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When two former UCLA basketball players committed suicide, they left behind more questions

LOS ANGELES – Billy Knight seemed quieter than usual the last time he spoke with his younger brother Eric. They discussed the NBA’s summer league and players they thought might emerge as budding stars.

It was an attempt to lighten the mood and steer clear of the grim reality facing Billy, a former UCLA basketball player accused of repeatedly molesting a minor.

Billy proclaimed his innocence during the early July phone call and said he was hoping a preacher could help him sort through his troubles.

Before he hung up, Billy made a promise that comforted his brother: He would not hurt himself.

“I never imagined him wanting to actually go through with what he did,” Eric said.

A day later, Billy was dead at age 39. Firefighters found him on a roadway near downtown Phoenix after he jumped from a building. He took his own life, leaving a goodbye video in which he acknowledged living “a life of sin.”

Knight’s suicide came only one day after another tragedy rocked the UCLA basketball community.

Tyler Honeycutt, another former Bruin who recently returned from playing in Russia, seemed troubled when he spoke with his former high school coach, Bort Escoto. Honeycutt thanked Escoto for all he had done since their days together at Sylmar High. But other things Honeycutt said left Escoto unsettled.

Honeycutt, 28, was conflicted about his basketball future and clearly was uncomfortable about the possibility of going back to Russia for another season. Escoto planned to visit Honeycutt at his home in Sherman Oaks on the evening of July 6, but the player’s mother called before the meeting, saying her son was acting erratically and that she had called police.

A lengthy standoff with a SWAT team ensued, with Honeycutt barricading himself inside the home and exchanging gunfire with officers. When police entered early the next morning they found him dead. The Los Angeles County coroner determined he shot himself in the head.

Two deaths. Two entirely different scenarios. So many questions left unanswered.

“I have no words and I’m numb, then I just start crying,” Cori Close, UCLA’s women’s basketball coach, wrote as part of a lengthy Instagram tribute featuring a picture of a smiling Knight in which she detailed the ways he helped her program. “I am really going to miss you! Let’s catch lunch in heaven.”

A tribute video posted on the Twitter feed of Honeycutt’s Russian team the day after his death showed him smiling and shimmying in front of laughing teammates. The images were familiar to anyone who saw him during his two seasons at UCLA.

“He was always very upbeat and had a great disposition about him,” recalled Ben Howland, Honeycutt’s coach with the Bruins.

The fun-loving Honeycutt was the unofficial team barber. He joked that he would open a salon and call it “Honeycutts.”

It was obvious that Honeycutt had pro potential when, as a sophomore, he scored 33 points at Kansas early in a season in which he earned a first-team All-Pac-10 selection.

The 6-foot-8 forward declared for the 2011 NBA draft, but concerns over inconsistency and less-than-maximum effort dropped him to the second round. Sacramento took him with the 35th overall pick.

Honeycutt never made an impact over two NBA seasons in which he appeared in only 24 games, averaging 1.2 points and five minutes. His struggles were compounded by a stress fracture that kept him out of summer league and training camp.

The Kings traded Honeycutt to Houston as part of a six-player deal in February 2013, but he logged time only in the development league before being waived a month later. He never again appeared in an NBA game.

Honeycutt played in Israel, Turkey and Russia, helping BC Khimki win the EuroCup championship in 2015. He wowed fans and judges a year later by jumping over five people in front of the basket while becoming champion of the Turkish Basketball Super League dunk contest.

Playing alongside a handful of Americans, including former Sacramento teammate Thomas Robinson, Honeycutt had just put together what might have been his finest season as a pro. He was BC Khimki’s third-leading scorer, averaging more than nine points and five rebounds.

“He was having a really good career,” said Howland, who kept in touch with his former player. ” … It wasn’t like he was over there floundering.”

Success on the court masked a darker reality. Honeycutt told those close to him that he felt isolated spending nine months a year away from home in a place where few people spoke English and he felt unwelcome.

He had hoped to land another shot at the NBA by playing for Oklahoma City’s summer league team but injured a knee.

That left Honeycutt with what seemed like Plan Z. He could sign with one of his former teams in Israel or go back to Russia, which had offered a few hundred thousand dollars more than its chief competitor, but the latter offer brought the possibility of another bleak winter.

“I told him, ‘If you don’t want to go, don’t go,'” said Escoto, a father figure and adviser. “It’s not that serious. I mean, there’s more to life than just money. I told him, ‘You’ve got what, five years left, six years left, and then you’re finished? It’s not about just playing basketball.'”

Some parts of Honeycutt’s life appeared to be coming together. He had recently proposed to his longtime girlfriend, a fellow UCLA alumnus, but Escoto grew concerned because Honeycutt repeatedly canceled meetings with his former coach.

“I know that’s not him,” Escoto said, noting that Honeycutt was one to show up early for workouts and set an example for dependability.

The LAPD’s report said Honeycutt’s standoff with police started when officers responded to a call about a man “possibly under the influence of an unknown narcotic, hallucinating and suffering from an unknown mental illness.” Honeycutt was believed to have thrown items within the home and been in possession of a handgun as well as a shotgun.

After officers blocked off the area and made contact with him, Honeycutt fired at police, who returned fire, according to the report. After crisis negotiators failed to make contact over the next several hours, SWAT team members entered the home and found him dead in a bedroom.

Honeycutt’s mother, Lisa Stazel, contested the police account, telling Israel’s Sport 5 that her son died as a result of police gunfire. Stazel told the channel that Honeycutt had promised not to hurt himself and that she saw a blood trail inside the home afterward, indicating to her that he had crawled into a closet and lodged furniture against the door in an attempt to defend himself.

Stazel did not return a message seeking comment. Results of the toxicology report on Honeycutt are pending.

