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Norwood’s ‘sneaker wars’ basketball whiz finds peace after attack

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Joe Sharkey was a basketball wiz kid 10 years ago, but all of that changed on a Providence street corner in 2013.
Joe Sharkey was a basketball wiz kid 10 years ago, but all of that changed on a Providence street corner in 2013.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

He was a basketball boy, a middle-school prodigy wooed by the world's largest sneaker companies in their quest for the next great marketing phenom, the next Michael Jordan.

Ten years ago, Adidas drew Joe Sharkey, a 14-year-old hardwood whiz from Norwood, into its star-making machine.

"He's one of our golden-child kids,'' an Adidas scout told the Globe in 2006 for a three-part series called "$neaker Wars" on the industry's competition to recruit children as next-generation marketing sensations.

Sharkey was never going to match Jordan's fame. But he was good enough to thrive in invitation-only national showcases organized by Adidas, star for an Adidas-sponsored national youth travel team, captain a Nike-outfitted Northfield Mount Hermon team to a national prep title game, and begin playing in the Ivy League for a Brown University team sponsored by Adidas.

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The golden child became a collegiate sharpshooter, and he had two more years to grow at Brown when basketball collided with real life. In the early morning of May 12, 2013, a 24-year-old Connecticut man randomly attacked Sharkey on a Providence street corner, punching him so hard from behind that he dropped unconscious to the pavement and shattered his skull.

Gravely injured — police prepared to treat the case as a homicide — Sharkey was rushed to Rhode Island Hospital, where his family was joined at his side by members of his basketball community. Many were certain that even if Sharkey survived, he had taken his last basketball shot.

Northfield Mount Hermon coach John Carroll, who recruited Sharkey after reading the Globe series, rushed to the hospital.

"I wanted to make sure he knew I loved him,'' Carroll said. "I left the room saying goodbye, thinking I might not see him again. It really was life or death.''

What happened next — after Sharkey endured two surgeries on his skull, more than two weeks in a coma, months of lost memory, and a year of grinding rehabilitation — proved to be a liberating personal journey in which he labored to reclaim his basketball life, only to realize how much he had lost while chasing a childhood dream the shoe makers had fueled.

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"It's been a crazy ride,'' Sharkey said. "I've enjoyed it overall, but I came to realize that ever since my middle-school days, I carried all the pressure of trying to live up to the expectations of me as a basketball player. Every decision I made was driven by basketball. It came to dominate my life.''

Sharkey is one of thousands of boys and girls whose basketball dreams have been magnified by sneaker makers eager for them to one day wear their brands before large audiences, possibly as marquee professionals. Sharkey was 12 and ranked among the top 20 sixth-graders in the country by a national scouting service when Adidas began giving him free shoes and apparel.

Only a rare few of the wonder kids have hit it big. Of the 24 elite New England youth players cited 10 years ago in the Globe series, only one has played in the National Basketball Association: Erik Murphy, the 6-foot-10-inch son of former NBA player Jay Murphy. The younger Murphy appeared in 24 games for the Chicago Bulls during the 2013-14 season and now plays professionally in Turkey.

Most of the others received scholarships to play major college basketball. Some advanced to lower levels of collegiate competition. And while many received college degrees, others came up short, returning home with little more than memories and mementos of their fleeting turns on the basketball stage.

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The sneaker wars, meanwhile, rage unchecked. A decade on, the chase has gone global as shoe makers spend big money from Europe to Africa and Asia trying to enlist young talent as prospective faces of their brands. Amid the fray, new competitors have emerged, such as Under Armour, which replaced Adidas in sponsoring Northfield Mount Hermon.

No one has found the next Jordan, whose line of shoes and apparel last year accounted for $2.6 billion of Nike's sales. But everyone is still trying.

"The sneaker wars are crazier than ever,'' Carroll said. "You have companies spending a lot of money to pay men to get the most out of boys to benefit those companies, and you can see how much pressure it places on those kids.''

Grueling recovery

Sharkey, before his injury, took a shot during a game against the University of Rhode Island.
Sharkey, before his injury, took a shot during a game against the University of Rhode Island.David Silverman Photography

Sharkey was no stranger to the stress. The fiercer his basketball challenges became, the harder he worked, the tighter he focused on remaining an elite competitor. He was a golden child driven to maintain his shine.

Then his world went dark. Sharkey remembers nothing about the night he was assaulted. An economics major at the time, he had nearly completed his sophomore year at Brown and was excited about attending a summer program at the London School of Economics when he was struck from behind while on a double date.

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Witnesses reported that a fight had broken out nearby involving a Brown football player and a group that included friends of a veteran, a Marine reservist, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after his war service in Afghanistan. As the man departed the scene, he passed a corner where Sharkey was chatting with his friends and, without any apparent provocation from Sharkey, swung at him.

