'Living in the gym': Phoenix Christian basketball star Tommy Randolph fights through loss of mom
Tommy Randolph can't forget. He won't ever forget the day he discovered his mother dead. It was two summers ago. He had just returned from a basketball workout.
He felt lost. She was his biggest fan. He felt he had nowhere to go. He doesn't know how his 39-year-old mother died. She had taken a nap, he said, and didn't wake up.
"It was out of nowhere," Randolph said. "She just didn't wake up."
The Phoenix Christian High School gym became his refuge. And Denise Ebert, who has volunteered the last 12 years at Heart For The City, which helps at-risk kids in Phoenix, became his savior. Her family eventually gained custody of the now junior in high school.
"I'm still dealing with it actually," Randolph said of his mother's unexpected death. "She raised me the right way, though, and I'll get through it."
Randolph, 17, a 6-foot-2 point guard, has gained strength through the Ebert family and basketball, a sport in which he has taken off as one of the state's top high school players this season, regardless of conference.
He is averaging more than 20 points and 10 assists for 17-4 Cougars, who have a good shot at capturing the 2A title this year.
"I've been coaching for 12 years, and I really believe he's a Division I talent," Phoenix Christian coach Benjamin Stryczek said. "He's making the whole team better. It's not just the Tommy Show. But I know he's a top performer in the state.
"Often times, people will say, 'Oh, you just play 2A teams.' But I say, 'Look what he did in a tournament, playing 5A and 6A teams.' He averaged 26 points in all four games to start it off."
Two of those teams Phoenix Christian played were Peoria Liberty and Phoenix Sunnyslope, two quality 6A teams. And it wasn't like Phoenix Christian got blown out. The Cougars lost to Liberty 82-76 and to Sunnyslope 56-51.
"It's funny but in the 2A games, he's averaging 20 a game, but I'm pulling him out after we're up by 20," Stryczek said. "He's facilitating with 10 assists a game. He's embraced that role. Truth be told, he could score 40 or 50 agaisnt these 2A teams."
Basketball has been easy growing up. The hard part was life. Raised in south Phoenix, seeing horrible things around him, one of five children (there are three boys and two girls) raised by his mom, he watched how hard his mom worked trying to keep meals on the table. She worked two, three jobs.
He got help through the Heart For The City program with Ebert stepping in to help guide him. Randoph got to Phoenix Christian through the program.
When his mother died, they were living in a week-to-week place.
Ebert said that the life he was going through growing up "was the absolute most brutal."
"I've volunteered for Heart For The City for 12 years now, and, when you see what single moms go through, it's almost like everything is against you as far as survival," Ebert said. "She worked hard and she was supporting her boys. But it was hard."
Randolph said there are times that are harder than others thinking about his mom. He said he didn't know his dad growing up, so his mom played both roles at home for him. She was his biggest fan.
"I got in a little bit of trouble, but for the most part I stayed out of it," Randolph said. "I really liked playing sports, so it was never really too big of a problem."
Basketball has helped, along with a firm hand at home from Ebert, who said he's made Tommy promise he'll get his college degree, because that will open so many doors for him later in life. The Eberts' daughter plays basketball at Arizona Christian and son is an assistant basketball coach at Southwestern Assemblies of God (SAGU) in Phoenix.
Randolph has a 3.8 grade-point average.
"If I'm not in the gym, I'm in the weight room or in the classroom," Randolph said.
'Mentor to his teammates'
Stryczek said he took Randolph home that July 13, 2021, before Tommy's sophomore year when they found his mother.
"It was the hardest day of my coaching career, and more than 100 times harder for Tommy, that being his mom," Stryczek said. "He's a great kid off the court. Like, no problems. He's dealt with that by helping mentor his teammates and just by living in the gym.
"He's a better man than I. I'm 35, and if I lost my mom, I'd be out of commission for a while. It was a tough process but he's getting through."
Ebert said some day she's going to write a book, called, "Tommy and Me."
After his mom died, he was living with his godmother, before Denise took him in.
"I said, 'Why don't you come live with us, because you need a home, everyone needs a home,' " Ebert said. "You need a place where you don't have to move your stuff. I'm not just talking about today, but five years, 10 years from now, you need a home.' We went through the court system and we got custody of him.
"He's our family. Some weeks are really tough because of all the stuff, the trauma. But he's a great kid. He's doing great in school. He's the hardest working kid on the court. He blows me away every day."
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It was mid-July two summers ago, and Tommy Randolph was coming home. His Phoenix Christian coach, Benjamin Stryczek, drove him home.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Phoenix Christian star Tommy Randolph fighting through death of mom