Five years after her star player was killed in the Pulse shooting, a coach follows through on her promise

·13-min read

Beulah Osueke drove the streets of Philadelphia reminding her graduating senior star, one she believed foreshadowed what West Catholic Preparatory High School girls basketball could be, to take college ball seriously. The two shared a passion, fueling each other, and in the longest conversation coach and player had, Osueke made a promise.

“We’re going to build and I got you,” Osueke told her that night. “You’ll be surprised when you come back and see us, because we’re going to be really good.”

A few weeks later, on June 12, 2016, Akyra Murray, one of the program’s few 1,000-point scorers, was the youngest of 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

It rocked the team and Osueke (pronounced oh-SWAY-kay), who had built the program from six players to six-time district champions in the highly competitive Philadelphia Catholic League (PCL). She had to find a way to care for them collectively and individually, while still caring for herself.

And that promise she made Akyra of making her proud was fresh.

“I remember saying I’m going to go that much harder, that much stronger. And I meant it,” Osueke told Yahoo Sports. “All of the work that took place afterwards — people recognize I'm a hard worker, but it meant nothing. I wanted to make sure that I exhausted myself as much as I could to honor one of the last things I told her.”

In March, despite COVID-19 disruptions, Osueke completed her promise and accrued plenty of historic firsts. Days later she advised her team she was resigning and although it seemed sudden, it had always been her plan to step away in 2021. 

Her eight years at West Catholic with students who faced challenges, her time with Akyra and the way she led her team through that time have brought her to a larger calling for the greater good of the game and players.

From humble program beginnings in 2013

Osueke, then 23, stumbled into the job at West Catholic one week before the season started in 2013. It was an emergency opening and Osueke, a recent LaSalle University graduate school student, entered a rough situation. No practice uniforms. Only six players thanks to a last-minute transfer into the school. A lack of respect within the athletic department.

“Nothing was really established,” Osueke, 31, told Yahoo Sports. “The boys program had all the support and the girls program was kind of a social club if that.”

She went to work with simple goals: get everyone to practices consistently, keep trying, learn it’s OK to fail, become close with your teammates.

“A lot of my goals early on were very emotional-based,” she said. “They were things that were intangible. I wanted them to trust each other, to trust themselves, to believe in each other and believe in themselves.”

As she built the base, she began adding disciplinary processes like running if there were a behavior issue at home. She had buy-in from parents, guardians, teachers and faculty members as the years evolved, showing them there was accountability and discipline in the program.

“Through and through and through it wasn’t really about sports,” she said. “It was about respect and what they deserved. And making sure they knew I was pushing for those things to become normal.”

As that set in, the goals shifted to the court. If they were losing by 25, Osueke would urge them to cut the deficit to 23. After a winless first season, the team won five games. Throughout her time there, the all-Black team had to battle things out of their control, like foul calls that weren't called on other teams. 

In Osueke’s third year she felt comfortable shifting the goals to winning a certain number of games. It was largely because of her leading scorer.

Akyra Murray: a 'foreshadow' into what was possible

Beulah Osueke watches as Akyra Murray signs a letter of intent to Mercyhurst University in 2016. (Provided by Beulah Osueke)
Beulah Osueke watches as Akyra Murray signs a letter of intent to Mercyhurst University in 2016. (Provided by Beulah Osueke)

Akyra didn’t start playing basketball until around the eighth grade and she was, in her mother’s words, horrible. But she wanted to do it, so her parents, Natalie and Albert, who both played in high school, worked with her.

“It wasn’t until she interacted with Coach B (Osueke) that she really found that love for basketball,” Natalie Murray told Yahoo Sports. “She interacted with Coach B and when she did that, the love for basketball just went immeasurable. It became more than just a sport for her. It became just a part of who she was.”

Akyra was a caring soul, packing up an old Nintendo as a Christmas gift and clearing out her closet for less fortunate families. Her motivation in life came from helping others achieve greatness and she wanted to help everyone else go on the ride with her. It was the same way with her coach.

