By MARCUS HELTON
UPPER MARLBORO, Md. - Ty’Darius Harris made his move at the top of the key, but lost the basketball. He watched it bounce to a waiting defender, who scooped it up and raced away for what appeared to be an easy lay-in.
In the blink of an eye, though, Harris was upon him, erasing the sizeable gap between them in a few long strides and soaring to swat the shot attempt out of bounds.
The play - a fairly routine moment at a preseason Rock Creek Christian Academy practice - displayed the kind of tenacity and athleticism Division I coaches covet. It also offered proof of how far Harris has come in the months since a mysterious illness left him in a coma for nearly three weeks, endangering his life and putting his basketball career on hold as he was forced to relearn how to walk.
Harris, 18, came to Maryland from Texas in August 2015 as an athletic 6-foot-6, 225-pound wing with multiple Division I offers in hand and the expectation of adding more. He arrived at Rock Creek - then Clinton Christian - on the recommendation of Maryland native Brian Merritt, the Houston-based director of scouting for John Lucas Enterprises. Merritt has long known Rock Creek coach Chris Cole, and put him in touch with Harris and his longtime mentor and coach, Delilah Battle.
“In Houston, there was a lot of bad stuff going around,” Harris said, “and I didn’t want to get in trouble or mess my career up, so I moved away from that area to stay out of trouble. I came up here to get better with Coach Cole.”
Harris’ transition was aided immeasurably by his host parents, Thomas and Monica Brooks, who agreed to house him for his senior year after Cole made a presentation at their church. The Brookses, who have an older daughter and 13-year-old son, provided Harris with the kind of domestic stability he’d lacked growing up. Both of his parents were in and out of the picture and he lived a nomadic existence, occasionally staying with his grandmother, Battle, or teammates.
“What he was used to was totally different than what we were used to,” Thomas Brooks said. “So we had to get him to understand, ‘Hey, here’s how we do things; these are the principles that we live by. We had to get him to understand a lot of those same principles, because a lot of them, they weren’t there.”
Harris said the Brookses immediately put him at ease, and their relationship has grown so strong that he refers to them as his mom and dad.
SEARCHING FOR A HOME
Battle has been a consistent presence in Harris’ life as long as anyone. She first met him when he was 8 years old, soon after she started a third-grade travel squad called Team Swagger.
“When we first started playing, we weren’t that competitive,” Battle recalled. “I asked the kids if they knew anybody else at school who could play and they said, ‘Yeah, there’s this one boy, but he gets in trouble a lot. He lives with his grandmother; his name is Ty’Darius.’”
Battle and Harris bonded quickly through basketball, and she discovered he was intelligent and hardworking, but just needed guidance and stability. She coached him in AAU all the way to high school - he often stayed with her on weekends - and he flourished on the court, growing to earn District Newcomer of the Year honors as a freshman at Waller High.
Still, there were issues. Harris’ nomadic lifestyle meant he wasn’t always easy to keep tabs on - “It got to the point where when I needed him for practice, I couldn’t find him,” Battle said - and he fell into the doghouse with his Texas Pro AAU coaches. He left the team before finishing the summer circuit out, frustrated by a lack of playing time.
“I was telling him, ‘You need to be more consistent with your schoolwork and coming to practice and all that,’” Battle said. “He was still kind of all over the place - some school nights he’d sleep at this friend’s house, some school nights he’d sleep at that friend’s house - so at the end of his sophomore year, I made him come and move in with me, so he could be more accountable with what he was doing. Because as long as he was with his grandmother he could say he was at home, but he may or may not be.”
Academically, Harris was on the borderline of qualifying for Division I eligibility, so he transferred to a charter school in Houston called Pro-Vision Academy to improve both on and off the court. He embraced his new surroundings, improving his grades and undertaking an intense training regimen that involved working out multiple times a day.
“He got to the point where he just always wanted to be in the gym,” Battle said. “He would actually have school practice, then go to a workout, and then he’d have to go to another workout that was by the house. So he worked out three times a day, and that was on his own - that’s what he wanted to do. He did that for the majority of a year, and that’s when he really started coming out; everybody started noticing and a lot of different [AAU] teams started calling and wanting him to play here and play there.”
Harris switched from Texas Pro to the Basketball University travel program and enjoyed a breakout summer. His Verbal Commits page lists offers from Florida Gulf Coast, Lamar, Sam Houston, Southern, Texas-Rio Grande Valley and Towson.
Eager to help him continue his ascension, Battle reached out to Merritt, who suggested a move to Maryland.
“He asked, ‘Well how would he feel about going to school away from home?’” Battle recalled, “and I said Ty would be fine, ’cause his home is wherever he is for the most part. He had never been stuck on being in one place.
“There really wasn’t [any hesitance] because I always wanted what was best for him, and it was a great opportunity. He wanted to be challenged more in basketball, and I wanted him to be challenged just as much in the classroom, and I just didn’t see him getting that same mix here. And then I also liked the family environment he had there with the Brookses - he’s never had that in his life. It was really just the best overall environment for him.”
