To his parents, he was the glue that held his family together. The middle child in a blended family with 11 other siblings, Khalil Saleem truly embodied the meaning of his name, which translates to “friend” in Arabic.

He was 17 years old when he was killed in a drive-by shooting last weekend, one block from where he lived with his dad, stepmom and his younger brothers and sisters.

His father, Khalil Saleem Sr., said he gave his son his name, but they couldn’t have been less alike. Sure, the pair bonded over sports, books and cars, and at times they would cook or work out together, but even then, “I was the bad Khalil, but he was the good Khalil,” his father said.

“Everything that I wasn’t, that’s what he was.”

An undated photo of Khalil Saleem Jr. and his dad, Khalil Saleem Sr. Photo courtesy of Kameelah Saleem.

Khalil Jr. was the oldest boy in his family and had been living with his dad in Long Beach for about two years. He grew up in Moreno Valley with his mother and five older sisters, but when they relocated to Georgia in 2020, the boy decided he wanted to stay in California.

“That was my dream,” said Khalil Sr.

His mother, Unnette Harvey, said over the phone that he chose to stay so he could attend high school with his younger brother Khaliq. He wanted to protect him, she said.

At Lakewood High School, Khalil was quick to make friends.

He had an excitement for life that was contagious, said Harvey. “He was all of the things I prayed for … All of that plus more.”

He joined the football team as a junior, and although he was unable to play during that year due to transfer eligibility issues, his coaches said he still came to practice every day and worked hard.

“What stood out to me the most was he still came to practice, even though he knew he couldn’t play,” said Lakewood football head coach Justin Utupo. “He still pushed to make his teammates better.”

An undated photo of Khalil Saleem in his high school football uniform. Photo courtesy of Unnette Harvey.

Khalil wasn’t on the team roster this year, as he was in an accelerated program making up credits to allow him to graduate on time. He’d attend Lakewood two days out of the week while doing the rest of his work at home, but according to his mother, he sent her a text last Friday to let her know he’d caught up and was finally able to go back to Lakewood full time. His first day back full-time would have been this upcoming Monday, Jan. 30, and he was so excited to start running track and field, she said.

And that’s only one of the goals he was on the cusp of achieving.

He had recently interviewed for a new job and was anticipating a phone call telling him he was hired. He told his dad he couldn’t wait to turn 18 on March 30, so he could finally get his driver’s license and drive himself to prom. He told his mom he wanted to wear brown and gold, and he already knew who his date would be.

After graduation, Khalil planned to join the Navy, and he wanted to play football there, too.

On Wednesday morning—four days after he was shot—his parents got a call from school administration informing them that Khalil went beyond catching up and actually completed all the credits he needed to graduate last semester. He had already achieved his biggest goal, and he never knew it.

‘He was just playing basketball…’

The day of the shooting, Khalil received a text from a friend asking him to play basketball at the park down the street, his father said. It wasn’t unusual for him and his brother Khaliq, 15, to spend time there.

The two boys and a few others were at the basketball courts on the south side of Silverado Park in West Long Beach when three of them were shot during a gunfight between someone driving by in an SUV and an unidentified person who was also at the courts around 1:51 p.m., according to the Long Beach Police Department.

When the shots rang out, Khaliq ran home in terror and thought Khalil was following behind him, his father said. He ran to get his mother, and when they arrived back at the park shortly after, they saw that Khalil had been struck.

Witnesses told Khalil Sr. that the last words they heard his son say before he was shot were: “Where’s my baby brother at?”

“Every day I wake up, and it’s a nightmare,” said Khalil Sr.

He was in Las Vegas, where the family often splits time, when the shooting took place. He received a call from his wife, and when he heard the panic in her voice over the phone, he knew something bad had happened.

Like any parent, Khalil Sr. feared that his children might get injured badly in a car crash or maybe suffer a broken bone—but not this.

“I never feared for my kids getting shot and killed,” he said.

“For someone to do this to my baby is not right. My heart is so broken,” Khalil’s mother said over the phone Wednesday, her voice trembling with sobs. “He was just playing basketball. … He was just being a kid.”

As of Friday, police said there was no new information available about the shooting. The motive remains unclear, and no additional suspect information is currently available, as the SUV fled the scene before officers arrived, police said.

One of the other victims remains in the hospital in stable condition, while the third victim was released and is recovering.

‘Even in spirit, my baby is still making me proud’

Growing up as the only boy in a household full of girls, Harvey said Khalil Jr. was always their protector, and whenever tensions arose, he was the voice of reason.

An undated photo of Khalil Saleem, his mother, Unnette Harvey, and five sisters. Photo courtesy of Kameelah Saleem.

The last time she saw her son was a few weeks ago, when he flew to Georgia to spend Christmas with her and his older sisters. Harvey said she cherished the moments they’d spend together, and when they were physically apart, they’d often fight over who could say, “I love you more,” over the phone until someone inevitably hung up.

The day before he left Georgia, Khalil gave his mother one of his sweatshirts and told her he had too many. She had no idea that just two weeks later, it would mean more to her than anything.

“Now that I have that, I have something to hold onto at night,” said Harvey.

The family says that the outpouring of love they’ve received from the community for their son has been overwhelming. Since Saturday, Khalil’s mother has received dozens of calls from kids he grew up with expressing their grief. “They can’t even get two words out before they start crying,” she said.

In Long Beach, Khalil Sr. said Mayor Rex Richardson extended his condolences over the phone earlier this week, and on Twitter, District 8 Councilmember Al Austin said his “heart aches” for the family.

At an emotional vigil held at Silverado Park on Monday evening, family, friends, neighbors and former teammates came together to honor him.

“Even in spirit, my baby is still making me proud,” said Harvey.

Now, as the family struggles to make sense of what happened, they want to make sure no other family experiences similar pain.

Khalil Jr. did not live a life of crime and violence, his father said, and he’d like to one day use his son’s story as a way to prevent kids from going down the wrong path. Harvey said she would love to start a foundation in his name one day, too. “I do not want his death to be in vain,” she said. “Things need to change.”

The family has planned a second vigil honoring Khalil Jr. at Silverado Park this Saturday at 1 p.m. and is currently raising money on GoFundMe for funeral costs. As of Friday afternoon, the family had raised $10,076 of the $20,000 goal.

Mike Guardabascio contributed to this report.