Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Teen shooting victim in San Francisco finds new life through wheelchair basketball

From The San Francisco Chronicle:

About halfway through his two-month stay at Children's Hospital Oakland, 10-year-old Chris Rodriguez (pictured) asked his father, "Daddy, will I be able to walk out of here?"

Richard Rodriguez had been withholding the bad news. Initially, doctors told Chris' parents he had a 50 percent chance to survive the internal injuries from a 40-caliber handgun slug that sliced his spinal cord, so his father was desperate to keep Chris' spirits up. But now was the time.

"No," Richard said. "You may not walk for a long time, maybe never."

Three years later, Chris calmly recalls the moment.

"I started crying, because I wanted to get back to my basketball season. I just joined the school team. I had played two games."

Sorry, no more basketball.

"Daddy," Chris said in the hospital, "that's going to be the greatest loss of my life."

On Jan. 10, 2008, a 24-year-old Oakland man on a violent crime spree held up a Chevron station on Piedmont Avenue in North Oakland. Jared Adams took $162, and when an attendant tried to dial 9-1-1, Adams, who was drunk, fired three wild shots.

One of the shots traveled across the street, through the wall of the Harmony Road Music School and through the spleen, kidney and spine of Chris Rodriguez as he sat on a piano bench waiting to take his lesson.

The following Saturday morning, while most people were struggling to process the random cruelty of what had happened to Chris Rodriguez, a group of boys and girls gathered in a gym in Berkeley for their weekly basketball practice. They discussed the boy who had been in the newspaper. The stories said he had been a basketball player. The kids talked about the boy as a potential future teammate. Then they climbed into their basketball wheelchairs and got down to serious hoops.

"Do I remember it? Yeah, I remember everything," Chris Rodriguez says, matter-of-factly. "I remember everything until right before the surgery."

The piano lesson had been moved up from Chris' regular time, to accommodate another student. Chris was sitting on the piano bench, digging into his backpack for some sheet music.

"My friend came back from the bathroom and we heard a big bang," says Chris, who is now 13. "I only heard one shot, but there were three or four. I fell back."

Chris' mother, Jennifer Groebe-Rodriguez, was in her car at the curb just outside the studio. Two of the gunshots shattered the car's rear windows. Groebe-Rodriguez was on the phone to her husband. She told him that kids had thrown rocks through her window.

"Those aren't rocks," Richard told his wife. "Be careful."

"And then I went inside and he was sitting at the piano," Groebe-Rodriguez says. "The teacher was there, sort of holding him."

Chris picks up the story: "It didn't hurt, my stomach was just vibrating and shaking a lot. It's actually kind of funny - when I was in the ambulance they were about to cut my shirt off and I was like, 'No, no!' It was my favorite shirt."

Did Chris realize he'd been shot?

"Yeah, because I heard someone say, 'What's that hole?' "

After two months in the hospital, Chris returned to school (he now attends the Oakland School for the Arts). He testified at the trial of Adams, who was found guilty on 12 felony counts and sentenced to 70 years in prison (he must serve a minimum of 60).

On the day of sentencing, Chris' mom took him to court. In court Chris, with the 40-caliber slug still in his back, faced Adams.

"I'm sorry about your financial problems, if that's the reason you were robbing," Chris said to Adams, who had expressed remorse. "And I also want to say I forgive you. I just hope you realize there are other ways to make money that do not break the law."

Then Chris, age 11, wheeled over to Adams and shook his hand.

What moved Chris to forgive?

"I don't know why," Chris says. "It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing at the end of the trial. The guy, he didn't mean to hurt me. He did make some really bad mistakes and he's paying for 'em right now. But I ... I don't really know why, but I just had this feeling like I should go up to him and I guess out of that, I just wanted to forgive him."

Groebe-Rodriguez says Chris was not prepped or prodded.

"I think we had always told him that if you forgive someone, it's for you, so you don't carry the burden, so you can go on with your healing," she says. "But I don't know that we said it specific to (Adams); it was general."

Now it was time for the healing. Groebe-Rodriguez is a licensed therapist and for years she was a medical social worker for Kaiser, counseling families and patients in crisis. She still teaches classes in grief and loss at UC Berkeley Extension.

"So I had some processes I could refer to," she says, "but it's different when it's you."

Chris had been wrenched out of normality. He was instantly famous, and uncomfortable with the attention. To well-meaning friends and strangers he was an object of sympathy and pity.

