Damari Hendrix is the 2017-18 IHSA nominee for the NFHS Spirit of Sport Award
Brian Rose will never forget the first time he met Damari Hendrix (below right)
. It followed a meeting in April 2016 introducing Rose as the new boys’ basketball coach at Foreman High School in Chicago. Talking with his future players, Hendrix flashed the wry sense of humor and trademark smile that have endeared him to his coach ever since.
“He sort of hangs in the back of the r
oom and then comes up to me at the end, shakes my hand and tells me his name is ‘Kobe’,” laughs Rose.
Kobe as in Bryant. As in a player who is among the top one percent of basketball players in NBA history.
Just months after making that great first impression on his new coach, Damari would find himself in a very different one percent.
Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer in Chicago, with Chicago Public Schools returning to session after the holiday. That Saturday had been a good day for Damari and his friends. A group that included his younger brother, as well as Foreman teammate Bobby Hughes, made their way to La Follette Park, where they had grown up playing, in the late afternoon. Seniority rules on the single court at La Follette, so Damari and company waited patiently for the games featuring older players to finish, and after getting on the court, played until just after sunset.
“It can be a tough area and park,” said Hughes. “We keep an eye out. When we see someone we don’t know or that might be up to no good, we move to another part of the park or get out of there.”
Two men across the park that fit that description, prompting the group to disperse from the park bench they were talking and laughing on following their game. Damari urged Hughes to get his brother out of the park as the group began to scatter, while he tried to double back to grab some cloths and a ball that had been left behind.
That’s when the gunshots started.
The group fled in multiple directions, with Hughes and Damari’s brother sprinting behind the elementary school across the street. There they began calling Damari’s cell phone. With no answer on the phone and sirens getting closer, they felt safe to return to the park. That is where they found Damari laying on the ground, his white t-shirt soaked in blood. His dreadlocks obscured the bullet entry point, initially flummoxing his friends and arriving paramedics on where he had been hit.
“I didn’t feel it. I didn’t know I was hit until my body shutdown as I was running,” said Damari. “Everyone was trying to keep me awake.”
It was at the hospital where Damari’s mother, Jorie Hendrix, was given those chilling odds regarding Damari’s chance of making it through surgery alive.
“I just knew he would be ok,” Jorie Hendrix said. “He is my fighter.”
Three surgeries and a four-day medically induced coma followed, while the thrill of beating the odds weighed against the stark reality of the unknowns about his long-term recovery.
Damari was unable to talk for about two months, while feeling and movement were limited in other parts of his body. A 3.5 GPA student as a freshman, he would have to be homeschooled as a sophomore, losing his daily interaction with teachers and friends, not to mention the game of basketball.
The game remained an important part of his recovery, as his therapists instituted basketball-related drills into his sessions, which were often three times per day. When friends came to visit at the hospital, they’d ultimately make their way to the rooftop basketball court to shoot around.
“I wanted to snap back fast, but it took time,” said Damari. “Week-to-week I’d pick out a little thing, a small goal like trying to move my fingers a little quicker. Each time I progressed, I kept thinking ‘I can’t wait to get back to hoops with my friends.’”
That came faster than anyone anticipated, as Damari was back in school and attending open gyms when school began in September. It took time to round into form, and as his story became national news, the media glare didn’t make his return to the court in the season-opener in November any easier.
“ESPN and all these media outlets are covering the game, so to ease him in, we brought him off the bench,” said Rose. “He took one dribble and pulled up and made his first shot. I pulled him out with about a minute left. It was emotional watching him walk off the court. I told him ‘that’s over, the hardest part is over. Now it’s just basketball.’”
Always a leader in a group where many of the players have played together since middle school, Rose recognized the important role his teammates played in Damari’s return.
“In his first game back he got knocked down and all four teammates ran over to pick him up. That says a lot to me.” said Rose. “When Damari came back to the team, his teammates understood that his body couldn’t always do things as fast as his mind wanted. They picked him up the same way he used to for them. They wouldn’t let him give into frustration or quit on himself.”
Of the shared experiences on the Foreman team, not all are positive, as nearly every member has been personally impacted by gun violence prior to Damari being shot.
When asked about that daily reality, Damari gets more serious than a 16-year old should have to be. His posture turns stern, a surge of anger and confusion in his eyes. He appears ready to lash out, but ultimately collects himself and is measured in his response.
“It’s crazy that kids can’t grow up and just have fun,” said Damari. “Go to a park or wherever they want to go. Sometimes you feel caged in, limited in everything you do. Innocent people die every day. It’s crazy.”
Basketball remains a safehaven for Damari.
“When I am playing basketball, I don’t think about anything. I just hoop,” he says.
Rose sees it the same.
“The way I look at it is, any time I can have them in the gym, they aren’t somewhere else,” said Rose. “We have a good group of kids, so it’s not that I worry so much about them making bad choices. It’s the people that are around them making a bad decision, or someone they don’t even know. That is what concerns me.”
The coach also points out that Damari and his teammates have overcome adversity that simply doesn’t exist for most schools.
“6:15 PM is the latest we ever practice,” said Rose. “Most of our kids have to take public transportation home and I don’t want to send them home when its late, so we practice with all of our levels together at once. When I started, our kids had to hang the backboards in the gym, and for a while, our JV team and varsity shared uniforms, handing them off after the JV game ended. They have overcome so much and I am proud of them. They are resilient whether they know it or not.”
From a basketball sense, Damari estimates he was at 80 percent in December. About 20 pounds shy of his freshman year weight and still regaining strength in his legs.
When asked what 100 percent Damari looks, he leans forward and a smile breaks across his face.
“Dunking over people. Breaking ankles. That’s me at 100 percent,” he says as the smile grows bigger.
Rose thinks that assessment isn’t that far off. He glowingly recalls an up-and-under dunk that Damari threw down in a summer league game just weeks before the shooting.
“I think he is a (NCAA) Division II caliber talent right now,” said Rose. “As he continues to improve, there is no reason that he can’t be a Division I prospect by the end of his senior season.”
From a one percent chance to live, to playing college basketball?
“Every day I thank God that I’m alive,” said Damari. “I got a second chance. I can walk and talk, I could be stuck in a wheelchair or worse. I just want to hoop and keep my grades up to try and earn a scholarship. That’s where my focus is. Anything is possible with hard work and dedication.”
Who wants to bet against Damari Hendrix?