"All the Dreams We've Dreamed" by Rus Bradburd

This superb and harrowing book chronicles the life of Shawn Harrington, a charismatic college basketball star who becomes a victim – albeit a survivor – of Chicago’s gun violence.

Harrington was recruited in 1995 from Marshall High School, Chicago, by the author, Rus Bradburd, who at the time was coaching at NMSU. When Harrington got injured and lost his scholarship, Bradburd, in his own telling, failed to fight Harrington’s corner. The student-athlete moved on, transferring to Northwest Missouri, and that was the end of their relationship for two decades. After his college basketball career, Harrington returned to his alma mater, Marshall High School, where he coached basketball and worked with Special Ed kids. There he became a hero for a second time, inspiring countless students with his abilities as well as his generosity and integrity.

In 2014, some years into his employment at Marshall, and almost twenty years after leaving NMSU, Harrington lay bleeding in an ambulance. In a case of mistaken identity, his rental car had been peppered with bullets. He’d barely managed to save his daughter by throwing himself over her body. Paralyzed from below the waist, Harrington found his life turned upside down, but essentially his character didn’t change. He was patient and resigned in the face of enormous struggles, holed up in his aunt’s apartment unable to work and barely able to afford rehab. He couldn’t even rely on his closest relatives for succor; his mother had been murdered years earlier and he never knew his father.

After the shooting, he was abandoned by his former employers, by his insurance provider, and by basketball and college bigwigs who had the power to help him. But one person refused to abandon him. Bradburd simply would not give up on his former player. Hearing of Harrington’s predicament and haunted by a promise he didn’t keep (he told Harrington’s high school coach he’d look after Harrington at NMSU), Bradburd proceeded to spend years advocating for Harrington. He pestered officials, raised funds, persuaded reporters to cover the story, tried to find Harrington a job, even attempted to secure a scholarship for Harrington’s daughter, and eventually wrote this book – an act of homage as well as investigative journalism. There’s a whiff of Greek tragedy about how the former coach seeks to right an old wrong.

And of course All the Dreams We’ve Dreamed is a tragedy. It’s mostly set in the roughest parts of West Chicago, an urban war zone. Time and again Bradburd details the murders of young black men full of potential. We wince every time he introduces a new ballplayer to the narrative because we know how it’s going to end. No fewer than six Marshall High School basketball players are murdered and several others, like Harrington, are wounded.

Yet the book is also a testament to perseverance and compassion. If there can be any consolation in such a story, it’s that that vague entity, the human spirit, is alive and well. Help arrives from unexpected sources. A trio of Wall Street fat-cats are moved to aid Harrington. Shaquille O’Neal and Arne Duncan get involved. Even small gestures take on meaning. A woman approaches Harrington in a park and offers a blessing and a hug; it turns out she’s the mother of one of Harrington’s shooters. There’s also a little catharsis: the perpetrators are locked up in the end, and Harrington is given a counseling job at his old school.        

All the Dreams We’ve Dreamed is superbly written. The prose is as clean as a raindrop and the story is compelling. Bradburd is obviously a central character, but he never takes center stage; instead, he documents his contributions to Harrington’s life with a rare humility and self-knowledge. As a white man observing the tragedy of black lives, he understands his role as witness and scribe, and he plays it to perfection.

What the future holds for Shawn Harrington nobody knows. We can only hope he prospers and that medical technology brings new opportunities. As for this book, it’s hard to imagine a better depiction of what gun violence does to victims, perpetrators, and communities in America’s poorest neighborhoods.

Shawn Harrington

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