Dread. Relief.Joy. Fear. Kwame James felt a swirl of emotions last Thursday when he woke--ina location he doesn't want to disclose--to the news of the thwarted terroristplot to blow up several transatlantic airliners. "Mostly I've just beenrattled," he says with a long sigh. "Food hasn't tasted as good. Ihaven't laughed as loud. It just all came flooding back."
On Dec. 22, 2001,James was on a plane from Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport to Miami. Then a23-year-old center for AS Bondy 93, a pro basketball team in France, James washeading home to Trinidad for the holidays. When you're 6'8" and don't havethe means to upgrade from coach class, international flights are brutal. Jamestried to outwit his body by staying up all night before he flew, so he couldsleep the whole journey. The flight, American Airlines number 63, was packed,filled with families and screaming kids, headed to a warm clime for Christmas.Still, after folding his frame into his seat like so much origami, James fellasleep, no problem.
Three hours intothe flight, he was roused by a frantic flight attendant. "We need your helpin the back!" she said. James was a deep sleeper, but the terror etched onthe woman's face brought him instantly awake. He rushed to row 29 to findseveral passengers struggling with that same strange-looking, straggly-hairedman James had watched breeze through the security line a few hours earlier. Aflight attendant was gripping her hand to stanch blood spurting from a bitewound. The stench of sulfur filled the air. A thickset Italian passenger hadthe man, at this point screaming incomprehensibly in Arabic, in a headlock.
At the Universityof Evansville, where James led the Missouri Valley Conference in field goalpercentage as a senior, his coach had chided him for shying from contact. Nowhere James was, helping to wrestle a flailing madman on an airplane. Hisadrenaline, already surging far more than it ever had on a basketball court,spiked when a flight attendant warned, "Careful, he's got a bomb in hisshoe." James looked down, saw a small Koran under the seat, and fixed hisgaze on the wires poking out from the tongue of a black boot the man waswearing. Before the passengers piled on, the man, later identified as RichardC. Reid, had tried six times without success to ignite the bomb in his bootwith a match.
The bomb, as itturned out, was powerful enough to have blown the 767 out of the sky.
With no airmarshals on board to help, a clutch of passengers and flight attendants finallysubdued Reid, who was 6'4", weighed more than 200 pounds and, as James putsit, "was possessed, clearly willing to die." Using belts and headphonecords, the passengers tied Reid up, and two doctors who were on board injectedhim with a sedative. The largest man on the plane, James was asked by thecaptain to stand sentry over Reid--later universally christened the ShoeBomber--for the rest of the flight, gripping him by his greasy ponytail, poisedto act if he started to struggle again.
Within hours ofthe plane's landing, the details spewed forth. Reid had been a petty criminalin Britain before discovering radical Islam. A self-professed member ofal-Qaeda, he had attended a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and was,according to an e-mail he'd sent, upset he hadn't been asked to help out withthe Sept. 11 attacks. Reid's intent, he later admitted without reservation, wasto blow up the plane, killing the 197 people on board and disrupting airtravel. And he'd packed enough of the plastic explosive into his hollowed-outboot heels to do just that. Fortunately, Reid had a lousy set of matches.("The fact is, if he had brought a lighter onto the plane instead, Iwouldn't be here telling you this story," James says. "That will giveme the chills for the rest of my life.")
Reid would pleadguilty to the charges against him that included attempted use of a weapon ofmass destruction. He is currently serving a life sentence at a supermax prisonin Colorado. While there are no bars or cells or spools of concertina wire onthe perimeter, James too has been in a prison of sorts. Initially decliningAmerican Airlines' offer for free counseling--"A mistake," he nowsays--he entered the emotional equivalent of Chapter 11. Apprehensively, hereturned to France and left the team soon thereafter, unable to sleep, letalone concentrate on basketball. He returned to America to play in the USBL butgave up his NBA ambitions in 2003. Today, nearly five years after the flight,he's still reluctant to reveal his whereabouts, still fearful ofretribution.
Gradually hisstory was starting to break right. He married his longtime girlfriend, Jill,last year and began the process of becoming an American citizen. He's done somemotivational speaking and personal training while he's applied for jobs as apharmaceutical sales rep. Then last week his peace was broken. "It was likea reminder that my life will never quite get back to normal," he says."But I guess that puts me in pretty much the same boat as everyoneelse."
For more on Kwame James from L. Jon Wertheim go to SI.com/kwame.
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ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO