What Set Me Free (The Story That Inspired the Major Motion Picture Brian Banks)
ONE Just a Taste
I was just beginning to taste it.
In that summer of 2002, I was sixteen years old—and I was finally about to start driving.
I’d taken the driver’s education course at my high school, and I’d just passed the test to get my learner’s permit. I wanted it so bad that I kept checking the mailbox every day after school, just waiting for that permit to arrive so I could start driving for real.
It was more than that, though.
I was in summer school, like I was pretty much every summer, working hard to get my grades up so I would be ready to rise up and meet the possibilities that were right in front of me. I hadn’t even started my senior year and I had already made an early commitment to the University of Southern California. USC! My dream school. My dream football team. Hell, I could hardly imagine something as big as playing for USC when I was a kid, but I’d worked hard and played my best and now here I was, ranked eleventh in the nation as a linebacker, getting personal calls from USC head coach Pete Carroll, and all kinds of attention from local media along the way. All I had to
do was keep playing hard and keep my grades up and I’d be off to college. Me! And who knows what could happen from there! If I kept playing like I was playing, everybody told me I’d for sure be a top draft pick out of USC. I’d make it to the NFL. Make some money. Lift my mom and my brother and sister and our whole family up to a whole new life!
I still had a long way to go. I knew that. I knew that. But I couldn’t help but feel as if everything was finally going right—and I wanted to celebrate.
July Fourth was coming up. I knew we had the day off from school, and I mentioned to my mom that I wished I could throw a party.
“Well, as long as you promise to be responsible, I don’t see why not,” my mom said.
“Are you serious right now?” I asked her. I could hardly believe those words came out of my mother’s mouth.
“Yeah, why not? Just a few friends, though.”
“Most definitely. But like, you’re not gonna be here. You said you were going out of town that day. I mean, I was thinking of inviting some girls, too—”
“Brian,” my mom said, looking me right in the eyes, “I trust you.”
Whoa. That was something. My mom had never let me or my little brother have girls over to the house, especially if she wasn’t going to be there. It’s not that she didn’t trust us; it was just that she’s way too much of an old-school Southern Baptist to let anyone think there might be any kind of impropriety going on in her home. The only partying we did at home was for birthdays and Christmas—family parties—and she went all out for those. I remember she’d decorate the whole house, and
our uncles and aunties would all show up carrying presents and all kinds of food, and my uncle Stanley would man the barbecue. The family parties my mom threw were always over-the-top. And I swear every year she told us she couldn’t afford the presents we wanted. We knew she meant it, too, so we never got our hopes up, but somehow she managed to surprise us with exactly the gifts we wanted when the big day came. I still don’t know how she did that on a schoolteacher’s salary, but she did. She even did it before she started teaching, when us kids were real little and she’d just gotten divorced from our dad, and laid off from her job, and she was putting herself through school trying to get her degree so she could get a job teaching in the first place. Even then she did it. Every time.
I love my mom. Everybody loves my mom. But the overprotective thing could be frustrating sometimes. I know she did it for our own good. I knew it even then. I understood where she was coming from because I saw what happened to some of our neighbors and friends. I heard stories. I read the news.
Raising kids in a city like Long Beach, California, was challenging. There was temptation all over the place, and the dark side of the city was like a magnet that sometimes sucked kids in and trapped them. A lot of kids went in the wrong direction, got stuck right where they were and never saw anything beyond the city. My mom wasn’t having that. She wanted more for her kids. She wanted us to get an education. To go places. She drilled it into our heads nonstop that we could accomplish whatever we wanted if we stayed on the right track. If we worked hard. And it looked like she was going to see her dreams for our possible futures come true.
Heading into that Fourth of July, all I saw was possibility.
I’m pretty sure I know why my mom said “yes” to me throwing a party at that exact moment in time: It was her way of easing up on me. Of letting me know that she realized how hard I’d worked.
Life hadn’t gone easy on us those past few years. Just three years before this, my mom’s partner of six years, my stepdad, passed away. It left us all reeling. This man, this good man, this kind man who always treated Mom right and who was always so good to us kids, a strong man who’d fought in the Korean War and who taught us kids tai chi—lung cancer took him in a matter of months. He was a lot older than my mom, but he was the most solid father figure my brother and sister and I ever knew. It was shocking. He died right there in the comfortable little home our family had made on the corner of Twenty-Eighth and Magnolia, in one of the safest neighborhoods in Long Beach, and we just couldn’t stay there anymore after that. So my mom moved us outside the city, to a townhouse on a quiet cul-de-sac—and without saying a word about it, she asked me to grow up. Fast.
I was six foot one. She needed me to take on the role of protector to her and my older sister. That was clear. She also needed me to be responsible, to be the man of the house. I’d done it. And she had already rewarded me for that with a gift that absolutely blew me away. Now that I was almost old enough to drive, my mom went out and bought me a car—a 1995 Honda Civic, all white with a black stripe down the side—so I’d be able to drive my brother and myself to school now that we lived farther out. I could hardly believe it. But there it was, parked at the curb, waiting for me as I anxiously waited for that learner’s permit to come in the mail.
The school we went to, Long Beach Polytechnic High School, is a school like no other. It’s a public school with private-school level expectations. It ranks as one of the top high schools anywhere, by all sorts of measures. But its biggest achievement, the thing it’s really known for, is producing more NFL players than any other high school in the country. More than sixty NFL players have come out of Poly through the years, and I was slated to be one more. So the pressure to perform at that school was intense.
