“It was surreal. You hear about young people leaving us too early, but this was the first time I’ve ever lost a former player like this. I’ve lost friends and family to cancer, but never a player and never like this,” Anthony Staffiere says.
Anthony was Paul “P.J.” Flowers’ basketball coach through his senior year at Mercy. Anthony spoke of how gifted he was.
“He was one of those players who was position-less. He could play whatever I needed him to,” he says. “He had Division 1 talent. Man, could he score.”
In the 2007-2008 season, PJ played in all 27 games, starting in 17 of them. He was ranked eighth in the nation and second in the conference, averaging 2.6 steals per game. He picked up a career-high of eight steals in back-to-back games versus Bloomfield on Dec. 3, 2006 and NYIT on Dec. 9, as well as a career-highs of 19 points and nine rebounds versus Bloomfield on Jan. 4, 2007. Going a perfect 15-of-15 at the free throw line, he scored double-digits seven times.
Not only was Paul the best athlete Anthony has ever coached to this day, but he was always looking out for Anthony too.
“I would get roused up during a game and would just look at PJ’s face. He didn’t have to say a word because his expression always said it all: ‘We are ok, coach,’” and that’s all Anthony needed to see to calm down.
Even when the players became rattled during games, PJ was always there to cool them down. He never screamed or shouted at anyone. Instead, he would just give you that grin, which is why his players and coach would refer to him as “Chester The Cat,” and then after cracking a joke or two, he would put his arm around them and remind them that everything was going to be ok.
Anthony states those teams played hard, but didn’t win much, lacking size and depth.
“Many times he was the difference in most of those games,” Anthony states.
But PJ was not only a team player on the court, but off the court as well.
Jimmy Gunville, a freshman at Mercy College at the time, was having a hard season until PJ stepped in to help.
“He couldn’t defend a chair if you asked him to. But he had unlimited range (as a shooter),” Anthony jokes in fond remembrance.
But to no surprise, Paul took him under his wing. He would invite Jimmy to sit with him at lunch and would make it a point to hang out with him off the court. After much mentoring, Jimmy not only hit an important game winning shot during the season, but later became a starter.
You could tell how infectious he was because his teammates loved him. He was a brother-like figure not only to Jimmy, but to all of them.
“I can’t think of one person who wouldn’t say their favorite teammate wasn’t Paul,” Anthony says. “Those guys mourned more than anybody when he died.”
Anthony found out about PJ’s death from one of his teammates, Orlando Daniel, when he sent him the article from the Miami Herald explaining his death.
“Not only was it tragic, but it was heroic. He was a hero.”
At the time of his death, Anthony was coaching for Central Maine’s high school girl’s basketball team. One day before practice, he sat his team down and showed them the Miami Herald’s article.
“This is what coaches live for: To make heroes,” he tells them. “PJ had so much life. He was so successful after college; he had the drive and initiative and was a team player. He was everything a coach desires to see in players once they move on with their lives.”
Anthony reminisced with PJ’s teammates after his passing and vocalized that he would like Mercy to have its yearly alumni basketball games dedicated to him.
Though he hadn’t seen Paul in seven years, he still kept in contact with him via social media. He wrote to him:
“Thank you for putting up with me and my craziness and insanity. I’m extremely proud of you for becoming what we envision student athletes to be, not only heroic on the floor, but past that.”
Erin used to live on the same floor as Paul in the dorms.
“We always saw each other in the dorms but never said anything to one another,” she says, “until we had a journalism class together with Prof. Perrota.”
As most media studies would agree, Erin spoke highly of the what is now the Communications and Arts Department, not only because it was like one big family, but also brought her to PJ. He was a corporate communications major, and those students would often take media classes.
Though he was very focused on school and basketball, he was also the class clown and because of that, everyone knew his name. He was the master prankster.
“He would set up garbage cans in front of people’s dorm room, and when they would open their door from the inside, the can would tip right over into their room,” Erin says as she lets out a loud laugh.
