'Everybody who wants to play a sport should get that chance'
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) In a small gym in the middle of nowhere, two boys locked eyes last fall in the final seconds of a meaningless, one-sided high school basketball game.
ESPN and the big broadcast networks never make it to Mapleton, a tiny unincorporated community situated on the Siuslaw River 45 minutes west of Eugene. The only video of the Mapleton High Sailors' first game of the 2012-13 season was grainy and out of focus even before the shocked cheers of the gymnasium crowd shook the walls at the very end.
Something far from meaningless happened after those boys spotted each other. They shared one of those unexpected moments that help explain why sports matter, because beyond the spectacle and the pomp, they occasionally offer a glimpse into the extremes of human nature: We are brutal creatures bent on destruction. We are giving, kind and tender.
Even teenaged boys.
At first glance, hustling along Mapleton High's tight hallways, Davan Overton seems like any other kid his age. He's tall and lanky, always hungry and eager to be done with the school day so he can watch a movie, hike to the local market with friends or hide away to write the poetry he composes for fun.
Davan has been different since birth. He developed slower and near his second birthday, a doctor diagnosed him with Dandy-Walker variant, a condition that slows brain development and is caused by a cyst on his spine.
He struggles to keep his head from tilting and a speech impediment makes him sound as if he speaks with an Eastern European accent. He's smart, does pretty well in school, but struggles to maintain his train of thought sometimes or to remember things he's just learned.
The risk his condition represents limits what he can do: A blow to the head that would give another child a concussion, or a simple headache, could kill him.
"When he was first diagnosed and went to school, they actually suggested he wear a helmet on the playground," said his mother, Melissa Overton. "Honestly, for the first two years in school, I got calls about every other day. You know, 'Davan hit his head.' They were so worried."
Overton graduated from Mapleton High herself, and stayed in part because she knew a smaller school Davan has 76 schoolmates would be good for her son. She's always wanted him to enjoy as normal a childhood as possible, with the same opportunities as other children.
"Our kids have all grown up together. They've known each other all their lives in a lot of cases," said athletic director Aaron Longo. "Davan has never been an outcast. He's always just been Davan."
It helps that Davan is outgoing, unafraid of failure. He speaks up in class, though he sometimes struggles to put his thoughts into words, and plays sports with gusto, though he knows he's going to be picked last in gym class.
"He wanted to play football," his mother said. "I told him, 'Buddy, you can't do that. We can't insure you, number one, and that's because it could kill you.' "
He has played basketball since middle school. He usually comes off the bench for Mapleton's varsity at the very end of blowouts. He specializes in three-pointers from the top of the arc, and though his shot isn't textbook he uses both hands with equal force rather than one as a guide and the other to push the ball toward the net he's scored in most of Mapleton's games this season.
"Our attitude is that everybody who wants to play a sport should get that chance," said Mapleton varsity coach Adam Decker. "It's not like a bigger school where they have tryouts, and only the best athletes play, and winning is the thing you care about most."
Davan wants to play more and talks about trying to persuade his coaches to put him in at the end of every quarter. Last year, his mother talked him out of quitting when he grew frustrated about his limited playing time.
Davan, a junior, hopes to move to Eugene after graduation. His mother bought him housewares for Christmas as "a vote of confidence" that he can live independently. He has detailed plans for his life:
"I hope to attend an arts college. I hope to get a job at the Eugene Cabelas, and then after I graduate college and quit Cabelas, I want to work in a tattoo parlor," he said. "Once I gather enough money, I want to actually run my own and turn that into a family parlor that my son and daughter can own some day."
His mom isn't going to try to talk him out of any of it.
"He's going to tell you he wants to be a tattoo artist," she said. "I haven't burst the bubble by telling him that's probably not going to happen."
In the videotape from that game at Mapleton, Ethan McConnell looks, to borrow a SportsCenter cliche, like a man among boys. It's in the way he carries himself, with a natural athlete's strolling strut, and the frequency with which his jump shots fall.
