A somber mood hung over an otherwise joyous occasion Friday as more than 600 seniors at Redondo Union High School accepted diplomas during a commencement ceremony that most will remember for the empty chair in the front row.
A gold plaque on the chair back marked the spot for Ryse Williams, the star Sea Hawks basketball player who died unexpectedly the day before from a rare and aggressive form of cancer that was diagnosed only Monday. His folded jersey with the number 0 lay on the chair.
The family of the 18-year-old was honored with special recognition at the ceremony on the Redondo Union High School football field. As relatives were brought to the stage, students held up fists with red wrist bands to honor the basketball standout who was named 2017 Bay League Most Valuable Player. Williams had committed to playing basketball at Loyola Marymount University in the fall.
A sister and a cousin collected Williams’ diploma and jersey. His parents reportedly did not attend the commencement, but on Thursday night—at a vigil in Williams’ memory at a Carson basketball court where he once played—his father said Williams suffered from renal medullary carcinoma. The young man had been hospitalized a little more than a week ago, according to head basketball coach Victor Martin.
For parents and friends who came to celebrate the high school graduation, the shock of losing a student so young and so suddenly added gravity to what was already a momentous event.
Sophomore Jayden Winfrey, 16, who came to the ceremony with fellow basketball teammates, said the whole basketball program is taking it hard. He said Williams was a leader both on and off the court. Mostly, he said, he would remember his bright smile.
“As soon as everyone heard they were crying,” he said. “I just keep thinking about his smile.”
In the months leading up to his hospitalization, Williams may have been showing signs of his illness, though it never appeared to slow him down on the basketball court.
“I remember one time he just hit a shot and then threw up,” Winfrey said. “He didn’t ask to be taken out and just went back to playing. That was the sort of player he was.”
Erin Demirel, who came to see her daughter, Madi Relaz, receive her diploma, said the news was very upsetting. Relaz, a volleyball player, had recently signed letters of intent along with Williams to attend Loyola Marymount.
“She was crying this morning and very emotional about it,” Demirel said. “I think a lot of the students took it hard. He was a real role model and a leader.”
Proud father Leland Green was perched atop the bleachers holding a sign with a picture of his son Jaland, who walked across the stage that afternoon.
“It means the world to see him out here graduating and getting his diploma,” Green said about his son, who will attend Morehouse College in the fall. “It was really hard to basically come to grips with what happened.”
Another father, Damon Bass, whose son Jace knew Williams, said the day was bittersweet —“to lose a teammate and good friend who you were looking forward to using this together as a springboard to the next stage of your life.”
“It’s definitely bittersweet to be starting your next chapter, but at the same time knowing that a friend of yours is gone,” he said.
Principal Jens Brandt told the graduating class to “remain humble,” “to seek to understand and then be understood,” and that “diversity is a virtue.”
“Throughout the school year, this class has experienced its share of challenges, some as recently as yesterday,” Brandt said.
Valedictorian Alysa Kataoka, who graduated with a 4.7 GPA, told her classmates to cherish the moments they spend together.
“We can never predict when we will share our last days,” she said. “Let’s make sure we live the rest of our chapters to the fullest.”