At the corner of love and basketball

Brady Fontenot for ESPN The Magazine

Ross wasn't just a phenom at Milwaukee Tech High -- she was a celebrity.

This story appears in the June 11 Women in Sports issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

MALIKA WILLOUGHBY LOVED ROSALIND ROSS. She loved her from the moment she saw her, when Willoughby was only 14, playing summer league basketball, and Ross, 17, already a local star full of swagger, approached her and complimented her game. Ross told her she had potential, looked her right in the eye and smiled. After that, Willoughby was seized with a sense of recognition so jarring that she could not stop thinking about Ross, about how Ross made her feel and what that might mean.

Rosalind Ross loved Malika Willoughby too, but she was cagier. Three years older, raised in Milwaukee's rough Harambee neighborhood, Ross had seen some things. She'd heard her father talk about "faggots." Seen what happened to those kids, the ones who were different, like her younger brother Spencer, who played with her dolls and knew how to double-Dutch jump.

When Ross and Willoughby met, Ross had a boyfriend, Kevin. He and Ross later attended the prom, where she'd wear the third dress of her entire life and pose for the camera, smiling, head tilted, demure, the way she knew she was supposed to be. Kevin was handsome and kind, but he was not Willoughby. He did not make her laugh or cry. He inspired no feeling at all, not like Willoughby, young and beautiful and hungry for Ross in a way neither of them fully understood.

"I'm not gay."

"I'm not either."

So they told each other, even as they courted, exchanging passionate letters, then kisses that Willoughby said made her "lose her mind for two days."

"I love you."

"I love you too."

So they told each other, and no one else, knowing what would happen if they did.


BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Rosalind Ross was a radiant baby. The family charmer who quickly became the family poster child, the hope. The eldest child of two high school dropouts, reared in a neighborhood where crime was wallpaper and dreams were for dummies, Ross dreamed anyway. Mostly, she dreamed of basketball.

Brady Fontenot for ESPN The Magazine

Ross' WNBA dream never went further than this picture.

Tall, strong and attractive, with a wide, open face and cheekbones like switchblades, Ross stayed in school and out of trouble, devoting herself to making grades and mastering her court skills, which she told her parents would be "my ticket out."

A talented 5'9" guard, she played with monastic dedication, disregarding all temptation until the afternoon she spied Willoughby running down the court, all flop and fury, and broke into a grin so wide it hurt. Coyly, she suggested they play together, improve each other's game. "Okay," Willoughby agreed, mumbling, chin sunk to her chest.

From then on, the two teenagers spent every day and night together. "Best friends," they told everyone. "Sisters."

Ross taught Willoughby to drive. Told her she was beautiful. Gave her a ring. Before her senior season, Ross pulled her brother Spencer aside (also gay and then closeted to everyone but her), confiding that she "really liked Malika."

Spencer smiled.

"No," she repeated, her face flush. "I really like her."

These were the puppy love years: Ross and Willoughby alone in their bubble, planning their future in another, better world. Then one day, while going through her wallet, Ross' father, Willie, found a mash note from Willoughby. The bubble popped.

Willie was not reared to tolerate homosexuality. When Ross was a girl, Willie was the one who pinned her hair, ironed the creases in her slacks. The two had been tight as ticks, both larger than life, turning the attention in any room. "She was always the favorite," Spencer says with amicable resignation. "If we had a $100 budget for shoes, Rosalind's cost $80." Then Ross hit puberty, and with it, feelings unwelcome in Willie's home. The afternoon he discovered the letter, Willie confronted his daughter in a lather. The argument escalated, ending with Willie telling Ross she would have to leave home if she ever saw Willoughby again.

One month later, Willie found Willoughby sneaking away from the house. He demanded that Rosalind go with her.

"Growing up, my father was very hard on us," says Spencer. "He had so many expectations of Rosalind. After he kicked her out, she disassociated from him. They stopped speaking. He thought he was right."

Ross' mother, Pamela, did not share Willie's views but felt powerless to act. She could not choose between her husband and her daughter, and anyway, it was his house.

Ross, heading into her senior year, moved in with her grandmother, where she stayed until she left for college. She continued to see Willoughby. Rejected by members of their families, they became a family unto themselves. Us versus them, their bonds stronger for the adversity. "Like Thelma and Louise," Spencer recalls.