His bright pink sneakers only add to the look.
In reality Ethan is only 5-feet-11, though he has the solid build and thick arms of a bigger guy. He's an uncomplicated soul who loves sports and his family. He looks comfortable on the court for good reason: He's played hard since elementary school, when the coach of the fifth-grade team sneaked him and a friend into his lineup even though they were only fourth-graders.
"We were just so desperate to get out there," Ethan said.
He's started on the Falls City basketball team since freshman year. He's the best athlete at school, but that's not saying much. Falls City High is just as small as Mapleton.
"He's probably just above average if we're being honest," said his father, Mike McConnell, who owns an auto body shop. "Compared to other kids, though, he's very calm."
Ethan was the lone senior on the Falls City football team last fall. They won one game. He's the only senior playing varsity basketball, too.
"We really should be a JV team," he said. "We're like three and 10, something like that."
Three and "something like that" has its own rewards for a kid with the right attitude. Ethan likes watching the freshmen and sophomores improve. "I went to a big school, my graduating class was close to 1,000 people. Everybody had their little label, especially in that jock clique," his father said. "I'm so glad we don't have that in Falls City. Sports are fun, they're about creating structure, about fitness, following direction and learning to give direction, too. It's more about learning skills you're going to use out in life. That's what he's getting this year."
Ethan plans to put those skills to use after graduation. He wants to keep playing basketball in college or community college, but eventually hopes to become a police officer.
"I think that would be fun," he said, "and I think I could help people.
Mapleton and Falls City aren't in the same conference, but they are frequent rivals with similar stories. Both communities are timber towns that have seen opportunities and their student bodies shrink as the industry faded.
Before tipoff Nov. 28, Decker, Mapleton's coach, visited the Falls City locker room to shake the other coach's hand and tell him a bit about Davan.
"I tell other teams, 'We have a young man on our team that has a tumor. It's benign, it's on his spine, and it affects his motor skills. I just want you to be aware of it and if he gets in the game, just keep an eye on him,' " he said. "The other coaches are usually so receptive that I don't have to go any further than that."
Early in the game, the two teams seemed evenly matched and it looked like Davan might not get to play. Then one of Falls City's better players drew a technical foul, and coach Sean Burgett decided to sit him for the night.
"It was our first game of the season, and I thought it was important for him to learn a lesson about how you behave on the court," Burgett said.
Mapleton began to pull away after that. They were up by five points at halftime. In the third quarter, they extended the lead to 12, then 15 and 20 points.
Davan entered the game with two or three minutes left. The Sailors only had eight boys on the roster, and everyone else had scored. Davan's teammates wanted him to shoot. Every time down the court, they passed him the ball. He shot and missed, shot and missed. The Falls City players feigned at defending him, holding up a hand or two as he shot, but they made a point to avoid contact.
"People in the crowd, after he missed, were saying, 'Come on, buddy, you'll make the next one,' " said Mapleton Superintendent Jodi O'Mara, who is also the town's elementary school principal. "People in Mapleton love Davan."
With 30 seconds left, a Mapleton guard drove down the middle for a layup, making the score 64-42. Ethan, who already had 22 points, brought the ball back up court for Falls City and threw up a three-pointer from at least three steps behind the line. Mapleton rebounded, and the Sailors' point guard dribbled across half court. Once more, Davan's teammates worked to get him the ball. He shot and missed. A teammate rebounded and passed him the ball. He missed again.
"After the third or fourth time he missed, there was this collective sigh from the crowd," said O'Mara, the superintendent.
Davan shot again, and the ball clanked off a spot on the backboard parallel with the rim. On the scoreboard, the clock ticked down to single digits. The ball hit the floor, and a few boys scrambled. Ethan came up with it.
"Davan had started to turn and run down to play defense when I got the ball. I think I called his name," he said. "I knew his name, and I think I called out to him."
