kwame james: the ultimate assist

The Ultimate Assist

Michael Wildes, an immigration lawyer in New York City , learned of James’ situation and took on his case pro bono. “Is this the message you want to send to someone who looked down the face of terrorism?” says Wildes, who is also the mayor of Englewood , N.J. “It was a national disgrace.”

With Wildes’ help, James reached out to politicians, even venturing to Capitol Hill. A member of Congress could sponsor a bill giving James permanent-resident status, but while many pols had been all too happy to pose for photos alongside the “Shoe Bomber hero,” none took up his cause. By mid-2003 James was overstaying his visa and was subject to deportation. “It was crunch time,” he says.

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Five years ago Kwame James was a hero, subduing the Shoe Bomber. Life hasn’t been the same since

Reproduced from Sports Illustrated: Tuesday August 15, 2006

Posted on Wednesday August 16, 2006 1:41PM ; Updated: Thursday August 17, 2006 11:55AM

By Jon Wertheim,

The irony was, in retrospect, striking. But if your life keeps turning on quirks of fate, eventually you take the world for one big funhouse mirror. So it was that Kwame James shrugged and didn’t say a word when he — handsome, well spoken, well dressed — was yanked from the security line at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris and given the full pat-down-and-wand treatment while an unkempt fellow passenger carrying only a backpack and muttering to himself in Arabic passed through the checkpoint without a problem.

James, a dual citizen of Canada and Trinidad & Tobago and a recent graduate of a college in the U.S. , has what he calls “an extreme dislike” of racial profiling. However, it was Dec. 22, 2001 , barely 100 days into the “new reality” of life after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and if you were subjected to one of those exhaustive airport security searches, you smiled through clenched teeth and took one for the team. “I just figured, Oh well, my bad luck,” James recalls.

At the time, James was a 23-year-old center for AS Bondy, a pro basketball team in France ‘s B League. After being frisked he boarded his flight to Miami , where he would meet his girlfriend, Jill Clements, and take her to his family’s home in Trinidad for the holidays. When you’re 6-foot-8 and can only afford coach class, international flights are brutal. James had deliberately stayed up all night so that, after folding his frame into his seat like so much origami, he would zonk out for the journey’s duration. The flight, American Airlines 63, was packed and there were lots of screaming kids, but James went right to sleep.

Three hours later he was roused by a frantic flight attendant. “We need your help in the back!” she said. “Now!”

The terror etched on the woman’s face extinguished any notion that James might be dreaming. Without hesitating he rushed back to row 29, where he found other passengers struggling with that scraggly haired man who had breezed through the security line. A flight attendant was tightly holding her own hand, stanching the blood from a bite wound. The stench of sulfur filled the air. A thickset Italian passenger had the unkempt man, who was screaming incomprehensibly in Arabic, in a headlock.

For years James’ coaches had chided him for being insufficiently physical, for shying from contact. Now here he was, helping to wrestle a flailing man into submission. James’ adrenaline, surging far more than it ever had on a basketball court, spiked when a flight attendant warned, “Careful, he’s got a bomb in his shoe!”

James looked down, saw a small Koran under the captive’s seat and fixed his gaze on the wires poking out from the tongue of his black boot. Six times, the man later identified as Richard Reid — and universally called the “Shoe Bomber” — had tried to ignite the wires with a match. With no air marshals on board to help, James and a scrum of valiant passengers and flight attendants finally subdued Reid, who is 6-4, weighs more than 200 pounds and, as James puts it, “was possessed, clearly willing to die.” Using belts and headphone cords, they tied Reid up, and two doctors on board injected Reid with a sedative.

“It was like in the movies,” recalls Philippe Acas, a Parisian businessman who had wrested the matches from Reid’s hands. “It was just one of those cases where you don’t think — you act.”

James, the largest man on the plane, was asked by the captain to stand sentry over Reid for the rest of the flight. For nearly four hours, James sat on an armrest and pressed against Reid, gripping him by his greasy ponytail. As a basketball player, James was a lunch-pail type who, despite his mild nature, had always found it an honor to guard the toughest guy on the opposing team. Now the nastiest defensive assignment of his life had arrived at 37,000 feet.

