On a late November night in the private dining room of a California restaurant, friends and loved ones of Jumoke Horton, a gentle giant of 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, whose only meanness showed when he chased down rebounds or blocked shots on a high school basketball court in Alaska or on a college court in California, gathered for three hours.
They talked until they ran out of words. They cried until they ran out of tears, speaking of the big man's unique path through life as a star basketball player, ferry boat captain on San Francisco Bay, music lover, and such a good friend to all.
"He was a great person, a great teammate," said Brian Driscoll, a college teammate and the one who rented the dining room. "He had a heart of gold."
The athletes and others who loved Horton poured out their hearts and exchanged their thoughts, but not one of them walked away with the answer to the question about what brought them together: Why?
Late in the evening of Nov. 18, Horton, the oh-so-diverse man of wide interests who loved his job and was surrounded by people who cared for him, committed suicide. Sitting in his own truck, using his own handgun, on a dark and lonely street near Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, Jumoke Hayward Horton killed himself at age 35.
From the moment on that nightmare of a night when Horton sent a half-dozen emails to close friends announcing his intentions, triggering a massive search for his whereabouts, the man who brought so much joy to so many led those same people along a grief-stricken path to a sad dead end.
Jumoke Horton grew up in Anchorage, and from the time he was a tyke he had a winning smile that made those around him feel comfortable.
He was the only child of Patricia Muldrow Roberts, who taught him to love music -- from jazz and rhythm and blues, his mother's favorites, to the Beatles, Gypsy Kings and Anita Baker. He never went anywhere without a bag full of CDs.
His father Benny, who predeceased him, was not a presence in the boy's life, but Horton called one of his mother's friends "Dad." His grandmother, the late Marie Muldrow, a long-time Anchorage school teacher, also played a significant role in his upbringing, and when she died in the early 1990s, Horton's entire high school basketball team attended the funeral.
Horton was not a gym rat, but he liked basketball and emerged from being an anonymous high school kid to gain attention in the Anchorage athletic world through the sport. He was no more passionate about hoops than music, but he was smart enough to realize the game could take him somewhere.
"He resented being thought of only as a jock," said his mother. "He knew sports was a way to get a scholarship."
Horton attended West High, but after three years he made a fateful decision. In 1991, he transferred to East High to play for legendary coach Chuck White.
"I wanted to experience a state championship and I wanted to get exposure to Division I coaches," Horton said at the time.
It was the perfect match. East was a powerful team, about to make a splash on the national scene with sophomore Trajan Langdon, later an NBA pro, and the team was loaded with guards.
"Jumoke was the ultimate piece that took East from being good to a national contender," recalled Mark Schweigert Colbert, a member of the team who now lives in Arizona.
By the harsh standards of how big men are judged, Horton was dismissed as "soft." He was immense but did not possess a sculpted body. However, in the first months after enrolling at East, Horton embarked on a devoted training program. Assistant coach Louis Wilson, now assistant coach at Cal State-Northridge, volunteered to help Horton in "The Breakfast Club."
"But we didn't eat breakfast," Wilson said.
Horton set his alarm clock for 5 a.m. and day after day, week after week, right through the snow of October and early November, Wilson picked him up at his home. With Wilson driving about 3 mph, headlights bright to show the way, Horton ran in front of the car for five miles, carrying weights in each hand.
"He worked his guts out," Wilson said. "I'll never forget it."
Wilson saw the uncommon dedication, but he also saw the same traits in Horton that others saw later.
"What a sweet-spirited man," Wilson said. "He was such a lovable dude."
Opponents were misled by Horton's size, figuring he was a clumsy big man, until the whistle blew. Horton's secret weapon was being light on his feet.
"He was a lot more mobile than people thought," said White. "He was a big presence. He was the cement."
The T-birds won the state championship and many honors came their way. Horton was named to the All-Region all-star team and first-team All-State. Five players went on to play college basketball, Langdon at Duke, Colbert and Greg Harton at Southern Utah, Tayon Turner at Seattle University and Horton at St. Mary's University of the West Coast Conference. The Bay Area became Horton's home for the rest of his life.
