GREAT FALLS — Sometimes the world of sports can be a complicated place.
Whether it’s scandals in college athletics, animosity among fans or a heightened focus on wins and losses, the purpose of sports can get lost.
Sometimes we need a reminder of what made us fall in love with sports in the first place. And that’s what happened in a very unlikely place Tuesday night. A youth basketball game for first and second graders at the Heisey Community Center in Great Falls.
Weston Lee is a 7-year old first grader in his first year of organized basketball. He has a rare genetic disorder called 18q deletion syndrome which leads to hearing impairment, muscle weakness and delays in language and communication.
He was born without ear canals and wears hearing aids that conduct sound through his skull.
“When Weston was born, we didn't know that he had the hearing loss. So it was a couple of years before we even knew what was happening with Weston,” said his mother Kayla. “And so he always kind of had to adapt to situations to get our attention or to communicate.”
The developmental delays and issues with coordinating make it tough for Weston to keep up with kids in his age group. But he always tries and is determined to participate. And this year he told his parents he wanted to play basketball with his brother Roczen, which led to some initial nerves.
“We've never wanted to withhold Weston from trying any type of sports,” Kayla said. “But there's always a little anxiety before you go in not knowing what the coaches are going to think or how other parents or other children will react when you have a child that has some unique needs.”
Weston was placed on the Green Grinches, a team coached by Kaila Clarke and her father Dennis Fowler. Weston’s mother sent them an infographic about the best ways to communicate with and coach him before the season started. Initially, Weston didn’t have the strength to hit the rim when he shot — but then inspiration struck his coaches.
“After the first practice we talked as we were driving home thinking we weren’t sure we’d ever see him make a basket” Fowler said. “We went home and we were at the dinner table eating and I go, ‘Rick Barry!’ And my wife looks at me like, ‘What?’ And I had to explain that he used to shoot 90% from the free throw line for the Golden State Warriors for 14 years shooting underhanded. And I went, ‘I think we can teach him Rick Barry.’”
The coaches spent the next few weeks teaching Weston how to shoot underhanded. It wasn’t easy at first, but he never gave up. Over time the shots started going in and Weston’s confidence grew.
“It was just fun to watch him grow. And I think he told his mom that night after the first practice he scored 100 points,” Clarke said.
So that leads us back to Tuesday night at the Heisey Center. Clarke had called the opposing coach earlier in the week to hatch a plan between teams to let Weston score his first basket.
After the opening whistle, his teammates found Weston underneath the basket and gave him the ball. Both teams started chanting, “Weston! Weston! Weston!”
And on his third attempt, Weston made a basket. And it felt like he won a championship. Weston’s coaches, teammates, opponents and family mobbed him with hugs, high fives and cheers.
“I was crying and trying to coach through tears. It was just a magical moment for this whole gym,” Clarke said. “And it's a pretty awesome community that joined in. Having every team shout his name and include him. It's just spectacular. We really want to thank the other team and the other coaches for allowing us to do this.”
When asked what he thought about his teammates, Weston didn’t hesitate.
“They’re my best friends,” he said.
“This taught all these kids tonight how to include someone,” Clarke said. “And just cause someone's different, they can still play and they can still succeed. And it's awesome. And it taught these guys something to. Hopefully will remember this all their lives.”