Nobody walks alone
After a bullet put former hoops star Mike Williams in a wheelchair, an old ally helped him rise again
This story appears in the Oct. 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
TWO HOURS BEFORE MIDNIGHT on Nov. 28, 2009, Michael Williams rises from his chair at Club 426, a Caribbean nightclub outside Atlanta. The bouncer wears a black shirt, black jeans, black shoes. A co-worker opens the door and lets in the first wave of people. The deejay steps into his booth. Williams crosses himself and prays, "The blood of Christ cover me. Dear Lord, don't let me die by the hands of some punk with a gun."
Williams is one of the lucky ones who made it out of Roseland, the violent, destitute neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Though he looks like a former football player -- he stands 6'9", 300 pounds -- basketball had been his game. He dominated the post in college, played a little in the NBA, had a good career in Europe. Nickname: Massive Mike. Now 46, he's spent the past decade working security, mostly as a bodyguard for stars such as Snoop Dogg and Beyonce.
Around 2 a.m., with an hour of work left, Williams rotates toward the speakers near the door. The club is packed with people singing, sweating, gyrating. Reggae music plays at full blast. Williams adjusts his earplugs. Then he notices two men shouting near the entrance. They start shoving each other. One throws his beer bottle, which shatters on the floor. Williams moves in. Stupid stuff like this is why he is tired of his job; this is why tonight will be his last shift ever as a bouncer. He steps between the men and places his right hand on the shoulder of the one nearest the exit.
The next thing he hears is a boom. He recognizes the sound immediately. Williams hits the floor and rolls, trying to get away from the two men. He reaches up and touches his left jaw. It has a hole in it. He shot me. He shot me in the face. He doesn't realize he's also been shot twice in the shoulder and once in the shoulder blade.
The shooter isn't finished. Bullets five and six hit Williams' ribs and hip. He doesn't feel them. Number seven blasts into his back. He feels that one, and his legs go stiff. Oh, s--. Bullet eight follows in his spine. Then it's over. The attack takes less than 10 seconds.
Lying on the ground in shock and disbelief, Williams touches the hole in his jaw again. He hears screams and the rush of footsteps around him. As the blood floods from his body, he asks God to forgive his sins. Thanks him for the chance to do so before he dies. He's not afraid. He's at peace.
Then he sees a broken bottle and feels the spilled beer on his face. Williams lifts his head and looks through the open door filled with fleeing people. I'll die outside, but I'm not dying in here. He roars and shoves himself up on his elbows. He tries to crawl. He can't move.
AS THE TV IN HIS MOTHER'S LIVING ROOM flickers before him, the big man in the wheelchair wonders whether there are fates worse than death.
It is June 2010. The shooting had placed Williams in a coma for two months. He lost a kidney, part of his liver, part of his jaw. He lost, worst of all, the use of his legs. Of the two bullets that lodged in his back, one sliced through his spine's L2 vertebrae, just below his abdomen; the other, between the S1 and S2, near the pelvis. Williams is paralyzed from the waist down.
Shortly after his release from the hospital in February, he moved in with his mother; the 69-year-old Dorothy is the only person who can care for him. There is indignity in living here, his childhood home, a small pink house on the corner of 113th and Wallace in Roseland. But that's not the greatest indignity. Williams wears diapers, and his mother has to change him. She must remove his feces from his rectum by gloved hand. Dorothy tells him it's okay, she doesn't mind. He doesn't believe her. He often breaks down crying. He wishes God had just let him die.
That thought first crossed his mind soon after he woke from his coma. He had been dreaming about water, and he was so thirsty he tried to drink straight from his IV bag. A nurse gave him a cup of water instead, and it was the best he'd ever had. But then, looking at his lifeless legs, it all hit him: He'd awoken to his old world a new creature with problems that would get an animal euthanized. He was furious.
Now, seven months after his shooting, he can't let go of his rage. He hates leaving his mom's house, even just for dinner. It's a job and a half, packing his wheelchair and his massive self into an SUV, and the stares that follow make him feel like a freak show. But there's little comfort at home either. He's consumed by the fact that the man who did this to him remains free. Williams has this fantasy about what he'd do if he were ever across a courtroom from him. His huge hands would clasp like iron around the shooter's throat, and he'd watch as his breathing stopped.