ST. MARY'S As a freshman for the Gaels in the 1992-93 season, Horton got into 27 games and averaged 6.3 points and 3.9 rebounds. Not a bad result for a rookie. But Horton and his coaches, head man Ernie Kent and assistant Silvey Dominguez, knew there was more skill waiting to bust out.
Dominguez, now an assistant coach at Lamar University in Texas, developed a special bond with Horton, working overtime with him. He said Horton burned to succeed, but was a sensitive man and seemed to be somewhat of a loner.
"He was always a kid who was searching for help in life," Dominguez said. "I'd give him attention, but he kept to himself. He seemed afraid to be successful. The potential was always there, but there was something in the way."
Yet Horton improved every year. If there was still baby fat on his body when the big man transferred from West to East, no one at the college level ever saw it. His weight dropped to the high 280s and his biceps bulged. As a sophomore, Horton averaged 7.3 points and 5.0 rebounds and knew he was on his way to greater things after intensive weight lifting.
In his junior year, Horton averaged 10.3 points and 6.2 rebounds. His senior year he averaged 12.3 points and 9.1 rebounds. Both seasons he was selected first-team All-West Coast Conference.
Off the court, Horton made enduring friendships. A.J. Rollins was a four-year teammate and close friend. Reggie Steele was a two-year teammate, a one-year college roommate, a co-worker on the ferry boats, and he lived less than two blocks from Horton's Oakland apartment during the last years of his life.
"He was somewhat of a mentor for me," Steele said of the time when he transferred to St. Mary's from junior college.
Once Horton headed to St. Mary's, he rarely visited Alaska. His mom, who married and moved to Texas in 1996, says he spent only one summer in Anchorage after starting college. Horton worked summers in San Francisco with the Blue & Gold Fleet, a tourism company that takes customers on hour-long rides on San Francisco Bay for $23. He started as a part-time deckhand and eventually earned the rank of captain, steering the 100-ton vessels through the choppy waters to Alcatraz. The jolly captain was as big as the popular sea lions he pointed out to tourists.
Monica Andrade and Horton met as St. Mary's freshmen. They became instant pals, but not boyfriend and girlfriend. "I'm not a groupie," Andrade said she told Horton. "I'm your friend." After college, however, they became romantically involved. The romance ebbed and flowed, but they remained close.
Andrade said she and Horton talked of marrying if they didn't find someone else by age 40. "I was always in love with him," she said.
In a photograph, Horton is standing behind Andrade, who looks more than a foot smaller and half Horton's width. They are smiling at the camera and it seems as if his arms can wrap around her twice.
After college, when opportunities to play basketball overseas fizzled, Horton progressed with the Blue & Gold Fleet. He was a popular figure at Pier 39. Going bald young, Horton grew a thick beard that dazzled the ladies. His white captain's uniform shirt with black epaulets made him look as distinguished as any Navy man.
Friends adore a photograph of Horton in which he is sitting in a ferry wheelhouse, in uniform, beaming, eyes aglow. He looks like the happiest man in the world. "He is in his element," said his mother.
Thirsting for challenges, Horton took up martial arts and yoga and experimented with new foods -- his favorite was Vietnamese. He got a part-time job as a bouncer at the door of the Missouri Lounge, self-described as "the most elegant dive bar in Berkeley."
In the early 2000s, Rollins said, Horton toyed with the idea of a basketball comeback. They worked out with St. Mary's players and Horton developed, of all things, a three-point shot, a weapon he never employed in high school or college.
"When he did something, he went 100 percent," Rollins said.
Rollins, who moved inland to Sacramento, said the last time he saw Horton was Sept. 15. He brought his 2-year-old son Aiden to the docks and Horton hailed him. "He gave me a big hug," Rollins said.
On Nov. 17, a Tuesday, Horton piloted the Harbor Emperor ferry during his 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift. Steele worked as a deckhand and said they talked for three hours that day.
"There was a lot on his mind," Steele said. "I knew he was sad. He said he hadn't been happy for a long time. But there was nothing to cause alarms or flags to go up."
The next day, they both reported for the same shift again, Horton working as a deckhand with Steele. They talked basketball and decided to check Lamar's schedule to see if Dominguez would be nearby this winter. "We should see Coach D," Horton said. They were making future plans.
A few hours later, Horton was dead.
