From the Streets to the Courts: Skyhawks wheelchair basketball helps gunshot survivors adapt

The Skyhawks basketball team members split into two teams and competed neck-to-neck during practice at Broadway Armory Park on Thursday evening. (Shen Wu Tan/MEDILL)

By Shen Wu Tan
Video by Hannah Gebresilassie

Marcus Jones was shot four times during an attempted armed robbery on April 17, 1995 on Chicago’s Southeast Side. Struck three times in the leg and once in the lower back, Jones suffered a serious injury and was devastated when doctors told him he would never walk again. He was 24 years old.

As an impoverished 16-year-old boy attending Kenwood Academy, Jones was drawn to the brand name clothes that many of the other students wore. Unable to afford these items, yet attracted to the materialistic culture, Jones joined the Gangster Disciples and turned to selling cocaine. He sold drugs for more than six years.

A few months before his shooting, Jones encountered two armed men in a Chevy Blazer at a four-way stop sign. The two men exited the vehicle, shoved him to the ground and demanded $800, each threatening him with a gun. They then demanded him to get up and run off without looking back or else they would shoot him. He sprinted off without glancing back, jumping a five-foot fence to escape.

After this incident, Jones was labeled as the “chump” of the Jeffery Manor neighborhood by his peers. In an attempt to prove himself, he decided to rob a fellow drug dealer’s house with the help of an armed friend, but the drug dealer was home.

Once discovered, his friend fled, leaving Jones unarmed, and the drug dealer shot at Jones as he tried to flee the house. Jones fell to the floor and the dealer loomed over him with a gun, threatening to kill him before shooting him two more times.

Jones was taken to the Northwestern hospital and later transferred to Cook County hospital (now Stroger hospital). He was then sent to Dixon Correctional Center for a 10-year sentence, but was released after four and a half years in 1999. Upon his release, Jones kissed the ground and swore the street life was over for him.

After his release, Jones received therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and enrolled in general education courses at Olive-Harvey College. Today, the 45-year-old hosts a talk show called “Everyone Has a Story,” which he started in 2009.

He also joined the Skyhawks wheelchair basketball team and has been a team member for a couple seasons now.

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The Skyhawks wheelchair basketball team members share how the sport has impacted their lives.(Hannah Gebresilassie/MEDILL)

The Skyhawks team is a Division III National Wheelchair Basketball Association team. Sponsored by the Chicago Park District and RIC, the team consists of about 14 basketball players. Several of these players are gun shot survivors and a handful of them used to partake in gang-related activities.

“Some of these guys don’t come from coaching systems,” said Jorge Alfaro, Skyhawks basketball coach. “They just come from playing ball in the hood with the guys and pick up gangs.”

Alfaro is a gun shot survivor himself, struck by a bullet at age 10 while at a park with friends. This is Alfaro’s first year coaching the Skyhawks team, but he has been coaching on and off for 15 years.

According to Larry Labiak, Chicago Park District disability policy officer, the adaptive sport is a great way to help people with disabilities transition to a new lifestyle. However, for those who are gun shot survivors and from the streets, he said wheelchair basketball might not be enough to prevent them from relapsing to old habits.

“Realistically, we are unable to get some of these people off the streets, and we want to keep them off the streets and from going back to their old habits,” said Labiak. “So what else can we do for them? You know, basketball is great, but what’s happening the other 22 or 21 hours of their day?”

The Chicago Park District is in the early stages of brainstorming initiatives centered around GED education, interview skills and job development and placement to help keep these gun shot survivors off of the streets. The park district intends to partner with community organizations such as the Chicago Urban League, City Colleges of Chicago, UIC Institute on Disability and Human Development and the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services to create these initiatives.

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The Skyhawks team players huddled together as the coach lectured them at the end of Thursday’s practice. (Shen Wu Tan/MEDILL)

Shaquille Garrett, 23, is another basketball team member who was involved in street activities, dealing marijuana as a young high school student. He was shot six times at the age of 18 on the early, rainy morning of Apr. 21, 2011 during an attempted robbery near 18th and Pulaski Street. He was sent to Mount Sinai Hospital for two weeks, and doctors told him he might not walk again.

Struggling to accept his disability, Garrett said he suffered from depression for about two years. Joining the basketball team, Garrett said he has had an easier time adjusting to life as a gun shot survivor.

“It helps a lot because it gives me something to do. It keeps me safe,” said Garrett. “I like being around people like me sometimes because it is hard being around people who are walking everyday.”

Derek Daniels, sports program manager at RIC, said adaptive sports gives people the opportunity to develop independence and confidence. “They enable athletes to push themselves physically, socialize and compete on a level playing field, offering them a platform to display their ability,” he wrote in an email.

Hoping for a job, Garrett is about to start a GED program offered through the vocational rehabilitation department at the RIC. The RIC also offers individualized employment planning, vocational counseling, job placement and other support services.

According to the RIC Life Matters website, many of its clients with spinal cord injuries did not graduate with a high school diploma, and the lack of a diploma is a major obstacle to employment. “For individuals with SCI, the challenges of finding an accessible general educational development (GED) program compound this problem, creating a particular set of barriers that often result in underemployment.”

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Marcus Jones, 45, shoots free throws as part of his warm up before Skyhawks basketball practice on Thursday evening. (Shen Wu Tan/MEDILL)

To distance himself from his former gang life, Jones sought more education. “I knew the street life was over, and I knew I had to further my education to be a productive citizen.”

Now a grandfather and author of the book “Everyone Has a Story…This is Mine,“ Jones said that he and other teammates are just grateful to be alive. “We’re just happy to still be living and having fun and enjoying our lives and seeing our families.”

For Alfaro, the rules and lessons of basketball aren’t just limited to the court, but extend to other aspects of his players’ lives.

“I don’t just want to make them great players,” Alfaro said. “I want to make them awesome people. I don’t just want them to apply those rules to the court, but to the universal.”

Photo at top: The Skyhawks basketball team members split into two teams and competed neck-to-neck during practice at Broadway Armory Park on Thursday evening. (Shen Wu Tan/MEDILL)