MARIETTA, Ga. - Fielding pointed insults from the opposing fans in the first row of the visitor stands at Wheeler High School's basketball arena, the nation's top basketball recruit gets loose, smiling and laughing at their taunts, especially when he misses a warm-up shot.
After a standout summer on the prep basketball circuit, point guard Isaiah Collier committed this fall to the University of Southern California. So for now, the stress on the recruitment side of his life has simmered down.
But Collier still has to listen to the heckling hurled at him, home or away, each time he steps on a high school basketball court.
He said he's used to it, so it doesn't bother him.
But amid all the pressure of trying to bring another championship to the Wildcats and trying to live up to sky-high recruiting hype, Collier has been working through a deeper kind of pressure amid a family tragedy this summer.
Coach Larry Thompson – or Uncle Larry to Collier – shares a deep grief with his star point guard that drives the Wildcats this season.
Thompson's son – Collier's cousin – Khalil Hardison tragically drowned while swimming in the Chattahoochee River in August. He was just 21 years old.
"My son Kahlil, they were really, really close," Thompson told FOX 5 Sports. " think that's what motivated him right now. I think that's what's driving him."
"That was my best friend, really," Collier said. "I mean, it's taken a real toll on me. So I mean, I'm just trying to see the positive, praying every day, knowing he's in a better place, so that's what it is, really."
Around the same time as his cousin's sudden death, Collier was working to come back from an injury and raise his recruiting profile during the pivotal summer basketball showcase season.
"Oh, it was hard. But I had to think of the positive that was going on in life," Collier said, his voice trailing off. "I just came off an injury. I actually just got back from an Elite 24 camp so just seeing him pass away, being there, it was kind of hard, but I also got to look at the good. I won MVP like right before he passed, the day before. I just know that we were having fun. Like, everything was great."
Adding to all that pressure already on Collier's shoulders, immense grief crashed down.
"I mean, I get emotional for every game, knowing he would have been here at every game, so I get real emotional like that," Collier said. "I have to say, I faced a lot of adversity, challenges going through, especially this year. So, I mean, it's been a really tough year, a tough senior season, but I'll say I handled it pretty well. Even though it's been hard, some days, it's better than others, but, I mean, I don't think (God) makes a mistake for no reason."
"It's been really tough on him, really like super tough on him, where, you know, days of games is tears and emotions right before games," Thompson said. "He would say be the first to he haven't played his best, and I think it's because he's carrying a heavy heart. He's trying to carry so much.
"He is being asked to do a lot of things and carry some stuff for the family as a whole, and he's he's doing a good job of it. But I think that Kahlil his cause is really an added motivation and one as he's going to look to for years to come, probably for the rest of his life."
Helping coach and superstar, uncle and nephew, get through this family tragedy together has been finding their way on the court – and living up to the promise to "live like Khalil."
"The phrase means everything to me. He lived a great life. Always energetic, always smiling. I wear name everywhere," said Collier, who wears a purple wristband engraved with that promise to "Live Like Khalil."
To him, he said it means: "Don't take anything for granted really. So, taking advantage of everything you doing at the time when you're doing it, just being happy, living life to the fullest. That's what it is for me. Just another cheering everybody on."
"Khalil wasn't a complainer. He was a doer," Thompson said, touching his worn "Live Like Khalil" bracelet. "And I think that's one thing that I'm trying to do is just not complain about it because we all have our times with how we deal with and how we persevere with it. But doing things how I think that he would do it is just continue to go. Learn how to cope and deal with the emotions and just every day put one foot in front of the other and try to be the best you can be on that particular day.
And sometimes you think about a day. The day is a little long. So I try to say the next 15 minutes or the next 5 minutes to just try to get through and not be so high with emotions are so low with emotion, just try to be even-keeled. And that's really hard to do at times. But being able to, to, to move on and share and pour into these kids because these guys behind me have been a driver for me, being around them every day and being able to share with them through the game of basketball is what keeps me afloat on a day-to-day basis."
Wheeler lost the Class 6A state championship game last year in a chance for what could have been a three-peat. After a difficult and unique cross-country slate to start the year, the 11-6 Wildcats are deeply motivated to add another banner to their rafters, now moving up a classification to Class 7A.
"Definitely motivated after everything I went through this year, so I would definitely say I'm just trying to do everything for him, team's trying to do everything for him," Collier said. "I mean, he was around all the whole team, really. So just trying to do everything for him, knowing what he would have wanted for us and what he would have done."
"At the end of the day, basketball is one thing that kind of brings us together and we share that at at a big at a big time level," Thompson said of his bond with his nephew. "So it works for us."
Sharing basketball and a motivation to "live like Khalil," who surely is proud looking down on what his Wildcats are up to this season.