• April 20, 2024

‘He Was Our Dreams’: A College Basketball Star’s Wrenching Death

Frank Knight spotted the crowd around the tall, skinny boy with the big head before he noticed Oscar Frayer himself.

Frayer was a sixth grader attending Knight’s basketball camp, but even at that young age, he radiated magnetism. “Everybody wanted to be with him on his team or a part of whatever he was doing,” said Knight, the boys’ basketball coach at Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, Calif., about 20 miles southeast of Oakland.

Frayer’s charisma held its power through middle school and high school, all the way to Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, where he quickly became a star player and led the men’s basketball team to its first N.C.A.A. tournament appearance, in March. He was occasionally sidetracked on this journey, friends and coaches said, but he righted himself through a network of mentors and coaches and the devotion of his mother, Bionca Sparrow.

He finished his final class at Grand Canyon, principles of public relations, in February and earned an A. He hoped that his success in becoming the first man on his mother’s side of the family to finish college would establish a path for his young nephews and nieces to emulate. Coaches took to calling him The Graduate.

“I’ve never seen him happier than he was those last three weeks when he had met all the graduation requirements and he knew he was going to graduate,” said Brian Mueller, Grand Canyon’s president.

Three days after Grand Canyon lost in the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament, with graduation ceremonies a few weeks away, Frayer, 23, returned home to Northern California to visit his family and friends.

Near Lodi, about 40 miles south of Sacramento, two California Highway Patrol officers had stopped to assist a disabled tractor-trailer on Interstate 5 at around 2:30 a.m. Frayer was in a Subaru S.U.V. on the interstate with his sister, Andrea Moore-Frayer, 28, and Caley Bringmann, 21. The S.U.V. veered off the highway, slammed into the back of the patrol car, struck a tree and erupted in flames. Frayer, Moore-Frayer and Bringmann were killed. The two officers were transported to a hospital with serious injuries.

The authorities have not disclosed the cause of the crash or the name of the S.U.V.’s driver.

Accidents that take promising young lives are all too common. But for Frayer’s family and friends, his death hit particularly hard because he had just begun finding his way in life, as a basketball player and a young adult. He had made an impact at two schools and in two communities because of basketball, and had made the most of a second opportunity after, for a time, losing his way.

“A lot of people, kids younger than him and also his peers, looked up to him and liked seeing that it was possible to achieve all these goals on the basketball court,” said Brandon Lawrence, who started playing with Frayer in the fourth grade. “In the Bay Area alone, basketball culture out here is very big, and it creates communities and connects people out here. Oscar, time in and time out, accomplished goals that not everyone was doing. He was a hometown hero.”

Talk to anyone about Frayer, and the first thing they mention is his smile.

Electric. Infectious. Every time you saw him, he showed all of his teeth. You felt his presence.

“You were always going to get an emotion out of him, and he was going to get emotion out of you,” said Bryce Drew, the Grand Canyon men’s basketball coach.

In high school, the emotion he evoked was excitement. A.A.U. coaches helped steer Frayer, and in 2012, he joined Knight’s team at Moreau Catholic.

“Once he decided he was coming, at least seven other kids decided to come, too,” Knight said. “And they were all really, really good.”

The school had had just one winning season in its previous eight. Other schools had more acclaim and churned out more college-ready players. Frayer and the three other freshmen who started on varsity hoped to build a new legacy. On the court, Frayer could do it all. He played every position, showcasing his athleticism and defense.

“What we were trying to do was: ‘Oscar, if you can survive Catholic school, if you can survive this academic rigor and figure out how to navigate here, you will be able to navigate anywhere,’” Knight said.

Moreau competed for championships each of Frayer’s four years and transformed into one of Northern California’s best high school teams.

“I can say, from us going to Moreau, at the end of our senior year, there was an increase not only in the amount of people going to school, but also students who were of color,” said Lawrence, who was one of Frayer’s fellow freshman starters.

For college, Frayer originally committed to California but later reopened his options. Dan Majerle, the former Phoenix Suns player, had become Grand Canyon’s coach, and he contacted Knight, saying that he wanted to build around Frayer. Majerle and Frayer developed a strong rapport, and Frayer felt at home on the Phoenix campus.

Grand Canyon is a close-knit Christian university. Enrollment has increased from nearly 1,000 students in 2008 to an anticipated 25,000 this fall. Jerry Colangelo, the former owner of the Phoenix Suns and U.S.A. Basketball chairman, helped the college navigate its transition to Division I of the N.C.A.A. in 2017.

With no football team at the school, basketball is its big-ticket sport, and a rowdy student section named the Havocs reflects the program’s popularity on campus.

“The crazy thing is, exactly what he did for Moreau, he did the exact thing at G.C.U.,” Knight said.

Players from the Bay Area who had played with Frayer, and been coached by Knight, began populating Grand Canyon’s roster.

Frayer started for three seasons until he was ruled academically ineligible for the 2019-20 season. Gabe McGlothan, a teammate, doubted he would ever talk to Frayer again. “The light he shined, you could tell it wasn’t really beaming like it was,” McGlothan said. “You could tell something was hindering him almost.”

Frayer told those close to him that he had started spending time with the wrong people and had lost focus on school, said Chris Major, a former St. Mary’s College baseball player who began coaching Frayer in fourth grade and remained a mentor. “He was doing it his way,” Major said. “Finally it caught up to him.”

