EAST GARFIELD PARK — Shawn Harrington’s new favorite day is Friday.
Harrington, a former hoops standout and beloved assistant coach at Marshall High School, recently started working at Children of Peace Catholic School, 1900 W. Taylor St., teaching Friday gym class to elementary kids and leading an after-school program focused on the fundamentals of basketball.
It is Harrington’s first coaching job since he was shot and paralyzed on the West Side eight years ago.
Harrington was driving his daughter, Naja, to school Jan. 30, 2014, when two people shot at them at a red light in Humboldt Park, mistaking their car for someone else’s. Harrington was shot twice as he shielded his daughter from the gunfire, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The shooters were sentenced to 59 years in prison.
Harrington was featured in Steve James’ 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” when he was a sophomore point guard at Marshall, and the story of his 2014 shooting received national media attention, leading to fundraising galas, a critically acclaimed book and well-wishes from Shaquille O’Neal, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others.
Inside the Children of Peace gym, with bent rims and sidelines scattered with plastic playhouses and books, Harrington said life with his disability is now quieter, more manageable.
Harrington reels in kids bouncing off the walls with encouragement, patience and a good whistle. It’s a long shot from his days playing D1 basketball at New Mexico State University and coaching future NBA players at the legendary Marshall High School.
But it is paradise.
“I wanted to coach again. The name of the school didn’t matter, but it is a fitting name. These kids are mannerable, respectful,” Harrington said. “And they make me feel special.”
‘I Think He’s Found Home And Peace With These Kids’
It was the “Marshall Family” that connected Harrington to Children of Peace.
Principal Lydia Nantwi once worked with Harrington at Marshall. Back then, he was the assistant boy’s basketball coach known widely and fondly as “Shakey,” the smiley coach who packed his players into his Ford Expedition so they wouldn’t have to walk home through dangerous streets after practice.
After the shooting, Harrington tried to coach again at Marshall. He left shortly after, finding the kids he knew had long moved on and the routine retraumatizing.
For almost eight years, Harrington looked for a part-time coaching role that would give him a fresh start, new hope and a steady paycheck to support him beyond meager government aid.
Harrington needed a team, and the Children of Peace needed a teacher, their first in more than a year. Nantwi contacted her old colleague, Dorothy Gaters, the legendary girls coach at Marshall, who reminded Nantwi of Harrington’s exhaustive job hunt.
New assistant coach Ashlee Washington, a Children of Peace graduate and parent, said Harrington belongs at the school, where many students have lost parents and guardians to gun violence.
“Coach Shawn’s personality, it speaks for itself. He is love. He is peace,” Washington said. “I think he’s found home and peace with these kids. I know the kids found home and peace with him.”
Harrington must wake up at 5 a.m. to make it to his first physical education class 8 a.m. Fridays, part of the daily realities of getting around with his disability.
Harrington starts practice by giving the kids “the room to burn off a little energy.” He likes to pick Washington’s son, 7-year-old Otis Stroud, to demonstrate the drills. Stroud is a “go-getter,” Harrington said, and maybe even the next undersized, tenacious and quintessential point guard at Marshall High School.
Ahead of defensive slide drills, Stroud started chopping his feet well before Harrington could blow his whistle during a recent practice. Harrington chopped his hands, pointed the kids left, right, up and down and beamed through his mask.
The days are long and physically demanding, Harrington said, and he often needs the weekend to recuperate. The little ones have questions about his wheelchair, which he answers honestly.
“I’ve truly found a blessing in the power of giving,” Harrington said. “I have every right in the world to wake up in the morning and say, ‘F— this, I don’t feel like doing nothing.’ But I don’t take that attitude every day. I wake up with a smile and say what can I do to get my day going.”
Before a recent practice, Harrington picked up 10 McDonald’s gift cards for the kids to win in drills. Ten kids showed up for the clinic that Friday, and everyone went home with a full stomach. Nantwi wrote a reimbursement check and forced it upon Harrington, who said he wished he had secretly bought 20 gift cards instead.
After a player complimented Harrington’s fresh fade and golden Air Jordan 1s, the coach promised him a free pair of his Kyrie Irving sneakers if he graduated from Children of Peace with straight A’s and B’s.
Another eighth grader recently lost his father, Harrington said, but came to practice anyway. The coach listened and confided the details of his shooting, the challenges he faced when his mom, Frida, was murdered on the West Side and how he navigated the grief of losing six of his former Marshall basketball players in a four-year span.
The violence in Chicago is getting worse, Harrington said, and basketball must give kids the role models to persevere.
“I’ve always been told, ‘Adversity only visits the strong, but it stays with the weak,’” Harrington said. “I’ve been dealing with PTSD, anxiety and loneliness; it’s going to just be a part of the rest of my life. But I’ve been able to handle it by facing it head on.”
Life is trending in the right direction for Harrington. Two of his former Marshall players — Alfonzo McKinnie and Keifer Sykes — recently signed guaranteed NBA contracts with the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers after journeyman careers bounced them around leagues across the world.
Harrington’s oldest daughter, Naja, who he protected on that fateful day, works across the street at UIC College of Pharmacy. He’s a grandfather to an 8-month-old, Naomi, and his daughter Malia is a straight-A student at Jones College Prep.
The coach’s greatest hope is to walk again. He said he recently regained some feeling in his abs and chest cavity, taking a deep breath to prove it.
“Nothing is out of reach,” Harrington said. “I truly believe my last days aren’t going to be spent in this chair. I told my old teammates we haven’t played our last game together.”
Harrington’s new protégés at the Children of Peace crowded around him at the end of practice as he showed his mid-range jump shot is still automatic. Washington said the kids are “in awe” of how their coach can make shots from his wheelchair.
“Perfect form every time,” Washington said. “It’s important they see someone with a disability still pushing through. When they see their coach make those shots from his chair, it motivates them twice as much, because now they know they can do it, too.”
Harrington likes to tell people he’s “received more blessings since in this chair than out of it.”
The coach’s recovery has been supported by a network of family, friends and neighbors. But Harrington said he now has the independence of an electric wheelchair, a specialty car (donated to him by Shaq and nicknamed the “Shaq-Mobile”) and a fully ADA-accessible home in Austin, purchased through a successful GoFundMe.
That’s all made coaching possible again.
“I’ve received so many blessings, sometimes I can’t pass them out fast enough to make room for the next one,” Harrington said. “I don’t look at it as work when I’m in the gym with these kids.”
Fridays are a break from thinking about the shooting and its effects. Fridays are pure. On Friday, Harrington was happy Stroud made his shots.
This day belongs to Harrington and his Children of Peace.
“Every Friday I come in, and I channel it into this gym,” Harrington said. “The first class of the day is always pre-k. So I have to be wide open and ready.”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: