Photo by Chris Casella

The Ghost of Estaban

I’m sitting in a small townhouse listening to a legend. His name is Estaban and he tells me about his life, all the best and worst things about himself. We talk about how he became one of the greatest basketball players the city has ever seen. His eyes grow wide and his long limbs extend outward. He takes puffs on a vape pen in between stories. Incense hangs in the air. He traces his rise and fall, the tumultuous journey of Estaban Weaver. He was destined for the NBA, for greatness, and everyone knew it.

Except he never made it.

He damn near vanished.

He has a familiar story, so familiar that nearly every city has an Estaban, a man of a hundred names. In Chicago, he’s Ronnie Fields. Seattle knows him as Doug Wrenn. He’s Raymond Lewis in Los Angeles. He multiplies in New York—Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Lenny Cooke, Ed “Booger” Smith, Pee Wee Kirkland. College Park remembers him as Len Bias.

But in Columbus he’s Estaban, the cautionary tale of otherworldly basketball talent gone astray.
This is the story of the Ghost.

An ascent like Estaban’s is usually told in anecdotes, brief flashes along the way to riches or ruin. His story has no shortage of those.

There was the time he played in a shootout tourney at Capital against some of the best high school talent in the Midwest, including future Celtic Antoine Walker. Estaban outperformed the ninth and 10th graders and held his own against the upperclassman. He was in seventh grade. He was ranked as the best incoming high school freshman in the nation at a Nike basketball camp a year later, and at only 15, his game was already mature beyond his years.

There was the game his AAU team played against Kobe Bryant’s, the two rising stars trading buckets until Estaban’s team edged out a win. Once, while at Bishop Hartley, he missed a shot early in the game, and Bedford Chanel’s best player couldn’t resist taunting the unanimous number-one prospect: You’re not so bad! You’re not so bad! Estaban was unfazed. He buried Bedford, piling up 45 points. He was a gifted ball-handler, hardnosed on defense, an exceptional passer, and extremely athletic. Major college programs like Ohio State and North Carolina sent scouts to watch him play when he was in middle school. He had the spotlight of the nation on him, and he had a plan: four years at Hartley then on to the NBA.

But if the highlights seem familiar, the valleys are just as recognizable—the common pitfalls of wayward basketball dreams. There’s a sense among certain people close to him that there was no real reason he didn’t make it; other players have been accused of worse and succeeded anyway. Yet the stories of Estaban’s problems pile up like a mountain of ash. Perhaps there was no single cause, but there are a multitude of little ones, the thousand venial sins that killed his career. He skipped class too often and cared too little about his grades. He attended three high schools and two colleges. He was quick-tempered with coaches. He fathered a child too young. He liked to party. He drove drug dealers’ cars and spent their money openly. He dealt a little weed himself, and smoked a lot more. He was arrogant.

The road to greatness is littered with the remnants of the gifted—those who were sidetracked, waylaid, discarded, ignored. Given the impossibly long odds of any player making it to the NBA, perhaps it’s no surprise that Estaban didn’t succeed. What is surprising: he hasn’t been forgotten. Within the circle of NBA and college stars from Columbus, stories of his conquests on the court are still traded back and forth with great fanfare. And if they dare to forget, he returns to remind them of his name.

They call him Estaban because that’s what he calls himself, but that’s not his real name. His God-given name is Lorin Weaver. Estaban is his middle name, his basketball nom de guerre. It fits his playing style, rare and flashy. The problem is that Estaban and Lorin have been at odds for most of his life. Estaban was a showstopper, providing pure entertainment 32 minutes a night. But that brief time on the hardwood became the only way most people knew him, and he resented not being able to live the other 1,408 minutes of his day as he saw fit.

“When I say, ‘I wanna be Lorin,’ that means I wanna step away from basketball,” he said. “I don’t wanna be Estaban right now, I wanna be Lorin.”

He was raised in Poindexter Village and the Windsor Terrace projects. He inherited his basketball talent from his father, whose older brother Dwight “Bo” Lamar played for the Lakers. His dad taught him the game, but he developed a serious drug habit in the late ’80s and drifted away from the family. To make matters more complicated, Estaban had been told falsely that another man was his biological father, and he spent years seeking that man’s influence and approval. There weren’t many people in his life shielding him from negativity or teaching him how to deal with the attention that came with his number-one national ranking.

Friends and relatives were along for the ride, too. There was a vacuum.

Among the few exceptions were his grandma and his coach at Hartley, Tim Birie. He lived with his grandma while he attended Hartley, to be closer to school and farther from the rough neighborhoods where he grew up. She was the glue that held the family together—her presence and Estaban’s basketball games. The family all went to watch him play, and then they assembled at his house afterward.

His God-given name is Lorin Weaver. Estaban is his middle name, his basketball nom de guerre. It fits his playing style, rare and flashy. The problem is that Estaban and Lorin have been at odds for most of his life.