About 8:45 p.m. on Nov. 18, Horton sent an email to a small group of friends. It was essentially a suicide note. It thanked people for their friendship by name, expressed anger about others, not by name, and told his friends not to blame themselves.
The note triggered a frantic chain reaction. Friends called friends. Andrade and Steele sprinted to their cars and began searching places that Horton frequented. Some friends met at Horton's apartment building and called the Berkeley and Oakland police departments to report him as a missing person "at risk."
"I was just trying to wrack my brain where to go," Steele said. He pointed his own vehicle to the waterfront because he knew Horton loved the water.
Andrade went to the Missouri Lounge. That's where she was when the Oakland police called to verify the license plate on a truck. "I knew he was gone," she said.
The Oakland police report says Horton was found inside his 2002 Chevrolet Silverado extended cab pickup truck in the 4400 block of Piedmont Avenue, near the front of the Chapel of the Chimes Funeral Home. Friends said Horton ended his life in a vehicle that was like a second home, overflowing with possessions, including his CDs.
Police said Horton shot himself in the head with a .40 caliber Desert Eagle semi-automatic handgun properly registered to him. Initially investigated by the homicide division, it was quickly ruled a suicide.
Andrade telephoned Patricia Muldrow Roberts in Harker Heights, Texas. Roberts' screams upon being told her son was gone still echo in Andrade's ears.
It was the first of many phone calls. Horton's friends reached out to one another with the news of his death.
"I was just devastated," said Dominguez. "He was one of my favorite kids."
Steele, who spent so much time with Horton during the last two days of his life, saw no hints of an impending dramatic act. "I've relived every minute," Steele said. "I couldn't come up with anything. It's going to be one thing that haunts me."
A memorial service was held Nov. 25 at Whitted-Williams Funeral Home in Oakland. Andrade rooted through a box of ticket stubs, newspaper clippings, St. Mary's media guides and an old Horton St. Mary's jersey she said was as large "as a table cloth" to illustrate Horton's basketball career. A slide show of Horton's life was shown.
Hundreds of people attended, overflowing the chapel, the hallways, and spilling onto the street outside the building. There were whites and blacks, old people and young ones, a cross-section of the many people Horton touched. The Blue & Gold Fleet allowed about 50 people to ride one of its boats out on San Francisco Bay and in seafaring tradition they threw a wreath onto the waters.
As November turned to December, the Missouri Lounge threw a fund-raiser for his mom. People wore white T-shirts with Horton's name in black lettering and a picture of him. Photographed from behind, it appears that Horton is looking out at a limitless horizon.
At the memorial service, a stranger approached Roberts and handed her a note to be opened later. Days later in Texas, a numb and grieving mother read it. The writer said she worked with Horton and when she left for an emergency family leave he was solicitous, helpful and kind. She said she wanted to let Roberts know what type of person she raised: "An exceptional man."
One of several remembrance sites on the Internet contains 469 pictures. Roberts looks at them often. She also talks regularly to Andrade. Andrade said when male friends compared notes about Horton's recent behavior, they saw no differences. But the women sensed changes. Andrade said the always-courteous Horton pushed her away a bit, failing to return phone calls, failing to respond to emails quickly, failing to appear at an event he knew was special to her.
"We saw a drastic change toward the end of his life," Roberts said. "For a lack of a better word, he became more closed to those who could read him."
When Roberts worried aloud to friends, they assured her he was a 35-year-old man living his own life. "What if I would have pushed harder?" she asked.
A month after Horton's suicide, after attending the restaurant gathering, the memorial service, and reading and hearing condolences, Roberts was still dazed.
"You never think that your kid is so sad that he would want to leave," she said. "I feel like I am in the middle of a (television) program that I can't turn off. It's surreal."
The New Year will not bring immediate relief. In January, there will be one last Jumoke Horton get-together in the San Francisco area. A group will quietly slip out onto the Bay on another boat to scatter his ashes.
On that day, Roberts, Andrade, some of the old St. Mary's basketball players and a few other friends will hope that their favorite lion of the sea will send a signal to them as they say a final goodbye without truly knowing the answer as to why.
By LEW FREEDMAN
Special to the Daily News
Alaska Dispatch Publishing