Don’t call him a hero.
But if you must, don’t expect Shawn Harrington to agree with you.
As a barrage of bullets pierced through the white Chevy Impala he used the morning of Jan. 30, 2014, to drive his daughter to school, the one-time New Mexico State University point guard didn’t make a decision that he would call heroic at all.
“It was an ordinary day for me,” Harrington said earlier this week in a phone interview with the Journal from his Chicago home. “Drop my daughter off at school on my way to work. The only thing unroutine about that morning was that I was in a rental car (after his vehicle had been stolen about a week earlier). … These guys appeared out of nowhere and were pointing at my car. After that, it was kind of fast and in a blur. I remember guns started going off, seemed like it’d never stop. I tried to protect my daughter by all means.”
In shielding his then 15-year-old daughter, Naja, from the gunfire that morning at the intersection of Augusta Boulevard and Hamlin Avenue on Chicago’s West Side — a shooting later discovered to be a horrific case of mistaken identity and the shooters eventually convicted — Harrington took multiple bullets himself, including one that damaged the T-4 vertebrae in his spinal cord, leaving the now 42-year-old father of two wheelchair bound.
“I don’t see myself as a hero,” Harrington said. “I was doing what any real dad would do — protect my child.”
Rus Bradburd, author of the new book “All the Dreams We’ve Dreamed,” disagrees.
LISTEN UP: To hear a podcast with portions of interviews with Harrington and Bradburd, CLICK HERE.
The NMSU Associate English Professor and former Aggies basketball assistant coach who used his own Chicago roots to bring a number of hoops stars — including Harrington — to Las Cruces in the 1990s uses Harrington’s “absolutely heroic” storyline as the central theme of his thoroughly captivating, albeit troubling, deep dive into gun violence, sport and race in Chicago. The book went on sale Tuesday.
“The dilemma of the entire book,” says Bradburd, “… here’s a kid who did everything that society asked him to do. Be a good kid. Graduate from college. Be a good father to your kids. Don’t turn your back on them. There’s a lot of kids in the West Side community who don’t have their father in their life. Here’s Shawn who had every chance to get out of the West Side, but made a conscious decision to come back because he had kids there.”
The book features Harrington’s story — from growing up in Chicago and appearing as a Marshall High player in the monumental 1990s documentary “Hoop Dreams,” to his recruitment and playing the 1995-96 season as NMSU’s starting point guard. And, also his return to work at Marshall to help troubled kids and to raise his daughters.
But Harrington’s is hardly the only story told in the book, Bradburd’s fourth. The book masterfully intertwines about a dozen shootings — many of them fatal — with connections to players and coaches at one high school in an effort to shine a light on the problems facing Chicago’s inner city.
“The Marshall team has been really decimated — their whole family has been sort of wrecked by gun violence,” Bradburd said.
Included in the book is the story of Tim Triplett, a Marshall student who played for Harrington and had the same college-playing potential. Instead, his journey included more missteps and was cut short as he was shot and killed April 26, 2015. Both also had close family members shot and killed in their lives that they never talked about.
Drawing the clear parallels of both stories, Bradburd essentially sums up the agony of the book in one paragraph in the middle of the book: With Chicago’s gun epidemic, it doesn’t seem to matter what path you take:
“Shawn and Triplett had grown up under similar circumstances on the West Side. Battling poverty, moving from apartment to apartment, and losing a family member to gun violence. Triplett had fewer options, a narrower margin for error, and he made some unwise decisions. Of course Shawn made what society would say were the ‘right choices’ at every turn, and he too got shot.”
Two moments of particularly honest self reflection by the author illustrate the compelling relationship between author and subject.
While Bradburd says he truly liked Harrington much more than a lot of players he recruited through the years coaching at both NMSU and UTEP, he also acknowledges staying quiet and not fighting to keep Harrington when it was decided that the Aggies, under head coach Neil McCarthy, should push Harrington out the door in 1996 after a knee injury rendered him not the same level of player he was when healthy.
Interestingly enough, Harrington recalled deciding that he didn’t want to be at NMSU anymore when he opted to transfer in the summer of 1996, but since hearing Bradburd’s account, now realizes his unhappiness in Las Cruces was likely due to the cold shoulder the coaches were giving him.
In the postscript of the book, Bradburd also writes, “The truth is, had Shawn not been shot, I likely would have never seen him again.”
They did reunite. And, after several years of advocating on Harrington’s behalf — helping navigate through insurance obstacles; raising money for medical expenses, including benefits at NMSU that included help from former NMSU coaches Lou Henson, Marvin Menzies and Paul Weir; helping him find a new job when the Chicago Public Schools initially wouldn’t hire him back and his insurance was discontinued; and trying to get national coverage of the story (it has been told on HBO’s Real Sports and in the New York Times) — Bradburd was eventually convinced telling the complete story himself might be the best answer. He plans to give half of anything he makes off the book to Harrington.
But the story is hardly over.
“The book sort of hints at a happy ending,” Bradburd said. “But he’s in for a long haul — years and years of struggles.”
Harrington is now a restorative justice coordinator helping troubled teens out of an office at his old Marshall High. He often speaks to kids about his story and gun violence.
“I think there is a power in telling our stories,” Bradburd said. “It gives us a certain power, or control over our lives. … What I hope is that by telling Shawn’s story … it helps us sort through things.”