So it would appear.
Bit Player Turns Star
Shawn Harrington was one of the bit players in “Hoop Dreams.” A sophomore point guard at Marshall who moved from the junior varsity to the varsity during that glorious 1991 tournament run, he had his own star turn a few years later. After bouncing around several colleges — during which time he both got a degree and became a first-team Division II All-American — Harrington returned to the West Side, where he raised a daughter and eventually became an assistant coach for the Marshall basketball team. His first year as an assistant, 2008, Marshall won the state championship that had eluded the “Hoop Dreams” team.
“When I left for school,” he told me when I met him this week, “my mom said she hoped I would never come back. She was happy that I was away. She didn’t have to worry.”
“I had the dream like any other player in Chicago to play in the N.B.A.,” he added. “But God had another plan.” Then he pushed his wheelchair up a small ramp and joined me by the dining room table in his small, well-kept apartment.
Harrington, 41, originally returned to the West Side because he had just fathered a daughter and he wanted to be a real parent — not an absent father as his own dad had been. By 2014, he had etched out a life he was happy with: In addition to his assistant coaching duties, he worked with special-ed students at Marshall, and operated a small “scouting service” that was meant to help Chicago basketball players land college scholarships. He viewed his life’s work as helping youngsters in the neighborhood where he grew up, and he became a proselytizer for the importance of education in achieving a better life. Like many former athletes, he saw sports as a means to that education.
Eleven years earlier, Harrington’s mother had been killed when she mistakenly walked into a house that was being robbed. “That was a rough patch,” he recalled. “I donated mom’s organs, which helped three people. God was preparing me for this.”
By “this,” Harrington was referring to his own shooting. One of his daily rituals was driving his daughter, Naja, to high school. Early one morning in late January in 2014, with Harrington’s car in a repair shop, they set out together in a rented white sedan. At the corner of Augusta Boulevard and Hamlin Avenue, in the West Side neighborhood of Humboldt Park, a shooting had just taken place involving a white sedan. When Harrington and Naja drove into that same intersection, the men who had been shooting at the other white sedan opened fire, thinking it was the same car.
Harrington lay on top of his daughter, trying to protect her. “Daddy, I don’t want to die,” she cried. By the time the shooting stopped, she was unharmed, but he had been hit twice; one bullet went through his back and damaged two vertebrae, causing him to lose the use of his legs. He has used a wheelchair ever since.
The Grim Roll of Victims
The person who brought Shawn Harrington to my attention was an assistant professor at New Mexico State, Rus Bradburd. A former college basketball assistant coach, Bradburd had recruited Harrington to New Mexico State from a junior college. Harrington left the school after one year, and the two men had lost touch. But when he heard about the shooting, Bradburd visited Harrington and has since been a constant in his life, helping him in innumerable ways. (Bradburd is also writing a book about Harrington, which is to be published next year and is tentatively titled, “All the Dreams We Dreamed.”)
In the course of our conversations, Bradburd made me aware that Harrington was not the only former Marshall High basketball player to have been shot in recent years. Most of them had been coached by Harrington. Tim Triplett, star of the 2014 Marshall team, was killed in April 2015 — just a few years after his brother had been killed. Martin Satterfield, shot six times in the spring of 2014, is now paralyzed. Shawn Holloway was killed in early 2015. Marcus Patrick and Keon Boyd were killed this year. And two months ago, Edward and Edwin Bryant, 17-year-old twins who were sophomores at Marshall, met the same fate. Edward, a talented 6-foot-5 forward, was becoming a star of the basketball team, and Edwin played football for Marshall.
“The violence has always been there,” Harrington told me. “When I was in high school, it was bad. But back then, gang members protected the athletes. They’d say: ‘Get out of here. Go back to school.’”
Indeed, that’s why Steve James didn’t focus on gun violence when he was filming “Hoop Dreams” — athletes, especially basketball players, had a carve-out on the street. Regular newspaper coverage of high school basketball turned players into celebrities. Gang members, some of whom had once played basketball themselves, wanted to see them succeed. There was an “unspoken alliance” between gang members and basketball players, said Bradburd, who grew up in Chicago and spends his summers there.