In a remarkable display of restraint, no passenger tried to injure Reid, much less kill him, even though he had tried to turn a plane with 197 people on board into a cloud of atmospheric particles. James, who outweighed Reid by 50 pounds, could easily have snapped the guy’s neck. “I didn’t even let my mind go there,” James says. “All those kids who had to witness the struggle already were terrified. Imagine the effect on them if something worse had happened.

For the rest of the flight, frightening thoughts cartwheeled through James’ mind. He feared that the man he was holding had another bomb, in his checked luggage. He wondered whether Reid had a co-conspirator on board. When the captain announced that the flight was being diverted to Boston and would be escorted by F-15s, James panicked, recalling the conspiracy theory that United Flight 93 had actually been shot down by U.S. fighter jets on Sept. 11. He said a prayer. He sang to himself. He reflected on his family, his girlfriend, his basketball career and his friends scattered all over the world.

“Then I really got upset,” he says. “I have Muslim friends. This guy is willing to kill 197 people he doesn’t know? For what?

Reckoning that in order to blow up a plane full of passengers, one first has to make them abstract, James tried to humanize himself to Reid. “So,” he said, addressing his captive as if he were a widget salesman from Toledo , “what’s your deal?

Reid smiled. “You’ll see,” he said in a British accent.

“So did you really have a bomb?” James asked.

“You’ll see. It will all happen the way it was meant to happen.”

James is boundlessly social, one of those guys who, his friends lament, will go into a store and not emerge for half an hour because he stopped to chat up the cashier. “So,” he persisted, “where are you from?”

” Jamaica ,” Reid replied.

James laughed. “Wrong answer,” he said. “I’m from the Caribbean , and it’s all about love and respect. No one from the Caribbean is going to blow up a plane. Where are you really from?”

Reid changed his answer: “I’m from everywhere.” He then explained that he had recently been to Afghanistan , Belgium , the Netherlands , Pakistan , Turkey and France .

“I knew right there,” says James, “he was part of some serious terrorist network. A guy who looked like him wasn’t traveling all over the world on his own dime. I stopped talking after that.”

Finally, seven hours after it had taken off, the plane landed in Boston . The wheels had barely touched terra firma when a SWAT team stormed down the aisle to row 29. Before Reid was whisked away, he turned to James. Smiling, he asked in a pathetically soft voice, “What was your name again?”

Big shoes to fill

Kwame James was born in  Canada , but when he was a small boy his family moved back home to Trinidad , where his father became a government economist and his mother worked for the United Nations. All the “Trinny” kids played soccer, none more fervently than Kwame’s fraternal twin brother, Kwesi. Kwame, though, kept growing and, unable to find soccer cleats that fit, gravitated to basketball. He’d play for hours on the island’s pocked asphalt courts, but he had no great hoops ambitions. It was just recreation.

“The big appeal of basketball,” says James, “was that I had shoes that fit.”

They came courtesy of his aunt Pat, who lived in Indianapolis and had a contact with the Pacers. She had gotten him a pair of Dale Davis’ game-worn size-16 Reeboks.

In 1994, when he was 16, Kwame spent the summer before his junior year of high school with Aunt Pat in Indiana . She thought it might be fun for Kwame, now 6-7, to spend a few weeks at Bob Knight’s basketball camp. Playing full-court — indoors! — for the first time, Kwame dominated the other campers. Late in the session Knight summoned Kwame to his office and explained that he wanted Kwame to play at Indiana . The hitch was that Kwame would have to finish high school in the States, get some coaching and add some muscle to his lean physique.

Augustus and Carole James, both Ph.D.’s, had never heard of Bob Knight and wondered what cult their excited son had joined. Get your butt on a plane, Kwame, they effectively said. After much agonizing, however, Kwame decided to stay in Indiana with his aunt. It meant not getting to say goodbye in person to his parents, siblings and friends. It meant adapting to a different culture. But it also meant a chance to go to college in the U.S. for free.