“Akyra cared so much for others and did so much for other people and she didn’t even realize how much of a support piece she became to Coach B,” Murray said. “Coach B got Akyra to open up to realize how talented she was, but in the same sense Akyra opened up to show Coach B how much of a great leader she was.”

Akyra joined as a junior and led the team in scoring both seasons. The Burrs won the PIAA District 12 Class A championship with a berth in the state tournament when she was a senior and she reached the rare air of 1,000 career points.

“She was kind of a foreshadow into what was possible with players who had more talent or more skills, even more challenges,” Osueke said. “So because of Akyra I had a steadfast belief with what I was doing with the program.”

A week after Akyra graduated high school third in her class, she went to Florida with family to celebrate. The morning of June 12, Osueke woke up to a text message from one of the boys players asking if she’d heard. She made calls, but all anyone knew at first was that Akyra had been in the nightclub where the shooting happened.

Osueke went to her day job as a communications director at a local non-profit organization and even went about renewing her passport as scheduled. When she got the call confirming Akyra was killed, she collapsed. With the help of the athletic director who hired her and assistant coaches, she gathered the team at the school gym within 20 minutes. One player broke a window in the school building. They stayed with each other for hours and attended memorial events, vigils, marches in the weeks to come.

“When something like that happens, to leave a city like Philly to go on vacation and get murdered there, it’s like where can I be safe? And I remember feeling that from them,” Osueke said. “I think that they had really appreciated what we had built as a team and as a family.”

Learning to lead after tragedy 

Akyra’s death opened another level of understanding for Osueke. In working with a psychologist for the team she discovered how much death these players had already seen by the age of 18. In an average school year she estimated the students experienced anywhere between three to 10 deaths of a classmate or friend that she heard about in some way.

“Things like that really illustrate to me how different their realities were versus the reality I knew as a kid,” said Osueke, who grew up in the suburbs of Houston. Her father died when she was 11 and a high school classmate died some time following graduation, when she was already playing at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas. Over eight years at West Catholic she experienced the most deaths of young people in the entire 23 years up to that point.

“I knew in coaching them I couldn’t use my adolescence for a reference point in how to engage with them,” Osueke said. “I had to talk to them, talk to their parents, talk to their guardians, talk to other people in their communities so I didn’t come in thinking I knew their lives because I was Black and a woman. There was a lot of cultural differences, a lot of economic differences, education differences that I had to factor into how I approached my mentorship to them.”

While Osueke dealt with her own feelings after Akyra’s murder, including depression and months of “feeling hollow,” she helped the family she had formed work through theirs. Some were numb to Akyra’s death and felt guilty they weren’t emotional. Others were heartbroken and stopped eating or sleeping. In one case, Osueke picked up players at 1 a.m., grabbed Popeyes, and kept them company for a few hours watching TV.

“One of their family members was taken from them and I think it definitely shook them,” Osueke said. “It took us a while to get back to where we were. We never really got back to that, but I think with the death that we experienced there’s a certain level of naïveté and gullibility that we can never have. Because we know that death and murder and terror, even what we had, wasn’t strong enough to keep something like that out.”

From counting wins to counting titles

Beulah Osueke celebrates leading West Catholic to a Pennsylvania state championship in March. (Photo provided by Krystal Williams)
Beulah Osueke celebrates leading West Catholic to a Pennsylvania state championship in March. (Photo provided by Krystal Williams)

The bond between a mentor and their first mentee is a special one and Osueke never forgot the promise she made to Akyra. But over the years her relationship with the new administration changed. Osueke said she felt a new white principal wanted more control and it led her to nearly quit in 2018. Parents urged her to stay at least through the year; she decided no matter what she would leave following the 2020-21 basketball season. The coach stopped recruiting, but told no one.

“I remember that I wanted to make [Akyra] proud in some way regardless,” Osueke told Yahoo Sports, “but I also knew that I was not going to stick around in the situation chasing a championship and be disrespected or allow my kids to be disrespected because I couldn’t respond in the way that I wanted to.”

