Just before Austin Business & Entrepreneurship Academy's Lady Tigers took to the basketball court last Thursday against North Grand High School, the team honored one of their own.
Former student and teammate Ashley Hardmon's No. 24 jersey was retired at the Feb. 6, game, which was also Senior Night. The former point guard was shot and killed in July 2013 while home on break from a job-training program. Hardmon, 19, was studying to be a pharmacy technician.
The team presented her family with a framed Lady Tigers' jersey embossed with her number 24 during a ceremony before Friday's game at the Austin high school campus, 231 N. Pine. Hardmon, who played with the team throughout her high school career, is the first student to have her number retired.
Hardmon's mother, Tiffany Hardmon, said she felt honored with the school remembering her daughter in such a way. For people to still care about her daughter, she added, helps keep her going.
"Her death is not in vain. People still care that much," Tiffany Hardmon said. "I want her memories to be out in the open. I want people to talk about her. I just want her to be remembered for the great person that she was."
For former teammates Taviona Johnson and Malika Graham, both 17, Hardmon was just that: a great person and a great basketball player. Both played with Hardmon as freshmen. The trio met while attending Leslie Lewis Elementary School and were friends ever since. Hardmon, they recalled, was a dedicated player.
Graham added that Hardmon always invited them to play hoops in her backyard as a way to stay out of trouble and get into something positive. Hardmon, they added, inspired each to have ambition — Graham wants to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago while Johnson wants to join the Air Force.
"If kids see that she played basketball and did something positive with her life, then they shouldn't be out on the street selling drugs," Johnson said. "You can do anything you put your mind to it."
Lady Tigers' head coach Marcus Floyd said it was fitting to honor Hardmon during Senior Night. Floyd, who did not coach her, maintained that she had an instrumental part on the team. Many of her teammates wanted to honor her, according to Floyd, who's also the school's dean of students.
"Ashley played basketball and how she died was so unfortunate," he said. "We really wanted to remember her."
The school plans to raise Hardmon's jersey in the school's gymnasium, along with the Lady Tigers' conference championship banner, Floyd said — the girl's basketball team won the Chicago West Public League Conference in January.
Tiffany Hardmon was glad to see her daughter's friends, adding that she wanted them to learn from Ashley's drive and determination. Close to completing her work, the job-training program Hardmon was attending presented the family with her diploma.
"I want them to see that nothing is impossible," she said. "Even in the midst of everything that went on with my daughter, she was still two weeks away from graduating as a pharmacy technician. When she sat off [to do something] she was going to complete every goal, every task, no matter."
"She already received her pharmacy tech license, which we have," her mom added. "She just didn't make it to walk across the stage but it was done."
ABEA senior Jemesha Crape is following in Hardmon's footsteps.
The two had been friends since 2010. The 18-year-old recalled that Hardmon was her motivating force to finish school. Crape has been accepted into three colleges and wants to a phlebotomist or radiologist. She said she is fulfilling Ashley's dream of going into the medical field.
"That is exactly what I'm gonna do. I stay on my stuff. I stay on my grades," Crape said. "She wasn't here to proceed in what she wanted to do to be a pharmacy tech, so I'm gonna … finish for her."
Leon Jordon, who coached the Lady Tigers for two years, including Hardmon's senior year, remembered the teen as a hardworking player.
"It's a sad occasion but at the same time it's a life we're rejoicing, because we had a chance and a pleasure to meet her," Jordan, who now coaches at North Grand High School, said. "We don't want to have to retire anyone else's jersey for a reason like that. Always remember that life is so precious."
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