Aunt Pat’s home was districted for Lawrence North High, an Indianapolis basketball powerhouse. The Indiana High School Athletic Association, suspicious because Kwame had transferred to the district without his parents, barred him from playing varsity his first year. He had to settle instead for the jayvee, but he didn’t care.

“Keep in mind, I’m just this skinny Caribbean kid,” he recalls. “Suddenly I have a uniform with my name on the back! I have my own shiny track suit! I spent that whole year in a state of awe.”

As a senior he was a star on the varsity and made a recruiting visit to Bloomington to watch the Hoosiers practice. What he observed was how thoroughly Knight had drained the fun out of basketball. “Getting yelled at playing sports?” James says. “That was totally foreign to me. In Trinidad , sports are just fun. I’m thinking, I’m not signing up for four years of that.”

Instead, James chose Evansville , whose basketball program, oddly enough, might be best known for the plane crash that killed the entire team in 1977. James turned out to be a good, not great college player, an undersized center who shot judiciously and was all too happy to sublimate his offense for the good of the team.

As a junior he was among the NCAA leaders in field-goal percentage, a factoid that once ran on the ESPN crawl. When he saw his name streaming on the television screen, his arms were covered with goose bumps. “Kwame was a humble guy but a real overachiever,” says Marty Simmons, a former Evansville assistant and now the coach at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. “He’s one of those guys who, when a coach hears his name, he automatically smiles.”

Ask James about his experience at Evansville , however, and he barely mentions basketball. He says the highlight of his four years there was befriending classmates from small-town America . “They’d say, ‘Kwame, we’ve never met anyone from Trinidad before!'” he says. “I’m like, ‘I’ve never met anyone from a town with no stoplights!'” His senior year he fell in love with Clements, a nursing student from such a town, Loogootee , Ind. , pop. 2,700.

James graduated in 2000 with a degree in international business. While he knew that the NBA wasn’t in his future, he wasn’t through playing basketball. He spent the next year pinballing among club teams in Switzerland , France and Argentina . The pay was awful. The living conditions were too. The travel — 14-hour bus trips sometimes — was worse. James was thrilled. In Argentina he learned to speak Spanish. In France he spent hours as a tourist, walking the streets and alleys by himself. “I never lost the skinny-Caribbean-kid mentality,” he says. “I was getting paid to play basketball, man. It was a privilege.”

In the fall of 2001 James was playing for AS Bondy, averaging double figures in points and rebounds. Yet for reasons he couldn’t fully grasp, basketball was losing its appeal to him. Late one night he was out with some Bondy teammates, including Marcus Wilson, who played with James at Evansville , and he unburdened himself. “I told him not to get down because we were losing, but he said it was bigger than that,” Wilson recalls. “It’s ironic that he was thinking of doing something bigger than basketball.”

The next morning James boarded Flight 63.

Close call

James’ instinct had been right. The Shoe Bomber hadn’t been acting alone. Within hours of the plane’s landing, details emerged. Reid, a petty criminal in Britain , had been born in South London , the son of an English mother and a Jamaican father. After discovering radical Islamism, he had attended an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and was, according to e-mails he’d sent, upset that he hadn’t been asked to participate in the Sept. 11 attacks.

When he had shown up at De Gaulle airport on Dec. 21, he had triggered security alerts: He’d paid for a one-way ticket to Miami in cash; he’d checked in no bag; and despite having traveled to seven countries in recent months, he had no fixed address or apparent employment. Authorities questioned Reid, causing him to miss his scheduled flight. But, apparently satisfied with his answers, officials put him up at a $280-a-night hotel and allowed him to board Flight 63 the next day. Enough plastic explosive had been packed into his hollowed-out bootheels to blow up the plane. The explosive bore the palm prints of a well-known al-Qaeda bomb-maker.

Fortunately, Reid had a lousy set of matches. “The fact is, if he had brought a lighter onto the plane instead, I wouldn’t be here telling you this story,” James says, an assertion that FBI officials confirm. “That will give me the chills for the rest of my life.”

