The Marshall Commandos, West Side legends of high school basketball, were immortalized in Kartemquin’s iconic documentary “Hoop Dreams” in the the nineties. Cameo player Shawn Harrington, a point guard at Marshall High School, was recruited to New Mexico State University then returned to coach at his old school in Garfield Park. When he was growing up, players benefited from a “hooper’s pass”—freedom from violence. But these days, athletes and coaches are no longer safe. Gunfire erupted one morning in 2014 while Harrington was driving his daughter to school. As he shielded his daughter, Harrington was shot and paralyzed. His former NMSU recruiter Rus Bradburd picks up the story in “All the Dreams We’ve Dreamed: A Story of Hoops and Handguns on Chicago’s West Side.” The moving, riveting book is set amid health-care failure, racism, corruption in basketball, counterproductive education policies and union callousness. It covers the murder of Harrington’s mother in a home invasion and the shootings of many of his young players, as well as surprisingly upbeat tales of tenacious coaches, hard-working players and family members desperately wanting a safer life for their kids. Bradburd, Harrington’s friend, fundraiser, advocate and documenter, talks about the book and the people in it.
How are Shawn Harrington and his family now? Is he still working the job he finally got?
The book has a slight upturn at the conclusion when the Chicago Public Schools finally figure a way to repurpose his job. Shawn’s struggles have continued, however. I guess it should be no surprise that he’s been diagnosed with PTSD and he worries constantly about his daughters and the Marshall High School kids. So he’s working only sporadically and it has not been the inspirational return we’d all hoped for when I was done writing the book. Yet he is so much better than he was in the aftermath of the shooting.
You had not had any contact with him for a long time before he was shot. You clearly felt uncomfortable about how you had recruited him then helped push him out at NMSU. What was it that propelled you to first push his story to Joe Nocera of the New York Times?
I think the writing of the book was complicated by the fact that I was advocating for Shawn. I believed the more attention his story got, the easier it would be to cover his spiraling healthcare costs. Chicago, it seemed to me, had become numb to the violence, which is understandable in some ways. I think the story needed a fresh take and Nocera often writes about gun violence and NCAA sports, so he seemed like a natural. The story tipped then, and that led to HBO showing interest.
Nocera wrote “Indentured,” a book about the exploitation of young basketball players by the NCAA. You suggest in your book that you were manipulating recruits like Shawn. What changed in your view of how your recruits were treated and when did that happen?
I had been hyper-aware of the influence I was having on kids’ lives early on in my coaching career. I mean, Chicago players don’t grow up wishing they could sign on in El Paso or New Mexico, so it was going to be a stretch to get them there. And the nature of recruiting is friendship and trust between an adult and a teenager. Maybe my background as a benchwarmer at North Park College gave me a different feel for the entire big business aspect of Division I sports. Anyway, after Shawn’s shooting, when he told me about his benefit game, I just blurted out “I’ll be there!” Then I figured I’d thumb through some old basketball programs, in order to prepare for seeing him again—as you might for a business meeting. That jarred my memory: oh yeah, that’s how it went down and that dredged up my role, both in befriending him and in his leaving New Mexico State.
I notice that you dove in and replied to responses to the New York Times’ article. There was a lot of “individual responsibility” talk. That seems to deflect away from structural issues around poverty, gun crime and opportunity in city areas that haven’t seen much investment or protection from recession, especially the Great Recession. How do you feel about that?
A common take on Shawn’s story from outsiders is that if Shawn had a degree and plenty of game, why not go play overseas? Why come home to the West Side at all? By that measure, though, we can say that Martin Luther King might still be alive today if he’d quit preaching and moved to Seattle to be a car salesman in 1965. At some point, somebody has to stay behind and battle to make things better. The entire West Side can’t pick up and move to a better neighborhood.
You talk about being wary of not appropriating Shawn Harrington’s story. How did you make peace with that idea?
Shawn has a different take on much of the story and I wanted first to honor that. But I think where our very different views intersect is that we both very much want his life to stand for more than it might at first glance. I also think that it’s hard to read the book and not think “Shawn is a hero/Rus is not.” I think there’s a desperate sense of atonement behind the writing. It’s not the White Guy saving the day. Rather, he’s trying not to make things worse than he already did.
There have been many books (and films) by white guys about city violence and inequity. Why another? How is yours different?
Well, first, I don’t offer any solutions. When I lived in Belfast, in the north of Ireland, I had seen how Americans, new to the scene, had all the answers to the violence and I knew how shallow and counterproductive that could be. In writing the book, I was hyper-conscious of the clichéd story of the White Guy who comes in and saves things, or is in some way heroic. At Marshall—and all over the West Side—there are teachers, coaches, community workers and activists who have spent the better part of a lifetime trying to make things better. Yet, sometimes it takes an outsider—and I’m both, an insider because of my history/ an outsider due to age, geography, economics, race—to tell the story. Also, more so than most authors, I was deeply invested in Shawn’s story and was before I began writing. I’m a character in the book, which is less common.
Gun violence, basketball, Marshall, gender equality, the impact of charter schools—you cover a lot of complex subjects under the umbrella of Shawn’s story. Some I had read in other books, but I learned a lot of new things, e.g. that families often get split up in schools. What did you learn along the way? Was it hard to contain the scope?