At the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, they don't deal in grief and pity and anguish. They deal in basketball and soccer and bicycling. One of the first of its kind in the country, the outreach program's mission is to improve the health, independence and social integration of physically disabled adults and children through sports and recreation.

The organization's administrators read newspapers, looking for potential participants. They develop contacts at hospitals and schools and among therapists, they keep files.

"We're very aggressive," says Tim Orr, who started youth sports at the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program 25 years ago. Orr once pursued a youngster for 11 years before pulling him into sports. A rep from Orr's program contacted Chris' mother while he was hospitalized.

"My initial reaction was, 'I'll talk to you in a few months, I can't deal with it now,' " Groebe-Rodriguez says. "Eventually, Chris asked if he could go take a look" at the basketball program.

About nine months after he'd been shot, Chris went to a practice and watched, but he was experiencing constant severe pains in his legs. A couple months later, the pains somewhat subsiding, he came back.

He got into a basketball wheelchair and rolled onto the hardwood. Instantly it all disappeared - the unwanted fame and the pity, the special treatment. He was a kid playing basketball.

Chris joined the prep squad (ages 5-12) of the Bay Area Outreach team, the Bay Cruisers, and he also practiced with the varsity (ages 13-18).

"When I heard about Chris," says James Bohnett, 16, captain of the Cruisers varsity, "I only got tidbits of the story, about how there was a possible new recruit in the hospital who was shot while playing piano. So when I met him he was a pretty quiet person. For goodness sakes, this kid gets shot, loses the ability to walk and now probably is worried about what life ahead has for him."

Bohnett, an incredibly skilled point guard, was born without lower legs. He says he would probably be a couch potato now if not for wheelchair basketball.

"What was really cool," Bohnett says, "was to watch how he grew up with us and quickly became comfortable talking to us. ... Today he is one of the most talkative, most confident and most friendly players on the team. He can pop a conversation with anyone, and can make a sly joke when he wants. He has grown up a lot in the past couple years."

The growth hasn't always been easy. Chris lacked the strength to hoist a shot to the rim, or to push himself back into his wheelchair when knocked to the floor, a common occurrence in wheelchair ball. He did push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups; he rolled his chair across his backyard lawn, the grass providing muscle-burning resistance; he practiced shooting against a wall.

In the first year or so after the accident, the pains in Chris' legs were constant and severe, only somewhat managed by medication. Gradually the episodes lessened, but still they sideline him for a day or more at a time.

Varsity coach Trooper Johnson, who was a star on the U.S. national team for years, knows the pains. He was paralyzed at 17 in a car accident. He tells Chris and other players they can hurt on their own time; they have to work through it in order to play ball.

"The days you can see he's not able to fight through it, you know it's pretty extreme," Johnson says. "He pushes through as much as anybody could ask of him. When he's at that limit, we kind of back off."

Last season the Bay Cruisers prep team was hell on wheels. At the West Coast Conference tournament, just before the championship game, Chris broke an undisclosed team rule. Johnson and prep team coach Richie Bennett benched Chris. The Cruisers lost the game.

"It was one of those points where you kind of go, 'Well, how's he going to react to all this?' " says Johnson. "Is he going to feel like he was cheated, like I put too much pressure on him? Is he going to pull away from the program? You always have that concern."

Chris' account: "I'm not going to go into great detail about what happened. It's just that some of it was being cocky and kind of not caring what other people think, so Trooper benched me for it, but he's trying to teach me that what I do affects my team as well, it's not just (about) me. It kind of showed me that I have to not just think about how this is going to affect me, but my teammates as well.

"At first I was kind of skeptical about it, but a little bit deeper into the game I started to realize what he was trying to get at."

The team qualified for the Nationals, and "Chris wound up really having the greatest tournament," Johnson says, "not just individually, but really helping out the team and his teammates, and really stepping up in more of a lead role, taking more responsibility, making his entire team better."

The Bay Cruisers won the national championship.

The Bay Area Outreach & Recreation Program was founded in 1976 by a group of disabled Cal students. Its various programs serve about 1,000 adults and children each year.

Compared with national statistics, participants in the Bay Area Outreach program have a dramatically lower incidence of school dropout, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol problems, and unemployment. The group's mission is to help the disabled develop independence and enhanced quality of life.