Davan turned back toward him. The boys made eye contact. Ethan tossed Davan the ball. He bobbled it for a moment, then squared his body to the basket and shot. The end of game buzzer provided a soundtrack.
"I didn't even get to really see him shoot it," Ethan said. "As soon as I passed I looked toward the basket and was waiting."
On the video, there's a split second in which everything seems to stop, everyone seems to freeze. The ball falls through the hoop, nothing but net along the way, and the gym erupts. Ethan pumps his fist. Players from both teams fling their arms in the air. Even the referees celebrate.
"I looked at one of the refs, and he gave me a thumbs up. I think he knew it was close to the buzzer, maybe even after the buzzer if you want to be honest about it," said Falls City coach Sean Burgett. "But nobody cared. It didn't matter."
"My kid made a three-pointer at the buzzer," Melissa Overton said. "Half the people in the crowd had tears in their eyes."
For a while, all anyone in Falls City and Mapleton could talk about was the pass, the shot and what it all meant.
"I told Ethan right after the game, 'Get ready for Good Morning America to call,' " Burgett said.
Ethan didn't land on the morning talk shows, but he did get a long, glowing column written about his pass and his Falls City career in the local paper and a small mention in Sports Illustrated.
"When someone puts others above themselves, that's a very, very special thing. In sports, you lose that sometimes," said Decker, Mapleton's coach. "I'm watching the NFL on TV, and I see someone gets a sack, and they're just dancing in front of the TV. It's all, 'Me, me, me, look at me.' This wasn't about me, me, me."
"I think it had more impact on me than on Davan," said Melissa Overton. "To see all those people rooting for him. It was a nice reminder that we're not in this alone."
"Parenthood is tough. You try to raise your kids with some morals and some faith, you try to give them a mishmash of everything they might need in the world. But you can't dictate which way they turn. You can't make decisions on the spur of the moment for them," said Mike McConnell, Ethan's dad. "It's just such a wonderful thing to see a kid, especially your own kid, make a decision like that, to do something kind for someone else without really even thinking about it."
On the video, the only person who seems not to know how to respond is Davan. He looks happy, but also dazed. His reaction, when shown the replay, is similarly more complicated and conflicted than other people who were there. He winces and he smiles.
"I don't like to see myself," he said. "I don't like knowing that's what other people see."
Ethan's pass wasn't the first time an opponent tried to help get Davan a shot.
"Last year, I don't remember the game, but there was a kid on another team who passed me the ball like 20 times," he said. "I felt really ... I felt like ... how to describe this? I felt really helpless, like I couldn't do it by myself. It was generous of him to do it, but ..."
But there's a fine line, far thinner and harder to locate than the arc that separates two points from three, between generosity and condescension. Those of us on the giving end don't always recognize it as quickly or as clearly as those who receive.
The kid kept passing. Davan kept shooting. When he finally sank one, his teammates celebrated as if they'd won a playoff game. Davan smiled "this plastic smile" and pretended not to be upset with himself and his situation. (Ethan's pass wasn't the last one Davan received from an opposing team this season. During a Jan. 28 game, a player from Santiam Christian School in Corvallis did the same thing.) "Honestly, there's a lot of things I would like to change about myself," Davan said. "My form. The way my hands go, I'd really like to change that. That's really embarrassing to see on camera and everything, those repeated misses. It's just bad all over. ... I feel like when people see that tape, they're seeing what I can't do."
His moment with Ethan was different, for reasons Davan can't quite articulate. It was one pass rather than 20. It was at the very end of the game, at the buzzer. It happened in a split second, without forethought or even intent, a true random act of kindness.
In that sense, maybe both boys did something selfless that night.
Ethan gave another young man, a boy whose life has been hard from the beginning and will be hard until the end, a chance at glory. Davan took what was offered graciously, despite his own conflicted emotions. He grinned, laughed and reveled in the moment, as happy for everyone else in the gym as himself.
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.