At the hospital, Brown coach Mike Martin and his players joined the vigil at Sharkey's bedside. A piece of his skull had been removed to relieve the pressure from his bleeding brain. And as Sharkey lay in a medically induced coma, Martin and the others spoke to him, hoping for a response. They got none.

"It was very touch and go,'' Martin recalled. "It was a hard thing to see.''

Doctors soon determined Sharkey would survive. But they knew little about the magnitude of his brain damage.

Sharkey's parents, Pat and Denise, moved into a Providence hotel to be near him. Nearly three weeks after the attack, he had emerged from the coma but had yet to speak. Then one morning his father answered his phone at the hotel.

"I love you,'' his son said weakly.

As Pat Sharkey choked back tears, Denise balked.

"That can't be true,'' she said. "He would have called me first.''

Then she checked her phone and saw a missed call from her son, bringing her to tears as well.

Yet Sharkey's recovery had only begun. Once the intravenous lines were removed, he needed months of therapy to learn again how to drink, how to eat, how to talk, how to walk, how to think. He lost 40 pounds to
atrophy and spent five weeks at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston before he was well enough to receive outpatient care.

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Through it all, he kept a small basketball by his bed.

"One of the craziest parts of the whole thing was how much pressure I put on myself to come back'' as a basketball player, he said. "I told myself it wouldn't be a successful recovery unless I played again.''

Remarkably, he did. Returning to Northfield Mount Hermon for the annual alumni tournament more than a year after the assault, Sharkey fired the first shot of the round robin, a 3-pointer that swooshed through the net.

"The place just exploded,'' Carroll recalled. "It was great to see Joe have his moment before a whole community that cared about him.''

Life without basketball

Joe Sharkey emerged from the locker room before the team's game against Princeton on Jan. 29.
Joe Sharkey emerged from the locker room before the team's game against Princeton on Jan. 29.Gretchen Ertl

Sharkey began practicing again with the Brown team. Despite his devastating injury and long absence, he was determined to fulfill the expectations he had borne since his early days as an Adidas kid.

Then it began to strike him: There would be life after basketball. Things that mattered most to him at 13 mattered less at 23. Indeed, life itself meant something new.

Still, he struggled to let go. He needed to fight his instinct to immerse himself in countless extra hours of training to regain his ability to play collegiate basketball. He needed to recognize he was handicapped by lingering effects of the attack. He had suffered a number of seizures in the first year after the injury, and he continued to take large daily doses of antiseizure medication, which slowed his reaction time.

Martin left it to Sharkey to decide his basketball future.

"It was the hardest decision I ever made, because I felt so close to coming back,'' Sharkey said. "It took a lot of talking with my loved ones before I came to terms with realizing I've had a successful recovery and may be in a better place now than I've been in my whole life.''

Sharkey remains part of Brown basketball, his name still on the official roster, his locker still intact. He traveled with the team last summer to Italy and now sits on the Brown bench during games, his presence a testament to his determination and recovery.

The new Sharkey, however, has broken with a Brown basketball tradition by switching career tracks.

"So many of our players seem to major in economics and then go to Wall Street, so that's the path I chose,'' he said. "But I realized after my injury that I hated economics. I'm not really a numbers guy.''

The new Sharkey is a philosophy major, delving into logic, ethics, consciousness, love and friendship, the mysteries of life. He feels richer for it.

"For the first time,'' he said, "I feel like a real student.''

Merciful approach

He has evolved, too, as a crime victim. Early in his recovery, Sharkey wanted his assailant to pay for his crime behind bars. He has since embraced a measure of mercy, a hope that granting a troubled soul another chance could help salvage his life.

Sharkey asked the Globe to withhold his attacker's name so he might not be further stigmatized. The offender has additional criminal cases pending in Connecticut, including charges of felony assault against an elderly person and misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

He was convicted last year of felony assault against Sharkey and, with Sharkey's blessing, was sentenced to seven years' probation, including several conditions that Sharkey proposed.

High on the list was 1,000 hours of community service, preferably at a brain injury rehabilitation facility.

Since the trial, Sharkey's assailant has sent apologies to him, his parents, and his sister, Samantha. In Sharkey's reply, he urged the veteran to honor the conditions of his probation. People are trying to help you, Sharkey wrote; help yourself by letting them.

Sharkey has found his own way to help others. He serves as a peer mentor at Spaulding ("I love going back there; I get goose bumps every time''), and has begun speaking publicly about traumatic brain injuries, first at Harvard and Northeastern universities.

He is on pace to graduate from Brown in May and plans to dedicate his life in part to helping others address the medical challenges he faced.

Meanwhile, he has developed another dream. Though he no longer envisions a post-collegiate playing career, Sharkey said he yearns to one day work in the front office of a professional basketball team. One last piece of the golden child in him hopes that team is the Celtics.


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.