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The ultimate assist

Five years ago Kwame James was a hero, subduing the Shoe Bomber. Life hasn't been the same since

Posted: Wednesday August 16, 2006 1:41PM; Updated: Thursday August 17, 2006 11:55AM
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Kwame James' wife, Jill Clements, has helped him find the strength to deal with the effects of a near terrorist attack on the airplane he was traveling on.
Kwame James' wife, Jill Clements, has helped him find the strength to deal with the effects of a near terrorist attack on the airplane he was traveling on.
Al Tielemans/SI

By Jon Wertheim, SI.com

The irony was, in retrospect, striking. But if your life keeps turning on quirks of fate, eventually you take the world for one big funhouse mirror. So it was that Kwame James shrugged and didn't say a word when he -- handsome, well spoken, well dressed -- was yanked from the security line at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris and given the full pat-down-and-wand treatment while an unkempt fellow passenger carrying only a backpack and muttering to himself in Arabic passed through the checkpoint without a problem.

James, a dual citizen of Canada and Trinidad & Tobago and a recent graduate of a college in the U.S., has what he calls "an extreme dislike" of racial profiling. However, it was Dec. 22, 2001, barely 100 days into the "new reality" of life after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and if you were subjected to one of those exhaustive airport security searches, you smiled through clenched teeth and took one for the team. "I just figured, Oh well, my bad luck," James recalls.

At the time, James was a 23-year-old center for AS Bondy, a pro basketball team in France's B League. After being frisked he boarded his flight to Miami, where he would meet his girlfriend, Jill Clements, and take her to his family's home in Trinidad for the holidays. When you're 6-foot-8 and can only afford coach class, international flights are brutal. James had deliberately stayed up all night so that, after folding his frame into his seat like so much origami, he would zonk out for the journey's duration. The flight, American Airlines 63, was packed and there were lots of screaming kids, but James went right to sleep.

Three hours later he was roused by a frantic flight attendant. "We need your help in the back!" she said. "Now!"

The terror etched on the woman's face extinguished any notion that James might be dreaming. Without hesitating he rushed back to row 29, where he found other passengers struggling with that scraggly haired man who had breezed through the security line. A flight attendant was tightly holding her own hand, stanching the blood from a bite wound. The stench of sulfur filled the air. A thickset Italian passenger had the unkempt man, who was screaming incomprehensibly in Arabic, in a headlock.

For years James' coaches had chided him for being insufficiently physical, for shying from contact. Now here he was, helping to wrestle a flailing man into submission. James' adrenaline, surging far more than it ever had on a basketball court, spiked when a flight attendant warned, "Careful, he's got a bomb in his shoe!"