Escoto said he never knew Honeycutt to take drugs and couldn’t make sense of what happened to someone who seemed so buoyant.

“Here was a kid who wouldn’t even get into a fight, let alone harm himself or anyone around him,” Escoto said. “That’s just not him. That’s not his personality. I still don’t know what happened, what was going on or what he was thinking. It was just a shock. It wasn’t the Tyler that I knew.”

Billy Knight enjoyed an unlikely rise to basketball stardom.

His career might have ended at Westchester High had his father not stationed four towering dummies on the family’s Ladera Heights backyard court, forcing the teenager to perfect a high-arcing jump shot that helped him land a UCLA scholarship.

It remained an uphill climb. Knight barely played in his first couple of college seasons and was contemplating a transfer to Long Beach State when, he told reporters, a homeless man named Carter scolded him into trying harder for the Bruins.

Knight returned to the team and scored 22 points in an upset of No. 1 Stanford in February 2001. He helped UCLA reach an NCAA tournament regional semifinal that season and the next, scoring 21 points during a first-round romp over Mississippi and averaging 14 over the two tournaments.

Not selected in the 2002 draft, Knight headed overseas and played in France and Japan. He later worked as a basketball operations assistant for the Northern Arizona Suns of the developmental league and served as a shooting coach for Phoenix Suns players while former UCLA teammate Earl Watson was the team’s head coach.

Eric Knight started to notice something different in his brother over the last year, when Billy added an unusual line to his resume: credit coach. In one recent Instagram video, Billy posed with businessman LaVar Ball next to a luxury car while pitching a credit service.

“If you want to get your credit right,” Ball said, “you better talk to the credit coach, man.”

As Ball spoke, the camera panned to Billy, nodding furiously. The endeavor surprised his younger brother.

“I was like, ‘OK, that’s not my brother,'” Eric said. “I’ve known him always to be about basketball.”

Eric had not spoken to his brother as much in recent months since Billy relocated to Arizona.

“He started to kind of isolate himself,” Eric said. “He was always a busy guy, but now I’m like, wow, he did kind of start to not come around as much, not call as much, around that time.”

Two days after Billy posted his Instagram credit coach video, he was arrested on six felony counts related to alleged sexual conduct with a minor between April 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018. Court records show he was alleged to have engaged in sexual intercourse or oral sexual contact in addition to touching, fondling or manipulating a preteen girl’s breast.

An attorney representing Knight declined to discuss the case, citing client confidentiality.

The nature of the charges prompted several former UCLA teammates to decline to discuss Knight, who was known for model behavior.

“He was really well raised, and the kids (in his family) were very well mannered, very respectful to adults,” said Dinos Trigonis, a longtime Southern California club coach and camp director. “They were very polite; they were more listeners than talkers.”

Eric said the charges against his brother didn’t jibe with the man he knew. Billy posted $100,000 bail and told his brother he didn’t do anything wrong. But in the hours before he was found dead, Billy posted a six-minute goodbye video on YouTube titled “I Am Sorry Lord” in which he admitted to a host of transgressions.

“I lied, I cheated and I stole,” Billy said. “For many people, I was a taker and that’s why my life ended up where it is now.”

One of Eric’s high school friends informed him of the video, sparking a mad rush to contact Billy. Calls went unanswered. So did Facebook messages.

“Any method I could, I tried to reach out to him,” Eric said, “and by that time I think he already had his mind made up.”

The deaths of Knight and Honeycutt have sparked conversations among UCLA athletic officials about ways to help the school’s alumni deal with mental health issues. UCLA’s Grand Challenges initiative has commenced a comprehensive depression study of 100,000 people to help better understand the disease and formulate treatment methods.

Bruins radio broadcaster Josh Lewin recently launched the web site to create a forum for people dealing with anxiety and depression. The site will include links to stories from 90 athletes and entertainers detailing their issues and ways in which they combated their problems.

“The thought (is) that, my God, if Kevin Love doesn’t see this as a stigma and is so open about it,” Lewin said, referring to the NBA All-Star who has acknowledged experiencing mental health issues, “maybe it’s not so embarrassing to admit that this is something that I deal with too.”

Escoto said he was bothered by social media posts assigning blame in the wake of Honeycutt’s death.

“Everyone wants to play Monday morning quarterback and say, ‘You could have did that, you could have done that,'” Escoto said. “You know, we can’t predict what happens in life; it just happens. And I just want everybody to remember that he was such a great, great kid. He really was.”

In his farewell video, Knight talked about having a mental illness and hearing voices. He said he ignored people who tried to help him but hoped to assist others facing crises.

“I thought I could do it on my own, when in reality you can’t really do it on your own,” Knight said. “You need to get help. Now I’m lost in life and I feel like there’s no hope.”

Billy left Eric his UCLA memorabilia, a collection of unused shoes from his various basketball stops, and questions that may never have answers.

“That’s all I’m dealing with right now,” Eric said. “I want to know what really happened. As far as I can tell you right now, it’s just so opposite of what I’ve known Billy to be. Growing up, our mom and dad were great parents, a great household. So how can that turn into something that is pretty sickening? And you know I just hope that … I hope he didn’t do it.”

In one of his final Instagram messages, Billy posted a picture of himself sitting on the edge of a massive canyon, legs crossed and hands resting on his knees. He looks at peace.

Sprinkled amid the comments next to the photo castigating Billy for his alleged acts are messages of love and the search for a deeper meaning to his final days.

“Why does depression exist,” one message says. “Why.”

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Former UCLA basketball player Tyler Honeycutt is pictured in January 2011. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Former UCLA basketball player Tyler Honeycutt is pictured in January 2011. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

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