Larry Stewart's Inspirational Story Against Violence
The bullet that pierced Stewart’s neck passed straight through, miraculously missing arteries and narrowly missing his spine. His wounds were not life threatening and just a few hours after being airlifted to the hospital, he was discharged.
Stewart says he has never revealed to the public just how close he came to death that night. He hopes revealing his story will teach young people they have more choices than just violence.
“I thank God everyday because he got me through that night,” says Stewart, currently an assistant men’s basketball coach at Bowie State University.
How he handled that night and its aftermath also inspired his two younger brothers, Stephen and Lynard.
“Every now and then when I’m in the car with Larry I can still see the bullet wound,” Stephen says.
On that night in January, Larry, on the Bullets injured list because of a broken right foot, attended a game at his alma mater, Coppin State University, to watch the Eagles star player, Stephen.
After the game, the Stewarts went to Pargos, their regular-post-game hangout in Baltimore where Larry would frequently critique Stephen’s game. And who better to critique your play than your older brother, an NBA player who also happens to be one of the best players in Coppin State history.
Stephen says they were on their way back to Larry’s house when friends called him back to the dorms to hang out. Larry dropped his brother off on Coppin’s campus and drove home. Stephen can’t help but realize how easily the outcome could have been different.
“Had I been there with him that night I might not have made it,” Stephen said.
Larry almost wasn’t there that night. The Bullets were on a road trip in California when Larry was sent home to see doctors about his foot. Larry says fortunately, his fiancée (now wife) and daughter weren’t there either, both staying with family because he was on the road.
“That whole time I’m sitting there tied up I’m just glad that they weren’t there, because normally they would have been there,” he says, eyes closed, feet tapping rapidly as he recalls the events. The two were engaged to marry that summer, and their daughter was just a few months old.
He isn’t sure what woke him up around 4 a.m.
“I don’t know if it was so much noise, instincts or whatever, but I just woke up,” he says. “By the time I could even turn around, they were already on me.”
He was sleeping on his stomach, which made it easy for the intruders to duct tape his hands behind his back. The cast on his foot, which extended nearly to his knee, also made it easier to subdue the 6-foot-8-inch Stewart. Stabbing him twice in the right thigh didn’t hurt either.
Then, two of the perpetrators ransacked the rest of the house, while the third stood sentry inside Stewart’s third-floor bedroom. After a few minutes, one intruder reappeared holding Stewart’s Washington Bullets duffle bag, with a look on his face suggesting to Stewart, that perhaps they had chosen the wrong man.
Just then Stewart’s home security alarm blared, sending the Bullets’ duffle flying to the ground as the thief scurried down the stairs.
Stewart, still lying on his stomach, saw the sentry turned would-be-assassin, move toward him, gun in one hand, pillow in the other.
“I can see him. I can see the gun. He puts the pillow over my head.”
Stewart heard the gun click as it failed to fire.
He shook his head vigorously to free it of the pillow, looked up and saw the gunman examining his weapon.
The shooter repositioned the pillow over Stewart’s head.
Just as he pulled the trigger, Stewart jerked his head, sending the bullet clean through his neck instead of clean through his head.
The gunman fled.
Stewart, shot in the neck, stabbed in the thigh, cast on his right foot, somehow freed himself of the duct tape and gave chase down three flights of stairs.
“I guess the North Philly in me came out,” he says.
He never caught up with the perpetrators, neither did police. The suspects were never charged for the assault.
Stewart’s neighbor was a doctor and helped immobilize his neck and call for assistance.
He was then airlifted to the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
“I almost lost my hero, my brother, a father figure,” says Lynard Stewart, Larry’s youngest brother.
Lynard says Larry’s neighbor called him and explained that his older brother had been shot but was all right.
Larry’s mother, Loise Stewart, assumed the worst.
“My mom’s first thought was that he was dead,” Lynard says.
Lynard, living with his mother at the time, was a high school senior playing for one of the country’s best high school basketball teams, Simon Gratz in Philadelphia, miles away from either of his brothers.
Stephen says police told him his brother had been shot.
“It sent chills up my spine. That was my hero.”
On the way to the hospital the worst-case scenarios plagued Stephen’s every thought. He wondered if his brother would be paralyzed. When he arrived, he saw Larry bandaged, but nothing obviously giving away his prognosis.
“I saw Larry sitting up. He kept saying, ‘I’m good, I’m good.’”
Larry then held up his hand and extended his thumb and forefinger, about an inch separating the two, Stephen says.
“He said, ‘this much from my spine.’”
Dr. Roy A. M. Myers, the surgeon who worked on Larry, told him the bullet missed his spine by an inch.
“He was extremely lucky,” said Myers.
Amazingly, just hours later, Larry was able to leave the hospital. Stephen, sitting in a wheelchair, played the role of decoy, wheeling through the front doors as Larry left through the back. Their ruse was designed to either elude the media or Larry’s attackers, who may have sought to tie up loose ends.
He was able to resume his NBA career. After the Bullets, he played in Seattle and Vancouver. Injuries would knock him out of the league but he would continue playing overseas. He played in Spain, Turkey, and most recently France. He retired from playing in 2008, almost 15 years after the shooting that nearly took his life.
