The instructions are taped to the wall above his bed. They show diagrams of hands and feet, with arrows pointing left and right. His mother pulls on his limp right arm, forward and backward, forward and backward, as if rowing a boat.
“He couldn’t move nothing at first,” she says. “Now he can do some on his own. Show him, Damon.”
The young man in the blue pajamas turns his head and squints. He is nearly blind now. The room is dark, the air stale, the one window closed. The rails along his single bed keep him from falling out. On the wall above him are small cut- out magazine photos of basketball players, including Steve Smith, his favorite. Once, he took a green T-shirt and drew Smith’s number on it with a pen and wore that shirt to the courts. This was back when he could still see the ball and a small ray of hope inside it.
Now he looks at his arm and concentrates. It does nothing at first. Then, finally, it jerks in the air as if yanked by a puppeteer’s string. It stays up for one second, two seconds, Damon Bailes, the most tragic currency in the city of Detroit, a young black male with a bullet hole in his head, smiles briefly, then lets go.
His arm drops, dead as air. Smooth, so smooth
“We got next!”
It was a warm May night and the basketball game was moving up and down the asphalt.
“We got next!” The kids were sweating as they waited. They dribbled in place. Damon, whose nickname was “Smooth,” looked around. He had never been to this court before, outside old Bentley High in Livonia. He and four friends, Lawrence Poole, Torrin Cottrell, Kevin Franklin and Terrill Malone, had started the afternoon in the city, but they lost their first game, and the line was too long to wait for another. There are not enough playable courts in Detroit. And far too many kids with time on their hands.
Poole said he knew a place in the suburbs where the competition was pretty good. So they got in the car and drove to Livonia. Five black kids in a Ford Escort. They were not there long before a police car stopped them.
“Your plates are expired,” the officer said. When he ran their names through the computer, one of them, Kevin Franklin, was shown as delinquent on child support payments. He was arrested and taken to jail.
“Let’s just go home,” Torrin said.
They almost did. But Damon wanted to play ball, and Poole did, too. So now they stood under the floodlights at Bentley, four city kids, waiting for the suburban rims.
“Check the guy in the red shorts,” Poole said to Damon as they watched the game.
“There go the shorts we want, the long kind.”
“Yeah, they nice. We should buy some of those.”
That was it, they claim. Nothing more. The guy in the red shorts, Tyrone Swint, also from Detroit, might have seen them looking and pointing. He would later tell police he thought Damon was “a guy who jumped me” at a Detroit nightclub. Whatever. Something set him off.
And he had a gun.
“Bring the car around,” he told a friend.
“We might have a fight.”
The suburbs were about to meet the city. The final game
“OK, let’s play,” Torrin said, and he bounced an inbounds pass. They ran up and down the court several times. Damon, a 6-foot-2, baby-faced guard who had dropped out of high school but starred in church leagues and was hoping to get to a small college if he could pass his equivalency exams, tossed in a couple baskets. Now he dribbled the ball upcourt. He loved this part of the game, when everything was open, everyone was moving, and he was in control. He felt special. Maybe this was the only place he ever felt special.
He was about to make a pass to his best friend, Poole. Suddenly, witnesses say, Tyrone Swint, guy in the red shorts, came up behind Damon and pulled out a gun. He shot Damon in the back of the head. This was before anyone had the chance to yell, “Look out!” This was while Damon was dribbling a basketball. The bullet went through Damon’s brain and lodged between the skull and the skin. He went down. The ball rolled away.
“Everyone started running,” Cottrell says. “I saw the guy shoot Damon and then he shot again at someone else. As I was running, I saw him go jumping into the window of this black car and they drove away.”
The black car was the escape horse, and Tyrone and his buddy were cowboys heading out of town. They drove down Five Mile Road and turned onto Middlebelt. Tyrone threw his gun out the window. It landed in the dirt. Later, Tyrone jumped out of the car and ran through the streets alone.
Back on the court, under the suburban floodlights, Damon Bailes was lying in blood. One of the players was trying to take his pulse. Poole was yelling at the oncoming EMS workers: “My boy’s lying here shot! He’s shot!”
Torrin was crying. He had known Damon since they were kids. They played in church leagues together. The summer before they had gone to Saginaw for an all-day tournament, and they won the whole thing and everyone got trophies. On the bus ride home, Damon was laughing and talking about how good they were. He had scored all these points. They waved their trophies at each other.
Now Damon was flat, not moving, his head was swollen and bloody, and there was a big knot on the forehead where he had hit the pavement. Torrin and Poole couldn’t stop crying. They were still kids, really. They had never been in trouble like this. They ran to the school and found a pay phone. They called Damon’s aunt.
“Damon been shot!” Poole said. “Damon been shot!” Poor and blind
Inside the quiet A-frame house on Greenlawn in Detroit there is a small, white, plastic Christmas tree. Velma Bailes, Damon’s mother, a woman who looks too young for nine children, no husband, and an ominous pile of hospital bills, bought the tree last year, at Shoppers World, for $25.99. She walks around its needles, and says Damon wants a small TV for Christmas, so he can watch programs from his bed.
“Will he get what he wants?”
“He’ll get what he needs.”
“What does he need?
“He needs boots for the snow.”
