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Suddenly It's Showtime for Ryan's Hoop Dreams

Clovis special education senior had worked hard to be on the team. Now, fans wanted him to play.

June 12, 2005|Tim Dahlberg | Associated Press Writer

CLOVIS, Calif. — The chant began late in the fourth quarter in the basketball gym at Clovis East High. The students started it first, clapping in unison and pounding the bleachers with their feet.

It didn't take long for the parents to pick it up too. The noise grew until the whole gym seemed to shake.

"We want Ryno! We want Ryno!"

Pacing the sideline, Coach Tim Amundsen felt himself getting goose bumps. Less than 4 minutes remained in the game, and Clovis East was winning comfortably over rival Buchanan High. Now Amundsen had a decision to make.

It was senior night, the last time Ryan Belflower would wear his home uniform. Everyone in the gym knew his story.

Ryan was a special education student who would do anything to fit in and worked tirelessly to make that happen. His basketball career began as a ninth grader handing out balls to the girls' team. Then he hooked on with the boys' team, getting there every morning at 6:30, helping out at drills, running the practice clock and cleaning up afterward.

Now, he sat proudly on the sideline in his own white No. 12 uniform.

The crowd wanted him in the game. Amundsen wanted him in too. But he feared that the slightly built 18-year-old might get hurt.

Amundsen considered all this as he walked toward Ryan and patted him on the shoulder. Off came the warmup jacket, the buzzer blew and Ryan kind of half-hopped, half-ran onto the court, his left leg trailing slightly at an odd angle.

The noise in the gym was deafening.

In the stands, Justin Belflower was near tears. A few years earlier, he was a jock at Clovis East, one of those big men on campus. He knew how hard his kid brother had worked for this moment.

"If you had said four years ago he'd play in a varsity basketball game, I'd say stop lying because it will never happen," Justin said.

On this afternoon in February, it did.

And Clovis East would never be the same.

*

Shooting a basketball was never that big a problem for Ryan. He figured that out during countless hours of playing H-O-R-S-E with Justin in the driveway of the family's modest home in this Fresno suburb.

Playing in a game was something entirely different. Ryan couldn't grasp the concepts of filling lanes, going to spots, running routes.

As a child, he struggled to understand the smallest things. He could tell you his name, but for years, he couldn't tell you his age.

"You would try to teach him at every birthday, but sometimes it just didn't sink in," said his mother, Shauna Belflower.

His mother knew early on that Ryan was different. He was barely speaking as a toddler, and he just didn't act like his older brother did at that age. She took him to a speech and language specialist, who examined Ryan for about five minutes before turning back to his mother.

"I'm not sure how to tell you this, ma'am, but there's a lot more wrong with your son than his speech," the woman said.

Shauna Belflower searched for answers, although few came as the years went on. Ryan had autistic symptoms, but no one ever formally diagnosed him with that. She took Ryan to different doctors, and even locked him in a psychiatric hospital for 16 days when he was 5. He went on medication, but it made him violent and he had to be weaned from it.

"It was almost like having a little Helen Keller. He had no way of communicating," his mother said. "He knew words were a way of communicating, just no way of knowing what they meant."

In the end, there wasn't much that doctors could do. Ryan would improve as he learned things, but for years, he struggled to understand; carrying on a conversation was almost impossible. He would look at the ground when he talked, and it was a long time before he could answer a question like "How are you?"

Increasingly, though, that talk was about sports. Ryan memorized statistics, watched ESPN constantly and found out everything he could about his favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers.

Still, he struggled in his vocational special education classes, struggled to find his place in a big high school, struggled with life's little oddities every day.

One day during his freshman year, girls basketball coach Meredith Pulliam asked her class if anyone wanted to help the team.

In the back of the room, Ryan's hand went up.

Every day, he'd be at practice, handing out balls, trying to figure out how to run the clock. At first, the girls were wary of this boy who said almost nothing but was always around. But as time went on, they grew to love the scrawny kid who worked so hard and did everything he could for them.

Ryan was finally a part of something. And the kid who could barely talk to anyone a few years earlier now wanted to be manager of the boys' team. Maybe, just maybe, he could even play. After all, he did know how to shoot.

"I had a long day to figure it out, but I wanted to play," Ryan said. "I really did. And if I didn't make it, at least I tried."

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