Torii Hunter freely admits it — his friend Basil Shabazz was the better athlete. Hunter is the five-time MLB All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove winner. However, as the two grew up together in Pine Bluff, Shabazz stole the spotlight. Shabazz starred in four sports and was among the best sprinters, running backs and baseball prospects when he graduated from Pine Bluff High School in 1991.
Hunter, who was two-years younger than Shabazz, looked up to his older friend. The two also hung out with Carlos James, a 1990 PBHS grad, who played junior college baseball and a year with the University of Arkansas before playing in the independent league ball. The trio formed a bond in elementary school that is still strong today. The friends looked out for each other on the mean streets of Pine Bluff and even shared clothes. James eventually shared his room with Shabazz.
All three had dreams of playing pro sports but only Hunter realized it. His home life wasn’t great with his father Theotis, who has struggled with drug addiction, but mother, Shirley, kept enough stability to keep Hunter on track. Shabazz’s mother, Khaleelah, struggled to provide for her three sons. In part, it was a lack of discipline that tripped Shabazz.
“(Hunter) was the only guy out of the three of us that could handle it,” James says. “He has handled it well. (Shabazz) wouldn’t have been able to handle the fame and fortune. He is too free-hearted. Sometimes you can kill people giving them too much. The right thing happened to the right one of us. By Basil not making it, he has probably helped himself and other people a lot more.”
Hunter fields calls often from “old friends” asking for a loan or maybe just a handout. He’s been wise with his money, employing renowned sports star investor Ed Butowski to manage his cash. He’s even had to put restrictions on his father, electing to pay the bills instead of deposit money in his account, which the elder Hunter had used on drugs.
Hunter has maneuvered through 16 years of professional baseball with no off-the-field incidents or drama. He’s avoided pitfalls that have toppled many pro athletes who came from poor backgrounds.
Ironically, it was an incident that hurt Shbazz’s career that probably saved his. The two friends were arrested on the Central Arkansas campus late on an October night in 1994. Shabazz had a gun on the floorboard of Hunter’s Ford Explorer. Police also found small traces of marijuana and rolling papers.
The chargers were eventually dropped. The Minnesota Twins, who had only drafted Hunter, a year before stood by their first-round pick. The St. Louis Cardinals dumped Shabazz soon after the incident. Team officials claimed it was slow development from their No.4-ranked minor league prospect, but Shabazz had been involved with two other incidents where he pulled his hand gun. The team was leery about Shabazz’s attitude.
Shabazz got another chance with Milwaukee’s Class AA team, the El Paso Diablos, in 1995. However, he left during the season, frustrated with the manager. By 1997 Hunter had reached the big leagues. That was in August. Later that fall Shabazz injured his neck in a football game at UAPB and his athletic career was over. Penny-less and still reeling over his brother’s death a year earlier, he fled to Texas and lived in seclusion for more than a decade.
It was Shabazz’s plight that snapped Hunter out of a funk in 2000. Hunter started hot with the Twins in April, but his average dropped to .207 in May. Minnesota sent the center fielder to Class AAA Salt Lake City. The move frustrated Hunter, who now plays for the Detroit Tigers, but he worked on his mechanics and rattled off a 16-game hitting streak and totaled four straight games with home runs and three grand slams. The Twins recalled Hunter in July, where he stayed until 2007, enjoying stardom.
During the two months in Salt Lake City, Shabazz reminded his buddy that the adversity he worked through was better than working a blue-collar job struggling to support a family, which Shabazz did.
To Hunter’s credit, he never forgot where he came from — the work ethic and humility he learned from his parents and other adults in Pine Bluff. I remember seeing Hunter shopping with wife Katrina in the Pine Bluff JC Penny store during the 2001 All-Star break. A few years later I saw his entire family sitting on the floor of the Dallas Love field terminal waiting for a Southwest Airlines flight to Little Rock. Even when he had big league riches, he didn’t seek a chartered plane or first-class seating.
“We always called that being ‘Pine Bluff cut’,” James says. “Basil did what he needed to do to provide for his family. He has worked hard. Torii has stayed humble and dealt with being rich and famous. For both of them, it all starts with growing up in Pine Bluff.”