With the psychic wounds from Sept. 11 still raw, the public in the U.S. was desperate for an inspiring story of good trumping evil, and the parable of Flight 63 — a global coalition of passengers working together to thwart an al-Qaeda killer — quickly fell into the media’s insatiable maw.

CNN, the Today show and the rest of the media applied the full-court press to James: You’re going to be in the history books — don’t you want your story told correctly? James was torn. He was proud of his role in Reid’s capture but uncomfortable that so many other participants weren’t being recognized, not least the 5-foot-2 flight attendant, Hermis Moutardier, who had first challenged Reid.

James tried his best to accommodate everyone, even staying an extra night in Miami to tape an interview. When he and Clements finally reached Trinidad , he was feted as a hero. “Keep in mind, I’m meeting his family for the first time,” says Clements. “I guess at least we had an icebreaker.”

When the holiday was over, James headed back to France to rejoin his team. He had reflected on how much he would miss basketball if he quit, and he’d be damned if terrorists were going to stop him from playing. “You stop doing what you enjoy, and they win,” he told nervous family members. “You can’t be scared.”

Except that he was. In his first game back he barely concentrated on the action, he was so busy scanning the crowd for terrorists. That the AS Bondy players were housed in a Muslim enclave in Paris didn’t help. He tried to quit after that first game, but his teammates convinced him to stay on. By month’s end he’d handed in his jersey and returned to Evansville .

“My mind was just going haywire,” he says. “Suddenly my name is all over the Internet and I’m thinking that people on the street are looking at me funny. It was too much.”

Back in Indiana , James did some motivational speaking and stayed in shape. In time, the media found another cause célèbre, and the flood of interview requests slowed to a trickle. But then another slew of calls came in, this time from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston , asking James to testify against Reid. Sure, James said, but he warned them that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. No longer in school, he might soon need a special visa to remain in the country. “No problem,” an FBI official said, according to James. “We’ll take care of you.”

As it turned out, there would be no trial. On Oct. 4, 2002 , Reid pleaded guilty to eight charges, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Three months later he was sentenced to life in prison.

Scarred for life

After the events on Flight 63, the plane’s passengers were offered free counseling from American Airlines. James declined. “I’m 23,” he recalls thinking. “I’m physically strong. I’m an athlete, and sports have given me the foundation to deal with life. What do I need that for?”

Once the shock had worn off — and the offer of free psychological help had expired — James began to suffer emotionally. At Reid’s sentencing, the flight attendant Moutardier said, “We will never be the same. That horrendous moment will live in our lives forever.” James knew how she felt.

One image in particular was burned into his mind’s eye. A television segment on Flight 63, speculating on what would have happened had Reid been successful, showed a computer rendering of the plane transformed into a fireball. James’ emotions whipsawed between a carpe-diem optimism and a crippling fatalism. On the one hand, having cheated death, he was primed to live each day to the fullest. At the same time, as long as a madman with a bomb in his shoe could so easily wreak havoc, why bother?

It was a rough time for Clements, too. Even before Flight 63, her relationship with James had been difficult. Most girls from Loogootee don’t date Afro-Caribbean basketball players who toil overseas. Her family had just begun to accept James when he came home both famous and psychologically burdened. “It put a lot of strain on our relationship,” Clements says.

Compounding the stress, James’ immigration status was in doubt. James claims that in exchange for testifying against Reid, the Justice Department offered him a work permit to remain in the U.S. He accepted immediately: Since high school he’d aspired to U.S. citizenship. But after Reid was sentenced in 2003, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) told James that he would not receive the permit. (The agency denies knowledge of a prior arrangement.) Nearing the end of his visa, James was warned that he could be deported. “Plain and simple,” he says, “they hung me out to dry.

The INS, while conceding that James had acted with valor on Flight 63, was unwilling to make an exception for him. “We go by the laws as they’re written,” says Bill Strassberger, spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “We need to be consistent and fair in application.”

James still had a number of options. One was to marry Clements and apply for a green card. But their relationship was sagging under enough weight without her worrying that he was marrying her for reasons other than love. Another possibility was for James to find a job in the field of his college major, international business, entitling him to an H1B visa. James, however, didn’t want to join Cubicle Nation; despite his departure from AS Bondy, he still wanted to play basketball.

