With apologies to Zach Bookbinder, a gem of a kid from Penn Valley who organized a fund-raising basketball tournament for a Philadelphia teenage gunshot survivor, on Saturday I had to root against him.
No hard feelings. Bookbinder, 14, got it. The kids had divided into teams Blue and Neon on an overcast morning in Narberth Park. And Bookbinder’s team — Neon — was almost assured a win with “Sharpshooter Kevin Schwartz,” a player who didn’t seem capable of missing a three-pointer.
But really we were on the same side: Azir Harris’.
“All this is for me,” Harris said, smiling the kind of smile his parents had worried would never return after he was shot and paralyzed in 2018, the day after the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting. “People really came out for me.”
Harris had been walking to a store near his home at the Wilson Park housing development in South Philadelphia with two friends to grab something to eat when gunfire rang out.
All three teens were struck. Azir, then 17, got it worst, hit five times in the crossfire of a neighborhood beef.
Months later, in a nearby Philadelphia suburb, Zach, a freshman at Harriton High School, was (hand to the journalism gods) reading the newspaper and came across my column about Azir.
He was moved by the struggles faced by a teen not much older than he was, and his family — father Troy, a beloved cook at Penn’s kosher dining hall, and mother Debra, who was forced to leave her job at a rehabilitative nursing home to care for her son while medical bills piled up and they desperately searched for accessible housing.
Bookbinder wanted to do something. With the help of his mother, Hannah, he organized the tournament and set up a GoFundMe campaign to help offset some of the Harris family’s expenses.
Even before the game started, they had surpassed their goal of $5,000.
While Zach planned the tournament, the boys got to know each other a little over — what else? — Fortnite. Saturday was the first time they and their families met in person.
“We’re family now,” Azir’s father said.
It was the kind of moment that took your breath away, and renewed your faith in humanity.
But so was talking to the young players who showed up — about 20 or so friends of Zach’s who, even at their young age, realized how a few short miles, a different zip code, or just bad luck separated them from other kids their age, and wanted to use their privilege to do something about it.
“We have a lot of opportunities that other kids don’t,” said Sam Palmer, 14, a player on the Neon side. “Things that we sometimes take for granted.”
His friend Jaison Nkala, on the opposing Blue team, agreed. “It’s important for us to realize that.”
World, the kids are all right, and Saturday gave me more hope than ever that the Harris family will be all right, too.
Harris and his parents recently moved to accessible housing in North Philadelphia. It’s not ideal; they were forced to leave some of their adult children who still lived at home, and contributed to the household, in their old apartment near where the shooting occurred. But until they find a bigger place, it’s what they had to do for Azir.
“I nearly broke down and cried when I seen him in the kitchen, moving around on his own,” his father said. “He was confined, he really was confined. Now he’s able to move around, to be Azir.”
For the first time in a long time, things that seemed impossible in the shooting’s aftermath suddenly feel less so. Azir will start homeschooling soon, and he wants to find other activities to get him out of the house more — like a beat-making class. He is smiling again.