Friends and family gather to honor 19-year-old basketball player whose life was cut short at a CPS gym

Te’Jaan Ali returned home to Chicago in the summer of 2020 to spend time with his family and focus on basketball after a disappointing freshman year at Portland Community College in Oregon. A foot injury had sidelined him during the season and his fitness had declined during the pandemic.

While in Chicago, Ali texted her college coach, Tony Broadous, to say she was working out and planning a comeback.

“That was the last I heard from him,” Broadous said over the phone, holding back tears.

On July 18, 2020, Ali and a few other young athletes gathered for a five-on-five basketball game in a school gym on Chicago’s South Side. It was the last game Ali played. He collapsed in the gym and died at a nearby hospital that afternoon. He was 19 years old.

More than 50 friends and family gathered Sunday at Ellis Park in the Bronzeville area to release balloons and ride bikes to remember Ali, who was also a standout athlete at De La Salle Institute in Bronzeville and Alan High School. B. Shepard in the southwestern suburb. Altos de Palos. The memorial comes seven months after a inspector general’s report of Chicago Public Schools revealed the tragic events leading up to Ali’s death.

“It was really traumatic because it was totally unexpected,” Diane Ativie, one of Ali’s aunts, said of losing him. “He had just returned from Portland, Oregon for the summer with plans to go back to school in the fall. So he was devastating.”

It turns out that no one was supposed to be in the gym at the Emmett Louis Till Math and Science Academy that day. The school district had closed indoor facilities early in the pandemic, according to the report from CPS Inspector General Will Fletcher.

A Till employee who worked as an assistant coach at a suburban Chicago college allegedly disarmed Till’s security system and herded at least 15 people, including Ali, into the gym for an unauthorized recruiting event for the suburban college, according to the report. report.

Ali’s father, David, declined to comment to the Tribune on the circumstances of his youngest son’s death. Ali’s name was not revealed in the inspector general’s annual report, which was made public in January and highlighted major investigations the office undertook in 2020 and 2021. The Tribune pieced together what happened to Ali through public records and interviews.

Tony Chiuccariello, who coached Ali at Shepard High and taught him American history, described him as an outgoing kid who always had a smile on his face. He praised Ali’s ability to hit 3-pointers as a center and play strong defense, blocking his opponents’ shots.

“It got better over time. I really wish I had him for another year,” Chiuccariello said by phone. “He supported his teammates. He was like, you know, that perfect person that if someone got excited when he was coming out (of the game), he would talk to them. He was well loved by all his peers.”

A few weeks after Ali graduated from Shepard, Portland Community College announced that he was one of three recruits to join the 2019-20 Panthers team. In a sentence that accompanied the news, Ali had said that “I chose PCC to receive basketball offers and improve my skills as a player. I also chose PCC to get my GPA and prepare for college.”

Broadous recalled that a member of Ali’s family lived in the Portland area, helping him transition to college so far from home. At 6-foot-8, Ali didn’t play in any games his freshman year because he suffered a small broken foot, but Broadous said he practiced with the team.

“He was a unique player because he is very tall and would like to shoot 3-pointers. Players were laughing and joking with him and saying, ‘Come in and post like a center,’” Broadous said with a laugh. “It was like, ‘Let me play my game.'”

Off the field and out of the classroom, Ali had a part-time job at Walmart and joined the management team for home football games, according to PCC, who recalled him in a August 2020 Obituary.

Darius Gary, who became a Panther at the same time Ali did, said he liked to explore Portland by bus and wear colorful clothes. He described him as an energetic and happy teddy bear.

“He loved video games. He loved music,” said Gary, who now plays for Western Washington University.

Gary said that Ali had set his sights on playing basketball professionally. Broadous said that he expected Ali to return to Portland in the fall of 2020, so it appears that Ali wasn’t trying to get drafted into the Till gym, but just logging in some practice time on July 18, 2020.

That morning, the temperature outside was between 88 and 90 degrees, and the school’s gym was not air-conditioned, according to the CPS inspector general’s report. Till’s security cameras showed the event began around 11 a.m. Ali collapsed around 12:40 p.m., according to a report from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“According to witnesses, the decedent reported feeling hot before standing in front of the ventilator and then collapsing,” the medical examiner’s report said. “Witnesses called 911 and (were told) to perform CPR, however upon arrival of the #55 Chicago Fire Department ambulance, paramedics did not see anyone performing CPR.”

Ali was transported to the University of Chicago Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead in the emergency room shortly after 2 pm, according to the medical examiner.

It’s not clear if Ali knew he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an inherited disease characterized by thickening of the heart muscle. The heart is forced to work harder to pump blood. About one in 500 people are estimated to have the condition, but a “large percentage” of patients are undiagnosed, according to the American Heart Association.

The medical examiner’s report mentioned that hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a major risk factor for sudden cardiac death in young people, especially during exercise. The 1990 death of the college basketball phenom hank meets of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy brought more awareness about the condition. Testing and treatment options have evolved in the decades since.

The medical examiner noted that Ali tested negative for COVID-19. There was no evidence of trauma to her body. He had a medical history of asthma, although the report says it’s unclear if Ali used his albuterol inhaler that day or if he had it with him. He weighed 338 pounds at the time of his death, and the medical examiner described him as obese.

Only 17 days before he died, Ali posted a series of workout photos on Instagram with the caption: “Getting back in shape.”

After Ali’s collapse, the unnamed Till employee who allegedly opened the gym waited three hours to notify Till’s manager at the time and “repeatedly mischaracterized” the recruiting event as a casual game, according to the inspector general’s report.

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The report noted that the employee accessed Till on “multiple occasions” while it was closed for COVID-19 and failed to cooperate with the inspector general’s investigation before retiring in September 2020. The employee did not respond to Tribune requests for comment. and the newspaper does not name him because he has not been charged with any crime. A “Do Not Hire” designation was placed on his CPS personnel file, according to the inspector general.

Two other CPS employees who allegedly attended the unauthorized recruiting event, an assistant principal and a special education classroom assistant, resigned rather than be fired or disciplined, according to the inspector general’s report.

Meanwhile, those who love Ali continue to remember him with an annual bike ride. They gathered at the Ellis Park basketball court Sunday afternoon wearing Ali’s T-shirts and clutching basketballs that they released while a DJ played Bishop Walter Hawkins’ “What is This.” The participants jumped on their bikes and headed north on a ride supported by the Major Taylor Cycling Club.

Audrey Lewis, one of Ali’s aunts, said she loved riding her bike to keep in touch with family members, including her grandchildren in Indiana.

“He would get on his bike and map out a route he would take, so he could visit multiple people in one day. That’s the kind of young man he was,” Lewis said. “I always had high aspirations to get to the NBA, and God gave him great opportunities.”

tswartz@tribpub.com

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