“I KNEW SOMETHING WAS WRONG”
Harris thrived in his new surroundings at Rock Creek. In the team’s first nine games, Harris averaged a team-leading 15 points per game while adding five rebounds and two assists per contest. He was athletic, strong, and impressed his new coach with his ability to make shots. Cole said Cal State-Northridge, Hofstra and North Texas had been in contact about Harris.
“Before he got sick he was our best player, and I thought he was playing well,” Cole said. “Of course, everybody has stuff to work on that I wanted him to continue to work on to get better and help us out, but I thought he was fine. He came off a really good game at Takoma Academy (on Jan. 11, 2016) and I thought things were looking upwards.”
That momentum came to an unexpected halt the following week, though. Harris said he began feeling extremely weak and exhausted. He couldn’t make it through the school day without falling asleep. He thought maybe it was the lingering effects from a blow to the head he took in practice, and a hospital trip turned up nothing to raise concern. Harris struggled with the symptoms for a week before his condition began to worsen considerably.
Rock Creek had a big conference home game against National Christian on Jan. 19, but Harris told Cole he couldn’t play - a development which immediately set off alarm bells for Battle back in Texas.
“Coach Cole was telling me, ‘I don’t know what’s going on with Ty, but Ty doesn’t want to play today and there’s a lot of people coming to see him play,” she said. “And so I’m talking to Ty and he’s like, ‘I want to go home; I can’t play today, I really don’t feel well. And so, me trying to put two and two together, the one thing I know about Ty from a very young age is he’s never missed a game in his life. He may not practice or he may have this or that, but when it comes to games, he’s tried to play with a broken finger, a broken this or that - he’s going to try to play. So when he’s saying he’s sick and can’t play, then I knew something was wrong.”
Harris missed the game - a Rock Creek loss - and Cole came to the Brooks’ house afterward to check on him. Harris said he was so exhausted that he doesn’t even remember their conversation, and he slept all the way until the Brooks returned from work the following day.
The Brooks’ took him and his girlfriend out to dinner in hopes of boosting his energy, but he got sick and vomited at the restaurant. The Brookses immediately rushed him to Southern Maryland Hospital Center, where they were forced to stay overnight due to an impending snowstorm.
“I was expecting him to be in and out, but they couldn’t find anything,” Thomas Brooks said. “So they said, ‘We’re going to have to keep him here for the weekend because they couldn’t get the specialists in with the storm coming. We were expecting for him to leave that Sunday, and they said, ‘Well if he can walk on his own, we’ll look at discharging him.’”
That wasn’t the case. Doctors at Southern Maryland transferred him to Georgetown University Hospital, where he continued to decline despite multiple efforts to determine the problem.
“They couldn’t figure it out,” Brooks said. “They did four spinal taps – probably one of the most painful things, and he had four of them – just to get enough spinal fluid to send out to the Mayo Clinic. They ran all different kinds of tests, and as the results started trickling back in, they were all coming back negative and they couldn’t figure out what it was. So now it’s Monday, the doctors are doing their rounds, and they’re constantly engaging with me as to what’s going on. They started working out plans to do physical therapy and occupational therapy, because at this point he’d gone into a deep, coma-like sleep. He wasn’t moving anymore, he wasn’t eating anymore. We just saw him deteriorate.”
Said Cole: “It was just crazy going a week from seeing him jump out the gym and dunking three or four times at Takoma to seeing him in a state where you’re trying to get him to blink. It was crazy.”
Cole said he intentionally limited his players’ information on Harris at the time, and they were shocked when they finally discovered what state he was in.
“It was really bad for us because we couldn’t see him at the time,” 2018 forward Jermaine Harris said. “One of our brothers was down and we couldn’t do nothing about it. We visited him as much as we could until he got better. It really did [come out of nowhere]. We thought he was, like, playing around until we got a call saying he was in the hospital and we were like, ‘Whoa, we thought it wasn’t that serious.’ Then later on they said he was in a coma, and we knew it was really serious.”
Lacking power of attorney or any medical records or birth certificate, the Brooks’ flew Harris’ grandmother in from Texas. He didn’t have health insurance, but Monica Brooks was able to get him coverage through Medicaid.
At this point, there still wasn’t an official diagnosis for Harris, but Brooks said doctors who began treating him for a case of pneumonia he developed while hospitalized decided to utilize a process called plasmapheresis. Similar to dialysis, plasmapheresis involves separating blood plasma - which in sick patients can contain antibodies that attack the immune system - from blood cells, and using a machine to remove the affected plasma and replaces it with healthy plasma. Harris immediately improved.
“My Mom said that they did a little surgery where they had to cut my neck open and transfer new blood in and take old blood out,” Harris said. “So they did that, and she said I woke up, but I don’t remember me waking up. She said the last day, that’s when I came to acknowledge stuff, but when I first woke up, I saw, like, double of everything. I couldn’t really comprehend, I couldn’t talk, and I really couldn’t move my body. It was terrifying. I didn’t really know where I was, and they asked me, ‘Where are you?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t know what happened at all.”
STARTING OVER AGAIN
Harris said he remembers getting in the ambulance to Georgetown, but nothing after that. Brooks said doctors now believe the condition was caused by some sort of bacterial infection that attacked his bloodstream. The answer has provided a tiny measure of satisfaction, but the family is fine with just knowing Harris is healthy again.
