LOS ANGELES -- While making arrangements to shoot this video story about Reshanda Gray's escape from the 'hood, everyone who knew anything about her neighborhood, South Central L.A., had the same reaction.
"Do not go there by yourself!" was the unanimous proclamation.
Even Gray, the teddy bear of a 6-foot-3 Cal signee, told me, "I think they're right."
The more people warned me, the more determined I became, not to be reckless, but to be unafraid. After all, I did my Master's thesis at Columbia University on voting patterns in Harlem. That meant going to that supposedly tough New York City neighborhood on a nearly daily basis.
Of course, that was back in the day -- before the advent of gang activity, among many other things.
Apparently, I'd lost the "Spider sense" that tingled whenever I went to a place that is, well, less than welcoming. South Central Los Angeles, like a lot of similar areas out West, is a far cry from the shattered, littered "mean streets" of the East Coast. It is, after all, El Lay, the center of sunshine and hope.
The neighborhood of L.A.'s latest McDonald's All-American seemed harmless enough. Though, according to her, it is home to two Crip gangs, Hoover Street is a wide, bustling thoroughfare. I made all my video shots without even a hint of an incident. In fact, my experience was so out of kilter with all the dire warnings I'd received, as I was driving out of the area, I felt ... disappointed.
It was then I saw the church -- boarded up, tagged with graffiti. It was exactly the kind of scene Gray had described to me earlier. I had to capture it.
When I pulled over, school had just let out, so Hoover was alive with children and parents walking with their children. When I exited my car with my video camera, I "made" a couple of guys. They attracted my attention because they slowed their stroll up the street toward me. My "Spidey sense" was working. Just to be safe, I locked the car with the remote fob -- twice.
It probably took me maybe a minute to size up my shot. I still watched the pair out of the corner of my eyes. Then I pressed an eye to the camera and recorded -- for maybe 15 seconds.
When I looked up from my shot, I spied the two guys bolting into a sprint away from my rental car, a cord whipping behind one of them. The passenger door was flung open, but the driver's side door remained locked. They'd taken my iPhone cradle. Thank goodness, I ... put ... my ... phone ... in my pocket, as usual. Dawg! Thinking, correctly I might add, that I'd be out of the car for maybe 2-3 minutes -- on a crowded thoroughfare, no less -- I'd left my phone in the cradle.
Now the two hoodlums had my phone.
Oddly, I wasn't panicked or outraged. I was, well, impressed. During the 20 seconds it took me to look away, take my shot and look back, they opened the car door and whipped out my cradle and phone, without me hearing.
Luckily, they didn't open the glove box, where my brand-new iPad sat. Or had time to rummage through my trunk and find tens of thousands of dollars worth of video and camera gear.
Incidentally, I used my iPad to locate the phone -- about a block away. I performed a remote wipe. They could have the hardware -- they earned it, I guess -- but not my contacts and other content.
Later, I recounted the incident to a salesperson at an Apple store, where I bought a replacement phone.
"You gotta be careful," he said, repeating something I'd heard so many times before. "These guys are ninjas."
Finally, I'm a believer.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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