a sort of manager.
Sidney’s future? For now he’s focusing on his rap career as Syn Bou, hoping this time fame will bring an escape.
A month after his arrest, Sidney releases “No Luck” to little fanfare. On July 3 the police come back to book him again, this time with an affidavit that reads: “One day, while [the 14-year-old girl] and the suspect were walking through the locker room, the suspect asked her to kiss him and so she did.” The girl’s statement alleges that Sidney courted her over Snapchat and later drove her to a park, kissing her in the car, touching her breasts over her clothing and asking her to have sex, which she says she declined.
Sidney is again bailed out of jail, now facing a charge of indecency with a child, which he denies but that carries a sentence of 20 years in prison. (His lawyer assures him this sentence is unlikely, but even a plea deal could end with him registering as a sex offender.) ESPN calls back and tells him the E:60 segment is up in the air after these allegations.
And then, nothing. Dallas County’s courts are so backlogged that Sidney’s trial might not start until late 2019, and so he spends the summer at home, playing more 2K, watching his son, FaceTiming with a couple of Hillcrest Panthers. He stops talking about why he did what he did, or how he thinks his story will end.
This fall Sidney and I spend two weeks driving around East Dallas. He takes me to see the garage he slept in, to the apartments where he watched More Than a Game and to a series of concrete courts with netless hoops. He wants to show that he’s being mischaracterized. “Dallas is real-life crabs-in-a-bucket,” he says. “If you’re making your way to the top, you best believe every-body else at the bottom is trying to pull you back down.”
A big guy loiters outside a Quick Mart convenience store, and Sidney recognizes him as a former classmate (from his first go-round) who deals now. “Growing up here, it really is a home run or swing-and-miss-type thing,” Sidney says.
“At the end of the day I’m doing something that I know people out here aren’t getting the opportunity to do. A lot of people don’t even want the riches or fame—they just want somebody to listen to them.”
We get on I-30 and drive east from 64 Ferguson toward North Mesquite, Sidney’s first high school, where we walk by the concrete tunnel and under the giant painted horse—“that’s where I cried”—to hear echoes of rubber screeching on hardwood. Coach Randall blows his whistle at the varsity Stallions running suicides. “What’s up, man?” he asks Sidney. “You good? Y’all about to make a movie or what?” They catch up for the first time in half a decade, and the conversation eventually turns to Hillcrest. Randall looks at Sidney and says, “You’ve got some big balls.”
Sidney explains himself: “I got a son. I don’t want to do no street stuff; I don’t want to get deep into selling drugs, robbing and killing. I’m trying to show my brothers there’s more than just Dallas, Texas. . . . And now [the press] says ‘relive glory days’?”
The coach offers his support as sneakered feet thunder from baseline to baseline. “My friend who’s the head coach at Spruce,” he says, “his kids said, ‘[Rashun’s] got some grown-man strength.’ ” An assistant blows another whistle and Randall brings up the 14-year-old girl. “When I saw that,” he says, “I thought, Man, I hope that ain’t true.”
Sidney and his mother drive me out to see Old Sidney. Angela preps me on the way. “He has the gift of gab,” she says. “He’s entertaining. He can sell you anything.”
Inside a well-equipped apartment—plasma TV, top-end fridge—we sit on deeply cushioned leather sofas, alongside an unexplained hole in the drywall. “This is gonna sound crazy, but I was proud of him,” says Old Sidney, now 45. “Because of the passion, you know?” Old Sidney resembles his son, only skinnier, and he talks three times as fast. “I know me, and I know there’s gonna be some stuff in his DNA, my kind of wheeling and dealing. I don’t want him to get in trouble, but I like the strategy. I thought it was a well-thought-out plan.”
He riffs for more than an hour. Here he is on race in America: “I know that before we were slaves, we were kings and queens. We came from a land that yielded diamonds. [But our history] presented us as slaves, and excuse me when I say this—I started out in probably a king’s tribe, over in Africa, then I became a hostage, then I became a slave, then I became a n—–, then I became a black, and they still haven’t called me a human.”
And here, his advice to his son, sitting right next to him: “Fame is a bunch of hokeypokey. It’s a shuffle. The person that’s holding the camera is going to get the money—the producers, the business people. You’re just a highlight to draw in the eyeballs. But while you’re sitting there, get in the business part of the game. Because you’re not famous forever. . . . Not to glorify it, but I had a few girls I was pimping. In prostitution, the girls have a window. So while you’re into that game, you have to use that window to draw money and then have an avenue [to escape].”
The next day I meet the mother of Sidney’s 14-year-old accuser. She echoes the affidavit and describes the day she started to worry about Rashun. “I called Coach Harris multiple times to find out who [Rashun] is and what he was about,” she says. “Coach said he wouldn’t want his daughter to date him. He said, ‘He’s not a bad kid—but he’s had a lot of life. He’s almost like an adult.’ ” (Harris has said that Hillcrest ran background checks on Rashun. Harris and other officials declined to comment for this story.)
“I would look at [my daughter’s] phone log, and she’s up at two and three o’clock talking to him. She was so attached to this boy. . . . She said, ‘Oh, well, he might be a rapper [one day]—he might be famous.”
