HOUSTON -- The bullet traveled a mile. Its flight took it through the woods where some guys were taking target practice. It missed an untold number of trees and when it exploded into 13-year-old Nicholas Tijerina's chest, the boy said he didn't feel a thing.
"I spun and hit the ground," he said.
Nicholas was trying out for the basketball team on a temporary outdoor court at Harwell Middle School near Edinburg, Texas, a rural town near the southern tip of the state. He remembers doing a three-man weave, and he remembers hitting the ground.
But the next thing Nicholas knew, he was paralyzed from the waist down. His doctors don't think Nicholas will walk again.
That was in the Dec. 12. It has been two months of intense physical therapy and Sunday night was Nicholas' first real outing since the shooting. The Houston Rockets invited him and his family to their game against the Utah Jazz. He toured the locker room before the game and met the players. He got autographs. He even played a game of wheelchair basketball against Rockets forward Luis Scola on Thursday.
"He cheated," Nicholas said.
Nicholas had never been to an NBA game before. He was struck by the size of the players, but he pointed out that otherwise they seemed like regular guys. His mom, Donna Tijerina, had a similar reaction, especially to Scola.
"I was really surprised by how down to earth he was," she said.
Donna was feeling a little overwhelmed by it all, though. The last two months had drained her. This was her first real night out since the shooting, too. She flagged down Rockets coach Kevin McHale as he walked by. She wanted to make sure Nicholas got his autograph.
"You gonna cheer loud?" McHale asked. "We need it. Believe me."
A little levity was a lot of levity.
"We've been in (a hospital) since it happened," she said. "We're going berserk looking at four walls."
Sunday was a happy day, full of lights and music and dancing and basketball, but Donna fought back tears while describing that day in December. She had been at work when she got a call saying her son had been shot and was having trouble moving. The bullet had punctured one of Nicholas' lungs and lodged itself in his back. It didn't hit his spinal cord, but came close enough to damage it. When she arrived at the hospital, Nicholas looked like a ghost.
"When I saw him, he was the color white, completely," she said. "It was really, really bad."
Another boy, 14-year-old Edson Amaro, also was hit and lost a kidney because of it. Police questioned the men who were taking target practice, and charged a 36-year-old competitive target shooter named Dustin Wesley Cook with felony aggravated assault for firing the bullet that hit Edson. Police haven't filed any charges relating to the bullet that struck Nicholas, but recovered the bullet from Nicholas' back and are performing ballistics testing on it. Donna said she has no immediate plans to pursue civil action against anyone, and has been focused on getting her son out of the hospital.
That has been a tedious process. He is learning to perform basic functions from within a wheelchair. Getting dressed, using the bathroom, getting in and out of bed. From his courtside seats at Toyota Center, Nicholas often pushed down on the chair's handles to lift his body for a better view. Or maybe just because he could.
"He's worked so hard to get here," Donna said.
He speaks matter-of-factly, the way kids do. He got shot. He spun. He fell. He woke up. His favorite sport is football, but he loves Scola. Nicholas' head was on a swivel Sunday night, taking it all in.
Scola was struck by his spirit.
"I don't have a message for him," Scola said. "He's got a lot of messages for us."