Shot in the head, a Chicago teen fights his way back onto the basketball court

Attacks like the one on Damari Hendrix are common — and most go unsolved

The action was a little ragged in the steamy second-floor gym at Chicago’s Foreman College and Career Academy when Damari Hendrix got out on the break, sliced to the basket and threw down a two-handed dunk.

It was only pickup ball with his high school teammates and coaches in the middle of the summer. But every time Damari went hard to the hoop, stroked his lefty jumper or just ran the floor, it marked another improbable step in a journey that has been as arduous as it has been miraculous.

Damari was shot in the head on Labor Day weekend 2016 in a still unexplained and unsolved attack. In the days after the shooting it looked like the lean, 6-foot-5-inch forward might not survive, much less dunk a basketball again.

The bullet shattered a portion of Damari’s skull before exiting his head, leaving metal and bone fragments in its wake. Not long after Damari’s mother made it to the hospital to see her wounded son, medical personnel warned her that the surgery to repair the damage would be both delicate and dangerous.

“This may or may not save his life,” Jorie Hendrix, Damari’s mother, recalled the doctors saying.

Even if he did make it, doctors thought Damari would likely need help with grooming and feeding himself. As he lay in the hospital with a swollen brain and numb limbs in the days after surgery, Damari worried whether he would ever walk again. Playing basketball seemed out of the question.

“I’m not going to lie, I thought I was going to be stuck in a wheelchair,” he said. “The way the doctors were talking and the way everything was going at first, that’s how it seemed.”

But Damari, who is now 18, is battling his way back. He returned to his high school team last year, playing in 23 of the team’s 27 games in his first varsity season. He was the team’s third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, with averages of more than 10 points and six rebounds a game. His numbers included a season-high 24 points, and his squad went 15-12 and made it to the regional finals of the state playoffs.

“Damari’s gotten better and better as time has gone on,” said his high school coach Brian Rose, adding that he expects bigger things from Damari in his upcoming senior season. “He is a Division II basketball player right now, and I think he has the talent to play Division I. When he’s there, which is most of the time, he’s a force.”

After being placed in a medically induced coma, Hendrix overcame long odds to play less than a year after the shooting.

In many ways, it has been a heartwarming comeback. Damari’s successful return to the court is testament to his grit and determination, his loving and dedicated mother, the family members, friends and coaches who supported him, and the skilled doctors and therapists who treated him.

Even with all of that, Damari is living with challenges that no teenager should have to endure. He has suffered several seizures since the shooting. At times, he is stricken with severe headaches. His mother says she can detect a slight limp in his gait and a subtle lisp in his speech. Once, his mother popped open a can of biscuits and the sound caused him to start screaming. He freaked out when people set off fireworks on the first Fourth of July after his shooting. He struggles to concentrate when there is a lot going on around him. His short-term memory is still spotty two years after the shooting. During games last year, Rose said he rarely called plays when Damari was on the floor because his star forward often forgot them.

Then there is the daily terror of knowing that someone tried to kill you and the crime was never solved by police.

Everybody, run

Chicago high school basketball player Damari Hendrix stands on an outside court in La Follette Park, near his home in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. Hendrix, then 16, nearly died after being shot in the head on this court during Labor Day weekend 2016.

Alex Garcia for The Undefeated

By the time Damari saw the two guys rolling up on him, all he could do was tell everyone to run. He ran too, but soon he heard gunshots and his ears began ringing and his body started shutting down. Then he collapsed on the grass, blood oozing from under his shoulder-length dreadlocks.

Damari had been sitting on a bench in La Follette Park on Chicago’s West Side, chopping it up with his brother and best friend about the upcoming school year and the prospects for his high school basketball team. He had just run a few pickup games, and although night had fallen, the park was alive with the squeals of kids jumping in a bounce house and the chatter of people finishing up their end-of-summer cookouts.

Then the shooting started and everyone scattered. Police found 13 spent 9 mm cartridges near the bench where Damari had been sitting. Despite all the gunfire, Damari was the only casualty, with a bullet wound to the right side of his head.