Major had helped Frayer cope with the loss of his father, Oscar Frayer III, who died in a car accident in 2015. Major said he left youth coaching shortly after meeting Frayer to devote himself to mentorship.

When Knight spoke to Frayer about his academic ineligibility, Frayer was adamant about not returning to school. He wanted to finish his two remaining classes online and play professionally overseas.

Sparrow, Frayer’s mother, told Major that her son was weighing his options.

“He ain’t got no options,” Major said he told her. “It’s Covid. Get his butt back to school. Get that degree.”

Grand Canyon hired Drew to replace Majerle in March 2020. One of Drew’s first acts as coach was reaching out to Frayer to see if he wanted to return to the team. He sensed Frayer’s hesitancy, but over several calls Frayer opened up about wanting to finish school for his mother, who was a junior college counseling assistant.

“He could have done it online and took the two classes and they could have sent the degree to him,” Knight said. “His thing was, he wanted to do it for his mom. His mom was specific about wanting to see him graduate.”

Frayer developed a plan of weekly check-ins with Sean Pryor, the basketball team’s director of student-athlete development. “Once you understand him, he worked better with you,” Pryor said.

“It means everything to me,” Frayer told the school’s website. “In life, you don’t get too many second chances, especially when it comes to a great place with great people. It’s a blessing to even be here.”

By this spring, most of the friends Frayer had grown up with had already played in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament. “It is every basketball player’s dream to play in March Madness,” said Lawrence, who went to the tournament with St. John’s.

Grand Canyon went 17-6 to earn a No. 15 seed in the tournament and faced the heavily favored Iowa Hawkeyes, who were seeded second. In Indianapolis, Frayer did a video chat with T.J. Benson, who had been on Grand Canyon’s staff but was now in his first season with Gonzaga.

Frayer mentioned that he had a delivery from Ruth’s Chris Steak House on the way. Benson kidded him about his expensive taste. They discussed Iowa, which Gonzaga had beaten earlier in the season.

Just before the game, Lawrence messaged Frayer that he was proud of him and loved him. I love you too, brother, Frayer wrote back.

Frayer contributed 8 points and 5 assists in the 86-74 loss to Iowa. Afterward, he hugged and thanked the Grand Canyon staff — the coaches, the public relations crew, the team manager. The team had been inseparable the previous two weeks.

Knight was playing golf when someone called and asked if he had heard about an accident involving Frayer.

He had spoken to Frayer the night before, and he figured nothing could have happened to him in the short time since. Just in case, Knight checked Frayer’s Instagram. It depicted a live story, reflecting that Frayer had recently been active on the site.

But when Knight received a call from another person with the same inquiry, his anxiety ramped up. He started calling hospitals before a friend phoned, saying there had been no survivors. Knight broke down.

He got a call through to Sparrow. She handed the phone to a friend who was consoling her. Knight was told that Sparrow couldn’t talk. They were trying to figure things out. Sparrow had spoken to Moore-Frayer at around midnight. She had told her mother that she was fine and with her brother.

“She left the door open for them, and they never came home,” Knight said.

A week later, the G.C.U. men’s basketball team held a celebration of life for Frayer in the practice gym. Players told stories of how Frayer had helped them through injuries, boosted their confidence or provided a steady hand.

Frayer had roomed with Sean Miller-Moore this past season. At first, Miller-Moore wasn’t sure about sharing space with someone who had left school prematurely. But Frayer caught Miller-Moore by surprise.

The two talked late into evenings about losing parents at a young age, devoting themselves to their faith and counting each day as a blessing no matter the circumstances.

McGlothan said he was comforted by knowing that Frayer had recently volunteered to lead the team in the Lord’s Prayer and had dedicated his life to Christ at one of the team’s final chapels.

With Sparrow’s blessing, Knight established a GoFundMe page for the family two days after the accident. When he woke up the next morning, $50,000 and many notes had already poured in. A woman wrote that Frayer had spent half an hour with her child, who looked up to him. Another said Frayer had helped her register for classes.

“He showed us what humility and patience and dignity truly are,” Major said. “We thought we were leading him. He was leading us and leading that school.”

The total had doubled within a day. Contributors included N.B.A. players like Marquese Chriss, Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, people who had known Frayer or his circle of friends.

“I cried,” said Chriss, who donated on the day he was traded from Golden State to San Antonio. “Even though I wasn’t as close to him as some of his friends, knowing someone and seeing how fragile life is, it affects everyone.”

“Oscar, he was like a promise,” Knight said, adding: “The village really surrounded this young man to make sure that his full potential could be realized. We wrapped our arms around him and made him part of our family, and put him around a whole bunch of Black men who were successful, so he could see it. We poured into him, so he could go out there and do it and then he could pour it into somebody else.”

Knight continued: “There’s a whole bunch of Oscars out there that just really need some people to give them an opportunity and be surrounded by great people. And give them a chance and don’t let them fail. And that is what you get, this kid right here, Oscar Frayer. The Northern California community, it’s devastated. Because he was one of us. He was our dreams.”

On Monday, Grand Canyon held its commencement ceremony. Sparrow, who politely declined an interview request through an email, attended with one of Frayer’s nephews, EJ Harris, to accept the diploma that Frayer had earned.

Grand Canyon has pledged to offer full scholarships to Frayer’s nieces and nephews, including EJ.

In the end, he accomplished his goal of showing them the way.

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