During this time, Ross persevered on the court, setting records and netting awards for Milwaukee Tech High School, her only weak games the ones against Willoughby's Washington High. "I didn't want to make her look bad," Ross would explain. Still, her father's rejection weighed on her. Spencer says he saw his sister "toughen up," felt "this wall she built." It was only with Willoughby that she softened. With her, Ross could relax, act giddy, let loose with what her teammates called her hyena laugh, a sound, says Spencer, "so crazy, all you could do was laugh too when you heard it." With Willoughby, Ross could be a girl.


MALIKA WILLOUGHBY DID not have a contagious laugh. Born into Dickensian circumstances, Willoughby was reflexively serious, controlled. Her mother, Rebecca Harp, a bus driver, was erratic, unforgiving, often depressed. Willoughby's father, Craig, an admitted crack addict, "came and went," she says. As such, Willoughby was frequently left to raise her younger sisters, one of whom was severely disabled with cerebral palsy. She cooked, cleaned, changed feeding tubes and diapers, socializing little, except with Ross.

Willoughby's mother hated Ross, an abhorrence that only intensified when she discovered the true nature of her daughter's relationship.

"I didn't raise no dykes!" she screamed at Malika. Harp blamed Ross for corrupting her baby. For taking advantage of a 14-year-old girl with no previous sexual experience. For confusing her.

But Willoughby did not feel confused. She felt, for the first time, loved: She could listen to the sound of Ross' voice and see a dream unfolding in her head, a life together.

Though she was under 5'8" and rail-thin, Willoughby nonetheless excelled as a point guard at Washington High. She was scrappy, determined. According to Pam Kruse, Willoughby's coach, Willoughby understood that basketball would provide a college education, not a career. She knew, Kruse says, she was not pro material.

After graduation, Ross headed to a junior college, Northeastern A&M in Oklahoma, where she led the Lady Norse in scoring. Ross made promises to Willoughby, still in high school, told her not to worry. But college was college. Ross was studying, practicing, playing, her hours full. Willoughby consoled herself by hanging out with Spencer in Harambee. "She was always wondering what Roz was doing," Spencer remembers. "She wanted to be more important than her academics and athletics. It became too much for Rosalind."

In 2000, after being named a juco All-American, Ross transferred to Oklahoma. Before she left, she told Willoughby that after nearly three years of unremitting companionship, she needed a breather.

Willoughby handled the news poorly. Ross later told several family members and friends that Willoughby jumped on a bus to Oklahoma armed with a bowie knife. She sought Ross out at her apartment and confronted her, accusing her of cheating. Ross talked her down. Not long after, amid the unanimous dismay of their respective families, Ross and Willoughby resumed their relationship.

By 2001, Willoughby had earned a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but she seemed miserable. Hoping a change of scenery would help, she transferred to Kent State. During that time she met with therapist Anna Campbell, who subsequently diagnosed Willoughby with Avoidant Personality Disorder, a condition marked by feelings of persistent inadequacy and extreme sensitivity to rejection. In a letter to Willoughby's mother, Campbell warned that it would be "very difficult for [Willoughby] to develop friendships."

The crime was intentional. Malika knew exactly what she was doing.
Belinda Huddleston, a former lover of Rosalind Ross

"When she came on at Kent, we were doing an open gym, and it was obvious she was talented but also very shy," recalls former teammate Jamie Rubis, 31. "But basketball was a common ground, and we became close."

Rubis, then a senior, mentored Willoughby. With her help, Willoughby was named captain in her second year and later tapped as one of five designated student-athletes to be featured on promotional posters hung throughout campus. In hers, she smiles sweetly, hair combed flat across her forehead, her eyebrows lifted high.

Rubis says she met Ross only once in those years, when Ross came to visit Willoughby on campus. "Malika did not tell anyone she was gay," Rubis says. "She told us they were close friends that grew up together." (Ross also remained closeted throughout college, believing the climate to be "unreceptive" to lesbian players, she told her mother.)

