— The black muscle car prowls Chicago's South Side, its engine growling, throbbing. A tiny silver skull wired to the brake lights blinks with red eyes, the same color as the cross painted on the car's roof. Two words decorate its side: "Bone Mobile."
Anyone looking for wonder among the world's ordinary stuff should, as they say in old movies, "follow that car."
Inside are two men who would stand nearly 7 feet tall, if they happened to be standing. The driver, Big Dan Ivankovich, echoes his auto's color scheme: long black coat, black cowboy hat, black boots with a touch of silver trim on the toe. Riding shotgun is Massive Mike Williams, who dresses like a jock. He's talking basketball.
"You give me the ball, I'm going to the hole, baby!" Mike pretend-dunks the dashboard. "Referee calls a timeout; wait for the backboard to stop shaking." Just as Mike himself is shaking right now, belly-laughing, loud as a jet breaking the sound barrier.
"You ever broke a backboard?" Dan asks.
"I broke three, man."
Both the car and the camaraderie bring to mind Batman and Robin. But together these two men weigh close to 500 pounds: Wearing tights would not be an option.
"Turn here," Mike points. "This was my old path."
They are driving down Memory Lane. Mike presses his face to the window, staring at a snow-covered basketball court, comparing it with what he sees in his mind's eye.
"Wow, remember that court, man!"
"Dude, I got a ball in the back," Dan says, beaming.
"We should get a shovel, get out there and play right now," Mike says wistfully. But he doesn't move. He can't.
Thirty years ago, Mike and Dan were teammates, high school all-stars. Mike went on to play at Bradley University, Dan at Northwestern. Both were good enough to turn pro, and Massive Mike did, becoming an intimidating forward for Sacramento and the Atlanta Hawks.
Dan, however, blew out his knee, so the kid who was born in Croatia became a blues musician. "A flame-throwing guitar player," he says with a grin.
Eight bullets brought the old teammates back together. On Thanksgiving weekend 2009, Mike tried to break up a fight in an Atlanta nightclub. "I started hearing shots," he recalls. "I felt one hit my back and my legs went numb. I'm thinking, 'Aw, man. Not me!'
"I hit my mom's number on speed-dial so she could at least hear the commotion and know something was wrong," Mike continues. "I was lying on a floor with beer bottles and trash and I'm thinking, 'I can't go out like that. No way.'
"So I just started fighting." Heartbeats clocked the time. "I told myself, 'Stay conscious. Stay awake until the paramedics get here.' "
He did. They rushed Mike out into the night. He overheard a paramedic saying the hospital was 18 minutes away. " 'Dude, hurry up, man!' " he urged. " 'I haven't got 18 minutes. Hurry up!' "
Mike's voice drops to a whisper. "The last thing I remember saying: 'Give me something for the pain. Give me something for the pain.' "
Mike slipped into a coma for two months and woke up partially paralyzed. He figured he'd be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Then he saw a face he had not seen for 30 years. "That's Dan. Big Dan," Mike cried.
Dan was on TV, saving children in Haiti. The blues musician had become a world-class orthopedic surgeon. Maybe his old pal could get him walking again, Mike thought. But those eight bullets had dusted bone shrapnel all over his nerve endings.
"It pounds," Mike groans. "Then it needles. It pounds and needles. And alternates back and forth all day long. Every day."
The man who went one-on-one with the best in the NBA now battles his own disability. The day we visit him at Glencrest Nursing Rehabilitation Centre in Chicago, Mike shuffles 30 steps with a walker. Watching him creep down the hall, Dan is filled with emotion: "I feel every step, when pains are going through his legs."
Mike's life has become one long dental appointment — without Novocain. A series of operations should ease the agony, but Dan is trying for something more: He wants to play basketball with his old teammate again. "There are some old scores we have to settle," he says with a smile.
The odds are long, but "friendship is a powerful medicinal force," Dan says.
Especially when it’s teamed with cutting-edge science. Dan called Berkeley Bionics, a company that's developing electronic legs. Computer-controlled, man-made muscles can now lift some paralyzed people out of wheelchairs and get them walking again.
"It's totally sci-fi," Dan admits. "Totally! But you make this work for Mike Williams, it will work for everybody."
So Massive Mike offered to test the limits of those robotic legs. None of the models built so far is big enough to support him, but when the big man straps them on, he will serve as a symbol — not of senseless violence, but of what old friends and teammates can accomplish.
We'll keep you updated on his progress.