“I’m lookin’ around, lookin’ at my family, and everybody’s happy. You know what I mean? Everybody’s together because of me,” he said. “So if that’s what I had to do to keep my family close, then shit, so be it.”

Birie picked him up most mornings to take him to school, and they talked about life during the daily trips. The two became like father and son, and Birie tried to shield him from the negativity of the public eye, often diverting attention from Estaban or taking the blame when there were problems. Estaban achieved the pinnacle of his success at Hartley. He was named first team All-Ohio and runner-up for Mr. Basketball after his freshman season, according to Birie, and Hartley made it all the way to the state semifinal in his sophomore year.

But it was short-lived. When Birie resigned after the state tournament due to a falling out with Hartley’s principal, those who cared most about Estaban pushed him to a prep school called Maine Central Institute to save him from the corrupting influences in Columbus. He was kicked out of MCI about six months later and moved back home, where he enrolled at Independence to be closer to his younger sisters Candace and Starr.

He became teammates with Kenny Gregory, a fast-rising talent also making a national name for himself. Unfortunately for Estaban, he and Gregory’s careers were pointed in opposite directions. His return to the city meant a reunion with undesirable influences, including high-volume drug dealers and vultures drawn to his celebrity status. He felt like he was showing loyalty to friends, family, and people from the neighborhoods where he grew up, but their presence tarnished his reputation. Yet it seemed that everyone still wanted to see him play, and no matter how he behaved, no one stopped him. He had no license but drove Benzes with 30-day tags; he was flush with drug money; he played stoned. 

Estaban and Gregory were both named Parade All-Americans, and Gregory was named Mr. Basketball in Ohio. He played four years at Kansas and was an honorable mention for All-American after his senior season. Meanwhile, Estaban never graduated, didn’t enter his name in the draft, and major colleges backed away.

“One of the problems, I thought, with Estaban is that he had been told how good he was for a long, long time,” Mike Gillespie said. “And we tried to hold Estaban accountable for all of the actions that he was doing on the court and off the court, and I think that was a big change for Estaban.”

Gillespie was the coach at Tallahassee Community College, where Estaban landed. Despite knowing about his troubled past, Gillespie decided to offer him a chance anyway because Tallahassee had success before in helping players in similar situations. Estaban went down for a visit. He said he was deceived into taking his GED and signing a letter of intent, a charge Gillespie emphatically denied. But Estaban eventually decided he was better off in Florida anyway, away from the troubles and pressures of home.

“I couldn’t ever have a normal conversation with a person once they figured out who I was,” he said of his interactions in Columbus. “When I went to Florida, nobody knew me. You know how happy I was?”

The TCC Eagles won their first 21 games in Estaban’s freshman season, and he was one of the team’s best two players. But then he failed a drug test for marijuana and was kicked off the team a couple days later, he said. Gillespie disputed parts of this account as well, saying that Estaban was offered help but chose to leave instead.

“As good as he was, at that point and time—because of the drug—he wasn’t better than his problems,” Gillespie said.

And so he was off again, returning to Ohio to play for Central State University, a historically black institution an hour southwest of Columbus. He had to sit out a year, and again he felt deceived because he said that he was told he would be eligible to play in his first season if he enrolled there. He wanted to leave, but he still had his eyes on the NBA, and the big knock against him was that he was unstable and switched schools too often. His mother begged him to stay, so he relented. He played the following season, and scouts from Midwestern NBA teams showed interest. He led CSU to a Sweet Sixteen birth in the NAIA tournament.

And then it all fell apart again. According to Estaban, CSU coach Michael Grant kicked him off the team, alleging that Estaban hadn’t taken a required class. Estaban felt that the decision was personal; the two had problems ever since he was deemed ineligible for his first season. (Grant, now the head coach at Coppin State, didn’t return phone calls for an interview.)

“When I left Central, I was done with basketball,” Estaban said. He all but disappeared, and people in local gyms began calling him by a new name—“Ghost.”

For years afterward, he was just gone.

Estaban emerged from a golden era of basketball talent, maybe the greatest collection of players the city has ever witnessed at one time. He shared the court with the likes of Gregory, Michael Redd, Samaki Walker, Calvin Booth, and several others, and for a while he shone brighter than any of them. Yet Ryan Conley had never heard of him. Conley was interested in making a documentary about the most heralded players of the mid ’90s, but he kept stumbling across Estaban Weaver, a name he didn’t recognize despite growing up in Columbus as a basketball fan. He’d found his story. Estaban had turned down movie pitches about his life before, but after persistent cajoling from Conley, he eventually agreed to participate in the film by Conley and Mike Raine, the cinematographer and co-director.

They started the project nearly a year and a half ago, now in post-production and aiming for release in January. The documentary—titled Who Is Estaban—provides footage and interviews with the movie’s namesake. His story is also told through the eyes of his childhood friends, ex-coaches, scouts, former college stars, and NBA players, all discussing his reputation and his renowned skills in those halcyon days when he was the greatest.

