If you asked Ali Sakr about his family, he would tell you that he had two: there are his parents, cousins, uncles and siblings, and then there's the group of guys he played basketball with at Robert F. Kennedy High School in Delano, whom he referred to as his brothers.
The Thunderbirds team mottos – “forever strong, on three” and “we over me” – transcend into a greater meaning in Delano, where basketball squads are more like families than teams.
This weekend, RFK High School's family lost a brother. Ali Sakr died Saturday afternoon in Bakersfield when his car collided with a big rig on Seventh Standard Road near Cherry Avenue and burst into flames. The 19-year-old was driving back home after refereeing a junior high basketball tournament at Liberty High School.
“It all starts on the court. Nothing is given and everything is earned. Ali was one of those people who you had to respect because he always played better than the last time you saw him, and he was already good to start. I loved that dude like my brother,” Sakr's friend Ruben Hill said. “Blood couldn't have made us closer.”
The 2014 graduate of RFK High School was a standout point and shooting guard, putting 274 points on the scoreboard his last season while averaging 10.5 points per game, placing him among the Central Section's top 90 points leaders.
A competitive drive and yearning to improve after every game earned Sakr a position on the varsity squad his sophomore year, Hill said. He knew Sakr had talent his freshman year during a game with their crosstown rival, Delano High School. With just seconds left on the clock and a tied scoreboard, Hill passed the ball to the corner where Sakr was waiting. He sunk it at the buzzer.
“He'd always say, 'Give me the ball, you can trust me.' I don't know why I gave him the ball,” Hill said. “Every time we would argue about who was better, he'd ask, 'Who did you pass the ball to to hit that buzzer meter?' It was just natural. When you're in battle and looking to your left and see somebody not scared at the moment and prepared, that's Ali.”
On the court, Sakr could bring the best out of fellow players, if even from the competitive drive it instilled in older teammates, fearful that any of their spots could have been taken by the talented young player.
Sakr and his teammates would sometimes get into scraps during practice, but their bond on the court would always prevail, Hill said.
Sakr's coach, Joey Velasquez, developed a sporadic tradition with Sakr and a few other players. At least a few times a month, without fail, either Sakr or his teammate Dondre Usochu would call Velasquez asking to take them to Denny's.
Like brothers, the two would argue over who rode shotgun. Sakr would text Velasquez, trying to coax him into picking him up first. Usochu would do the same. Sakr would take longer to get ready — so long that Velasquez would text him when he pulled up to his family home and wait about 10 or 15 minutes for him to come out.
On Sunday, Velasquez and Usochu pulled up to Sakr’s house one final time, texted him and waited.
“He was like a son to me. I don't have any kids, but he's one of many from that basketball team those four years that I keep in contact with as if they're my kids,” Velasquez said. “My heart hurts.”
While basketball was Sakr's passion and he was being courted by Division III colleges, he gave up his dream of playing professionally while attending Bakersfield College. It's a sacrifice he made to help support his family, and give back to the community, said Erika Chavez, Sakr's girlfriend of four years.
Sakr started teaching kids in an after-school program at Pioneer School and selling Herbalife products on the side.
And instead of playing, he coached and refereed. He and Chavez pulled together kids from the neighborhood and started a basketball camp three days a week at the RFK High School parking lot. He made fitness his priority, not just for himself, but also for the kids in his camp.
“We all knew him as a basketball player and he was great at that … but he loved working with kids. He had this vision to make a difference not only in the community, but around the world. He knew he had to start here and give back to the people that gave him all this support,” Chavez said. “I feel like it’s my job and my duty to carry that on for him now.”
Sakr is survived by his parents, Dania and Khaled Sakr; one sister, Janine Abubaker; six brothers, Anis, Mohamed, Omar and Ahmad Sakr, and Ahmad and Adam Abubaker.