Gathering to mourn basketball player, 19, who collapsed in CPS gym – Chicago Tribune

David Ali speaks during a balloon release in honor of his son, Te’Jaan Ali, on Aug. 14, 2022, at Ellis Park in Bronzeville during the 3rd annual Let’s Ride memorial event. Ali, 19, died in 2020 after collapsing during a basketball game at Emmett Till Math and Science Academy. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
Te’Jaan Ali returned home to Chicago in the summer of 2020 to spend time with his family and concentrate on basketball after a disappointing freshman year at Portland Community College in Oregon. A foot injury had sidelined him for the season, and his fitness had slipped during the pandemic.
While in Chicago, Ali texted his college coach, Tony Broadous, to tell him he was exercising and planning his comeback.
“That was the last I heard from him,” Broadous said by phone as he choked back tears.
On July 18, 2020, Ali and a few other young athletes gathered for five-on-five basketball in a school gym on Chicago’s South Side. It was the last game Ali played. He collapsed in the gym and died in a nearby hospital that afternoon. He was 19 years old.
More than 50 friends and family members met Sunday in Ellis Park in the Bronzeville area to release balloons and ride their bikes to remember Ali, who was also a standout athlete at De La Salle Institute in Bronzeville and Alan B. Shepard High School in southwest suburban Palos Heights. The memorial comes seven months after a report by the inspector general of Chicago Public Schools revealed the tragic events leading up to Ali’s death.
Janet and David Ali prepare for a balloon release in honor of their son, Te’Jaan Ali, on Sunday at Ellis Park in Bronzeville during the 3rd annual Let’s Ride memorial event. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
“It was really traumatic because it was totally unexpected,” Diane Ativie, one of Ali’s aunts, said of losing him. “He had just come back from Portland, Oregon, for the summer, with the plans to go back to school in the fall. So it was devastating.”
As it turns out, no one was supposed to be in the Emmett Louis Till Math and Science Academy gym that day. The school district had closed indoor facilities early in the pandemic, according to CPS Inspector General Will Fletcher’s report.
A Till employee who moonlighted as an assistant coach for a suburban Chicago college allegedly disarmed Till’s security system and ushered at least 15 people, including Ali, into the gym for an unauthorized recruiting event for the suburban college, the report said.
Ali’s father, David, declined to comment to the Tribune about the circumstances of his youngest son’s death. Ali’s name was not disclosed in the inspector general’s annual report, which became 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.
David Ali watches balloons float away in honor of his son, Te’Jaan Ali, on Sunday at Ellis Park in Bronzeville during the 3rd annual Let’s Ride memorial event. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
Tony Chiuccariello, who coached Ali at Shepard High and taught him U.S. history, described him as an outgoing kid who always had a smile on his face. He praised Ali’s ability to sink three-pointers as a center and play strong defense, blocking the shots of his opponents.
“He got better over time. I really wish I had him for one more year,” Chiuccariello said by phone. “He supported his teammates. He was like, you know, that perfect person that if someone was emotional when they came out (of the game), he would talk to him. He was well-liked by all his teammates.”
A few weeks after Ali graduated from Shepard, Portland Community College announced he was one of three recruits to join the 2019-20 Panthers squad. In a statement that accompanied the news, Ali had said he “chose PCC to get offers for basketball and to better my skills as a player. I also chose PCC to get my GPA together and ready for a university.”
Broadous recalled Ali had a family member living in the Portland area, which helped him transition to a college so far from home. As a 6-foot, 8-inch walk-on, Ali didn’t play any games his freshman year because he suffered a hairline fracture in his foot, but Broadous said he did practice with the team.
“He was a unique player because he’s so tall, and he’d like to shoot three-pointers. The players would laugh and joke with him and say, ‘Get in there and post up like a center,’” Broadous said with a chuckle. “He’d be like, ‘Let me play my game.’”
Off the court and outside the classroom, Ali worked a part-time job at Walmart and joined the soccer home game management crew, according to PCC, which remembered him in an August 2020 obituary.
Darius Gary, who became a Panther at the same time as Ali, said he liked to explore Portland by bus and wear colorful clothes. He described him as an energetic, happy teddy bear.
“He loved video games. He loved music,” said Gary, who now plays for Western Washington University.
Gary said Ali had set his sights on playing basketball professionally. Broadous said he expected Ali to return to Portland in the fall of 2020, so it seems Ali wasn’t trying to get recruited in the Till gym, but just logging some practice time on July 18, 2020.
That morning, the temperature outside hovered between 88 and 90 degrees, and the school’s gym was not air-conditioned, the CPS inspector general report stated. Till’s security cameras showed the event started at about 11 a.m. Ali collapsed around 12:40 p.m., per a report by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office.
“According to witnesses the decedent informed that he felt hot before going to stand in front of the fan and subsequently collapsing,” the medical examiner report read. “Witnesses called 911 and (were) told to perform CPR, however, upon arrival of Chicago Fire Department Ambulance #55, the 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 just after 2 p.m., according to the medical examiner.
It’s unclear if Ali knew he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an inherited disease characterized by the 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 report mentioned hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a major risk factor for sudden cardiac death in the young, especially during exercise. The 1990 death of college basketball phenom Hank Gathers from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy brought more awareness to the condition. Testing and treatment options have evolved in the decades since.
The medical examiner noted Ali tested negative for COVID-19. There was no evidence of trauma to his body. He had a medical history of asthma, although the report said it’s unclear if Ali used his albuterol inhaler that day or even had it with him. He weighed 338 pounds at the time of his death, with the medical examiner describing him as obese.
Just 17 days before he died, Ali posted a series of workout photos to 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 the Till principal at the time and “repeatedly mischaracterized” the recruiting event as an informal pickup game, according to the inspector general report.
The report noted the employee accessed Till on “several occasions” while it was shuttered for COVID-19 and failed to cooperate with the inspector general investigation before retiring in September 2020. The employee did not respond to the Tribune’s requests for comment, and the newspaper is not naming him because he has not been charged with a crime. A “Do Not Hire” designation was placed in his CPS personnel file, according to the inspector general.
Two other CPS employees who allegedly attended the unsanctioned recruiting event — an assistant principal and a special education classroom assistant — resigned instead of be fired or disciplined, the inspector general’s report said.
Janet Ali gets help with her helmet as she and other family and friends set out for bike ride to Navy Pier in honor of her son, Te’Jaan Ali on Sunday from Ellis Park in Bronzeville during the 3rd annual Let’s Ride memorial event. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
All the while, those who love Ali continue to remember him with an annual bike ride. They convened on the Ellis Park basketball court Sunday afternoon wearing shirts bearing Ali’s likeness and clutching basketball balloons they released as a DJ played Bishop Walter Hawkins’ “What is This.” Participants hopped on their bikes and headed north in a ride supported by the Major Taylor Cycling Club.
Audrey Lewis, one of Ali’s aunts, said he loved to ride his bike to keep in touch with his relatives, including her grandchildren in Indiana.
“He would get on his bike and map out a route he would take, so that he could visit multiple people in a day. That’s the kind of young man he was,” Lewis said. “Always had high aspirations of getting to the NBA, and God gave him some great opportunities.”
Copyright © 2022, Chicago Tribune
Copyright © 2022, Chicago Tribune


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