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Cameron Smith

Stroke victim, team manager gets his Jason McElwain moment

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

High school basketball is more than a pastime in the state of Indiana, it's a way of life. That's particularly the case in Terre Haute, where school basketball players are gods and Friday night games in high school gyms are the pinnacle of the entire week.

For Terre Haute (Indiana) North freshman R.J. Drake, being around a basketball team was all he could hope for because of complications from a stroke he suffered at birth. The 14-year-old has limited use of the right side of his body, which keeps him from engaging in most team sports.

Yet Drake loves basketball so much he eagerly accepted a role as the freshmen team's manager. Then, according to Terre Haute's WTHI TV, with the freshmen season winding down, his coach decided the teenager deserved a chance to live out one of his dreams.

"You can tell by [Drake's] eyes that he really looks up to these players," Terre Haute North freshman coach Mike Gant told WTHI. "He tries to be as involved as he can."

Gant decided that, since he had played managers in past seasons, there was no reason why Drake shouldn't get a chance to play in a game as well. He reached out to West Vigo (Indiana) High's freshman coach, who agreed that if Drake got in the game, the West Vigo defenders would give him space to shoot.

"Last year I played my managers," Gant told WTHI. "A lot of people go out for the team, but they can't all make it. So I talked to [Drake's] mom, I talked to the coaching staff over at West Vigo. They were all receptive to it. I talked to our athletic director and our coach and we got him on the roster, and he did some practices with us."

Even though Drake was practicing with the team, the freshman had no idea he was going to play in a game until he the day before the matchup against West Vigo.

"I was really excited," Drake told WTHI. "I was glad I could do it."

His mother said there were plenty of other emotions involved, too.

"We talked to him on the phone and he was really excited," Dawn Drake told WTHI. "But he was really, really nervous."

Nerves aside, Drake got his chance in the fourth quarter against West Vigo, and he didn't let it pass by. Shortly after getting in the game, Drake hoisted up a pair of deep jump shots that just missed.

Then, with time ticking down, Drake got a pass in the paint and hit a short jumper, his first -- and maybe his last -- high school basketball basket. The celebration after the shot was closer to what you traditionally see after a game-winning buzzer beater, rather than a six-foot jumper.

The moment was similar to the excitement that surrounded autistic team manager Jason McElwain's entrance in a game in New York in 2006, even though it occurred at the freshman level.

"It was amazing," Dawn Drake told WTHI. "It's a moment you always hope you're going to have as a parent. To have all the people there supporting him, and the teammates go out and meet him on the court. It was just amazing."

There was no question in Terre Haute North varsity head coach Todd Woelfle's mind that Drake's honor was well deserved.

"[Drake] has a passion and loves the game of basketball. He has a great respect for our guys. He comes every day and works hard. He's probably their biggest fan.

"I know how much [playing in a game] meant to him. He's been walking around school all day with a smile and he's been telling everyone about it. It was special for him, and I hope it's something he remembers for a long time."

For one night, those players he helps and cheers for got to be Drake's fans, a switch in roles that was well deserved.

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