For a time, everything clicked. Willoughby was a Kent State role model with a promising future, and Ross had led Oklahoma to the 2002 national championship game, which helped make her a first-round pick of the LA Sparks. Later that year, Ross left for California, a few credits shy of her degree. There, she had dinner with Lisa Leslie. Fans kept approaching the table, which made Ross chuckle. It was improbable to her, so far removed from Harambee. Leslie told her new teammate: Just you wait, this will happen to you too.

Ross imagined. She would be a professional basketball player. She would live in Los Angeles. She would be famous, free. Ross laughed her hyena laugh, let herself believe.

But Ross had white-knuckled through years of chronic knee pain (and an undiagnosed torn ACL and other knee ligaments). When she arrived at Sparks camp injured, the team sent her in for medical tests. She needed surgery. Then rehab. A year later, she got devastating news.

She would not be a professional basketball player. She would not live in Los Angeles. She would not play a single pro game. Instead, she was cut loose. Adrift, Ross rushed to the only anchor she knew.


IN 2006, after Willoughby completed college, she and Ross, now in their mid-20s, moved back to Harambee. Ross took a job as a security guard for Briggs & Stratton. Willoughby looked for work, eventually finding it as a bank teller -- and then a manager. They set up house in a tiny apartment. They tried not to focus on what could have been.

Though her pro career was over, Ross remained a neighborhood star. Locals would solicit her attention, succumb to her charms. "Roz was a trophy to Malika," says Spencer. She was also threatened by Ross' status.

Not long after Ross moved home, Spencer recalls, she said that Malika was doing "crazy things. Hiding Roz's keys. Deflating her tires so she couldn't leave."

Ross responded to her lover's insecurity by lying. Then cheating.

"Roz was always playing around," acknowledges her mother, Pamela. "She had trouble saying no when people came after her."

Willoughby swore to friends that she didn't care, as long as Ross came home to her. But the relationship deteriorated. Tempers flared. Suffocated, Ross would walk out. Inconsolable, Willoughby would lure her back. And so it went. Willoughby and Ross parting dramatically, then reuniting, the pattern recurring countless times over the decade and a half they stayed involved, the separations never true, the pull of the other constant as gravity.

"Your first love, sometimes you never get over it," surmises Spencer. "Malika had never been with anybody else. She still had the fairy tale in her head."

During the last effort at reconciliation, Ross, now 30, was broke. She had part-time work at an inner-city children's home and as a basketball referee, but it was a far cry from the future she'd envisioned. "One more shot," Ross told her brother about starting up again with Willoughby.

It was 2010. The strain was showing on them both. Willoughby, 27, had taken to drinking heavily, carrying a flask even at home. Already lean, she grew skeletal. Ross slept alone on the couch of their condo, numbing herself with pot and video games. They quit having sex. They argued loud enough for neighbors to hear. Ross told friends she felt dead inside, that she needed to get out. Willoughby promised Ross a Chevy Avalanche if she stayed. Ross hated herself for not leaving. Willoughby hated herself for trying to buy affection.

Brady Fontenot for ESPN The Magazine

Roz's family feels the void that their beloved daughter once filled.

In February, Willoughby had purchased a weapon from Badger Guns; she wanted it "for protection," she said. She later upgraded to a more hand-friendly Beretta 84FS Cheetah .380 compact semiautomatic pistol, a light shot regarded for its easily accessible safety. Willoughby kept the pistol loaded under her and Ross' bed.

On the evening of Sept. 12, 2010, Ross' mother awoke from a nightmare in a sweat. She'd had a vision of Rosalind in a casket, dressed in a mustard sport coat. She called Ross, told her about the dream.

Her daughter told her to relax, that she "had it under control."

"She said she was planning on leaving Malika -- she just didn't know how," Pamela recalls.

Three days after her mother's vision, a little before 9 p.m., Ross' cellphone rang. It was, as ever, another woman.

"Who is that?" Willoughby asked, piqued.

They were in her used BMW, ordering dinner at the Popeyes drive-thru.

"None of your business," Ross snapped back.

"I pay your phone bills."

"Are you trying to front me off?"

Then the punching started. And yelling that could be heard by passersby on the street.

"I wish ... " Willoughby spat out, stopping short

.

"Wish what?" Ross taunted. "You hard? The gun is in the back."

