Freshman Armoni Sexton during a game against Becton Regional in January.

File/kevin r. wexler/staff photographer:  Freshman Armoni Sexton during a game against Becton Regional in January.
April 19, 2015

Armoni Sexton spent about five hours Saturday honing his basketball skills at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Paterson.

After a three-hour practice with his AAU team — the nationally renowned, Paterson-based Playaz — Armoni took extra shots and talked with teammates about putting in the work to fulfill his dreams. The 6-foot-7-inch, blossoming basketball star was as committed as ever to developing into the high-level Division I forward everyone expected him to become.

“He had an excellent practice,” Kiela Brevard, Armoni’s AAU coach, said Sunday. “He was smiling. He was happy.”

That was Armoni’s last time on a basketball court.

He was one of four people hit in a drive-by shooting Saturday night near Rosa Parks Boulevard and Godwin Avenue. Armoni died Sunday at age 15 at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson.

Coaches and teammates remembered Armoni, a freshman at Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology, as a caring, loyal person determined to make it out of the violence-ravaged Paterson neighborhood he called home.

“He was somebody who I knew would always have my back,” said Teaneck High School freshman Ja’Quaye James, a close friend and AAU teammate. “He grew up in a rough neighborhood in Paterson where — obviously we’ve seen with what happened to him — anything can happen. But he always tried to make the best out of everything. Even though his situation wasn’t that good, he always came to practice with a good motor, cheering everybody else on.”

Tommie Patterson, the dean of discipline and head varsity basketball coach at Paterson Charter, had a plan for Armoni — help him move out of the unforgiving 4th Ward as soon as possible. Patterson wanted Armoni to transfer to an out-of-state prep school following his freshman year, primarily because shootings are common in the neighborhood.

“Once he came to our school, it was a safe haven for him,” said Patterson, a city native who was a basketball standout at Kennedy before coaching at Paterson Catholic, Eastside and Paterson Charter. “He didn’t have to act like that tough kid on the block. In the area where he lived, he had to pretend like he was that type of kid, when he really wasn’t. He was a nice kid.”

Armoni immediately became a varsity star in his freshman season for Paterson Charter.

He averaged 18.4 points, 9 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, 2.7 steals and 2.1 assists in 20 games for the Lions, before transferring in mid-February to Princeton Hall, a prep school in Charlotte, N.C. Armoni returned to Paterson Charter after several weeks at Princeton Hall.

In what turned out to be his last game for Paterson Charter, Armoni scored a career-high 41 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, blocked six shots and recorded five steals in a 94-60 victory over Saddle Brook on Feb. 14.

Armoni’s freshman season was such a success, he was rated the No. 2 player in New Jersey’s Class of 2018 by, which evaluates high school talent throughout the state.

“He was a decent player when we first started playing together,” said Paterson’s Jamir Lattimore, a DePaul Catholic High School freshman who was Armoni’s AAU teammate for four seasons. “But then he kept going to the gym and working on his game. He improved a lot.

“He was always a person that could rebound,” he said. “But when he got older, he did everything. He could dribble like a point guard, he could shoot, he could rebound. To me, he was like another Andrew Wiggins. He was a high-level Division I player. He could’ve made it big.”

James also noticed Armoni becoming more mature off the court.

“He was changing for the better,” James said. “He switched his whole life around and he was going down the right path. Then something like this happens. You can’t really explain it.”

Additional story on Varsity Aces: