The school year is well under way, and I’m back teaching at New Mexico State University. But I can’t stop thinking about my summer in Chicago. And Marshall High School. And Shawn Harrington.
As a boy, I attended Chicago public schools for 11 years, and then stayed put for college. Chicago is also where my wife and I have spent the past 10 summers, to duck the heat of the Southwest and visit some of my old haunts. Our tiny apartment is in what we call “leafy Ravenswood,” an idyllic North Side neighborhood where the biggest hassle is that the bistros on Lincoln Avenue are too pricey.
Four years ago I began spending a lot of time in a very different part of Chicago, the West Side. What I’ve witnessed there since 2014 is what now keeps me up at night. Let me see if I can explain.
In the 1980s and ’90s I also passed countless hours on the West Side, convincing black teenagers to travel 1,500 miles to play college basketball. I was a college assistant coach, a basketball recruiter, and this urban enclave was fertile recruiting ground for sleepers—young men who would not be going on to play at Kansas or Duke but could rank among the best players in our conference. Our teams were well stocked with Chicago kids. In my 14 seasons coaching at UTEP and New Mexico State, I was a regular at high school games, summer leagues, rec centers and tournaments across the West Side. Often I was the only white person in the building.
I met Shawn Harrington in 1992, and he was the primary reason I returned to the neighborhood when I started coaching at New Mexico State. He had been a stand-out at city powerhouse Marshall, and I recruited him to play for our 1995-96 team. The story gets murky here, but Shawn played one great season for us before transferring.
A few years after that, I quit coaching altogether. Shawn and I lost touch for 20 years. I was living not only in a different state back then, but also a different world, strolling the halls of academia, lulled by the university life, isolated from my old hoops connections—and the West Side of Chicago.
That changed five years ago on January 30, 2014, when Shawn and his daughter were on their 7:30 a.m. commute to school.
Shawn was working as an assistant coach and educational support person at Marshall; his daughter attended nearby Westinghouse High School. While waiting for a stoplight to change, shots ripped through the windows of their rental car—his own vehicle had been stolen a few days earlier. Shawn pushed his daughter down and blanketed her with his body a second before a bullet pierced her headrest. Another bullet hit Shawn in the spine. He instantly lost feeling in his legs, and now he’s confined to a wheelchair.
The shooting was a case of mistaken identity, but it received plenty of media attention for a few reasons. First, Shawn had acted with astonishing courage. Also, years earlier, he had appeared in a few scenes of the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams. Finally, he was a former college basketball star who had earned his degree. The diploma meant that he had choices and did not have to return to the West Side. He came back mostly because he had fathered a child—the girl whose life he would one day save.
The tale of Shawn’s heroism spread through the city, and while so many shootings are forgotten, or not even reported, his quickly became a sort of true “urban legend.” The hole in the headrest, the unharmed teenager with shattered glass in her hair, screaming until he calmed her and told her not to panic—“We’re fine, call your mom and tell her you’re OK, then call 911”—all the time with a bullet lodged in his back.
Shawn’s troubles were just beginning.
Ninety days after the shooting his paychecks stopped because he couldn’t perform the “educational support” duties he had been hired to do, working with special education kids. Marshall has no elevator, so following students from class to class and monitoring their progress was impossible. His healthcare vanished soon after his paychecks, and despite the fundraisers I and others helped organize, his medical bills were piling up. A single rehab session cost $850, and Medicaid would not kick in for two years. It all made my head spin.
So I did what I have been doing since I left coaching. I decided to write a book. Remember, I’m an academic now, and writing a book to shine a light on a topic is what we are supposed to do. I continued to advocate for Shawn, calling on everyone I knew to help with donations, or seeking an introduction to someone who could help him land a job he could perform—where he might again thrive. I started scribbling notes, paying more attention to the news, and, for the last four summers, looking closer at the West Side community, only this time, not for basketball prospects.
You might already know about Marshall’s iconic status in the Chicago basketball scene, and not just because of Hoop Dreams. The Commandos have a long record of great, undersized, over-achieving teams. They also have Dorothy Gaters, perhaps the best high-school basketball coach in America. She coaches the girls, and she’s won more than 1,000 games. What makes Marshall unique is that it’s practically one single program. The boys’ and girls’ teams share everything except locker rooms: offensive sets, gym times, scouting reports and zone presses. And pride. And they win. But that doesn’t protect them from the stupefying violence in the streets around the school.
After Shawn was paralyzed, a staggering string of events unfurled over the next four years in the mostly apathetic city of Chicago. Just a few short months after Shawn survived, a former Marshall player named Martin Satterfield was shot six times, including twice in the face. Satterfield lived, but like Shawn, he’s now in a wheelchair.
Several months after Satterfield was shot and paralyzed, another Marshall hoops alum—Shawn Holloway—was killed. Although he had already graduated and his playing career had been sporadic, his murder rocked the school.
Next came Tim Triplett. He had once scored 50 points in single game—against Marshall. But the whole school celebrated when he transferred to Marshall for his senior year. He was admired for his bubbling charisma and charm, and he was good enough that he likely would have earned a full scholarship after two years playing at a junior college—just as Shawn Harrington had once done. But in the spring of 2015, Triplett, then a redshirt college freshman, was murdered at lunch time on the West Side.