But for all the funny things he did, it wasn’t what she remembers most.
Erin’s last semester at Mercy, she found out she was going to be a mother. Her friends threw a baby shower for her and of course, PJ was there supporting her 100 percent.
“He told me, ‘You’re going to be a great mom. You have one lucky kid on the way,’ and I will never forget those words.”
Though PJ will never have the opportunity to see her daughter grow, he will always be a part of her child’s life just by believing in her ability to raise the child in the exact way she has.
When PJ passed, Erin was devastated and shocked.
“I hadn’t talked to Paul since we graduated from Mercy,” Erin states, “But I didn’t cry. I couldn’t.”
Knowing how PJ passed away, Erin commended him for being a hero.
“He did a selfless act. It was so Paul.”
The word proud first comes to mind. She is nothing but proud of him for putting himself on the line to save someone else’s life.
“It was admirable and because of that, I don’t get sad with Paul. I praise him because he went out a champion.”
When Edwin called Jaemes late that night, he knew something was wrong, and after he hung up the phone with Edwin, he couldn’t sleep.
“Both Edwin and I knew deep down inside that the worst had probably happened, but we didn’t want to believe it. We expected to see him at work the next day,” Jaemes says.
As he lay in bed wide awake with fear of getting that dreaded phone call with bad news, he began reminiscing on the first time he met PJ and the memories they shared until this point.
“My first impressions of Paul weren’t spectacular. He didn’t talk much and didn’t seem interested in the position,” Jaemes says as he speaks of his experience interviewing Paul for a job.
Jaemes ran his marketing business for 1st Line Global in the U.K. and wanted to expand to the U.S.
But as many people’s first impressions are, he was very wrong about the man he nicknamed TP, short for Tall Paul.
“I pre-judged his quietness with someone who was born miserable. He was just so humble.”
TP’s first day in sales was a complete success.
“He rocked it! He was so approachable and he was just what I needed,” Jaemes enthusiastically says.
His dedication and talent was impeccable, and because of that, PJ was extremely close to being manager.
“I was about to have him open up his own office in New York, so that he could be closer to home and his mom,” Jaemes says.
But now he will never get that chance to live his dream.
If there was one thing all his colleagues appreciated about him, it would’ve been how grateful he was with everything in life.
When TP first started working for Jaemes in Miami, he didn’t own a suit. “So we bought him a suit. He didn’t take it for granted at all and was so grateful. And man, he looked sharp as hell, too,” Jaemes says.
Those few months in close quarters helped them grow closer not only as colleagues, but as friends. Sabrina too. Sabrina and PJ were roommates and colleagues. But more than that, he was like a father figure to her.
“When he didn’t come home that night, I typed his name up in Google and saw that there had been a body found,” Sabrina remembers.
At work, she approached Edwin and asked where PJ was and Edwin shrugged it off because he didn’t want to scare her or any other employees before they knew the full story.
The moment she found out, she was shocked.
“How the hell did this happen? He was such a big guy. Indestructible,” she continued, “It sounds like something that would happen in a movie so I didn’t believe it until I went into the office and he wasn’t there.”
Sabrina recalls her favorite memory with him, and thought, “Which one would he want me to tell?”
She remembers awhile back when PJ sent her an email about his expectations and goals for her.
“At first the letter angered me, but then I realized I needed to hear it and it was eye opening. That was him being that father-figure to me and I needed it.”
She cherishes that note now and wishes he was still there to tell her how it is, and give her life advice.
“I miss you,” she says quietly, “Your family will be well taken care of and we will look after them for you. I’ll see you soon.”
Edwin still shakes his head in disbelief.
“Everything is my fault. I convinced him to go to that party in the first place,” Edwin despairingly says.
Would things have ended differently if he had stayed awake? Or if there had been no alcohol on the boat?