“The doctors at Georgetown said they didn’t know what’s wrong with him, and he may never come out of it,” Thomas Brooks said. “They were scared that he might lose his life. We got counseling from our pastor, prayed about it, and they brought him back. I’m telling you, he’s a totally different kid than what was in that hospital back in March.”
Indeed, to watch Harris move around the court now - running and leaping with ease - it’s hard to imagine that he had to relearn to walk [SEE VIDEO BELOW STORY]. His youth and athleticism proved to be especially helpful in that regard, as he bounced back much quicker than anticipated.
“They thought he was going to be there [rehabbing] for, like, six weeks,” Monica Brooks said, “and he only ended up staying for two. They were amazed.”
Harris lost over 50 pounds while hospitalized, and needed to basically start from the beginning with his strength and conditioning. According to Battle, his initially upbeat mood caught everyone by surprise.
“It was more of a kind of second lease on life than even really just being concerned about basketball at first,” she said. “He’d spent so long where he couldn’t even get up or walk and do certain things that basketball kind of took a backseat for a second. At that time at first, I don’t think he even realized that he wasn’t just going to hop out of bed and play like he was before. That didn’t dawn on him until a little bit later.”
Once the reality hit, though, it was devastating. Harris went from Division I-caliber athlete to struggling with things he took for granted. An avid video gamer, he found he lacked the manual dexterity to play. Returning to the gym - long a refuge of sorts - only made things worse.
“I was trying to run and I would stumble and fall,” Harris said, “or I would dribble the ball and it would bounce off my knee, or I would lose it every single time. I couldn’t shoot the ball. That was huge, because since I was in kindergarten, all I did when I played basketball was work on shooting the ball, and I couldn’t even shoot and so that just made me so depressed. So trying to work on getting back where I was, it was difficult. Sometimes I’d think, ‘Forget basketball, let me just focus on education, I don’t want to play basketball anymore.’ Or when we’d be in the gym and I’d be with my teammates and I’d see how much better everybody else got, I’d think about what I went through and how bad I looked and I wanted to sit on the bench. I’d fake an injury or tell coach I couldn’t play anymore. It just made everything so difficult for me to do.”
After all of the work he’d put in to improve - working out multiple times a day, sacrificing hanging out with friends - Harris wasn’t sure he’d be able to do it all over again.
“He was uncomfortable with how he was moving and how he playing - his body didn’t feel like his own,” Battle said. “He was kind of scared, like, ‘What am I going to do now? I’m not moving and running and jumping like I was before.’ That whole thing was just a very, very tough experience and I think anybody that went through that - kid, not a kid, professional, not a professional - I think it would really try the heart of anybody.”
Harris had also missed so much school that he wouldn’t be able to graduate on time. With his future so uncertain, the collection of scholarship offers he had essentially vanished. He’d moved halfway across the country to improve both academically and athletically, and now he was at a crossroads with both.
“It messed my mind up completely,” Harris said. “I was so depressed; I was crying in the middle of the night. It just made me rethink my past, like, all the stuff that I went through and me getting so far, like, why this now? I kept asking myself, ‘Why me?’ After my host family talked to me and my doctors talked to me, they started telling me that God makes things happen for a reason, but I didn’t want to believe that. I was like, ‘Why would he do this if he knew that my whole past was so messed up? This could happen after all that?’”
The Brookses wouldn’t let him stay down long, however. Thomas Brooks said he and his wife - both former military - started an exercise routine in early June aimed at bringing Harris back along.
“He was frustrated by the process and going through it; he didn’t want to do it,” Brooks said. “Fought me tooth and nail. I said, ‘This is for your own good man, trust me, you’re going to thank me later.’ And he has.”
As he began to recover physically, Harris also got good news from his school, which allowed him to reclassify and re-do his senior year.
“I wanted to do another year here because I knew Coach Cole was going to push me to my limit,” he said.
Harris’ role with Rock Creek has changed this season, but he’s off to a nice start. He’s currently averaging 8.8 points per game, highlighted by a 25-point outing in a win over Annapolis Area Christian on December 15. He’s built his weight back up to 215 pounds, and maintained his explosiveness.
“Throwing it off the wall, catching it and windmilling it, I think I’m back to where I was,” he said with a smile.
The key now, Harris and Cole said, is getting him to fully trust himself in game situations. Cole said one of Harris’ strengths was his short memory when it came to missing shots or making mistakes, but he’s pressed to be perfect at times since returning.
“He can get back to the level he was, he just has to get his confidence back,” Cole said. “We’ll try to get him in school somewhere, wherever we can. He’s a good kid - a really likeable kid with a great personality. We may have to go the junior college route. He wants to get back to how he was playing, and once he gets back to there, I think wherever he goes, schools will notice.”
If his latest comeback is any indication; they’ll be noticing very soon.
Hospital video and family pictures courtesy of The Brooks Family. RCCA pictures by Marcus Helton.
CONTACT MARCUS HELTON @ MHELTON@DMVELITE.COM OR ON TWITTER @MARCUSHELTON