Lonnie Brewer, 18, holds up photographs of best friend Olajuwon Clayborn, who was killed Sunday in Oakland. Olajuwon’s cousin, Joneisha, had taped her cousin’s photograph to a vase of flowers, which Brewer holds here. Photo: Emilie Raguso

[Editor’s Note: Olajuwon Clayborn’s funeral will be held Friday, May 17, at 11 a.m. at Missionary Church of God in Christ, 1125 Allston Way, in Berkeley.]

Students and teachers in one of Berkeley High’s small schools were left reeling this week after a former member of their cohort was shot and killed in East Oakland over the weekend.

Those who knew Olajuwon “Lil Tutu” Clayborn, 17, described him as a sweet, quiet guy, a well-dressed ladies man who was passionate about basketball, and a dedicated student despite struggles in the classroom. Clayborn attended Berkeley schools from pre-school through 11th grade; he transferred to Castlemont High School in Oakland last fall for his senior year.

“If he loved you, he loved you to death,” said best friend Lonnie Brewer, 18, a Berkeley High senior in the school’s Communication Arts & Science (CAS) program. “He had your back. If I had an argument on the court, he’d be right there.”

Many who knew Olajuwon spoke of his close-knit family. Brewer said his friend was a “mama’s boy” who could often be found in close proximity to his mom, a single mother who had raised her three children on her own.

“He loved his mama,” said Brewer. “That was his twin. They talked about everything and they were always around each other. You see her, you see him. They had a relationship that most parents and their kids don’t have.”

Sunday at about 10 p.m., police say Olajuwon was outside with a 22-year-old Oakland man, in the 8600 block of Dowling Street in East Oakland near Olajuwon’s home, when someone walked up and shot them both. Olajuwon was pronounced dead at an area hospital at 10:26 p.m., and the injured man was taken to the hospital, where he was treated then released.

Police have not said what might have motivated the shooting or reported any arrests in connection with the homicide, which was Oakland’s 34th this year.

Olajuwon Clayborn playing basketball within the past few years at Berkeley High. Photo: Phil Halpern
Olajuwon playing basketball within the past few years at Berkeley High. Photo: Phil Halpern

Olajuwon’s cousin, 18-year-old Berkeley High senior Joneisha, said the young man was “one of the cool kids that everybody wanted to hang out with. He was quiet at times but, once you really got to know him, he was very outgoing.”

One of the places Olajuwon let his personality shine through was on the basketball court. He was a shooting guard, who grew up playing in Berkeley’s Young Adult Project basketball league.

“He loved to play basketball,” said Joneisha. “Couldn’t nobody get him away from the court.”

She said she learned of her cousin’s death Monday morning when a girl came into her classroom and asked: “Did you all hear about the 17-year-old who got killed in Oakland? His name was Olajuwon.” Continued Joneisha: “My heart just stopped.”

Monday night, many of his friends and family members came together at Olajuwon’s home to light candles and grieve his loss.

Lonnie Brewer said it was an emotional scene, with many people crying and offering each other support.

“He had a lot of people who loved him,” Brewer said Tuesday.

Friends and loved ones lit candles Monday night in East Oakland to remember Olajuwon Clayborn. Photo: Mariah Wright
Friends and loved ones lit candles Monday in East Oakland to remember Olajuwon Clayborn, whom many called “Lil Tu-Tu.” Photo: Mariah Wright

Brewer said he’d met Olajuwon in their Berkeley preschool where Olajuwon’s mother had been a teacher. The trio — joined by a third boy, Laquan Spikes — became inseparable after getting to know each other playing basketball, which Olajuwon’s mother coached. In elementary school, Brewer went to Malcolm X and Olajuwon went to Rosa Parks, but all three boys stayed close, regularly spending nights at each others’ homes.

“We were like brothers,” said Brewer, “We knew each other pretty much since birth.” The death of Olajuwon has been doubly tough, Brewer added, because Spikes was recently incarcerated, and is not due to be released for a decade or more. Brewer said the loss of both his close friends has been a lesson in seizing the present, and in trying to make the most of life’s opportunities.