Williams has no other fantasies. There is nothing he wants to do. There is nowhere he wants to go. So today, like every day, he plans to watch TV in his mother's living room. ESPN. Soaps. ESPN. Back and forth. Killing time.
Amazing thing, though: Flipping on ABC, he happens to catch a teaser for the 6 p.m. local news. It promises the story of 28-year-old Haitian earthquake survivor Bazelais Suy, who spent months rehabbing his paralyzed body in Chicago. Williams doesn't change the channel for the next two hours, waiting for the segment to come on. When it does, it shows Suy walking down a hallway using canes, wearing a red shirt and the biggest smile. Behind him is his doctor, who looks nothing like one. He's seven feet tall. He wears motorcycle boots, jeans, a vest and a cowboy hat -- all black. Then his name appears on the screen. Dan Ivankovich.
Williams shouts. That name. He knows that name. It has to be the same guy -- his old teammate from high school, what, 30 years ago?
That night, Williams gets the doctor's e-mail address from the TV station and sends him a message: "Saw your interview. Maybe you could help me. I was hoping you could help me. We've got something in common. We played together."
The next morning, Williams' phone rings. He picks up and hears, "Hey, this is Dan Ivankovich."
"Big Dan. What's up, brother? It's Mike Williams."
"Massive Mike?" Ivankovich says, chuckling. "What are you up to, you big, black son of a bitch?"
Williams laughs, and the doctor laughs with him, and just like that, the three decades between teammates is gone. But as much as he wants to play it cool, Williams fights tears to talk. "I gotta get up, man," he says. "Something happened to me." He tells Ivankovich what he can remember from the club. He tells him the pain is too much. He tells him, "I'm sorry, I don't want to beg, I know you're busy -- but you gotta help me. If you can, you please gotta help me."
"I'm sure I can," Ivankovich says.
"You can get me walking again?"
"No guarantees. It's going to be hard as hell. But dude, I'll do all I can."
THEY FIRST MET on the rooftop of the Chicago Sun-Times building, eye level with the city skyline, the world at their feet. It was the winter of 1980. Williams was a senior forward at De La Salle Institute. Ivankovich, a 6'11" center, was in his last year at Glenbrook South, the state-title favorite. They were two of the 10 players who had been selected to play on the Sun-Times' all-area travel team, and they were there to get their pictures taken.
Ivankovich immediately stood out to Williams because he was the only white player and the only one from the suburbs. Most of the city kids loathed his kind. When they first shook hands, Williams himself thought, This white boy's crazy. Something about his eyes, wide and wild and blue. But Mike believed in judging nobody. And as they talked on the rooftop, they bonded over a respect for each other's talent and their shared passion for pranking teammates. Itching powder. Water balloons. Icy Hot in jockstraps.
They were, to be sure, from different worlds. Ivankovich grew up the son of a military doctor. Williams grew up fatherless and the only man in a house with his mother, grandmother and five sisters. Despite the gulf between them, they became like brothers the next spring while playing together on the all-area team after their high school seasons. It went deeper than the jokes; it went beyond the game, scholarship offers and stories of Bobby Knight visiting their living rooms. Talking together after practices and during road trips to various tournaments, they'd agonize over life's grand injustices, the violence and depravation that had taken hold of areas like Roseland. "Someone's gotta do something about this, man," Williams would tell his teammate.
Ivankovich would nod, as earnest teenagers do.
Ivankovich tells Williams that the only way to walk again -- hell, to live again -- is to let go of the body he once had. "The player is gone," he says.”
"I mean, really, why are these kids starving?" he'd ask. "Why are 3-year-olds dying by gunfire?" They each vowed to one day return to Chicago as bigger men who could make a difference.
Then Ivankovich blew out his knee at a tournament in Boston and was never the same player again. He and Williams drifted apart. Ivankovich dropped basketball as a freshman at Northwestern and went on to medical school. Williams played four seasons in Division I: two at Cincinnati, then two at Bradley. His senior season in 1986, he led the Braves to a top-20 finish and their first NCAA Tournament victory in 31 years. "He was a monster on the floor," says Jim Les, Bradley's point guard at the time and now the coach at Cal-Davis. "He played with this scowl on his face."
