CLOVIS, Calif. - The chant began late in the fourth quarter in the basketball gym at Clovis East High. The students started it first, clapping their hands 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 passing out balls to the girls’ team. Then he hooked on with the boys’ team, getting there every morning at 6:30, helping out in 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 was also afraid 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 was deafening as he ran out on the court.
“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.
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