Long Beach Poly is also world renowned in baseball, basketball, and track and field. In 2005, Sports Illustrated named it the “Sports School of the Century,” out of all the schools in the whole country. But what’s amazing is our school wasn’t all about sports. It was all about everything. Even our music program was top-notch, producing more than one Grammy Award–winning artist.
I guess another way to put it is to say our school was mixed. Not just mixed race, but mixed interests. To give a little perspective, rappers Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg both went to Long Beach Poly, but so did actress Cameron Diaz. So did a guy named Keith Kellogg Jr., a decorated army general who’s serving as security advisor to the vice president of the United States as I write this book. There were all sorts of different groups and factions, like there are in any high school, I suppose, but no matter what group we were talking about, I got along with all of them.
That was a good thing, because it’s a big school—4,400 students—and it’s positioned smack in the middle of the ’hood. Our beautiful, fenced-in, multi-building campus was around the corner from car washes and liquor stores, adjacent to some
of the most ghetto apartment buildings in the whole city, and near parks where gangs met up.
But the gangs in Long Beach weren’t exactly what people think of when they think of gangs in some other cities. They weren’t about destroying the city and terrorizing the community. In Long Beach, there are no Bloods. Only Crips. It’s an all-Crips city. And while some of the individual gangs would sometimes go to war with each other, there weren’t the sort of Bloods-versus-Crips gang wars like you’d see in other places. There were fights between the Hispanic gangs and the black gangs, and those could get ugly sometimes. But when I was growing up, most gangs were just a part of the culture here, a part of the city, a part of feeling like you belonged—whether you belonged to a gang or not.
Some of my friends’ dads were in gangs. Even some moms were in gangs. It was no big thing. This was especially true in the 1990s. My first Pop Warner football coach was a respected OG (that’s “original gangsta,” for those who don’t know), and my mom wasn’t scared at all to put me in a car with him and send me off to football practice. It was like “Take care of Brian now. We’ll see you later!” And off we went.
The Crips presence even affects our language in the way we call each other “cuz.” As in, “What up, cuz?” “How you doin’, cuz?” If you’re from Long Beach, even if you’re a white kid, that’s pretty much how you say hello.
Gangbangers and those who weren’t gangbangers hung out. We were friends. We were classmates. We all interacted together at school—and sometimes at parties, too.
That Fourth of July, my mom left town just like she’d planned, and I kept the party small just like I’d promised. It was ten, maybe twelve kids total. Some of my teammates. A couple of girls I knew. A couple of girls I didn’t know, whom my teammates invited. I manned the barbecue myself, and we turned up the music, and we danced. The community we were in had a shared pool, and late that afternoon we all went and jumped in it. We weren’t supposed to have that many guests in the pool and we got a little too noisy before somebody finally kicked us out. I hoped that incident wouldn’t get back to my mom, but we were having fun, and I didn’t want the fun to stop. So instead of letting things get too rowdy at my mom’s place, we all piled into a couple of cars, like teenagers do, and we drove back to Long Beach to a party at my friend’s place.
This friend of mine was a gang member, and his party was huge. We could make as much noise as we wanted there.
After hanging for a while at that homey’s party, full of mostly black teens nodding heads to blaring hip-hop, my friends and I piled into a couple of cars again and drove over to one of my white friends’ parties. Now that was a whole different scene. It was a full-on frat party. We actually had fraternities at my high school. And this party was like what people describe parties looking like at colleges up in the Northeast or something—a bunch of guys, a bunch of girls, a couple of kegs of beer, all dancing around and hanging out with alternative rock and progressive jam-band music on the stereo. Some of these guys listened to far-out bands like Portishead, and I dug that sound as much as any hip-hop I’d ever heard.
Like I said, I got along with everybody. We had a great time at that party, too. But it was a school night, and we were
definitely getting tired. So two of my best friends and I headed back to my mom’s house, where we found my little brother messing around with some fireworks. He’s just two years behind me. He was an amazing basketball player and apparently he needed to let off some steam that holiday, too: he’d gone and emptied the explosives from a whole bunch of smaller fireworks into big soda bottles, and then tied them all together in a crazy-looking contraption. I think he was waiting for me to get there and supervise before he dared to light the thing off.
After all, a big brother was the closest thing he had to a father figure in our home at that point.
So we took it out to the middle of the cul-de-sac and all gathered around as he lit the wick. Then we looked at each other—and ran. We jumped behind my little Honda parked at the curb and poked our heads up just enough to see it, watching that wick burn, waiting to see what would happen.
Then all of a sudden: Boom!
That contraption didn’t shoot up in the air or pop all sorts of colors. It just plain exploded. Like a bomb. It set off car alarms for blocks. It was crazy! And it was probably a really stupid thing to do. But we were kids, man. Just kids. And kids sometimes do really stupid things.
Realizing there could be consequences for what we’d just done, we all ran inside as fast as we could and hid in the dark from the curious neighbors as they all turned their lights on and stepped out to see what had happened.
Lucky for us, no one got hurt—and no one came knocking.
The four of us stayed up real late, talking and laughing until we all fell asleep on the living room floor.
That was a good day.
A memorable day.
A momentous day full of friends, and family, and fun.
On that Independence Day of 2002, I could taste it.