It has been seven months since the bullet, which was taken from Damon’s brain and given to the police. Damon was in a coma for the first five weeks. Velma would try to talk to him in the hospital, as the doctors had suggested.
“Damon, we need you to come back,” she would say. She would hold his hand and look at the tubes in his throat, nose and arms. She would go home.
One night, a nurse called and said to come down quickly. The patient next to Damon was saying, “Damon can’t see.”
“How do you know?”
“He woke up yellin’, ‘I can’t see! I can’t see!’ “
The bullet had hit the lobe that controls vision. It also had left Damon paralyzed on the right side. In the months that followed, he would regain a slurred speech, partial vision and some feeling in his otherwise dead right leg and arm. The vision bothered him most. He would cry for hours over his near- blindness.
“He was always saying, ‘How can I play basketball if I can’t see?’ ” recalls Mary Roy, who manages the brain-injury program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan. “We tried to tell him, ‘Damon, there are other things you can do that are more important than basketball.’ “
This, of course, is wishful thinking. The truth is, for a kid like Damon, there was only basketball. He was never college material. He couldn’t get through two different high schools. He never held a job. He lived at home, he had a baby with his girlfriend. Maybe he foolishly figured that little leather ball would someday lift him up above all this, the welfare checks, the food stamps, the porch that is falling apart.
If he was stupid, so be it. He is not the first. But he did no wrong. He committed no crimes. The tendency in well-to-do circles is to dismiss a kid such as Damon as hopeless, destined to a bad finish, as if this were some kind birthright as an urban baby. But if we think like that, we cut the veins out of our city, and, don’t kid yourself, our suburbs, too. Young black males. Wounded by gunshot. Young black males. Killed by gunshot. This is all our story. This is where we live. Detroit. A place where, this year alone, 266 children under the age of 17 have been shot.
We are dying, one bullet at a time.
“I don’t know what parents are thinking when they let kids have them, guns,” Velma Bailes sighs. “If one of my children had a gun in the house, they got to go. I don’t care. All they ever do is get you killed.”
Damon, lying in bed, is looking at the ceiling. He is asked whether he ever fired a gun. He snorts a breath and closes his eyes.
“Nuh-uh,” he whispers. No easy solutions
It didn’t take police long to find Tyrone Swint. They found the gun. They found the car. He still was wearing the red shorts when they pulled up several hours later in Detroit. Swint admitted to the shooting. He claimed self-defense, although how you do that and shoot someone in the back of the head is still a mystery. Why did he do it? Did he even know Damon? Is it true, as Damon’s friends claim, that the two had never met? The trial, already postponed once, is now scheduled for February.
Meanwhile, the basketball courts at Bentley have been closed since that night. The gates are padlocked, the rims removed. Signs reading “NO TRESPASSING” are posted. This is a quick suburban reaction: you have trouble, cut off its food supply.
“It’s a real shame,” says Sgt. Lawrence Little, who works in Livonia and made the arrest. “They had a nice setup at that school, nice courts and all. But you can’t have bullets flying near a subdivision.
“We asked those kids why they came up from Detroit to play basketball? You know what they said? They said, ‘You can’t play down in Detroit. You get shot.’ “
Damon Bailes is still waiting for Medicaid to approve his much-needed physical therapy. It could take weeks, even months, the rehab center says. Meanwhile, he sits in bed, and his mother and brothers must bathe him, exercise him, walk him down the hallway, and help him to the bathroom. He is 21 years old.
Tyrone Swint, who is 20, sits in the Wayne County jail. When a verification call is made, a worker there is intrigued.
“Swint? What’d he do?”
“He shot someone on a basketball court.”
“Yeah? He shoot one of the Pistons?”
“No, nobody famous.”
“Oh. Well. Yep, he’s in here.”
“Merry Christmas.” A difficult lesson
“What can you remember?” Damon is asked.
He looks at his arm. He speaks in a whisper. “Can’t . . . remember nothing.”
“What do you see when you close your eyes?”
He closes his eyes. He tries.
“Don’t . . . see . . . nothin’.”
“What do you see when you dream?”
He sniffs. He slowly smiles.
“I see . . . me . . . playing ball . . .”
Damon Bailes can be easily ignored. He can be ignored in a backlog of police reports. He can be ignored in a backlog of Medicaid requests. He can be ignored because he lives in the lowest strata of our city, and, at times, he might as well live in a cave.
But he counts. He may not be William Kennedy Smith, but he counts. On the wall of his tiny bedroom is a note from Poole: “Damon, you are a precious part of my life and I won’t ever forget you.” Underneath the word “precious” Poole wrote, in parentheses, “Don’t think I’m gay.”
He counts. And we cannot solve his problem with a padlock and a sign. We are linked to the city, whether we work there, live there, or even go in for a meal. There is no moat around Eight Mile Road. Their problems are our problems. They bleed, we all bleed.
“All we were doing was playing basketball,” says Torrin Cottrell, almost pleading. “You don’t expect someone to run up and shoot you. It’s like, if basketball is doing something wrong, then what are we supposed to do?”
What are we supposed to do? The future of our city is being taken down, gangland style, one ambulance after another. We have to do something. Tonight is Christmas Eve, they are talking flurries, and that sh