I love this piece by ESPN columnist RIck Reilly. It’s easy to forget that people who live with disabilities often want nothing more than to simply fit in with “normal” society, to be part of a group instead of being permanently relegated to the sidelines. I can’t imagine what that’s like, nor can I fully appreciate the exhilaration that Matt Steven surely felt on this magical day.
A few seconds left. The game teeters on these two free throws. The shooter gulps. The packed gym goes silent, save for the tapping of a white cane on the back of the rim. That’s right. The shooter’s brother is under the hoop, rapping a cane on the rim. That’s because the shooter, Matt Steven, is blind.
So why is a blind kid in a competitive CYO game for sighted high schoolers in Upper Darby, Pa.? Because he doesn’t like to miss anything — especially free throws.
Matt, a senior, had been on the St. Laurence CYO team for a year and never played in a game — never expected to. “He just likes being on the team,” says Matt’s brother and coach, Joe. Matt shoots free throws every practice, though, making about half. And that’s what gave Joe a crazy, unthinkable, wonderful idea.
Before a charity tourney this past February, Joe asked the other teams if Matt could shoot all of St. Laurence’s free throws. Amazingly, they agreed. So did the refs. A blind kid was going to be his team’s designated shooter. Hey, it’s still better than Shaq.
Did that make Matt nervous? “Nah,” he says. “I shoot ’em all the time!”
The first game, Matt came in and — to the crowd’s shock — made his first two. He was escorted back to the bench, where he grinned as if he had just kissed the head cheerleader. He was 4-for-8 that day.
Matt doesn’t talk much — he has a stutter — so when Joe got home late after the game, their mom, Joan, asked, “Any idea why Matt’s been smiling all night?”
“Oh yeah,” Joe yawned. “He shot all our free throws tonight. Going to tomorrow night, too.”
Joan about dropped the spaghetti. Does she like it when Matt rides a bike? Ice-skates? Plays soccer? Sort of. She also dreads the day he comes home hurting.
But Matt already knows what it’s like to be hurting. Hurting is being born with two permanently detached retinas. Hurting is having your left eye removed in the fifth grade and the right in the sixth. Hurting is when they send you to a high school for the blind even though the last thing you want is to be around only other blind kids. Matt wants to be around other kids. He aches to be treated normal. Not “He does so great for a blind kid!” Just normal.
That’s why the free throws meant so much. He’d begged his parents to let him transfer to a regular school — Monsignor Bonner. And he’d begged his brother to let him join his friends on the CYO team. And then, for the first time in his life, he was going to be one of them.
Which brings us to Matt’s moment in that second game. He’d missed his first six free throws, and St. Laurence was down eight to St. Philomena. Then a full-court press pulled the team to within one with 10 seconds left. That’s when St. Laurence’s best shooter — 6’4″ senior Ryan Haley — was fouled in the lane. Surely, with the game on the line, the team stud would shoot his own free throws, right?
Up in the stands, Matt’s mom was hoping: Please don’t make him shoot these.
And Haley really was going to shoot them, until he looked over at Matt on the bench. “And I thought, He comes to every game, he never misses a practice, he cheers us on. He deserves a shot. I mean, it’s everyone’s dream to make those shots.”
So out comes Matt. And for the first time, the St. Phil fans aren’t rooting for him. In fact, they look like they’d prefer that he shoot straight into the hot dog table. “That might have been the best moment of all for Matt,” recalls Joe. “For once, he was just normal.”
Now the ball bounces under Matt’s hand. Now the picture shakes in Mom’s viewfinder. Now the rim pings from the cane.
Matt lets go. Off the backboard and through. Tie game. Crowd goes berserk. Says Joe: “I think it helped that he’s blind. He couldn’t see the crowd, the scoreboard, his teammates’ faces.”
The crowd stills again. Dribble. Tap. Shoot. Bank. Swish! Up by one. The gym windows nearly break.
St. Phil’s players forget to give Matt time to get off the court. They race the ball up. Nine guys are running around Matt, who’s trying to find a way to the bench. Make that 10, since Ryan’s already off the bench and pressing. Make that 11, since Joe — tears in his eyes — is trying to get to Matt. Chaos. Joy. Wonder.
St. Phil’s desperate shot misses. Game over.
Since then, Matt’s life has gone all kinds of crazy, unthinkably wonderful. His teammates call him Shooter. A girl says she heard all about him. He’s even thinking about asking somebody to prom.
I hope she says yes. Best blind date of her life.
Click here to view all my posts about Rick Reilly.
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