Reproduced from The Daily News, dated Monday, May, 19 2003

by Michael J. Wildes, Mayor, City of Englewood

2-10 N. Van Brunt Street

Englewood , NJ 07631

201.871.6666

Daily News ( New York ) May 19, 2003 , Monday

 

PLANE HERO TO SKY KING

KWAME IS HERE TO PLAY

By MICHAEL O'KEEFFE DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER

Kwame James didn't want to be called a hero, never aspired to do "Oprah" or "Dateline," and certainly never wanted to be on the plane an Al Qaeda loyalist tried to blow up over the Atlantic.

But when the terrified screams of passengers stirred James from his in-flight nap on Dec. 22, 2001, there was only one thing to do: He jumped from his seat and helped wrestle Richard Reid to the floor before the gangly terrorist could light the explosives stuffed in the soles of his black high-tops and send 197 passengers and crew members plummeting from the sky.

James lived to tell about it on "The Today Show," but even as he was hailed as a hero, he felt his brush with terrorism was undermining his pro career. The experience was emotionally devastating, leaving him feeling so vulnerable and alone that he was forced to leave his team in
France in midseason. He's still reluctant to share details about his family or his personal life, fearing retribution.

"At first, I didn't understand the magnitude of what had happened," says James, a 6-8, 250-pound forward who now plays for the USBL's Brooklyn Kings. "But I think about it every day. It's like I'm not allowed to forget."

It didn't help that the permit that allowed the Canadian-born ballplayer to remain in the
United States was about to expire, or that the country that had embraced him as a hero was threatening to send him home. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security finally agreed to grant James a visa that will allow him to stay and work in the United States for at least a year, ending a battle with immigration officials that James says should have been avoided.

"They hung me out to dry," he says.

Both James and the federal prosecutor in the Reid case say the U.S. Attorney's
Boston office promised to help straighten out James' immigration problems so he could testify against Reid. But James says the offer disappeared when Reid pleaded guilty last October, negating the need for a trial.

"I never heard from the prosecutor," says James.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Leone says that's not true; he exchanged E-mails and letters with James about his immigration problems for months, he says. When James lost his status as a possible trial witness, Leone says, he explored other options. But Leone says his hands were tied by immigration law.

Unfortunately for James, immigration officials don't grant visas for athletes in training, and the law forbids the government to fast-track an application for a visa even if the applicant is a hero.

"Any application for a benefit is reviewed and adjudicated on the merits of the case," says Mark Thorn, a spokesman for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. "That said, we're glad this worked out for him."

Leone says the process can be slow and frustrating. "But I did everything I could to help him in this area," he says.

James sought help from Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), who intervened with immigration officials on the player's behalf. Michael Wildes, an immigration attorney, offered pro bono assistance after he appeared with the basketball player on a television segment about immigration woes.

Finally last week, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to grant James the permit for a year; he'll be able to apply for annual extensions after that.

"This sends a strong message to the victims of terrorism and the people who help," says Wildes, who is an
Englewood , N.J. , city councilman and mayoral candidate. "We will not leave you behind."

But for months after his ordeal with Reid, James wasn't so sure.

Strength within

James probably will never become an NBA star, but he plays basketball with the kind of blue-collar intensity that fans love. He's a determined rebounder and defender who will take on any role his coaches give him.

"He's a delightful individual," says
Brooklyn Kings general manager/coach Kenny Charles. "He's very coachable. He's well-liked by his teammates."

James was born in 
Scarborough , Ontario , a suburb of Toronto , but spent most of his early years in Trinidad . When he was 13, he moved to Indianapolis to attend high school, then played for Evansville University , helping the Purple Aces land an NCAA Tournament bid in 1999. After graduating with a degree in international business, he played for a season in Argentina .

He returned to the
United States briefly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, then signed a contract with AS Bondy 93 in France 's B league. In France , he had access to American TV news - and fast food. "I felt a bond with America ," he says.

He was returning home for Christmas 2001 on American Airlines Flight 63 when about 90 minutes into the flight from
Paris to Miami he was awakened by screams from passengers seated about 10 rows back. Flight attendants and other passengers were scuffling with Reid, a self-avowed Al Qaeda soldier.

James, still half-asleep, jumped into the fray. Reid, also a big man at 6-4, fought back hard, screaming in Arabic, but eventually James and the others restrained him, tying him up with belts and headphone cords.

The flight was diverted to
Boston , escorted by two F-15 fighter jets. The captain asked James, the biggest man on the plane, to guard Reid for remainder of the flight. Shock and adrenaline wore off; reality set in as the rest of the passengers nervously watched the in-flight movie.

"It was shocking to me, what he tried to do," James says. "I asked him, 'Were you really trying to blow up the plane?' He just smirked, real arrogant, and said, 'You'll see.' For 3 1/2 hours, I reflected on my whole life. Did I tell my loved ones how I feel? Did I accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish? It was chilling."

James returned to
France after the holidays, heralded as a hero, sought out for interviews by news organizations around the world. But after such a close call, he needed to be around friends, and came back to the United States after a few weeks.

He played briefly with the NBA's developmental league last year, then had a cup of coffee with the CBA's Gary Steelheads this winter. His immigration problems heated up after the Steelheads cut him in February, knowing that his visitor's visa would expire in April.

He got relief when the Brooklyn Kings offered him a contract and work permit good for the duration of their 30-game schedule. But that was only a temporary solution. Until
Clinton 's and Crowley 's offices stepped up the process, it looked like he would have to leave the country.

"This gentleman is a true-blue American hero," Wildes says. "Kwame James has done more to protect American citizens than many Americans do to protect their fellow citizens. We had 197 reasons to protect Kwame James."

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