The Warriors drafted Williams in the third round, but his game proved too unpolished beyond the post. He was cut in October of his rookie season and spent the next three years in the CBA, between brief stints for the Kings and Hawks. Beginning in 1990, he found better success abroad, starring for teams in Spain, Italy and Greece, among other places. He retired in 2000, feeling he'd done right by his talent.
Upon his return to the States, he worked random jobs, but his steadiest and most satisfying work came as a celebrity bodyguard. It surprised his friends, but Williams told them, "I gotta do something with this body I've been given." He'd get calls from Diddy in LA at midnight on Thursday, and by Friday night he'd be leading him through a club in Atlanta. He'd spend days on yachts with Jay-Z and Beyonce and work nights at award shows like the Oscars. To keep up with the fast-paced lifestyle, Williams did hundreds of push-ups a day, ran sprints and stairs and got his legs so flexible he could do the splits.
By 2009, however, Williams was ready to try a job with less travel. Working out of Atlanta, he dabbled in commercial real estate with a childhood friend, Reggie Chapman, and in November of that year, he brokered his first big deal. He just had to sign some papers in Chicago, and he'd bank $250K. With the money, he wanted to move back to Roseland, maybe start up some youth basketball camps or a community center. "You gotta get back here, Mike," Chapman told him. Williams booked a flight to Chicago. It was to take off at 8 in the morning on Nov. 29.
A FEW WEEKS after sending his e-mail to Ivankovich, Williams rolls into the doctor's office at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and says, "So you're gonna get me walkin' again?"
Ivankovich is wearing all black, as always, and a necklace made from human bone, a gift given to him in appreciation of his work in Haiti. It's been a busy 30 years since he last saw Williams. He lost himself to depression following his knee injury; he recovered by learning a mean blues guitar and by becoming one of the most prolific orthopedic surgeons in Illinois. In 2010, he started OnePatient Global Health Initiative, a nonprofit that provides health care to the underserved. When he wants something done, it gets done. To move Suy from Haiti to Chicago, he persuaded a U.S. Army major general to send an ICE team escort.
Now at Schwab, the doctor bends down and prods the legs of his newest patient. Williams says he can feel some of the pokes. Ivankovich asks him to try lifting his legs. There -- just barely -- they move. "Oh man," Ivankovich says. "Dude, you really might walk again." But again, he promises Williams nothing.
A week later, in July 2010, rehab begins. Williams is too weak to sit up on his own, so Ivankovich and his team work to rebuild his core: They twist him, turn him, prop him up, lay him down. They also start in on his legs, lifting, bending and stretching them. White heat sears through Williams. He screams so loudly he scares off some of the therapists.
"Do not loosen the reins on this guy," Ivankovich tells them. "Beat on his ass. He's a former pro athlete. He'll respond."
The doctor is callous, almost brutal, with his former teammate. When Williams tells him one day that he's had enough, Ivankovich brings in pink panties and a megaphone.
"Put 'em on or get your ass working," he says.
"I always knew you were crazy," Williams responds.
"Hey, I could always take your ass. Could take you right now."
"Nah. You couldn't jump over a piece of paper."
"Yeah, well, you're looking real hot yourself."
Williams laughs, a deep, rolling laugh. Every little joyful moment helps. The twisted irony is that with a more serious injury, he would have suffered less. He's an incomplete paraplegic. Though his legs can't move, they retain limited nerve activity. This creates hope that he might walk again but also ensures that every therapy session is agony. Amplifying his pain, two bullets remain in his spine.
The mental battle is much worse. Williams still grieves over what he's lost. He can't urinate without a catheter. He can't have sex. There is the awful business of relieving his bowels. He feels he's a burden. His mother, who teaches Bible lessons and Sunday school, cuts her days short to visit and bring food. Ivankovich spends hours with him, time that Williams thinks would be better spent on other patients. His therapy is paid through Medicaid, and he hates that taxpayers now finance his life.
He wrestles with one question all the time: "Why?" Why would a just God leave Williams in endless pain while the shooter walks the streets free of consequence? Some friends tell him God must be trying to get his attention. "F-- you," Williams says. "If he wanted my attention, give me two in the shoulder. But why take my legs?"
