CHAMPAIGN – Ronnell Oglesby vividly remembers the first time he met Jonathon McPhearson, an outgoing boy who was on the same bus when the two went to Franklin Middle School together.
“He was funny and talked to everyone,” said Oglesby. “He made a joke and asked my name.”
Mr. McPhearson, nicknamed JO, was easy to like, said Friends, an outgoing boy who had friends from all backgrounds and ages in Centennial High School, where he was a junior. Friend Attix Smith said he was the kind of kid who would help students who were bullied at school.
On Thursday afternoon, the 17-year-old was shot dead by a group of masked shooters on the 1500 block on West Kirby Avenue near the International Prep Academy.
“It picks me up to think about it, but he was just a good boy,” said Josh Sterling, Centennial’s freshman basketball coach who had met Mr. McPhearson over the years even though he never played for the team. “I’m not saying that he was perfect or that he didn’t have his struggles. But he wasn’t the kid trying to hurt someone outside.
“He was about his family, about his friends, he was about basketball. He just wasn’t the kid I know some people think was because of what happened. “
Sterling always had to plan the schedule for Mr. McPhearson when he was training at Jefferson Middle School. He played the game daily, his friends said, and although he couldn’t get permission to play in the first two years of high school, Sterling and Deante Cousett, who coached him with Franklin, said he was trying to improve his grades enough to play this winter.
“He had great athletic skills and was a great person,” said Cousett after friends and family honored him by shooting balloons in the sky at the location of the shooting. “Everyone loved him. JO was just unique.
“Everyone wanted to play with JO, not just because he was skilled, but because he enjoyed the game. Knowing that it’s not about winning, but building those relationships, I think this was the most important thing that JO brought to the table.
On Thursday, his mother, Latasha Clayborn, said she approached her son in her car to pick him up and was nearby when he was fatally shot.
“I spoke to JO 20 times a day,” she said. “His last call was me.”
Centennial students were shaken on Friday, Sterling said, but Mr. McPhearson’s influence extended beyond his school.
“They had some eighth graders at Jefferson who’d burst into tears because they knew who he was, because they played basketball and were in the courts,” Sterling said. “I had a kid who said he pulled him aside and showed him how to use his left hand with a specific movement, and that’s how he met JO. That’s the kind of kid he was.”