It was going to be a routine basketball game in the Craig Cromwell League early this summer for Jermaine Porter. Instead, it was the beginning of an ordeal during which the teen-ager learned about human vulnerability as he lay helplessly paralyzed in hospital beds, fearing he might die.
On that Friday afternoon, Porter, who had averaged 15 points and 7.2 rebounds as a 6-foot-5 Walbrook sophomore the previous season, felt fine before the game. But during the game, "I just felt real weak. I couldn't run up and down the court," he said. Walbrook coach Gus Herrington was watching the game and, recognizing something was wrong, told the coach to take Porter out.
After the game, Porter visited the University Hospital emergency room and was told to take some aspirin and cold medicine. By Sunday, however, he had become so weak that he couldn't move and his father brought him back. This time he was admitted and tests were done.
The diagnosis was Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare nervous system disorder that affects nerves going to the muscles, resulting in loss of muscular strength and control.
The following Wednesday, Herrington called Porter at the hospital just before leading a group of Walbrook players to a basketball camp. Upon returning a week later, Herrington called again. A nurse told him Porter was now unable to speak.
Herrington had lost his father just weeks before to cancer and, shaken, he was not emotionally prepared to see his stricken athlete. But a week later Herrington's wife visited Porter. She and Jermaine both cried and the player said he didn't want his coach to see him that way. The next day, Herrington went.
"The first time I went to see him he couldn't even talk," said Herrington. "He had to use a magnetic board with letters of the alphabet to communicate. I've seen some sick people but I've never seen one with so many machines hooked up to him. Every finger and toe. I told him, 'You're going to get up.' " Thus, Herrington began a series of almost daily visits.
Though little is known about Guillain-Barre and its cause, most people do recover fully from its effects. By an odd coincidence, Porter has a 22-year-old half-brother in the Marines who, while stationed in South Carolina a year earlier, also contracted Guillain-Barre and fully recovered. Though Porter was aware of that, and while medical people told him he'd return to normal, "I didn't believe it at the time," Porter said.
His weight dropped from 180 to 135 pounds. Unable to breathe on his own, he was placed on a respirator and his blood was filtered through a machine.
"I was scared that I might pass away," he said. "The thing that scared me most was when they put me on a breathing machine. I thought I'd never be able to play basketball again, thought I'd never walk again."
Walbrook's captain, Stevie Thomas, visited his teammate twice this summer. "I'm emotional at times," said Thomas. "When I was in his presence I shed a little tear. That's when you realize how much you care about a person."
But, after three months in University Hospital and the Kennedy Institute for rehabilitation, Porter is walking again, and on a different path.
Two years ago, while walking on an East Baltimore street with some friends, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and caught a stray bullet in his right side. The wound was superficial and convinced the youngster of nothing. "I used to be a rowdy person," he said. "I always wanted to fight. Nobody could say anything to me. Now, I've learned to cool down and ignore.
"I started hanging around more mature people, like Stevie Thomas," said Porter. "The guys on the basketball team told me I'd never make it with that kind of attitude. It was a clean break after I got home from the hospital."
Herrington and Walbrook assistant principal Roy Pope had been working with Porter to do just that since he came to Walbrook as a freshman. For Porter, raised in the tough, drug-ridden Murphy Homes for 17 years by his grandmother and aunt, the change was not instantaneous. Herrington said, "He's grown over the years . . . He's changed as a person. He's more serious about himself now. When he first came here, he didn't care about other people and, sometimes, himself. He's giving leadership to some of the other kids now."
Said Pope, "He told me, 'When I get out of the hospital, you won't have to worry about me any more.' "
But Porter's worries didn't end upon his discharge from the hospital. Two weeks after he returned home, his grandmother passed away.
And he faced the uncertainty of returning to school, concerned about his acceptance.
"I felt scared because a lot of people knew I'd been sick," Porter said. "I didn't know how they'd treat me, but a lot of people helped me out. It made me proud."