I had been writing a newspaper column for almost 20 years. As part
of my work I had seen some of the darkest and unhappiest aspects of human
nature, and I had written about them. It was beginning to get to me.
There were nights when I would go home from work and question the
very nature of humanity, and wonder if there was any answer to the
remitting cruelty I was observing and writing about so often. Part of this
had to do with a particular case I had been covering. The case involved
one of the worst crimes I had ever encountered.
A beautiful, bright-eyed, four-year-old boy name Lattie McGee had
been systematically tortured over the course of a long Chicago summer. He
had been beaten, he had been starved, he had been hanged upside down in a
locked and darkened closet for nights on end.
All that summer his life dwindled agonizingly away in that closet,
and no one knew he was there; no one heard his muffled cries. After his
death, when the police discovered what had been done to him, I wrote
column after column about the people who had murdered him. So many cases
of impoverished children from forgotten neighborhoods get lost in the
court system. I wanted to make sure that Lattie McGee received justice, or
something close to it.
With all the public interest in Lattie because of the columns, the
story of his brother, whose name was Cornelius Abraham, did not receive as
much attention. The same things that were done to Lattie were done to
Cornelius, too. Somehow he survived. He watched his brother slowly being
killed and was unable to stop the killers. Cornelius' brave testimony in
court is what helped to convict them.
By the end of the trial Cornelius had just turned nine. He was a
thin, extremely quiet boy; with his little brother dead and his mother and
her boyfriend in prison, he was living with other relatives. The two great
loves of his life were reading and basketball.
In one of the columns I had written about Lattie, I had mentioned
Cornelius' passion for basketball. Steve Schanwald, a vice president of
the Chicago Bulls, had read the column and left a message at my office.
Though tickets to Bulls' games were without exception sold out, Schanwald
said that if Cornelius would like to come to a game he would be sure there
were tickets available. Jim Bigoness, the Cook County assistant state's
attorney who had delicately prepared Cornelius' testimony for the trial,
and I took him to the game.
To every Chicago youngster who follows basketball, the stadium was a
shrine. Think of where Cornelius once was, locked up and tormented and
hurt. And now he was in the stadium, about to see his first Bulls game.
We walked down a stairway, until we were in a lower-level hallway.
Cornelius stood between us. Then a door opened and a man came out.
Cornelius looked up, and his eyes filled with a combination of wonder and
awe and total disbelief.
Cornelius tried to say something; his mouth was moving but no words
would come out. He tried to speak and then the man helped out by speaking
"Hi, Cornelius," the man said. "I'm Michael Jordan."
Jordan knelt down and spoke quietly with Cornelius. He made some
jokes and told some stories about basketball and he didn't rush. You have
to understand - for a long time the only adults Cornelius had any contact
with were adults who wanted to hurt and humiliate him. And now Michael
Jordan was saying, "Are you going to cheer for us today? We're going to
Jordan went back into the locker room to finish dressing for the
game. Bigoness and I walked Cornelius back upstairs to the court. There
was one more surprise waiting.
Cornelius was given a red shirt of the kind worn by the Bulls' ball
boys. He retrieved balls for the players from both teams as they warmed
Then, as the game was about to begin, he was led to Jordan's seat on
the Bulls' bench. That's where he was going to sit - right next to
Jordan's seat. During the minutes of the game when Jordan was out and
resting, Cornelius would be sitting with him; when Jordan was on the
court, Cornelius would be saving his seat for him. At one point late in
the game Jordan took a pass and sailed into the air and slammed home a
basket. And there, just a few feet away, was Cornelius Abraham, laughing
out loud with joy.
I wanted to thank Jordan for taking the time to be so nice to
Cornelius. The meeting between them, I had learned, had been something
that Jordan had volunteered for; he had been aware of the Lattie McGee
case, and when he had heard that the Bulls were giving Cornelius tickets
to the game, he had let it be known that he was available.
After the game, in the locker room after the last sportswriter left,
Jordan got up to retrieve his gym bag and head for home. As he walked
toward the door of the locker room he saw me and stopped, and I said, "I
just wanted to tell you how much Cornelius appreciated what you did for
For a second I had the strange but undeniable impression that
perhaps this was a man who didn't get thanked all that often - or at least
that there were so many people endlessly lining up to beseech him for one
thing or another that all he was accustomed to was the long file of faces
in front of him wanting an autograph, a favor, a moment of his time, faces
that would immediately be replaced by more faces with more entreaties. He
stood there waiting, as if he was so used to ceaselessly being asked for
things that he thought my thanks on Cornelius' behalf might be the
inevitable preface to petitioning him for something else.
When I didn't say anything, he said, "That's why you
came back down here?"
"Well I don't think you know how much today meant to
Cornelius," I said.
"No, I'm just surprised that you came back down to
tell me," he said.
"My mom would kill me if I didn't," I said, smiling.
"She tried to raise me right."
He smiled back, "Mine, too," he said.
We shook hands and I turned to leave and I heard him say,
"Do you come out to a lot of games?"
"First one," I said.
"Well, you ought to come back," he said.