And sometimes not so unspoken: “Hoop Dreams” has a remarkable scene at a sporting goods store where Agee and a friend are buying clothes, paying with a thick wad of bills. Agee explains to the camera that they got the money from drug dealers. “They’re thinking they can give us stuff and keep our career going,” he says.
In 1984, when Benji Wilson, a heralded high school player, was shot and killed, the news was shocking not only because Wilson was considered the next great Chicago talent, but also because it simply didn’t happen: Basketball players were supposed to be immune to the violence that was so prevalent in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
So what has happened? First, the nature of gun violence on the West Side has changed. Twenty years ago, the gangs were fewer in number and better organized, and most of the shootings were among gang members. “These were well-organized gangs who were mostly fighting over turf,” said Alex Kotlowitz, the great chronicler of Chicago’s poor.
Today, gun violence feels much more random, and people can be killed over the tiniest slights, including insults on social media.
“The morality has changed,” said Dorothy Gaters, Marshall’s athletic director and Hall of Fame girls’ basketball coach. “People are getting shot for blowing their horns.”
Harrington told me that Marshall itself is a safe haven for students during school hours, and Gaters agreed. But the school can’t protect the students once they leave the building.
Second, athletes no longer seem to be protected the way they once were. Gang members simply don’t seem to care anymore whether or not athletes succeed.
Vince Carter, who coaches the Chicago Demons, a youth traveling team that Edward Bryant played for, told me that the Bryant twins were standing on a corner not far from Wrigley Field around 3:15 a.m. (The Cubs had lost a World Series game that night.) Although the hour was late, the neighborhood was relatively safe. They were gunned down in a drive-by shooting. The killers have not been apprehended, and no one has any idea what the motive might be — if there even is a motive.
That’s why even though Chicago had 928 homicides in 1991, the city felt safer than it does in 2016, a year in which it had 739 homicides as of Wednesday. “Even though there were more murders, and the gun violence was greater, it felt more circumscribed,” said James, who in 2011 made a film with Kotlowitz about gang violence called “The Interrupters.” (Gates and Agee escaped Chicago’s gun violence, but they each had close relatives who were killed after “Hoop Dreams” came out.)
A Life Changed
Even if you survive being shot, it changes your life irrevocably — and never for the better. Harrington’s circumstances today are pretty dire. He hasn’t been able to return to work at Marshall because the school does not have accommodations for wheelchairs; it does not even have a freight elevator that might allow him to go from floor to floor. He is essentially confined to his apartment unless someone takes him out. He lives on $300 a month in Social Security, $175 from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a.k.a. food stamps) and the generosity of family. Although he says he is still coaching Marshall players, it is a volunteer gig now.
“He’s been abandoned,” Bradburd said. “It is a failure of America.”
Not completely abandoned, though. Dale Brown, the former basketball coach at Louisiana State University, heard about Harrington and took up his cause. In 2015, Harrington was named coach of the year by the National Consortium for Academics and Sports. This year, during the Final Four, he spoke on a panel with Brown and Shaquille O’Neal at the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention. During the event, O’Neal and Brown gave him a check for $40,000 to buy a wheelchair-accessible van.
Harrington remains relentlessly upbeat. He has a machine in his apartment that allows him to stand and put weight on his legs, and he firmly believes that he will walk again someday. He corresponds regularly with Bradburd and Brown. He is trying to shepherd a group of pre-high-school basketball players — “teaching them,” he says, “to be student athletes, and use it to get an education.” He checks in from time to time with Martin Satterfield, the former Marshall basketball player who is also paralyzed.
Ever since he returned to the West Side all those years ago, Harrington’s goal has been to help young people find a better life. Even from a wheelchair, that hasn’t changed. “I’m glad to have the opportunity to help kids in my community,” he told me.
To help them succeed and achieve, yes. But also to help them find a path where they won’t end up dead or maimed, victims of the scourge of gun violence in Chicago.