And just like that, the dream Willoughby and Ross shared for 13 years collapsed on itself. In its place, a black hole of reality yawned open, a mirror held to the lie, and Willoughby, seized with despair, did the only thing she believed she could do to save herself. She killed the dream.

She killed it by taking the Beretta .380 compact semiautomatic pistol and firing a bullet into the left side of her lover Rosalind Ross' head.


PAMELA COLLINS, 51, still lives close to where she raised Rosalind and her brothers, Spencer, age 29, a Navy veteran and high school basketball coach, and Kenneth, 20, a tech-college student. The walls of the family home are covered with photos: Pamela vamping with her sister in '80s hair, wedding pictures of her and her husband, Willie, 53, older family portraits showing kin from generations back. The entire Collins and Ross clan is represented, but the bulk of the real estate belongs to Roz.

There are photographs of Ross as a schoolgirl in braids, snapshots with friends and class portraits, but these evergreens have been largely eclipsed by newer pictures, collages and poster boards donated by friends and family, assembled as tributes after her death. There are so many memorials and donations that photos have found their way into potted plants and coffee mugs, albums stacked thick on the table, haunting collateral too heartbreaking to curate.

Beside the dining table sits a floor-to-ceiling china cabinet chockablock with trophies, plaques and other evidence of Ross' high-achieving life. It is from this cabinet that Pamela retrieves the pack of Doublemint gum that her daughter was carrying the night she was shot. "You can see her blood on it," Willie says, wresting it from his wife's palm. He points at an indistinct splotch on the package, then delicately returns it to its place among the certificates and ribbons.

The family settles into the TV room. America's Funniest Home Videos plays at high volume. Spencer and Kenneth sit side by side, both dressed in snappy checked button-downs and well-fitted jeans, idly watching. Willie stands behind the couch, still wearing his leather jacket, restless.

Pamela points out Ross' rookie card with the Sparks. Then another photo album, this one from the funeral, which drew more than 1,000 attendees. "Roz was a cutup, a people person," Pamela says, her eyes glimmering. "Everybody loved her." Even the Harambee boys, who didn't seem to get the memo. "She would be at the barbershop getting a fade, and the guys there would try to pick her up," marvels Pamela, laughing.

"Rosalind had a fear of being alone," Spencer says, running his hands over his knees. "She would leave one relationship and go right into another. She was never just Rosalind. All her girlfriends knew about each other. One of them told me, 'We all knew our place.' But that doesn't make it right."

"You don't shoot someone for that," Willie interrupts, angrily. "If you shot everybody who played the field ... " He begins to stutter.

"I'm not saying that, Dad." Spencer sighs.

"Roz was all about helping people," Willie begins again, his voice loud, deep. "She'd bring home kids when she was still a kid herself, make sure they were fed and clothed. She'd show love to people nobody else would."

He exhales, his mouth slack. Kenneth reaches over, strokes his father's sleeve at the cuff. Spencer drops his head. Beneath his shirt, his chest rises and falls.

Later, Spencer will explain how his father's homophobia alienated him and Ross from the family. How to be gay in Harambee is to be "doomed to be bashed, abused." How when he was outed, by a lover five years ago, it was Ross who forced him to go back to the neighborhood court and endure whatever it took to regain his standing, something he achieved, he believes, only because he was Roz's little brother. He will talk at length about living for years on the down-low and his refusal to do it anymore, because in his gut he feels that if his sister had been able to come up in a culture of acceptance and security, if she had not had to view the world as us versus them, if she hadn't so ardently needed to prove her father wrong about the consequences of loving women -- Willoughby especially -- then she would still be alive, and his family would not be crammed together in that room, broken with imaginings.

He will say all of this and more, but for now he remains quiet, ignoring everything but the blaring television, canned laughter echoing off the cluttered walls of his parents' house.


OFTEN, FACTS AND truth don't have much to do with each other. So it is in all crimes of the heart, especially those involving secrets. In this case, there is a particular flavor of truth for every surviving family member, friend and former teammate leveled in the wake of ruin after Ross' death.

For Willoughby, the facts were simple: "She sold me a dream." So Willoughby wrote in a six-page, neatly lettered note to her mother nearly four months after she shot Rosalind Ross. The note starts, "Hey Mommie," and ends with palpable resignation, if not regret. "You has always been right when it came to Rosalind."