Michael Wildes, an immigration lawyer in New York City , learned of James’ situation and took on his case pro bono. “Is this the message you want to send to someone who looked down the face of terrorism?” says Wildes, who is also the mayor of Englewood , N.J. “It was a national disgrace.”

With Wildes’ help, James reached out to politicians, even venturing to Capitol Hill. A member of Congress could sponsor a bill giving James permanent-resident status, but while many pols had been all too happy to pose for photos alongside the “Shoe Bomber hero,” none took up his cause. By mid-2003 James was overstaying his visa and was subject to deportation. “It was crunch time,” he says.

On top of everything else, money was tight. Devoting all his energies to resolving his legal status, James couldn’t hold down a job, and Clements was studying full-time for an advanced nursing degree. One month they were behind on the rent and were warned that they faced eviction. The next day a letter arrived miraculously from an anonymous airline pilot.

“You helped save 200 lives and a $30 million plane,” the letter said. “I think you deserve more than a pat on the shoulder.” Enclosed was a check for $200.

“We made rent,” James recalls. “Of course, reading that letter, we also broke down and cried.”

The next chapter

In the Hollywood version of the Kwame James story, he becomes an NBA All-Star, helps achieve world peace and, of course, lives blissfully ever after. While the real-life plot hasn’t followed quite that arc, perhaps it’s headed toward a happy ending.

In the summer of 2003, having wearied of relying on others for help, James and Clements were married by a New York justice of the peace, making James a legal resident. He expects to receive his green card “any day now,” he says, and he’ll be eligible for full citizenship in three years.

His passion for basketball still burned for a while. He called minor league executives and was invited to play for the Gary Steelheads of the CBA and the Brooklyn Kings of the USBL. If he didn’t turn heads with his play, he still made a good impression. He also found a balance between letting the teams market his story and not shamelessly “playing the hero card,” as he puts it.

“Kwame’s one of the classiest guys I’ve ever met,” says Dan Liebman, a former owner and assistant coach of the Kings. “Unless you asked, you never would have known him as anything but a hardworking player.”

In 2004, eager to exorcise memories of his previous, unhappy stint in Europe , James returned to France and signed on with BC Longwy, a B-league team near the Luxembourg border. He became the Kevin Garnett of Alsace-Lorraine, playing all three frontcourt positions, scoring 20 points a game (second highest in the league) and averaging nearly a triple double. He had no illusions about the caliber of the competition, but basketball had never been this much fun, this gratifying. After his last game of the season, mission accomplished, he retired from hoops.

Last July, James and Clements had a formal wedding ceremony that melded traditions of the Caribbean with those of small-town Indiana . “We were just determined to make [our relationship] work,” she says. “No matter what got thrown in front of us, it wasn’t going to stop us.”

The newlyweds bought a modest two-bedroom apartment in Virginia , where Jill found a job as a registered nurse and Kwame is trying to break into pharmaceutical sales. His existence isn’t completely back to normal, though, and he has slowly come to accept that it may never be. He still fears backlash from terrorist groups. (He asked SI not to name his city of residence.)

Plenty of times, banished thoughts and memories come echoing back to him, as they did in April when Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker who belonged to the same London mosque as Reid, was sentenced to life in the same Colorado maximum-security prison as the Shoe Bomber. James would like to see the movie Flight 93, but he doubts he could make it through a screening.

Unable to abide his wife being the sole breadwinner, James waited tables for a time. Nowadays he offers personalized basketball workouts at local gyms. “I won’t lie, it’s been a struggle,” he says. “People say to me all the time, ‘Kwame, you’re famous.’ Let me tell you, I’d give it up in a second for this never to have happened.”

James heaves a long, reflective sigh. As he replays the past five years, forces war within him. Finally, optimism wins. “You know how in the NBA, no matter how far down a team gets, you just know they’re going to make a run? In my life, I’ve had my down period. I’m ready to make my run.”


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