In the mid-90’s, the men’s basketball team at New Mexico State University was in trouble. Because of an academic scandal involving phantom classes, the team was barred from tournament competition. Several players transferred. Others were declared ineligible. Rus Bradburd, who’d only recently been hired as an assistant coach, had a heck of a job on his hands.
"Suddenly I had to replace an entire team, " Bradburd says. "And one of the other coaches got fired, and another one left. So I was by myself with a head coach that was not active in recruiting. So I had to replace 13 guys by myself."
Before joining the staff at New Mexico State, Coach Bradburd had lived and worked in Chicago. He focused his most energetic recruiting effort on one of the guys he’d seen there, playing for Marshall High School. His name was Shawn Harrington.
"And he was small and skinny. But you could see that he really, really knew the game," Bradburd says. "He was the smartest player on the floor. And he played for Luther Bedford, who was the man that became famous a couple years later for his role in the film 'Hoop Dreams.' And so, Shawn, you could tell he was different. As soon as the game ended, he would hug the guys on the other team. And he would hug his teammates and shake hands with the referees. And he was kind and generous".
A Change In Strategy
Bradburd’s recruiting style was to befriend the players he wanted to sign. He’d get to know their families. He’d ask how they were doing in school.
"I always said to recruits, 'Listen, take your time. We want you. You know, we’re going to be friends, either way,'" Bradburd says. "But in this case, I called him. And he said, 'I think I might go visit Arizona and Oklahoma. They want me to come visit now.'
"And I just had enough. I was tired, and I just sort of blurted out, 'Look, you can go visit those schools if you want to, Shawn. But if you don’t sign with us tomorrow by noon, I’m going to give your scholarship to somebody else.'"
I asked Shawn Harrington whether he recalled being pressured by Bradburd.
"No, I don’t. I don’t," Harrington says. "But I wouldn’t doubt that he tightened the screws up, trying to put pressure on me to make a decision, I’m sure."
"The truth was, there was nobody else," Bradburd admits. "I didn’t have anybody else. And he called me back within an hour and said, 'Okay. I’m ready to sign.' ”
Shawn Harrington immediately became the best player on a bad team. He led New Mexico State in scoring, steals and assists. And his enthusiasm was boundless. Rus Bradburd recalls that Harrington made a point of going to the women’s games and leading cheers for them.
So Bradburd might have forgotten about his common, if dishonest, recruiting trick.
The Injury, The 'D' and The Release
"But then, against San Jose State in early January, he went down with a bad knee injury," Bradburd says.
Shawn finished the game on the bad knee. That night he went to bed, hoping for the best.
"It was the next morning, when I woke up, and it looked like maybe someone had put a softball under my skin," Harrington says. "My knee was swollen up."
"And that was it. He was done for the year," Bradburd says. "And now we’ve got to decide, do we bring Shawn back?"
The concern was that the program couldn’t afford to provide a scholarship to a player who was no longer as good as he’d been. It was a decision complicated – as these sorts of decisions sometimes are – by the academic challenges Shawn was facing.
"Shawn got a 'D' in his Spanish class," Bradburd says.
"Yeah, it was hard to be in the Spanish classroom, where everyone was speaking Spanish," Harrington says. "Including the teacher."
Head Coach Neil McCarthy stopped thinking of Shawn as part of the program. Bradburd accepted his decision.
"I think I had every chance to say, 'Wait just a second here. This is a good kid. I know his mother. I know his high school coach. I’ve met his girlfriend. We can’t just get rid of a guy because he’s injured,' ” Bradburd says. "But I didn’t do it. So I’m willing to accept my part in that responsibility of not bringing him back."
I ask Rus Bradburd if that had felt bad.
"No," he said. "Not at the time."
The Return to Chicago...And To Violence
Subsequent events – at least immediately subsequent events – gave Bradburd no reason to feel differently. Harrington transferred to Northwest Missouri State. After he’d sat out a year, his knee was fine. He earned Division 2 All-American honors.
At about the time he graduated, Harrington learned that his girlfriend was pregnant. Though his mother had urged him to stay away from Chicago, Shawn returned to the city so his daughter would have a father present – something he hadn’t experienced.
Because he still had dreams about a career in the game, he played some lower-tier pro basketball. He also worked at the Boys and Girls Club, and eventually he began to scout high school players. Bradburd kept in touch with Shawn for a while, and then he didn’t – until 2003.
"I had heard that his mother was murdered," Bradburd says.
Shawn’s mother had walked into a neighbor’s home while a robbery was in progress. She was shot in the head and died in the neighbor’s backyard.
"And I just thought, 'Well, let me call and reach out to him,'” Bradburd says. "So we spoke for a while then, and, of course, he was devastated."
"Next thing I know, me and my daughter was under fire by a barrage of bullets. I instinctively just kinda pushed her down and covered her up with my body as much as I could..."Shawn Harrington
Bradburd didn’t call again, and perhaps then, in 2003, seven years after they’d parted company in New Mexico, he figured he had nothing more to say to Shawn Harrington.
"And then, in 2014, 11 years later, I got the phone call saying, 'Hey, that kid you guys used to have, Shawn Harrington, has been shot in Chicago, and they don’t know what’s going to happen to him,' ” Bradburd says.
