YOU KNOW the kind of kid I'm talking about, right? The too-skinny, too-slow type who shoots all day at the rec center and shoots all night in the neighbor's driveway and air-shoots in algebra class but never gets his chance in a real game?
Well, this story is about that kid.
His name is Sean Cronk, he's 17 and he lives with his disabled mother in a housing project across the street from the rec center in Everett, Mass. "If Sean could move his bed into that rec center," says his mom, Catherine, "I think he would."
And even though he can't beat a phone booth off the dribble and can't stop a slug on D, the kid makes the Everett High jayvee team as a junior this season mostly because they can't scrape him off the court with a shovel. And one day he gets in at the end of a meaningless game and sinks two free throws—swish, swish—like it's nothing.
So 10 games later they try him again, and Sean makes two more. Before long he's 10 for 10, which is no surprise to his buddies because he makes 50 foul shots in a row sometimes at the rec and has hit 25 straight threes.
Then the varsity coach, John DiBiaso, gets the crazy idea to add this kid to the roster for the stretch run and the state tournament. Not that he'll play, people figure; it's more of a reward thing.
The next day Everett is playing at Peabody for no less than the Greater Boston League title, and the game is tighter than Wayne Newton's face. There's only 20 seconds left with Everett up by three, when one of the Crimson Tide players gets mugged on a drive and has to be helped off.
And DiBiaso looks down the bench at his subs and says to the scrawny kid, "Sean! Shoot the free throws!"
Everybody in the gym practically swallows their gum as the kid limps out to the free throw line, dragging his left leg along like a dog that doesn't want to follow. See, Sean Cronk has cerebral palsy, which is why he is the kid who only shoots, shoots and air-shoots and never gets his chance when it counts. And yet here it is.
The Peabody crowd sees him pulling that bum leg, and they boo and whistle and holler from the very bottom of their hollerers. Hey, this is for the league title, after all. And Catherine, hobbled by a broken ankle, can hardly stand the pressure because no mom wants to see her only son fail in the moment he's rehearsed 100,000 times. So she closes one eye and grips her cane so hard that she nearly snaps it in half.
But Sean is wearing 33, which is the number of his idol, Larry Bird, and Sean is feeling very Birdlike, indeed.
"I didn't hear anybody," Sean recalls two weeks later. "I couldn't wait to shoot 'em." He brings the ball all the way behind his head, two-handed, like you see six-year-olds do. And some in the Peabody crowd grin because they're thinking, If he shoots like that, then the ball has about as much of a chance of going in as an anvil.
But the ball comes out of those two hands as silky as Hef's pajamas and hits nothing but net. And Sean's mom rises slowly and points that cane across the court at the Peabody fans, tears in her eyes.
Then Sean swishes the second one just as sweetly. After Peabody comes back to nail a three at the buzzer, everybody in the place realizes that without Sean's two killer free throws, Everett could've lost.
And if Bird ever had a better night than Sean's, I'd like to hear about it. All the star varsity players muss his hair and he gets a big yell from the cheerleaders and he sits with the cool guys in the back of the bus instead of up front with the nobodies. And at the end of the bus ride he turns to his coach and asks sheepishly, "Does this mean I get to stay on varsity?"
I only tell you all this because here's a disabled-kid-makes-good story without a drop of charity. "This wasn't a case of me treating Sean any differently than any other player," says DiBiaso. "I selected him to shoot the free throws because he was the best player for the job." Sean Cronk, debilitated by cerebral palsy, went into the big game when it mattered most and became the kid who mattered most.
Now Sean says teammates are talking about faking injuries after they're fouled, just so Sean can shoot for them. Crazy world, isn't it? Healthy kids faking limps so the kid with a real limp can replace them?
Anyway, Sean hopes some college coach might want a kid who's automatic from the line. And after that, he wants to coach.
"Maybe I can get a kid like me," Sean says. "And when he says, 'I can't play because of my leg,' I can say, 'Oh, yeah, you can!'"
If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly siletters.com.
"This wasn't a case of me treating Sean any differently than any other kid," says DiBiaso. Sean went into the game when it mattered most and became the kid who mattered most.
RIFFS of REILLY
Watch exclusively on VCast from Verizon Wireless and SI.com.
PETER READ MILLER