I think my views seep through the text, but I mostly only wanted to tell one person’s story: Shawn Harrington. And while I had a lot of answers when Shawn was first shot, I have fewer answers now. I think it’s a complicated situation, but I don’t think charter schools have helped, or the closing of fifty public schools. Or jailing teenagers for marijuana. And I think that segregated schools are a bad idea. And nothing ruins a neighborhood like an unsolved murder. And there used to be 120 murder detectives but now there are eighty. Where the book really started to veer out of control was when Tim Triplett, Marshall’s star player in 2014, got killed. I don’t think you really have a nonfiction book until you have two stories to tell and Triplett gave the book an important thread. He nearly stole the story, he had that kind of charisma and influence, even after he was killed. People still post on his Facebook page constantly.
What do you want people to take out of this book? Who do you hope will read it?
I think what Shawn did to save his daughter was a breathtaking act of heroism. I want him to be honored for that, first and for people to consider how a man as courageous as Shawn could fall through the cracks in America. And I hope people will consider that Shawn is one of thousands. Thousands.Wanting to tell one person’s story evolved into one school’s story, I suppose. There’s something about the telling of a story that gives you the feeling of control and understanding. I hope that in this case that Shawn finds some peace and understanding in having his own life laid bare.
Gun violence in some neighborhoods and in fact, around America, seems intractable. Detractors of Chicago often point to our strict gun laws in order to demonstrate gun laws don’t work. Where are all the guns in these neighborhoods coming from and who is supplying them?
No idea. But unless there’s a national registry, it’s going to be easy to get guns from Indiana etc. Build that Wall!
How is this happening under the noses of police, aldermen, other authorities?
Well, I think that’s only part of the question. It’s happening under the nose of all of America. That’s why I’m so anxious to get things solved in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, Yemen and other places. When we’re done there, maybe we can focus on Americans and Chicago.
This is a tough but riveting book to read. On one hand, you have incredibly dedicated teachers, staff, coaches, including Shawn Harrington, community members and young people striving to succeed and doing remarkably under immense duress. On the other, you have disinvestment, neglect, guns and, as Arne Duncan says: “Black lives don’t matter…” How did you keep from despair while writing it? How do the people you write about? How will readers?
Two of the summers that I was working on this book, I bicycled every other day to visit Shawn and take notes. That was physically grueling, nearly three hours’ roundtrip from Ravenswood. But it wore on me even more emotionally, partly because I refused to take my eye off the carnage… And Marshall players kept getting killed and I knew that each time it devastated Shawn. I read “Homicide Watch” in the Sun-Times and tracked the Tribune for where the shootings are happening every day—”hey, that’s very close to where Shawn got shot,” or “that’s where Tim Triplett died.” Often the only thing that kept me going was the feeling that Shawn might need me—and I kept thinking about his reaction when the bullets started flying, like a war hero, but also like a player who had been trained by Luther Bedford and didn’t panic under immense pressure. Also, he reacted like a guy who has been damaged by gun violence. So my weariness seemed tiny and pathetic compared to Shawn’s courage and endurance.
I think on the West Side it’s an acceptable level of violence to most Americans. I’ve been impressed with how the Parkland, Florida kids have moved forward, but it’s hard for me not to wonder why they’ve gotten so much attention.
What action do you want readers to take, if any? What about politicians and other power brokers? I notice that you don’t offer any suggestions or solutions in the book—why did you choose not to go in that direction?
Again, I had more answers when I started writing. I have fewer now. But perhaps the most surprising thing for me in the entire book is how, even amongst the Marshall family and team, nobody knew anyone else’s story. Tim Triplett didn’t know Shawn’s mother had been murdered in 2003. Shawn didn’t know that Triplett’s father had been killed. I believe in the power of story, in telling stories to move forward. I think “story” is embedded in us, is part of our DNA. My impulse is to talk about things until I’m blue in the face. My hope is that people—particularly the young men on the West Side—will step up and tell their stories. The only advice I’d give Chicago Public League coaches, and I suppose teachers, too, is to get their players to talk, to tell their stories.
What’s next for you?
I partnered with Shawn and Jimmy Sanders on their Hoops for Peace Chicago games last December. I want to keep in close touch with Shawn.
My next book? I’ve been trying to finish a comic novel for nearly a decade. As you might guess, it’s a very different project. It’s a satire about a state university that is taken over by their football team. I have great admiration for Jon Stewart, Colbert, John Oliver in that I think sometimes comedy can get to the heart of the issue in ways that serious news (or fiction) might not—although I certainly didn’t employ that strategy with Shawn’s book. The greatest anti-military book ever written in my view is “Catch-22” and Joe Heller made his point through comedy. Also it took him ten years to write it, so I’m still plugging away.
“All The Dreams We’ve Dreamed: A Story of Hoops and Handguns on Chicago’s West Side”
By Rus Bradburd
Chicago Review Press, 288 pages, $26.99
Rus Bradburd and Shawn Harrington appear at 6:30pm on June 6 at City Lit Books, 2523 North Kedzie, (773)235-2523 and at Printers Row Lit Fest, June 9-10.
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.