ST. PETERSBURG — On the court, London Bradley was the ball handler, the playmaker. He loved the pace of the game, the way conditioning and practice had forced his passing and shooting to a higher level, all through his teenage years.
A 6-foot-2 point guard, he was always directing the flow of play.
Basketball had kept him grounded and focused, bonded with the father who raised him and friends who shared his values.
Mr. Bradley was sprinting through a larger transition off the court, from an associate's degree in business management at St. Petersburg College to whatever was coming next.
Maybe that was Florida State University, or the Air Force.
He was playing basketball Friday evening when he collapsed and died after a seizure.
Mr. Bradley was 21.
He struck others as quiet yet confident, an honor roll student and a mainstay at the downtown St. Petersburg Publix. He exuded friendliness, competence and normalcy.
His Facebook page highlights two movies featuring strong male role models: Will Smith as Christopher Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness, the story of an ambitious entrepreneur who risks everything for his son; and Samuel L. Jackson as Coach Carter, the high school basketball coach who forfeited his undefeated team's games due to poor academic performance.
He plugged two local hip-hop artists: Shadcore, who is clean cut; and Marvelous Youngin, who is not.
Briana Hickman, a friend of seven years, called Mr. Bradley a "person who made your heart smile."
"He was always there for you," said Hickman, 19. "He made you feel more than a friend, like you were a sister or a brother to him."
London Donnell Bradley was born in Frankfurt, Germany, where his father, an Army section supervisor, was stationed. He moved to St. Petersburg at age 6 with his family, and remained with his father after his parents' divorce.
He was 6 when he fell in the kitchen and suffered a grand mal seizure. Occasionally he seemed to lose focus for several seconds at a time. His father called it "absence seizures," a term related to epilepsy (formerly petit mal).
The boy also stuttered and was sometimes taunted by peers.
He started playing Police Athletic League basketball at age 11. The game took over his life. He practiced passing and shooting with his father, two hours at a time.
At 15, Mr. Bradley wanted to play in an AAU youth league. He recruited his father, Toney Bradley, to coach a team.
The elder Bradley imposed a conditioning regime straight out of his military career. Players would maintain a 2.5 grade point average, run six miles in practice and make their free throws.
"If you shot 10 free throws and you miss four, you owe me 70 push-ups," said Toney Bradley, 50.
"I figured they'd just walk away from it," he added.
Instead, the team complied with the coach's demands, and thrived. The St. Pete Rattlers (who later changed their name to the St. Pete Suns) found they were just catching their second wind when other teams were gassed.
They won local tournaments, then played in Orlando. The team placed second in a tournament in Kentucky, and third in another competition in Missouri.
Mr. Bradley's game continued to improve over time.
"He was very good at distributing the ball," his father said. "He was really good at getting lost in the crowd, finding a spot and hitting the 3-point shot."
At Lakewood High, Mr. Bradley was staying on the honor roll. With help from teachers, his stuttering lessened.
He drove to work at the Publix on Third Street S in a 1997 Mitsubishi Galant he had bought with his own money. Mr. Bradley started bagging groceries there six years ago. The store moved him to cashier and customer service.
He divided his time between his school — where he had finished the requirements for an associate's degree — his job, family and friends.
Though people wondered over the years if he and Hickman were dating, they were just close friends, she said. Mr. Bradley offered his take on her romantic life, usually managing to make it funny.
"He would scorn me," said Hickman, who is entering a nursing program at St. Petersburg College. "He would say, 'You shouldn't be in this situation anyway!'"
Mr. Bradley and his father had planned to see Iron Man 3 Friday night at BayWalk.
But first, Mr. Bradley had to catch a couple of pick-up games. He drove to the outdoor concrete courts at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and quickly got involved in a 5-on-5, full-court game.
His team won the first two games. Mr. Bradley was playing defense during the third game when something happened.
"He was guarding the guy and he had a seizure," his father said.
He got up, but only for a moment. Another seizure.
Sometime after 9 p.m., Toney Bradley got a call from Bayfront Medical Center. He arrived in 20 minutes, expecting to learn about a basketball injury.
Instead, he was met by the chaplain. Then a physician.
"I didn't prepare to go down and hear that my son passed away," Bradley said.
A week later, he is still talking to his son.
"I tell him, 'God had better plans for you than I did.' That is the only thing that keeps me from going crazy."
The Pinellas-Pasco County Medical Examiner's Office is investigating the death. Meanwhile, Mr. Bradley's friends struggle to digest what has happened. The night before he died, Mr. Bradley and Hickman had stayed up talking until 3 a.m.
"Now we can actually talk about him without crying," Hickman said. "But it is going to take a little bit longer to actually accept that he's not here anymore."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.