The envelope is sealed with a small penciled heart, "I love you" etched inside.

By all accounts, loving Willoughby's mother was no easy task, a volatile woman so divorced from reality that the day before her daughter's sentencing for the slaying she was making up Malika's room for her to come home. Willoughby chose not to correct her perception. There was, she told a friend, no point. (Willoughby declined to be interviewed. Harp could not be reached for comment.)

In her letter, Willoughby pleads with her mother for understanding and forgiveness, not for killing Ross but for loving her.

"I know you didn't want me to be gay and did not approve," she writes. "Mother, I loved her deeply. I wanted her to act like she loved me and most important I wanted to prove you wrong. I wanted you to see that Rosalind really did love me ... that it was meant to be. I wanted to show you that being gay wasn't going to stop me becoming somebody in life."

The letter goes on, providing both a motive for the killing ("It was like I couldn't get her out of my system. When we wasn't together I thought about her all day. And I was sad that she was with somebody else and loved them more than she loved me") and, possibly, an explanation for it. "She tells me she didn't mean to hit me and I believed her, mother."

"It's called Intimate Partner Violence," explains Michael Hart, Willoughby's attorney. Hart's team told the judge hearing the State of Wisconsin v. Willoughby case that its client had been "belittled, threatened, humiliated, lied to, controlled and slapped around by Roz."

They hired an expert, Liz Marquardt of the Sojourner Family Peace Center, to interview Willoughby and vouch for her credibility as an abuse survivor and to explain the intricacies of same-sex domestic violence, how it is often overlooked, especially among women, whom society views as equals. Hart also gathered testimony from friends who said they had seen Willoughby with black eyes and bruises.

"We went to lunch one day at McDonald's, and she told me about the abuse," recalls Rubis. The meal happened in 2009, when Willoughby was again living with Ross, by some accounts for the fifth time. Though Rubis "never observed anything" herself, she did hear from mutual acquaintances that Willoughby had reported to work with a "busted eardrum." Willoughby blamed basketball.

"I've played basketball my whole life," says Rubis. "I've never seen that happen."

In June 2010, Willoughby was treated for a bruised tailbone at Saint Joseph Hospital's ER. She would later attribute the injury to being battered by Ross. "She bruised her tailbone from playing basketball in the rec league," Spencer says flatly. "She went up for a rebound and she fell on her butt. I took her to the hospital after the game. To say Rosalind did that was a lie."

In court, the Milwaukee DA echoed the Ross family's rebuttals, detailing numerous instances of Willoughby's possessiveness and physical threats, almost all incited by Ross' talking to other women. Women like Ross' former lover, Belinda Huddleston.

Huddleston, 33, began dating Ross in February 2009. The IT tech and Ross saw each other privately for just over a year before deciding to stop. Huddleston had her first and only face-to-face encounter with Willoughby just after Christmas.

"It all started because Roz bought me a designer handbag, and I put it on my Facebook page," says Huddleston. After seeing the post on Ross' page, Willoughby went searching for Huddleston and Ross and found them visiting the Ross family home.

"I'll kill you," Willoughby said.

Huddleston didn't move.

"No you won't," Huddleston said calmly. "You're not stupid."

Ross saw what was happening, immediately ushered Huddleston into the house and called the police. Willoughby pounded on the door, then fled the scene.

By April 2010, Ross had broken it off with Huddleston for Willoughby, but the two stayed in contact. "Roz told me she thought it was going to work out this time because they had known each other for so long," Huddleston says.

It didn't. Early that August, Ross confided to Huddleston that she wanted to leave the state, that it was the only way to be free. She wanted to move to Oklahoma and invited Huddleston to come with her. Ross planned to earn her degree, then use her old basketball connections to land a position as a recruiter. She believed basketball could save her again, like it had all those years before.

Sept. 15, four days before she was due to leave Harambee, Ross departed Huddleston's house to break up with Willoughby for the last time. She assured Huddleston she'd be back for dinner.

Minutes before 9, a worried Huddleston called Ross. Ross answered from the Popeyes drive-thru.

"I could hear Malika in the background saying, 'Who is this? Who is this?' And Roz said, 'I'm going to have to call you back.' It was the last thing she ever said to me."

