If there was ever any question about the bonds formed during high school competition, this heartwarming tale just in time for the holidays should quell those doubts.
Mike Williams, a former NBA player and Chicago native, is now paralyzed. Years after finishing off a nomadic professional basketball career that included cameo appearances in the NBA during the 1989-90 season, Williams became a bodyguard, using the bulk he added as a professional power forward to become a daunting figure used to intimidate would-be attackers rather than defenders in the paint.
As described in great detail in the Chicago Tribune, bodyguarding was a good gig for the basketball veteran for a decade, with Williams working for a host of different Hollywood celebrities. Then, just days before he was set to leave the profession amidst renewed concerns over his safety, Williams was struck by a hail of bullets at an Atlanta nightclub when the bulky guard tried to intervene in a fight.
The shooting sent Williams into a coma for two months and cost him part of his liver and a kidney. He moved back to Chicago, where his mother could help care for him, and tripped across a magical happenstance that has conspired to help get the former De La Salle (Ill.) High working towards walking on his own again: He saw a local news story about a victim of the Haiti earthquake who was being re-taught how to walk, with the help of a renowned Chicago doctor.
That doctor happened to be an old competitor and All-Star and All-State game teammate of Williams, Daniel Ivankovich.
"We've both put on weight over the years, but it didn't occur to me until later who he was," Williams told the Tribune. "Then it hit me. I said, 'That's Big Dan.' I e-mailed him, and he called me immediately."
After the first contact between the pair in 29 years, Ivankovich immediately sprung into action, admitting Williams to his hospital and setting him on a course of rehabilitation which now has the former NBA player walking up to 20 steps at a time with the aid of a walker.
It's unknown -- and perhaps unlikely -- that Williams will ever walk again completely under his own power because of his daunting size, but Ivankovich hasn't given up on a former teammate's search for independence yet, instead lobbying to get him use of robotic exoskeletons like those used by soldiers in battle that would allow help his legs support him over longer distances.
Williams has been overwhelmed with gratitude for his former teammate and competitor, though he also has other motivation for re-gaining the ability to walk. He's determined to be more mobile so he can speak about the victims of shootings, and how violent crime affects entire families whenever a bullet is fired.
"It changes everybody's life," Williams told the Tribune. "Financially, it destroyed me. I'm in constant pain. I want to tell these punks they don't just shoot one person. This is a crime against the whole family. I don't know if it would make a difference if they could see that, but I sure want to make it my mission to try."
- Mike Williams