“Prom, graduation, going to college, playing basketball, I gotta do it for him,” said Brewer, of Olajuwon. “I wish we were all together, but I don’t want to end up like my ‘brothers.’ This just motivates me more.”

Troy Flint, Oakland Unified School District spokesman, said, despite Olajuwon’s recent entry into Oakland schools, he was an “extremely popular and beloved student.” Olajuwon played basketball at Castlemont, and friends said he’d been getting A’s and B’s in his classes.

Hasmig Minassian, a Berkeley High history teacher who helps run CAS, remembered Olajuwon as very gentle and soft-spoken.

“He was really warm, really sweet,” she said Monday. “He had a really huge family community around him.”

Minassian said Olajuwon had entered CAS behind his sister, Kayla, who was a senior when Olajuwon was a freshman. Olajuwon was a CAS student for his ninth- and 10th-grade years, then transfered to the Berkeley Technology Academy, again following in his older sister’s footsteps, for his junior year. The two siblings would often meet between classes, and she helped anchor him in an academic environment that wasn’t always easy: “His older sisters’ friends were like his big sisters. He was well loved and well cared for.”

Monday, said Minassian, Berkeley High had grief counselors available to speak with students. In the morning, as the news spread of his death, many students came together to talk and grieve. “There was a whole range of emotions, but mostly shock and grief and sadness,” she said. “The kids were really supporting each other and being there together. School is one of the safest places for them to be after something like this happens. The grief is visible and they have a place to sit in their grief. And, sadly, it’s not the first time that a lot of these kids have been through something like this.”

Olajuwon in his early days at Berkeley High. Photo: Phil Halpern
Olajuwon in his early days at Berkeley High. Photo: Phil Halpern

Berkeley High teacher Leah Katz said Olajuwon would often talk about the strong, steady support he got from his older sister and brother, as well as his mom.

“His mom was very protective of him and a very, very good advocate for him in schools,” said Katz on Tuesday. “His brother was somebody he really, really admired and who told him he was capable of being a ball player and going after what he wanted in life.”

Katz said Olajuwon was known in his circle as an “incredible loyal friend” who had “really good, strong relationships” with the people in his life. She said she’d seen Olajuwon recently on the Berkeley High campus and also in Oakland, and had been struck by his growth.

“He was such a little guy when he started out in high school, but he really dominated on the basketball court,” she said. “He was a really good player. A lot of his relationships were built around his athletic prowess. He was just a little rascally kid. He would have this little twinkle in his eye, like he was up to something. He could be so serious in his face, but his eyes gave him away.”

She recalled Olajuwon’s struggles to do well academically, but said he worked hard to overcome his challenges and focus on assignments.

“School was not easy for him,” she recalled. “He had a lot of energy that he needed to expend to be able to sit down and do classwork. But sometimes he just needed to find a quieter place, like in a teacher’s room during a prep period, to be able to settle down and get the work done.”

Olajuwon by the basketball court at Berkeley High. Photo: Phil Halpern
Olajuwon at Berkeley High. Photo: Phil Halpern

Berkeley High English teacher Phil Halpern said he’d been quite upset to learn about Olajuwon’s death. He remembered the young man, whom he taught in ninth and 10th grades, as “quiet and attentive,” and “very good about accepting help from classmates and accepting help from adults. That’s why our community is as upset as it is. He really connected to a lot of people, just quietly in his own way.”

Halpern described Olajuwon as “an artist on the basketball court who expressed himself best in basketball.”

He too noted his former student’s difficulty in school, but said Olajuwon still made it to class every day, and had become more and more engaged over time.

“You could see in his eyes that he was taking in everything all around him,” said Halpern. “He was a young man of few words with a very active mind. When he smiled it really was radiant. He had a very sharp wit, but he didn’t share it often.”

Halpern continued: “It just doesn’t feel like our world did right by him.”

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...