That kind of violence is exactly what Stewart left behind when he left North Philadelphia to attend Coppin State.
The incident may have made Stewart a crime statistic, but he also belongs to a small group of black men who succeeded in North Philly while others succumbed to the immediately gratifying trappings of drugs, thievery and thuggery.
Instead, Stewart blazed his own path and more importantly left a trail for his brothers to follow.
“When you grow up in North Philadelphia,” Stephen says, “it’s easy to fall victim to that stuff, it’s easy to assume that’s all life has to offer … (But) we are blessed to have a brother that laid a blueprint for success.”
Stephen followed that blueprint right out of North Philly and right to Coppin State. He says when he arrived on campus he knew he had to dominate because the comparisons to his big brother would come quickly.
“These are some huge shoes to fill,” Stephen remembers saying when he arrived on campus.
When he finished his career at Coppin, Stephen’s achievements were similar to Larry’s. Both won player of the year, twice. Both led the Eagles to the NCAA tournament, with Larry guiding the school’s first trip in 1990 and Stephen leading the charge in 93’. Both are now in the MEAC Hall of Fame, forever etched in the record books. In fact, it was those records that almost drew a third Stewart to Coppin.
“I wanted to be like my brother, Lynard says. “I wanted to go to school and play ball. I wanted to do what he did.”
Lynard played for Simon Gratz and legendary Philadelphia coach, Bill Ellerbee . His high school team was ranked No. 1 in the country and he played alongside future NBA champion Rasheed Wallace. The youngest Stewart says he was highly recruited and had his choice of college, but few things are as powerful as sibling rivalry.
“I wanted to go to Coppin and beat all my brother’s records. I wanted to go there and beat his records and then it would be just me and him in the record books,” Lynard says.
But it was the shooting in 1994 that kept him from making Coppin a family affair.
“Nobody knows this, but it was that incident that made me choose Temple. My mom was scared for me to go down there,” he says.
Lynard went on to Temple University and played under Hall of Fame coach John Chaney. During his senior season the university had just completed construction on a new arena, the Apollo (now The Liacouras Center). Ironically, the Stewart family patriarch, Larry Sr., helped build the arena. A 1997 Philadelphia Inquirer article revealed that Larry Sr., a welder and member of Iron Workers Union Local 401, helped weld the support frames of the building. In the same building where a son poured heart, sweat and soul into the hardwood, a father had already poured his into the building’s foundation.
Lynard would go on to play professionally overseas and has recently been named head coach of Penn Charter, one of Philadelphia’s oldest and most well-respected high schools.
With Larry at Bowie State, Stephen’s experience as an assistant coach at the University of Delaware, and Lynard at Penn Charter, the Stewarts are poised to successfully transition the family business from playing to coaching.
“I love it,” Larry says.
It was a challenge at first, he says. He had to learn what buttons to push. But once you find the right buttons, he says, “It’s a special joy.”
Stewart brings a wealth of basketball acumen, passion and experience to coaching. He was the first undrafted player to ever make an All-NBA Rookie team. For an undrafted player out of an unknown school like Coppin State to even make an NBA roster is an achievement. Larry became a starter.
“He had great knowledge of the game,” said Ron “Fang” Mitchell, Stewart’s head coach at Coppin.
“He did it quietly but superbly.”
Mitchell believes that Stewart’s ability to recover from the shooting and continue toward positivity says something about the man he once coached. He feels fortunate to have coached both Stewart’s.
“They were leaders. I wouldn’t have won as many games without them and I always understood that.”
Mitchell knows exactly how far all three Stewart’s have come; he is also a Philadelphia native.
All three Stewart brothers credit the late John Hardnett, a Philadelphia basketball luminary, with keeping them off the streets.
“He saved us, Stephen says. “He would hold practice at midnight because that was when people were getting shot and killed.”
“You only knew one way growing up in North Philly the way we did – you had to go hard,” Larry said.
Ironically, Larry thinks about the men who nearly took his life and what would have happened if they had mentors like Philadelphia legends Sonny Hill and John Hardnett.
He knows he too could have been consumed by the streets if not for those influences.
“I was already headed down that path … I was already on the streets.”
Watching the late Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble play in the city championship game at Temple is what changed him, says Stewart. Both Gathers and Kimble played at Dobbins Tech, where amazingly Stewart didn’t start playing until his junior year of high school.
“That’s exactly what changed me right there – I got into basketball.”
Three African-American males, growing up in the heart of one of Philadelphia’s most dangerous areas, and all have college degrees, all played professional basketball and all have traveled the globe.
As is his way, Larry humbly gives thanks to the game; Stephen and Lynard however, give thanks to Larry.
“I think Larry underestimates what he means to people because he’s so humble,” Stephen says.
The brothers Stewart now have aspirations to someday patrol the sidelines together, maybe the first trio of black brothers on the same college staff. Their goal is to give back in the way others gave to them.
Stephen thinks it is a matter of time before Larry gets a head coaching opportunity.
“Those kids at Coppin don’t know what they have.” He hopes revealing his story will teach young people they have more choices than just violence.