“Momma, the people in the ambulance told me I wasn’t going to make it.”

At first, Damari said, he could not acknowledge to himself that he had been shot. “I don’t know how to explain it. It was like me watching myself. I was lying there, and it was like I saw the whole park,” he said. “It was like a 360 view.”

He was woozy when the ambulance arrived, but he was determined to stay awake. To fall asleep or pass out, he said, would have been like dying. An ambulance transported him the six miles to Mount Sinai Hospital. Jorie Hendrix rushed over and found Damari bleeding profusely, his head wrapped in blood-soaked gauze. “It was surreal,” she said. “He went from a normal face to where he just started swelling, puffing up.”

The emergency room staff assured Jorie that the swelling was to be expected given Damari’s injuries. But Damari went into a seizure before long, causing the medical staff to scramble to get him into surgery.

“I was like, ‘OK, he’ll be all right. He’s got this.’ And I signed the papers,” Jorie said. “I guess that is what you call motherly love. I couldn’t sit back and say, ‘Oh, no, he’s going to die.’ ”

The nearly five-hour operation went well. The bullet did not penetrate deep into his brain. Still, the bleeding and swelling were severe. The surgeon removed a portion of his skull to get to the bullet and bone fragments and to relieve pressure on Damari’s brain. For four days, doctors left him in a medically induced coma.

Determined to make it back

Jorie Hendrix (right), mother of Chicago high school basketball player Damari Hendrix (left), sits with him on an outside court in La Follette Park, near their home in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. Hendrix, then 16, nearly died after being shot in the head on this court during Labor Day weekend 2016. The shooter was never identified.

Alex Garcia for The Undefeated

One of the first things his mother remembers Damari saying afterward was that he was afraid he was going to die. “Momma, the people in the ambulance told me I wasn’t going to make it,” Jorie recalled him saying. The next thing he said was that he wanted to prove them wrong.

His speech was so slurred she could barely understand him. Still, Damari’s determination to get better was unmistakable. Jorie is a single mother of five, but she quit her job as a convenience store clerk to be by his side. She watched him go through hour after hour of speech, occupational and physical therapy. She bathed him and helped him to the bathroom.

“It was like, ‘No, Momma, I don’t want the nurses showering me; you shower me,’ ” she said. “I’m like, ‘OK, I guess now I got a career in nursing.’ ”

The trauma to the right side of his brain affected motor skills on his dominant left side, so everyone was encouraged when he started improving faster than expected. One day he could move his big toe, and then his left hand. When therapists prescribed exercises, he doubled and tripled up on them. “I was just focusing on that time to get out as quickly as possible,” he said. “I knew that the more repetition I did, the more quickly I would come back, so I was in the middle of the night doing exercises sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning.”

Eleven days after the shooting, he was moved to Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital. The doctors who evaluated him there were impressed with his progress but doubtful that he could make a full recovery.

“My expectation was that he was going to have some pretty significant impairments going forward,” said Dr. Steven Kreis, Schwab’s interim director for traumatic brain injury. “I even predicted that when he went home, after he finished all of his rehab, that he was still going to need assistance from his family to do some of the basic tasks of taking care of himself.”

Damari spent two weeks at Schwab. And while he made progress, Kreis said, there was little indication that he would make it as far as he has. One of the last times Kreis saw him, Damari was shooting baskets from a wheelchair on Schwab’s rooftop garden. He was wearing a white helmet over his dreadlocks, which were shorn on the right side of his head.

“He shot a couple of baskets,” Kreis said. “He used his right side, which is the side that was not weakened from the gunshot wound. That was the best I saw him while he was in rehab.”

By the time Damari went home, he was able to walk 50 yards and go up and down a flight of stairs on his own. “I’m happy to find out that he’s 100 percent independent, back to playing basketball and doing his thing,” Kreis said. “He doesn’t need any help from anybody, so he kind of proved me wrong in that way, which is always nice.”

No arrests, little follow-up

Foreman College and Career Academy basketball player Damari Hendrix dunks the ball during an open gym practice game on the West Side of Chicago. The scar on his abdomen is related to the surgery doctors performed as part of his rehabilitation.

Alex Garcia for The Undefeated

Foreman College and Career Academy basketball player Damari Hendrix (center) dribbles down the court during an open gym practice on the West Side of Chicago.

Alex Garcia for The Undefeated

As Damari was recovering, the investigation into his shooting was going where they most often go in Chicago: nowhere. It is hard to know whether that is because the police are overwhelmed, apathetic, distrusted or a combination of all three.

Damari’s shooting took place in the midst of one of Chicago’s many surges in gun violence. On Labor Day weekend 2016, shootings took the lives of 13 people and wounded 52 others. Very few of those crimes have been solved. Just 26 percent of the 764 murder cases in Chicago in 2016 were cleared by police, according to the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, which tracks and analyzes crime statistics in the city. When it comes to non-fatal shootings, the futility is even more striking: 95 percent of the 4,338 shootings that occurred in Chicago in 2016 went unsolved.

Unfortunately, little about Damari’s case stood out. He is black, like 80 percent of the shooting and murder victims in Chicago, a city that is about 5 percent Asian and otherwise nearly evenly divided among blacks, Hispanics and whites. Damari was just 16 when he was shot, but in Chicago young shooting victims are common. At least 325 people 16 years old or younger were shot in the city (36 were killed) in 2016, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The tense relationship between police and Chicago’s black residents was on display this month after Steven Rosenthal, 15, a basketball player at Crane Medical Preparatory High School, was found dead of a single gunshot wound to the head after a police chase. The Cook County medical examiner ruled the shooting a suicide, and top police officials said the pursuing officers had not fired their weapons. There were also reports that Steven had been despondent after his mother died in March. Still, Steven’s family and many others, keenly aware of past lies and abuse perpetrated by the Chicago police, were skeptical of the official finding. More than 100 protesters took to the streets on the city’s West Side in the days after Rosenthal’s death to demand an investigation into his death.

Those kinds of strains may help explain why no witnesses stepped up with useful information after Damari’s shooting. Damari says he did not recognize his attackers, and he ran when he saw them coming because that is what he learned to do when strangers approach in a menacing way. He said he has no idea why anyone would want to kill him.

A couple of things did separate Damari from many victims of gun violence in Chicago: A police report said he had no criminal record, nor any known gang affiliation. Nearly 40 percent of Chicago’s 2016 murder victims had at least 10 prior arrests, and more than half were suspected gang members, the Crime Lab said. A full 80 percent had been arrested at least once.

Jorie suspects her son might have been targeted because he refused to join a gang. “They were recruiting him all the time,” she said. “It’s dog-eat-dog out here. You choose sports or some other activity so they don’t know who you are in the streets. But even that doesn’t always protect you.”

What is certain is that the shooting investigation quickly hit a dead end. Jorie said she sensed a decline in police interest once it became clear that Damari would survive. Seven weeks after the shooting, detectives declared in a written report that “all investigative leads have been exhausted at this time.” They went on to ask that the investigation be suspended “pending any new leads or contact by the victim.”

Jorie and Damari said they have not heard from the police in the nearly two years since. As far as Jorie is concerned, it is just as well. “Knowing who it is and having to face them or identify them in court would be tough,” she said. “Damari would be even more terrified.”

Ups and downs

Foreman College and Career Academy basketball player Damari Hendrix (right) with his coach Brian Rose (left) during an open gym practice on the West Side of Chicago.

Foreman College and Career Academy basketball player Damari Hendrix (lying on floor) jokes with his teammates during an open gym practice on the West Side of Chicago.

Alex Garcia for The Undefeated

Once Damari was released from Schwab, he was put on a schedule of home schooling and outpatient therapy. He went at it hard — at times, too hard.