After the young girl learned she’d been dating a 25-year-old impostor, she became numb. “This new generation, they’ve become almost immune to people being different than they say they are,” her mother says. “They know people are different on the Internet than they are in person.” The mother talks about how gossip picked up at school when Sidney started discussing his stunt online, how her daughter cried about it for the first time. Her mom says she told her, “It’s not your fault.” Soon after, the girl transferred from Hillcrest.
The family had hired Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney who represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. His team is mounting a civil suit against the DISD, plus Hillcrest High’s registrar, basketball coach, athletic director and former principal, and Sidney. All of those parties “played an active role in allowing what’s called a ‘state-created danger,’ ” Crump says. He believes each one is responsible in failing to adequately vet a new student whose PlayStation username was Sidney Gilstrap, who openly shared his rap name, SynBou, and whose real initials were tattooed on his calves. “They put the rooster in the proverbial henhouse,” Crump says.
“This was a basketball team that took all walk-ons. To have [Sidney] show up was like having Michael Jordan or LeBron James show up at your high school. . . . They were excited about the possibility of city championships, and they chose to not dot any i’s or cross any t’s.” (In a letter to Hillcrest parents, the principal at the time, Chris Bayer, explains Sidney’s admission, citing the hurricane story and saying, “This is a unique situation that shows us areas that need improving when we open our doors to students in times of need.”)
Finally, Crump asks, “Have you watched the interviews? Bragging about it on YouTube? That’s unbelievable, man.”
One afternoon in Dallas, I meet a female student who sometimes volunteered for Hillcrest’s basketball team. The school has asked students not to talk to the media, but she wants to discuss her old classmate. She says her friendship with Rashun began when she took team pictures; she was 17 at the time, a junior. Rashun looked tall in his black sweatshirt, and he laughed when he saw the portrait she’d taken. “That is ugly.”
On the bus ride following one game Rashun sat behind her. Whenever she’d look forward, he’d tap her head with his finger, and when she turned to him, he’d turn around too. Soon enough they were laughing. In the hallway three days later he called her over to discuss something—but the bell rang and so he asked for her number instead. “And then,” she says, “his charming personality just came out.”
They started texting. He told her he wanted kids one day, and she told him he seemed different from other guys. She says he responded, “I’m not like these other boys.” They kept talking, and soon enough the cheerleaders and the girl players were gossiping about it.
Finally, over Thanksgiving break, the two showed up for a practice at the same time. They walked down an empty hallway together, toward the gym, and she says he put his arm around her. “We were just talking, and he looked at me,” she recalls. “And I looked at him because he’d stopped talking. And then he tried to kiss me, but I leaned away. He started laughing and then I started laughing awkwardly. Then we just walked into practice.”
Months later, Ben Crump’s legal team had come to her house. “I guess they already knew, but I wasn’t telling them,” she says. “If this does go to court, I don’t want to testify. I don’t want to be involved.”
On my last drive with Sidney we head to the patch of concrete in Everglade Park where he earned many of his nicknames. I ask him about the “glory days” headline and the ongoing criticism, and he says, “I’m happy about the attention but upset about how it had to come.” I protest: His girlfriend was hurt enough to kick him out of their apartment; a 14-year-old was so devastated by rumors (and possibly much worse) that she transferred schools; and now he may go to jail. Happy? “At the end of the day,” he says, “I’m getting what I worked for, what I want.”
What is it that? “Attention. With all of this social media presence, financial stability and the ability to provide for my family can come from this. . . . A lot of people have been hitting me up about my music. That’s money, right there. I got This American Life talking to me. ESPN. A movie could come from that. I can get on Dr. Phil or something. Get my story out that way and let them know what type of person I am.”
Sitting on bleachers next to an empty court, I ask about the team manager. Did you text with her for a bit? “Yeah.” Do you remember ever going in for a kiss? “No, I don’t remember that. . . . That stuff is what people today call ‘clout chasing.’ ”
He starts talking faster. “I’ve seen comments on YouTube where she was like, ‘I know him. I got pictures on Instagram of him. You can go to my Instagram and follow me and see those pictures.’ ” Sidney shows me screen grabs of those comments. “Come on, now. You know you’re clout chasing. You’re saying that because you want to be seen.”
“People are ignorant,” Sidney says, talking at three times his usual speed. “You decide now, when everything hits the news, to start making allegations? People are dumb. I have no respect for the human race, period—especially people in my area. My attitude is, like, eff Dallas. Most people in Dallas are clout chasers.”
He pivots to the 14-year-old. “You put me through all these charges, but that’s not what you’re really after. You’re after a check. You’re after you-don’t-want-to-work-no-more-type s—. I don’t want anybody coming up off my name. Especially somebody trying to get me to go to prison. I did this, and I don’t want them taking over my story. . . . I want [people] to know me for me.”
Sidney slows down, and we lean on the bleachers, looking out at the park, and I wonder if that’s what he really wants. Two guys, a little younger than Sidney, are now playing one-on-one. In the movie version of Sidney’s story he doesn’t face these questions. This would be the final scene. The two streetballers would throw him the ball, and he’d rub it unconsciously and levitate above them and drop 40 and fly into legend and out of East Dallas.
Instead, they warm up and I ask Sidney if he knows either of them. “No,” he says. “They don’t hoop.”
Lead photograph by Jeffery A. Salter/iStockPhoto/Getty Images (Background); Photo Illustration by SI PREMEDIA
Article written by Max Marshall #SportsIllustrated