The group built on the leadership and talent that Akyra showed. In December of 2016, the school retired her No. 20 and the program reached the PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals. A year later they reached the state final and in 2020, for the first time in program history, the Burrs took the PCL championship after rattling off 11 straight wins to close the season. Osueke became the first Black coach to win and was named the 3A Coach of the Year, but the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out their chance to take it all.

This past winter, West Catholic finally brought home the state trophy.

“You could almost feel Akyra in those girls,” said Natalie Murray, whose family attended the playoffs but couldn’t be at the title game because of COVID-19 protocols. “The passion that they had, the drive that they had, it was all motivated through Coach B. Akyra rode her back even in spirit to keep her motivated, to keep those girls going and pushing forward.

“Akyra said she was going to get it. She told us, she said we’re going to get this championship. She said it. She promised coach and coach has done it.”

The Murray family remains in contact with Osueke and many of the girls their daughter played with, but this was a new group separated by five years from Akyra. It was a heartwarming moment, one that brought tears and made it feel like Akyra was still on that court playing out her passion.

“One thing I will never do is forget how hard it was,” said Osueke, who went 80-72 as coach. “How challenging it was. How many tears were required. How many difficult conversations. How many disappointments. How many times I had to step beyond what was comfortable for me in service of the kids. It was really, really hard in a way I can’t even describe.

“I generally knew that it would all be worth it. To be here now, it feels surreal. Especially those first three years, this was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

With the championship came another personal first for Osueke: first Black woman to win a PIAA state title. That’s where Osueke’s —and in part Akyra’s — story goes next.

Changing how coaches lead young Black girls

Beulah Osueke coaches during the state championship game. She wants to broaden her reach and help coaches around the city better mentor their players. (Photo provided by Krystal Williams)
Beulah Osueke coaches during the state championship game. She wants to broaden her reach and help coaches around the city better mentor their players. (Photo provided by Krystal Williams)

Osueke is not “some sort of special unicorn.”

“There are a lot of people that work extremely hard. Probably work harder than me. Probably are smarter than me,” Osueke told Yahoo Sports of becoming the first. “But because of whatever circumstance, they were not able to be the first. So I instantly think of, ‘how can there be more?’”

She feels the weight on her shoulders and believes it's her responsibility to open the doors for more. She saw plenty of kids who didn’t have the option of attending a West Catholic type school because of distance or money. She would keep in contact with students who wanted to transfer in, but they were her opponents and she couldn’t be everywhere.

In her own program she had to juggle differences in culture and situations that weren’t ideal. Her background with a masters in clinical psychology was beneficial both in the midst of Akyra’s death and beyond.

“You need to [mentor] the right way because it can go very wrong,” said Osueke, who doesn’t use a whistle because it’s associated with punishment. “And I saw a lot of examples of how mentorship can go wrong when it’s not done in the way that it should be.”

In the fall she’ll roll out details of a new project she’s working on that will help girls basketball coaches, most of whom are men, integrate lessons and understanding about class, gender and race into mentorship. She’s eyeing team workshops that key in on coaches' blind spots and will advise three teams to start.

Her journey as West Catholic’s coach will also be chronicled in a documentary, an incredibly rare feat for girls basketball, and Black coaches and teams. It is being filmed by Jasmine Leeward, who met Osueke in 2019 as part of a mentorship for communications. Leeward isn’t a sports fan, but Osueke intrigued her.

“Does anybody know what this actually looks like, this coaching that has created this?” Leeward said she asked Osueke back then. “And she said, no. Which seemed like a great injustice to me.”

Leeward views it as inspiration. Osueke sees it as a potential guidebook for Black girls who don’t have the representation that white people or Black boys have in sports.

“When you get to this obstacle, how do you get around it?” Osueke said. “[They have] so many, so many, so many. Black women in sports don’t. We don’t. We don’t.”

Now, hopefully, they will. Osueke’s story is beautifully bookmarked by a promise she made her first shining player who was tragically killed before she could carry on her own experiences. The lessons Osueke gained throughout will be the ones that make lasting change beyond a school and coach making history in a state title game. 

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