Beulah Osueke was sleeping in the early-morning hours of June 12, 2016, when her phone pinged with a text message.
“It was a member of the boys’ basketball team asking if I’d heard what happened to Akyra, and if it was true,” Osueke, the girls’ basketball coach at West Catholic Preparatory High School, recalled.
The player was referring to Akyra Murray, a basketball standout at West who graduated earlier that month. Murray had been on vacation in Orlando, Fla., with her family, celebrating her graduation. She, her cousin and a friend had gone out that Saturday night to dance at Pulse Nightclub.
Osueke called Murray, whose voicemail picked up, and then contacted her father.
“He confirmed that they didn’t know where she was, they were looking for her,” Osueke said. “They thought she escaped the club, didn’t have her phone on her or was in the hospital somewhere.”
As news spread Sunday of the mass shooting at the club, Osueke stayed in touch with Murray’s family while they continued to search. It wasn’t until the next day that her father learned that his daughter was one of the 49 victims who died in the attack. She was the youngest of the victims.
“I had my emotional response,” Osueke remembered, “and then my assistant coach just came to get me and I told her to go to West. We started calling all the players and they all came to the gym and sat and reminisced and shared memories. It was very emotional.”
Parents, teachers and school counselors joined the team, and together the group attended a vigil held that evening for Murray and the other victims at Philadelphia City Hall. Murray’s skill on the basketball court was recalled at the vigil, including by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who said he had seen Murray play.
The 18-year-old point guard was honored earlier last year for scoring 1,000 points for the Lady Burrs team. Murray transferred to West the previous year.
Unlike many high-school basketball programs, West’s basketball players operate year-round, with just a two-month break in the spring.
“It’s pretty intense. They’re doing study hall, lifting weights, playing games and still going to class. But Akyra was excited about the opportunity,” Osueke said. “Even though it was a lot, she really embraced the work and stepped into a leadership role.”
Despite the intense basketball schedule, Murray kept up her academics, earning honors and graduating third in her class.
She received a full athletic scholarship to Mercyhurst University, which she was set to start at the end of the summer.
“A lot of the conversations we had were about what she wanted to accomplish in her basketball career and professionally,” Osueke recalled. “A lot of the lessons learned through wins and losses were about building character, developing who they are after high school. We planted a lot of seeds in her, and she was doing her job nurturing them. And that was all cut short.”
The loss has been tough for the entire West community, particularly the basketball team, Osueke said.
Getting back to their off-season workouts after the shooting last summer was a challenge.
“There was a lot of pain,” she said. “They’re kids. For some of them, this was the first time they lost someone that close to them. And I think what was worst was how public it was; especially with social media, any time they’ve tried to live their lives, there’s a constant reminder.”
When school resumed, Osueke brought in two local counselors who held two sessions with the teens, which she said were very fruitful.
“The kids closest to Akyra were able to express themselves, and those who didn’t know her at all learned about how they could support their teammates through their healing,” she said. “After the second session, I really noticed a different atmosphere.”
The Lady Burrs sought to keep Murray’s name alive this past season, which they dedicated to her. They wore shirts with Murray’s initials and her basketball number, 20, for special games, including their first league game and when they played the team from Murray’s former school. They also wore black AM20 bands on their jerseys every game of the season.
To mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting, West will host the Akyra Murray Memorial Game June 12 at the school. Twenty of the top girls’ basketball players in the city will participate. At halftime, Murray’s family will be presented a ceremonial plaque and basketball, as well as a jersey from the Philadelphia 76ers dedicated to Murray.
“We want to acknowledge her work, her dedication and the time that she put into this program as the foundation of what we do,” Osueke said.
THE WEST CATHOLIC LADY BURRS IN THEIR AKYRA MURRAY MEMORIAL SHIRTS AT THE SEASON OPENER
It was Murray’s involvement in the program that many credit with its growing success.
The year before Murray transferred to West, the Lady Burrs didn’t win a single game. The team won five her first year with them and 10 her senior year.
This year, the Lady Burrs claimed 16 victories, advancing to the second round of the Philadelphia Catholic League tournament for the first time since 2000. The team took the District 12 City Championship title for the third consecutive year and advanced to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association State Quarterfinals for the first time in school history.
“We’re attracting better players now. And none of them would have considered West if it wasn’t for Akyra’s leadership here,” Osueke said. “It speaks to who she was as a person that all of these other players looked to her and followed her. She didn’t let that give her a big head, though; she was selfless in what she felt she had to do for the team, on and off the court.”
Since her death, Murray’s successes have been held up as inspiration for other young athletes and students. But, Osueke noted, it’s also important to remember the challenges Murray overcame to accomplish all that she did.
“In a lot of the news stories about Akyra, they talked about how she was an amazing student and an amazing athlete, and a lot made it sound like it just came naturally. I want people to know it was definitely a struggle,” Osueke said, noting that, since Murray’s passing, she’s questioned the tough standards she set for her.
“We had a great relationship but at times I was rough on her. I’ve found myself asking, Did I go too hard on her? Did I push her too much? But I don’t think I did because she was able to respond every time. There were definitely days where she would second-guess herself, doubt herself and then she would get herself out of that.”
Osueke said she plans to keep invoking Murray’s perseverance when working with other youth who are striving to meet their potential.
“For as long as I work with youth, I will use Akyra as an example of what can happen if you’re able to persist. Without the struggles, she wouldn’t have been the person she was. We often talk about superstars, people like Oprah, who persisted, but those people aren’t known, they’re not within reach of our kids, especially in Philly. Akyra is someone who is within reach. She wasn’t a superstar millionaire, but she was successful in her own right. I want to keep letting people know that. None of us want Akyra to be forgotten.”