"The crime was intentional," she says, her voice thick with tears. "Malika knew exactly what she was doing."

She describes how Willoughby practiced shooting the gun on several occasions. How the weapon was no secret to Ross and Willoughby's circle. How both women spoke of it often, showed it around to friends and family like one would an engagement ring.

"It was never not loaded, as far as I knew," Huddleston recalls.


FOR ALL THE haziness in the testimony and postmortem of the case, exhibit one -- the West Silver Spring Popeyes exterior security surveillance tape -- distinguishes itself in its clarity.

The video, recorded from a camera mounted on a high post at the edge of the parking lot, begins with the most crushingly ordinary of activities. Cars and trucks cruising through, placing orders for chicken and fries, then driving to the pickup window. It is 8:50 p.m.

After a few moments, Willoughby's BMW pulls up to the electronic-menu kiosk, Ross at the wheel. The women are already fighting.

For more than a minute, Willoughby can be seen windmill-punching Ross -- an unhinged mania of fury almost comic in its expression, like something one would see in a Three Stooges skit. After a bit, she thrusts herself into the backseat and retrieves something from a book bag. Seconds later, Ross screeches the car forward, slamming the brakes to the right of the pickup window. It is 8:54 p.m.

Willoughby resolutely exits the passenger side, wearing a white shirt, straight-leg jeans, sneakers, a gun already in her hand. She is not frantic. She walks calmly to the back, where she pauses behind the right taillight and visibly adjusts the weapon.

She resumes walking to Ross' open window. Once there, she leans in and coldcocks her with the gun. Ross deflects the blow, and in less time than it takes to inhale, Willoughby forces the gun back through the window and fires a bullet into the left side of Ross' head, right behind her ear. It is 8:55.

Willoughby then draws back and begins bouncing around the parking lot like a boxer, her arms curved to her sides, flapping up and down. She jumps and paces, toes turned outward, stomping back and forth as if working a stage. Her face a rictus of confusion and horror, she returns to the car window. She flings opens the driver's-side door and tugs at Ross' body. She pulls and heaves, finally jerking Ross onto the pavement, where she thuds with chilling finality.

Willoughby squats over Ross' motionless torso, cradles her head. She shakes her hard, harder, then jolts up again, resumes the frenetic circling, manic adrenal terror animating her limbs. She walks toward the pickup window, pivots, tramps back to Ross, every step a jackhammer. She shakes her once more. She then retreats to the edge of the parking lot, right beneath the security camera, tilts her head up, oblivious, consumed, and opens her arms wide, eyes closed, chin to God. It is 8:57.

Willoughby has yet to call for help. Instead, she doubles over as if wracked by cramps, her waist folding in on itself, heaving. The cops arrive, alerted by the interior Popeyes security alarm activated after the shot was fired. They swarm the scene. Willoughby does not run.

Amid the chaos lies Ross, in the drive-thru lane. Long and lean. Dressed in her favorite outfit, black polo, black jeans, limited-edition black-and-red Nike Air Force 1s. Improbably static, emanating dignity in its stillness, the only calm amid a flood of loss.

"I wanted to make her stop. I was angry. But I didn't want to kill her."

This is what Willoughby told police after her arrest. Before she became hysterical, confused. Before she was medicated and put on suicide watch. Before she hired Michael Hart.

She told officers she didn't even know for sure if Ross was dead. Then she saw a coffee mug with the word "homicide" printed across it in black letters.

"That's when I knew she was gone," she told police.

A little more than a year after shooting the "only person I ever loved," as she told the court the final day of the hearing, Willoughby was sentenced to 13 years in prison, eight for first-degree reckless homicide and five for use of a dangerous weapon.

Her friend and teammate Jamie Rubis visited her the Saturday before she was sent away. To the end, Willoughby remained flummoxed.

"She was trying to understand how her life could change so quickly," Rubis says.


THE GRACELAND CEMETARY on North 43rd in Milwaukee is a vast, flat acreage with roads winding throughout the property. Willie drives, watching the headstones and monuments tick by. The windows are cracked, releasing the sounds of pop radio into the outside air.

"I do this every night," he says. "After my work shift at the foundry."