A few months later, Marshall alum Marcus Patrick was killed on Augusta, the same street where Shawn was shot.
Next, a former player named Keyon Boyd, whose nickname at Marshall had been “Smiley,” was murdered in the middle of the day.
That made five former Marshall basketball players, all of whom had graduated, shot on the West Side over the course of two years. Four of them were dead, and one of them would likely never walk again. And, of course, there was their coach, Shawn Harrington, who was still struggling with rehab. Each killing rattled Shawn, re-traumatized him. He stopped going to the funerals.
The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times cover gun violence, but the shootings are so common that they’re difficult to track—Wait, I’ve read this story already, right? Yet this collective tragedy, this Marshall-specific epidemic, was becoming a story in itself. Eventually the New York Times picked up on it. Soon after that, Chicago native Bryant Gumbel came home to interview Shawn for a segment on HBO’s Real Sports. Gumbel’s piece was called “The Hooper’s Pass,” about the long-extinct safety that ballers could once claim.
In October of 2016, less than three years after Shawn and five other Marshall alums had been shot, Edward Bryant was murdered. The difference this time was that Edward Bryant was a current Marshall player, a genuine Division I prospect at 6-5. That shooting—before the first game of his junior year—also claimed the life of his twin brother Edwin, a Marshall football player.
Another alum was killed six months later. James King had been Marshall’s undersized senior center the year Shawn Harrington was shot. This one really shook Shawn, as he had worked with King in class for three-and-a-half years. He was laid back, an old soul, and like Shawn, King had been shot in a case of mistaken identity.
In an all-too-common story in Chicago, nobody was arrested for any of the seven player shootings. (Martin Satterfield declined to cooperate with the police investigation.)
Four years after they shot Shawn, two young men were sentenced to 59 years each. Truth-in-sentencing laws in Illinois dictate that they’ll be in their mid-70s before they see a day of freedom.
By then I had piles of notes and a headful of confusion and sorrow. My editor had made it clear that the book was to focus on Shawn Harrington. But with each shooting—particularly the killing of Tim Triplett—the book, like the West Side, seemed to spin out of control. Still, the manuscript was due in September of 2017. I weighed heartbreaking tragedy after tragedy and tried to figure out how much space to devote to each young man.
Finally, there was a bit of an upturn, if not a “happy ending.” Arne Duncan, the former United States Secretary of Education and CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, was able to get Shawn’s job at Marshall repurposed so that he would not have to travel beyond the first floor. The lack of elevator would no longer be an issue.
Shawn began to work sporadically as a Restorative Justice Counselor, interacting with troubled kids and students affected by gun violence. He has not been able to return to coaching at Marshall—the gym is on the second floor—but this was a new generation of kids, anyway. The players who had waited anxiously for their popular assistant coach to return had all graduated. Shawn began to focus on his youth team, a crew of preteens he’s worked with since they were in third grade.
The book was published in May, but even an academic knows that merely writing a story, or appearing at bookstores, does not fix things. The killings—the ones connected to Marshall High School basketball—continued.
This past July, Cedric Williams became the seventh murdered Marshall basketball player.
In August, yet another Marshall football player was murdered—after a basketball game on August 16, outside the “Golden Dome” fieldhouse in Garfield Park. Shawn grew up playing there; it’s the closest city park to Marshall. Today, there’s even a spring youth tournament there named in his honor. But that night, after the Marshall frosh-soph played, a scuffle broke out among some fans. That’s when a boy pulled out a gun and shot Kenwon Parker in the chest, killing him. Kenwon had simply been watching his friends play basketball. He was 16.
Another kid was killed, too. He was 14.
Police could not legally hold the alleged shooter for long. He was just 13.
Chicago’s West Side residents don’t wish for summer like most of America. When warm weather creeps into the neighborhood, more people mill about on the street, and a dreadful sense that things could go horribly wrong at any second rolls in like bad weather from Lake Michigan. It is only in October, when the weather cools, that people can imagine the quieter winter season on the horizon. Instead, some West Side residents actually look forward to snow and ice because it will mean fewer people outside, and thus, less violence. As the total shootings have gone up, the number of arrests—and the ages of shooters and victims—have decreased.
Meanwhile, I’m pretty comfy back in New Mexico. I don’t even lock my house, let alone my car. That’s the danger of academia, the trap. Maybe you live in a place where you can ignore the violence, too. At the university, everything becomes theoretical, rhetorical, and that becomes a sort of cushy sedative. We’re thinking, writing and talking about it, and that’s enough.
Two years ago, Shawn had the idea to start a West Side basketball tournament called “Hoops for Peace Chicago.” Players get a free book, and if they’re old enough, they can register to vote and be organ donors. It all started as a theory, but now it is tangible.
Shawn gets it. He gets it in a way that few professors do. I’m trying to get it, though, and if I don’t spend too much time in university meetings, maybe I’ll have a chance. I’ll keep in touch with Shawn Harrington again this school year. Even the least successful coaches hold out hope each winter that, no matter how remote, this could be the beginning of a better season.
Rus Bradburd’s most recent book is All the Dreams We’ve Dreamed: A Story of Hoops and Handguns on Chicago’s West Side.
Photos via Getty.