Sports can make even the hardcore fan a little jaded at times with lockouts (NHL), scandals (Lance Armstrong) and hoaxes (Manti Te’o).
Every once in a while, though, along comes a heartwarming moment of purity that serves as a reminder about the real meaning of the games.
One of those special scenes played out late Wednesday afternoon in a middle-school gym in Rochester Hills, Mich., when a 13-year-old boy born with Down syndrome got to live his basketball dream.
With about two minutes remaining in the first half of an eighth-grade game between Van Hoosen Middle School and an opponent from the nearby city of Troy, Owen Groesser walked to the scorer’s table to check in.
The students from Van Hoosen immediately started to cheer and chant his name while holding up signs they’d made for him.
“Let’s go, Owen! Let’s go, Owen! Let’s go, Owen!”
Shortly after Groesser took the floor, his coach and teammates called for “The Owen,” a play designed just for him. A pick was set to try to free up Groesser — a popular, hard-working team manager who never missed a practice — outside the three-point line.
Groesser caught the pass from the point guard on the right wing. He had the option of shooting or driving to the basket.
“Owen usually likes to take the three-pointer,” his coach, Jeff Howell, said with a laugh.
Groesser took a dribble, gathered himself and released the shot.
“It had such a high arc on it that the place almost went silent,” said Kari Groesser, Owen’s mother. “I’m practically burying my head in my hands, going ‘Oh, dear Lord, please, please, please.”
Her prayer was answered.
“Nothing but net,” Kari said, proudly.
“The place erupted,” Howell said.
Owen’s response: “It was easy.”
It wasn’t easy, of course, but Groesser made it look that way. He missed his next two shots before nailing a second three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer.
Groesser then made another late-game cameo, missing a layup, but his six points were a big part of the Vikings’ 35-26 victory over Boulan Park Middle School in the final game of the season.
“He’s probably one of the most popular kids at school,” Howell said. “He’s kind of the face of Van Hoosen. He loves school, he loves sports. He’s the kid who walks down the hall and everybody high-five’s him. He always has a smile on his face.”
That’s why his classmates went on Twitter Wednesday night trying to spread the word about Owen and turning it into a national story.
Howell admitted he got a “little bit choked up” by the whole experience. He told his team that it was “nice for them to be part of something bigger than basketball itself.”
“I thanked the team for opening up their arms to Owen,” Howell said, “and making him part of everything, and that they would probably never witness anything like this the rest of their lives, and that they should be proud of their efforts to help Owen get here.”
Kari Groesser found out when she was pregnant that she was carrying a baby with Down Syndrome, described as “a congenital condition, which is characterized by moderate to severe mental deficiency.”
“All you hear about is all the things that he’s not going to be able to do,” Kari said. “It’s a pretty bleak diagnosis.”
She said her son’s biggest challenge is slowing down when he speaks so that he can be understood.
“We just took the attitude of ‘Let him conquer the world if he can,’ ” Kari said. “We’ll expose him to whatever we feel is appropriate and if he succeeds, awesome. If not, then we’ll be there to catch him.
“He has just been a force to be reckoned with. He’s even a blue belt in Taekwondo. He really is an amazing young man.”
Owen played football and is a wrestler for his school’s teams, but he wasn’t able to make the 15-player cut in basketball.
Howell brought him on as the manager before deciding last week to give Owen a chance in a game. After all, basketball is Owen’s favorite sport.
“It’s my life,” he said.
The video of his shots made TV and You Tube, turning Groesser into an overnight sensation.
“He’s just smiling and happy and thrilled,” his mother said.
For her, this was about much more than just those 3-pointers. It was the way his teammates and classmates reacted to what he did.
“The enthusiasm and how they embraced Owen,” Kari said. “It was quite a scene.”