Willie brakes in front of a nondescript patch of grass, then gets out, walking cautiously between headstones until he reaches a flush bronze plaque with a single red carnation draped over the side.

"There she is," he says. He tries to smile, but his face trembles. "My baby girl."

He says hello, stares intently at the stone. In the center is a picture of Ross in a yellow tuxedo and boutonniere. Her hair is shaved tight. She looks comfortable, content.

"We were going to have her look more like a lady," Willie offers, "but this is the way she was. This is her."

He begins to cry, his voice rising, piercing the clear, empty space.

After a few minutes, he walks back to the car, his grief boiling to rage.

"I have to say good night to my daughter in a graveyard," he sputters, his head shaking back and forth as if watching tennis.

Inside the car, he talks about how he and wife Pamela used to drive to see Roz most days. Sometimes they would scream and holler. Other days they would sit from noon to midnight, chatting with their child. More than a few times, they slept by their daughter's side. Some friends grew concerned.

So much hurt. How could they go there?

It was the wrong question. When your child is in the ground, the only real question is how do you ever leave?

Later that night, at Red Lobster, his daughter's favorite restaurant, Willie does not pretend to be doing well.

"I had a bad moment this weekend. I wrote on my Facebook page that there is no God."

He is dressed in his grieving uniform: a T-shirt with screen-printed photos of Rosalind all over the front and back, "RIP" scrolled along the bottom. Willie has more than a dozen shirts in the same vein. One features Willoughby's mug shot and the words: "The woman who killed my daughter. Stone Cold Killer." In the winter, he switches to sweatshirts.

"All this hostility, it keeps coming up," he says. "I don't know what to do with it."

He refuses therapy or medication. "That isn't going to help me."

Instead, he screen-prints the shirts, attends stop-the-violence rallies and tries to forget the years he let slip away while Ross was alive.

"She said to me once: 'You told me to be who I am. And you can't accept who I am. What am I supposed to do?'"

It would be a decade before Willie and his daughter had more than a cordial relationship as adults. The gap haunts Willie.

"If I had known," he says, "I would have set myself right."

In 2009, at Pamela's insistence, Ross and her father met for a talk.

"We got everything out in the open," Willie says. "I had to sit myself down and say my love for my kids was greater than my problems with homosexuality." For Ross, it would prove too little, too late.

Willie orders another bottle of beer, pushes his salad cucumbers to the side of his plate.

"Every day I put a mask on. There is this song, 'Champagne Life,' by Ne-Yo. She loved that track. I hear that and I break."

He talks about how when he saw his daughter's body at the morgue, he noticed some knots in her hair. He wanted them combed out, the way he had done when she was young. Neat and pretty.

"And the funeral director told me the knots were actually interior bumps from where the bullet ricocheted around her skull."

Willie takes a long gulp of beer.

"If they had a camera set up in Malika's jail cell, I would watch it 24 hours a day," he says, eyes dark. "It would be the only thing I did."


IT IS AN unusually clear day in downtown Milwaukee, and the West Silver Spring Popeyes is doing a brisk business when the Ross family drives past.

The family does not make a habit of visiting the scene of the crime. At the same time, the restaurant sits right outside their neighborhood, on the corner of two main drags between other common stops. The landmark is unavoidable. They can't not see it.

A few blocks away, kids are shooting hoops on the same court where Ross honed her skills. The sun is glaring. A stiff breeze blows forgotten winter leaves across the park.

Pamela looks at the children, remembers her daughter. How she would play with the men. How when she grew older she gave pointers to the other kids. One time, she saw a boy shooting with a beach ball.

"She gave him her basketball," Pamela says with a slow nod.

Savoring the memory, she allows herself a small smile. It feels good, looking at the court, imagining her child there, alive and in flight, doing the thing she loved most, a crowd gathered to drink in her irrepressible blend of magic.

The people who know her say that once Malika Willoughby met Rosalind Ross, she never had another romantic relationship. They say that even now she has a photograph of the two of them in her cell.

Willie drives past the park, turns onto the highway that bisects their neighborhood.

"I told Malika once, 'Don't hurt my baby girl,'" he says quietly, inching into the flow of traffic.

"You know what she said? 'Mr. Collins, I love Roz.'"

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

Related Content

Around the Web