The toughest teenager to shop for in all of America has to be high school hoops player Steve Ketcham. There's almost nothing on his Christmas list.
That's because Steve Ketcham knows he's supposed to be dead right now.
In August 2004, Steve--the 6'5", 190-pound center for Cheyenne Mountain High in Colorado Springs--was driving with his family to Asheville, N.C. Somewhere around Kansas, Steve, 18, started feeling lousy.
"Stomach flu," his mom, Suzy, suspected.
By Tennessee he was worse.
"Appendicitis?" his dad, Craig, guessed.
By Asheville, Steve was begging to go to the hospital.
A virus was attacking his heart. X-rays showed it was grotesquely swollen. A chopper and ambulance got him to Duke University Hospital, but shortly afterward his heart stopped for 20 minutes. "He was pretty much dead," says ICU nurse Celine Roberts, who helped treat him.
Only a heart-lung machine kept Steve alive for the next two days. He was in a coma and had a stroke. All told, he underwent five open-heart surgeries and one stomach operation. Slipping fast, he was vaulted to the top rank of the nation's heart-transplant candidates.
On Sept. 22, 2004, in a city three hours away by jet, a 15-year-old boy was crossing the street when he was hit by a car and killed, just like that. But that kid's death gave life. His heart was put on ice and jetted to Duke. By this time Steve was down to 120 pounds and "looked like a concentration camp victim," says his mom. According to Dr. Andrew Lodge, inserting the heart was made tougher by all the holes in Steve's body.
Weeks went by. Steve's body showed no signs of rejecting the new heart. In fact, the two got along fine, though Steve still couldn't talk. Naturally, who should walk in to see him but one of his personal basketball gods, Duke guard J.J. Redick.
Redick said something like, "How you doin'? Heard you were a hoops player." Steve's eyes went as big as cereal bowls, but no words could come out.
That's when Steve's dad said, "Yeah, he is. You play basketball?"
If Steve could've crawled under his hospital bed, he would've. "Yessir," said Redick, maybe the nation's best player. He stayed 30 minutes and left a signed hat, Steve's prize possession.
When Steve was walking and talking again, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski let him come to practice and sit behind the bench at games. Steve got inspired to play again.
But then Bobby Cremins, the former Georgia Tech coach, met Steve at a Duke practice and, trying to temper Steve's expectations, unintentionally pulled out a hope extinguisher. "He basically told me, 'No way a kid with a heart transplant is going to ever play high school basketball again,'" Steve says.
Cremins was right, of course. Heart transplant recipients just don't do that. For 75% of them, the life expectancy after receiving a new heart is five years. And that's walking on eggs, not taking charges against barreling forwards.
Steve's mom tried to talk him out of trying. "Mom," Steve finally said. "I'd rather live five years playing ball than 10 not having any fun."
The doctors' advice? "Seize the day."
Steve did more than that. He seized his life. And on Dec. 1, Steve Ketcham returned to the starting lineup at Cheyenne Mountain High. He wore a paintball chest protector to shield his new heart and on his shoes, written on the toes so that he could see them every time he looked down, were the words bobby cremins.
Nurse Roberts flew in just to see the miracle in high-tops. Once the game started, she couldn't stop crying. Steve's mom wasn't crying, though. "I was so scared, I was paralyzed," she says.
Steve can go for stretches of only 90 seconds, but in those 90 seconds he's not bad. And when he canned a three-pointer for his first basket of the night, he buried more than the bucket. He buried the rule book for heart-transplant recipients everywhere.
"We were just hoping to get him back to school," Roberts says. "He's awe-inspiring."
Steve still knows nothing about the boy who saved his life. One year after the transplant, though, he was allowed to send a letter of thanks to the family.
"You cannot imagine the things I am doing," he wrote. So far, they haven't responded. Of course, that's probably the hard part--imagining the life somebody else's son began because your son's ended.
Anyway, now you know why Steve Ketcham's Christmas list is so short.
"Somebody already gave me the best gift of all."
If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Transplant recipients just don't play basketball. Life expectancy for most of them is five years. And that's walking on eggs, not taking charges against barreling forwards.
PETER READ MILLER