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Neighborhood Mourns Its Loss, Celebrates 2 Lives

Emotional gathering precedes funeral for slain basketball coach and his friend.

March 29, 2003|Michael Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

The Clippers, a fast and feisty basketball crew of 14- and 15-year-olds, were having a terrific year, bounding up and down their court at a Watts park, heading toward a city tournament.

Then, on Feb. 22, their coach, Salim Dawson, 22, took a bullet in his heart and died on a Watts street corner, blocks from where his Clippers played.

Rushing to take over the team was Marcus Tonodeo Jr., another 22-year-old with a tankful of youthful exuberance. Though shaken, the team was reborn with Tonodeo at the helm, winning its first tournament game, losing the next.

But then, on March 17, Tonodeo and friend James Demitrius Coleman, 27, were gunned down in daylight as they drove to an auto mechanic in one of the city's most violent neighborhoods.

"Those basketball kids, they were destroyed," said a crying Brenda Tonodeo, the slain coach's mother. "Just like me. Just like everybody who knew Marcus."

On Friday, in a standing-room-only church in Watts, funeral services were held for Tonodeo and Coleman, known as Baby Marcus and Big Meechie. The families, basketball players and more than 800 others gathered to, as one mourner put it, "celebrate a home-going."

Police say the victims may have been mistaken for gang members. Dawson, police and family members say, also was not a gang member.

"We've buried two good kids," said Blanchard Roberts, 43, a family friend, at the funeral. "They say they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But any time around here is the wrong time."

Marcus Tonodeo Sr. held his inconsolable wife as he talked about his son.

"He was, oh, man, he was a sweet son with a great personality," said Tonodeo, 42, a plumber. "He'd jump to help anyone. My son only got a little piece of life, but he made the most of his years here."

His son would have been 23 on Wednesday. On that night, anyone driving by the corner of Colden and McKinley avenues probably thought a block party was going on.

And there was.

More than 300 people were throwing a birthday bash for Marcus Tonodeo Jr.

The people of this well-kept neighborhood, where the sense of community runs generations deep, even though the crime rate runs high, had come to honor the lives of Tonodeo and Coleman.

Minibikes that Tonodeo repaired for neighborhood kids screamed up and down McKinley. Footballs soared. Hennessy cognac flowed. Smoke billowed from 50-gallon-drum barbecues. Hip-hop pulsed from 8-foot-high speakers. Elderly ladies, a few in wheelchairs, told tender stories about Baby Marcus and Big Meechie.

"There's big love here tonight, but we should be doing this for someone getting married, not for someone who passed," said Larry Honore, 45, whose niece Nichole recently gave birth to Tonodeo's son, Marcus III. "We have enough wars going on. We shouldn't be having a war here."

Tonodeo was special to the kids near the corner of McKinley and Colden. Tonodeo had recently bought minibikes for his 11-year-old brother, Xavier, and himself.

"Marcus would fix my minibike and make it go faster," said neighbor Gary Winters, 11, as he nervously chewed on a yellow straw. "He was like another big brother to me. He taught me how to ride. But he made sure I didn't get hurt."

Tonodeo, a recreational aide at 99th Street Elementary School, and Coleman, who worked at Hollywood Park Casino, were often together.

Twelve days ago, the two were driving at 12:30 p.m. when another car approached at 88th Place and Wall Street. Two men, armed with assault rifles, opened fire, quickly killing Coleman. Tonodeo tried to run. He was chased and knee-capped. Then the assailants, apparently gang members, stood over him, riddling his body with bullets.

"They need to go round up all these gangbangers that want to shoot people and send them off to Iraq," said Elizabeth Taylor, a family friend. "If you can't go out at 12 o'clock in the afternoon, when can you go out?"

Police have yet to make any arrests. Anyone with information on the killings can anonymously call (213) 485-6902.

"This was an unusually vicious killing, for no apparent reason," said Los Angeles Police Department homicide Det. Chris Barling. "There is nothing at all to suggest the victims were personally targeted. They weren't gang members. It's just so horrible for the kids. They just lost another coach."

The future of the Clippers is unknown.

One of them, Michael Mathis, 14, leaned against a fence and spoke quietly about his coaches. He was nearly drowned out by the giant speakers.

"Salim motivated us and Marcus was a good friend, but, man, he hardly had any time with us," he said. They have two games remaining this season and James Dawson, Salim's father, has taken over as coach.

"They want to play the rest of the season out," said Dawson, 52, who called Salim the perfect son. "After Salim was shot, they were really down. But after Marcus died too, it was like the team was in shock. It seemed liked they just couldn't accept it."

As darkness fell on Wednesday's celebration, a large poster board with Baby Marcus' picture in the center was placed under a small spotlight in a frontyard. Surrounding the image of a grinning Marcus were scores of signatures and farewells.

A little 7-year-old boy, Bashie, scribbled his name on the poster and stared at the picture.

"He was my friend and my cousin," Bashie said. "He was always playing with me. Mister, I'm really sad. But, it makes me feel kinda happy to see his picture."

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