Some members of PJ’s family began reaching out to Edwin through social media, blaming him for their loved ones death.
“What do I say back to his family? Do I ignore them? Do I try to be comforting? Do I tell them I just don’t know?” Edwin says with confusion and heartbreak.
He didn’t even have a chance to soak it in himself, and people were already contacting him with questions and condemning him.
This is what Edwin knew. Paul moved down to Miami for his family. Paul told Edwin he wanted to change his family tree. He was seeking a better life, mainly for his mother. He wanted more for her. That’s what he knew.
Edwin’s first day back at work, he simply stopped. He looked in the corner where PJ was supposed to be sitting. The desk was empty. He wasn’t there and never would be again. He was gone.
Colleagues began coming up to him, and instead of giving him their shoulder to cry on, it was the other way around.
“I didn’t know how to be this shoulder for them because I hadn’t been able to cope with it yet myself.”
At 1st Line Global, the employees learned something important: You are your brother’s keeper.
“Paul taught me that. He taught me that it’s up to you and you are in charge of what happens in your life and your surroundings.”
The business shook when Paul died.
“He wanted to help anyone in any way he could. He worked six days a week and never complained. He helped people more than anyone ever expected of him.”
To this day, Edwin still blames himself completely.
“You’re not supposed to question God, but it just doesn’t make sense how this was in His will,” Edwin’s voice quivers.
He will always feel as if he could’ve done more and because he didn’t, PJ, his family and close friends will miss out on so many memories with him.
Jaemes is about to propose to his girlfriend, and though PJ didn’t know it, Jaemes was going to ask him to be his best man in the wedding.
“…and I robbed Jaemes of having that,” Edwin mumbles.
But life moves on. Edwin will always appreciate the memories they shared and will eternally feel a strong loss for one of the most influential people in his life.
“Thank you for changing my life. You were my brother and I love you. You’re the reason I am where I am now, and I will never give up because I’ll be doing it for you.”
Jaemes went to PJ’s funeral back in New York, and it was surreal.
“I was able to say goodbye and get my closure. It took me awhile to accept the situation, but going to his funeral helped.”
Getting him home wasn’t going to be easy, and it was going to be costly. With PJ’s body in Florida and his family in New York, his mother wanted to ship her son’s body back home but discovered it would cost $35,000. As desperation took over, she decided to produce a Gofundme page in hopes that people would donate in honor of Paul.
“The company donated a large amount, and then assisted in managing the Gofundme site to help his mom,” Jaemes says. “We just wanted to finish off what Paul had started.”
And clearly, they did. As of eight months ago, with the help of 282 people, $25,290 was raised.
Shortly after, the friends and family who loved him decided to honor him by playing the sport he loved.
On Aug. 14, the first annual Paul Flowers Memorial Game was held at Rucker Park in Harlem. In remembrance, the Hostos All Stars played against Paul Flowers All Stars, and afterwards reminisced about the good ol’ days and shared their stories of Paul. Bob McCullough, a mentor to PJ, helped organize this event and felt honored to be able to do so.
“I knew him since he was 19. He was my little brother,” McCullough says as emotions took over his voice. “I felt guilty. I tried to prepare him for life but didn’t mentor him on the afterlife.”
He sighs. “I just didn’t have enough time.”
Following the faint sounds of sniffling, quietness filled the phone-line for a few moments, until he gathered himself to speak up just one more time. “I have to go. I’m getting emotional.”
And just like that, as the sound of the line went flat, McCullough was gone.
Jaemes understands that feeling too. As he stood on the basketball court that ultimately shaped PJ’s life, he took a deep sign and let the memories soak in.
“It made it real. Seeing that court and people lining up around to show respect made it so real.”
When he spoke to PJ’s mother, his heart broke realizing she lost her son. He lost a friend and an employee, but she lost her son.
“I’ll be telling my children stories of him and I hope that when I have kids, I can do what his mom did and raise my kids the way Paul was raised.”