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 for the season and his fitness had slipped during the pandemic.
While in Chicago, Ali texted his college coach, Tony Broadous, to say he was working out and planning his comeback.
“That’s the last I heard from him,” Broadous said over the phone, choking back tears.
On July 18, 2020, Ali and a few other young athletes got together for a five-on-five basketball game at a school gymnasium on Chicago’s South Side. It was the last game Ali played. He collapsed in the gymnasium and died in a nearby hospital that afternoon. He was 19 years old.
More than 50 friends and family gathered at Ellis Park in the Bronzeville area on Sunday to release balloons and ride bikes to remember Ali, who was also a standout athlete at the De La Salle Institute. in Bronzeville and Alan B. Shepard High School in the southwestern suburbs. Heights of Palos. The memorial comes seven months after a report by the Inspector General of Chicago Public Schools revealed the tragic events that led to Ali’s death.
“It was really traumatic because it was totally unexpected,” Diane Ativie, one of Ali’s aunts, said of her loss. “He had just returned from Portland, Oregon, for the summer, intending to return to school in the fall. So it was devastating. »
Turns out no one was supposed to be in the Emmett Louis Till Academy of Mathematics and Science gymnasium 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, according to the 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 disclosed in the inspector general’s annual report, which became public in January and highlighted major investigations undertaken by the office in 2020 and 2021. The Tribune pieced together what came to Ali through public records and interviews.
Tony Chiuccariello, who coached Ali at Shepard High and taught him US 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 solid defense, blocking his opponents’ shots.
“He’s gotten better over time. I would really like to have him for another year,” Chiuccariello said by phone. “He supported his teammates. He was like, you know, this perfect person that if someone was emotional when they came out (of the game), they would talk to them. He was appreciated by all his teammates. »
Weeks after Ali graduated from Shepard, Portland Community College announced he was one of three rookies to join the 2019-20 Panthers team. In a statement that accompanied the news, Ali said he “chose PCC to get basketball offers and to improve my skills as a player. I also chose PCC to prepare for my GPA and prepare for a university.
Broadous recalled that Ali had a family member living in the Portland area, which helped him transition to college so far from home. A 6-foot-8 walker, Ali didn’t play a game his first year because he suffered a hairline fracture in his foot, but Broadous said he practiced with the team.
“He was a unique player because he’s so tall and he would like to shoot three-pointers. Players were laughing and joking with him and saying, ‘Come in and post like a center,’ Broadous said with a laugh.” He would be like, ‘Let me play my game.'”
Off the field and outside the classroom, Ali worked part-time at Walmart and joined the home football game management team, according to PCC, who remembered him in an obituary. August 2020.
Darius Gary, who became Panther at the same time as Ali, said he likes to explore Portland by bus and wear colorful clothes. He described him as an energetic and cheerful teddy bear.
“He loved video games. He loved the music,” said Gary, who now plays for Western Washington University.
Gary said Ali has made it his goal to play basketball professionally. Broadous said he expected Ali to return to Portland in the fall of 2020, so it appears Ali wasn’t trying to get recruited into the Till gym, but was just logging practice time. July 18, 2020.
That morning, the outside temperature hovered between 88 and 90 degrees and the school gymnasium was not air-conditioned, the CPS Inspector General’s report said. 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 deceased advised that he was hot before going to stand in front of the ventilator and subsequently collapsing,” the medical examiner’s report said. “Witnesses called 911 and (were) told to perform CPR, however, when Chicago Fire Department #55 ambulance arrived, 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 condition characterized by thickening of the heart muscle. The heart is forced to work harder to pump blood. It’s estimated that about one in 500 people have the condition, but a “large percentage” of patients go undiagnosed, according to the American Heart Association.
The medical examiner’s report mentions that hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a major risk factor for sudden cardiac death in young people, especially during exercise. The 1990 death of college basketball phenom Hank Gathers from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy further raised awareness of the disease. Screening and treatment options have evolved over the ensuing decades.
The medical examiner noted that Ali had tested negative for COVID-19. There was no evidence of trauma on his body. He had a medical history of asthma, although the report says it is unclear whether 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 his death, Ali posted a series of workout photos on Instagram with the caption: “Get back in shape.”
After Ali’s meltdown, the anonymous Till employee who allegedly opened the gym waited three hours to inform Till’s manager at the time and ‘repeatedly misinterpreted’ the recruiting event as a game informal pick-up, according to the Inspector General’s report.
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The report notes that the employee accessed Till on “multiple occasions” while it was closed for COVID-19 and did not cooperate with the inspector general’s investigation before retiring in September 2020. The employee did not respond to requests for comment from the Tribune, and the newspaper does not name him because he has not been charged with a 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 rogue recruitment event — a vice principal and a special education classroom assistant — resigned instead of being fired or disciplined, according to the inspector general’s report.
All the while, those who love Ali continue to remember him with an annual bike ride. They gathered on the basketball court at Ellis Park on Sunday afternoon, wearing Ali shirts and holding basketballs that they dropped while a DJ played “What is This” by Bishop Walter Hawkins. Participants got on their bikes and headed north on a ride supported by the Major Taylor Cycling Club.
Audrey Lewis, one of Ali’s aunts, said he enjoys cycling to stay in touch with loved ones, including his grandchildren in Indiana.
“He would get on his bike and map out a route that he would take, so he could visit several people in one day. That’s the kind of young man he was,” Lewis said. “He always had great aspirations to join the NBA, and God gave him great opportunities.”