Doctors had implanted the portion of his skull they had removed into his abdomen, to preserve it until it could be safely replaced. But Damari’s regimen of weightlifting and other exercise caused the skull flap to become dislodged and infected. It had to be discarded, and doctors had to use a metal mesh to repair the hole in his skull.

It turned out to be one of Damari’s lesser setbacks. Just over a year after his shooting, Damari suffered a grand mal seizure — his second, after the one that occurred in the hospital in the attack’s immediate aftermath. He lost consciousness at home and started convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Eventually, it passed and he was given medication to control the seizures.

The episode darkened Damari’s mood, causing him to start feeling sorry for himself, his mother said. He already was embarrassed by the helmet he had to wear to protect his brain and scars that were evident under his newly close-cropped hair. When he got down, he did not want anyone to see him.

“Why is this happening to me? If I had not been shot, this would not be happening.”

“I’d say, ‘Come on, let’s go outside,’ ” Jorie recalled. “He didn’t want to walk around. He said he felt funny when he walked and when he talked. I was like, ‘But you’re walking and you’re talking. Let’s go.’ ”

When he got himself together, Damari would sometimes attend his high school games, where he would sit behind the bench and cheer on his Foreman teammates as he spent his sophomore year recovering. It wasn’t until the spring of his sophomore year that he tried to play basketball with other people. His coordination was off, and he felt weak. He improved enough to play some summer ball with his teammates in 2017, but he still had a ways to go.

“At first, I used to miss a lot of layups and I was missing dunks and all that,” he said.

But he stuck with it, going to the weight room to build his strength and shooting until he started feeling his rhythm once again. Finally, last fall he was ready to play for real as a high school junior.

It was a big deal when Damari returned in late November for the start of last season. News cameras followed him, and he was nervous. “It was the moment I had been waiting for, but at the same time I did not want to mess up,” he said. “I just went out and played my best.”

Since he couldn’t remember plays, Rose had Damari come off the bench in the season opener against suburban Addison Trail High School. When he got in, Damari rattled in his first shot, and he ended up finishing with 10 points and six rebounds before fouling out in a 55-31 loss. He had not played his best, but he still scored nearly a third of his team’s points. More than that, just being back on the court was a monumental achievement. His coach said Damari’s game steadily improved throughout the season, although there were setbacks. There were a few times he had to sit because of headaches. Other times, his concentration would wane.

Foreman College and Career Academy basketball player Damari Hendrix takes a break from the action during an open gym practice on the West Side of Chicago. (Alex Garcia for ESPN)

Alex Garcia for The Undefeated

Several college recruiters have talked to Rose about Damari, but those conversations have fallen short of what Rose would call serious. They like Damari’s game but worry about the ongoing repercussions from the shooting.

“He’s gotten better and better,” Rose said. “He’ll play somewhere next year, even if it is for a community college.”

Damari spent this summer honing his game. He has looked good in the open gym sessions at his high school, and he even has ventured back to La Follette Park to play pickup ball and to take part in a city-run summer league. Damari is on the honor roll at Foreman. Going into the school year, he hopes to keep his grades up, play well, get his team into the postseason and get some kind of basketball scholarship. “It doesn’t have to be a D-I or even a D-II offer,” he said. “I just want to be able to play somewhere.”

But the road back remains bumpy. His mother, who had gotten a new job working as a commercial truck driver, was hospitalized in July with a ruptured appendix. That took a toll on Damari, who started to once again complain of severe headaches. Days after Jorie was released from the hospital, he suffered another seizure after playing ball at La Follette Park. Jorie said he had gotten lax about taking his seizure medication.

Once again, Damari turned inward. It took a while for him to come back out of the house and to start playing ball again, his mother said. Once again, he was questioning his fate.

“He just shut down,” she said. “He felt like, ‘I am taking so many steps forward, now this.’ Then he went back to, ‘Why is this happening to me? If I had not been shot, this would not be happening.’ ”

Liner Notes

ESPN’s William Weinbaum contributed to this report.

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.