“Columbus is football crazy and everybody knows that, but there’s secretly this really tight-knit and well-respected group of basketball players in the city,” Conley said. “They all have such great things to say about Estaban, both on and off the court, that it kinda blew my mind.”

Among the film’s revelations is the resurrection of the Ghost—the point when Estaban finally returned from his five-year, self-imposed exile after his inglorious departure from Central State. He played for a now-defunct team in the International Basketball League called the Marysville Meteors, but his legend grew exponentially after he began appearing in local tournaments and the Worthington Summer League. Years after he’d stopped playing competitively, he was again squaring off against former and current local stars—sometimes players he grew up battling, and some of whom were now making millions of dollars to do it for a living.

“I’d go watch him in the Worthington league, and he’d be playing against those NBA guys,” said his former coach, Tim Birie. “And he was as good as they were, if not better.”

Conley recalled his favorite of Estaban’s legendary exploits on the court: a few years ago, former OSU star Evan Turner participated in a charity tournament called the RNB Classic not long after the Sixers drafted him second overall. He recognized all the other players except Estaban. He asked who he was, maybe in front of Estaban. Maybe he said Estaban didn’t look like much. Regardless of the particulars, they guarded each other during the game. He held Turner in check; Estaban scored 55. When the game was over, he told Turner—Now you know who I am.

“He had such a sense of theater, of when to show up and when to do the big things like that just to kinda keep his legend alive,” Conley said.

But how much was Turner actually guarding him? Did Estaban really score 55? What if it was 35, would that be less impressive for a man a decade removed from high-level competition? The exact details hardly matter; they warp and grow over time. This is how his myth breathes, passed on and on from the mouths of fans. People love to talk about him. They always have.

As Estaban and I sit in his townhouse, him leaning forward on a deep armchair, I ask him the question—why didn’t you make it?  He’s not a particularly loud person, but he’s usually intense, vacillating between guarded and animated. Now, he gets quiet.

“Everything just ain’t meant for everybody, ya know?”

The NBA draft is a lottery after all. Everyone can’t win. It would hurt more if he was the only one who didn’t make it, but there are plenty of others out there with similar stories. And for a long time, it did hurt. It’s hard to walk through life knowing that things should be different. It’s hard passing by people on the street and seeing them turn to one another and whisper—Man, he was supposed to make it.

“It took a lot for me to get to this point to be able to open up and tell you about the things that hurt me, tell you about the things that make me cry, tell you about the things that make me sad, that make me happy,” he says.

He doesn’t regret the NBA, the paths he took, the decisions he made. He does have regret, though. As a 17-year-old Hartley star he had a daughter, and his pursuit of his own dream didn’t leave much time for him to raise her. She was well taken care of by her mother and his family, but he wishes he’d been a better father to her.

Now, he travels to rec centers and talks to kids and players on elite AAU teams about his life. He hopes his story hits home with one of them. Just one. Then maybe that one can reach another, and so on and so on. When Birie was still coaching basketball, sometimes he’d ask Estaban to speak at one of his camps. Estaban did whatever he could to fit it into his schedule.

He and Birie don’t talk as often as they’d like, but they’ve always been close. (“Coach!” Estaban says when I mention his name, and “I love him to death.”) One of the most surprising things about Estaban is how much everyone genuinely likes him, even those he gave hell. Mike Gillespie reiterated several times how much he likes him, before and after I asked about Estaban’s accusations against him. Estaban and Conley have also developed a good relationship (“That’s my guy,” Estaban says) despite the fact that Conley maintained from the beginning that he would tell both the good and bad from Estaban’s story. The documentary won’t be a 60-minute highlight reel.

Estaban’s story is cautionary, but it’s not a tragedy. He’s  happier than he’s been in a long time. He’s got a part-time job detailing cars at his cousin’s dealership, and he’s got a longtime girlfriend, Ashli, and she’s got an adorable 5-year-old son watching cartoons upstairs.

He’s on a competitive 35-and-over traveling basketball team. This past summer he was the scoring champion, first team all-league, and the MVP. He’s still gifted—he’s got raw talent buried somewhere deep in his marrow—but it’s not like when he was young. He comes home with his body locked up and stiff, and his girlfriend makes jokes at his expenses and helps him to bed: C’mon old man, let me help you up the steps.

Or sometimes he’ll relax in the living room after he gets back from a game, his feet in ice buckets and his knees wrapped tight. He’ll sit in front of the TV and watch old basketball film to find plays he can teach to his teammates to help them win, a bunch of middle-aged men sweating and cursing and killing themselves to be the best for a few dozen minutes at a time. Because when you strip away all the bullshit that never mattered—the spotlight, the lifestyle, the pressure, the rules, the trappings of success—when you strip the sport down to its bones, Estaban loves basketball more than most people love anything.

The last thing he says before I turn off my recorder and leave his apartment: “I just wanted to be a basketball player—no more, no less.”

Who Is Estaban is scheduled to premier at the Gateway Film Center sometime in January. Check the documentary’s Facebook page (here) for more information.