"Well, it was a normal day for me," Harrington says. "Same routine, picking my daughter up, on my way to work to drop her off at school. Pulled up to a stoplight, and noticed a guy standing on the corner, pointing at my car. Next thing I know, me and my daughter was under fire by a barrage of bullets. I instinctively just kind of pushed her down and covered her up with my body as much as I could, ‘til I heard the shooting stop – which seemed like an eternity".
"You saved her life," I say.
"Yeah, that’s what everybody says. I’m a hero," he replies. "But I’m just doing what I think any dad would do."
Gang members had mistaken Shawn’s car for somebody else’s. Twenty minutes earlier, there had been another shooting nearby. The first police officer to arrive on the scene assumed Shawn was a combatant, rather than a victim.
"He did stereotype me," Harrington says. "When he walked up to the car, came up and yanked me by my shoulder, and went to yank me out of the car. And I was, 'Hold on, officer.' I told him I couldn’t feel my legs."
One bullet in that barrage had fractured two vertebrae, depriving Shawn Harrington of the use of his legs.
Rus Bradburd didn’t know all that when he called Harrington again. All he knew was that the man who had been that enthusiastic young basketball player might need a friend.
"When he called, I thought he was being genuine," Shawn says. "Thought he was genuinely concerned and genuinely showed love. And I had so much stuff going on negative, that I didn’t have any room for any negative feelings or negative thoughts at that time."
As a former coach - and more significantly as a man who’d known Shawn’s family and been familiar with his basketball dreams - Bradburd could help Shawn shove aside those negative thoughts.
But he’d begun to feel badly about failing to stand up for Harrington 18 years earlier, when Harrington was dropped from the New Mexico State team. He felt that at least he might have made himself more available to the young man he’d recruited.
When Bradburd visited Harrington in the hospital, he felt he had to say something.
"I was there for a couple hours with him, and said, 'Listen, I’m sorry the way that happened,'” Rus says. "And he said, 'No, that was my decision to leave New Mexico State.' And then he, sort of, gazed out the window and thought, 'I’ve always wondered if I did the right thing. That maybe I should have stayed.' ”
It need hardly be said that memory is a funny thing.
Shawn's "Biggest Advocate" Helps Him Create A New Life
What the two men had in common was that the present mattered a lot more to each of them than did the past. And after that violent case of mistaken identity on the Chicago streets, the present didn’t look good for Shawn Harrington.
"Pretty quickly after getting shot, his paycheck stopped, after 90 days, and his health insurance stopped," Bradburd says.
Bradburd began contacting everyone he could think of who might be able to help Shawn get back to work as part of his rehabilitation. He publicized Shawn’s years of service to Chicago’s youngsters at Marshall High School and elsewhere. He made sure everybody who heard his story knew Shawn had saved his daughter’s life. Eventually, he got in touch with the fellow who’d been CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and who had become the Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration.
"And it was when I spoke to Arne Duncan that within a week or 10 days, they called him and they’ve redefined his job," Bradburd says. "He’s now a Restorative Justice Counselor at Marshall."
Shawn Harrington works to de-escalate the disagreements and fights in school that can lead to murder in the street.
"Rus became my biggest advocate, is what he did," Harrington says. "I’ve said it a million times over. I don’t know where I’d be right now, today, mentally or physically, if it wasn’t for Rus Bradburd. From Las Cruces, New Mexico to Chicago, he’s been able to help me in so many ways. So I think this was a guy who genuinely cared about what was going on with one of his former players."
But gainful employment doesn’t mean Shawn’s troubles are over.
"I think the struggles have continued, partly because six of his players were murdered," Bradburd says. "And another kid, Martin Satterfield, was shot six times, but lived. But he’s in a wheelchair, like Shawn is. And so I think each shooting has really devastated Shawn. In fact, he only went to one funeral. And then after that he just couldn’t bring himself to keep going to the funerals."
What The Future Might Hold
Murderous violence has taken from Shawn Harrington his mother, friends and former teammates. The daughter whose life he saved has gone on to college. His younger daughter is a big part of the reason Shawn remains enthusiastic about the game he once played so well.
"She’s the hooper," Harrington says. "So I’m thrilled about that, getting to spend time in the gym. And she wants to play basketball. It’s not like I’m forcing it up on her or have to worry about her mom or grandma, like, 'You’re forcing her too much. You’re being too hard on her!' The fact that she wants to play basketball, I love it. I can definitely groom her into becoming a point guard, I can tell you that much. If she grows to be 6-foot-7, we’re going to teach her to be a point guard," Shawn says with a laugh.
"Like a Magic Johnson-type point guard?" I ask.
"Yes!" Shawn says.
There is joy in thinking about that aspect of the future, and Shawn Harrington believes his own prospects are brighter than some might think.
"That’s one thing I’ve got full faith in: that I definitely will get up out of this chair again," Harrington says. "There have been some positive signs, with sensation coming back in my abdomen, my lower legs, and I feel little things, little subtle things, that I haven’t felt before. So it’s all promising to me. Can’t no doctor, nobody else, tell me I won’t get up out of this chair."
Read more about Shawn Harrington in Rus Bradburd's recent book "All the Dreams We've Dreamed: A Story of Hoops and Handguns on Chicago's West Side".
This segment aired on May 5, 2018.