One summer day, sitting in bed, his wheelchair beside him, he says, "There are times I really can't say what I'd do if someone handed me a gun."
Ivankovich, uncertain of what else to do, shares with Williams his own darkness. He confesses that when his knee blew out, he lost more than his athleticism. "I've always felt like that left a part of me dead," he says. His injury, of course, didn't compare to paralysis, but, he tells Williams, the body is an athlete's most precious instrument, his means to lasting significance. If it deserts him, for whatever reason, the anguish is real and deep. Ivankovich would never know his physical potential. He had to accept that reality, just as Williams must now. "The basketball player, the athlete, the person who was indestructible, is gone," Ivankovich says to him. "That person can't come back. It's not possible." He tells Williams that the only way to walk again -- hell, to live again -- is to let go of the body he once had.
Something changes in Williams after that conversation. He progresses from an hour of rehab a day to four. He goes six days a week instead of five. Therapists order five sets of stretches; Williams demands two more. In August, he rolls over and sits up. It makes him feel, for the first time since he hit the Club 426 floor, as if he has some semblance of control.
About a week later, Ivankovich tells Williams he'd like to see whether he can stand. They wheel him to the facility's gym. Nurses strap custom-fit braces around his lower legs. Williams is put before a platform walker, about chest-high from his seated position. He puts his thick arms on it and pushes up. His legs wobble and feel like rubber. He closes his eyes and lifts his head as high as it will go. His back straightens. He puts his weight on his legs. He feels his size again.
Now is the time to try for more. Ivankovich orders Williams back to the gym the next day. The big man wheels in, grabs the railing and rises, huge and wobbly and free. He rolls his lips shut and strains. He haltingly lifts his left foot, drags it across the linoleum floor and plants it again, a few inches ahead. He lifts his right foot, higher this time, moves it four or five inches ahead and plants it. His left foot again: forward, plant.
His legs tremble. Sweat pours. Ivankovich wheels Williams' chair beneath him, and he sits down. Everyone in the room is bawling.
A DAY OR TWO after Williams walks again, his 17-year-old daughter, Amarah, stops by Schwab to see him for the first time since the shooting. She was born of an old relationship and lives in St. Louis. Before his injury, they spoke maybe twice a month. Now it's at least twice a week, and they text almost daily. She's a terrific high school basketball player, a monster inside, just like Dad. Williams tells her he wants to wear her jersey.
They take the elevator up to the serenity garden on Schwab's rooftop. The weather is clear and breezy. They talk about his rehab, about her college options. He tells her to go somewhere she feels comfortable; she's good enough that the pros will find her anywhere.
Mike rolls his chair beside a table and locks the wheels. He has this impulsive, foolish idea, one conceivable only by a father trying to make his daughter proud.
He shifts his weight, places his hands on the table and shoves himself upward. He isn't wearing his braces; there is nothing to support him, save the table and his atrophied legs. His ankles could crack under his weight. Still, he lifts his left foot and places it a few inches ahead. Shuffles his right foot behind. Starts to sweat. Takes another step, leans over on the table.
"I'm going to do this," he tells Amarah.
A few weeks later, as summer gives way to fall, Williams will move into GlenCrest Rehabilitation Centre, the same place Bazelais Suy got his legs back, and train with Mike Mitarotondo, an ex-football player, and Arnel Cordero, an MMA fighter. Every day he will be pulled, pushed, twisted; he will sweat, roar, cry. By the holidays, he will take several steps at a time on his walker.
By the summer of 2011, a few months after one of the bullets is finally removed from his spine, greatly reducing his pain, he will take 50 steps at once. Every week they will be stronger and more fluid than the last. Ivankovich will be astounded. "You know I still can't promise you anything," the doctor will tell Williams, "but you've got a shot."
All that progress will be in the months ahead. But right now, on this rooftop, Williams just wants to take a few small steps and show Amarah something. The Chicago skyline rises to the east. Straining on his feet, he points his finger to the south, in the shadows of the skyscrapers.
There, he tells his daughter, lies Roseland.
Brandon Sneed is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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