The gymnasium at North Polk High School in the tiny town of Alleman, Iowa, population 432, was already giving Clay Warner a standing ovation before he even set foot on the court.
His team was down 15, but you wouldn’t know it by the cheering. The crowd knew just as well as the bench that the 18-year-old senior had been waiting for the chance to play for what seemed like his entire basketball career. He had dressed for every game, had suited up for every practice, but until Friday night – senior night ― he had never clocked even a minute on the floor in a varsity basketball game for the Comets.
The coaches were worried he would get hurt: Warner, born with cerebral palsy, was legally blind.
He couldn’t always see the hoop, so when he took a shot he aimed for the rim of his black-framed glasses instead, his teammate, Luke McCoy, told The Washington Post. He couldn’t always see the ball, so teammates threw him bounce passes instead of chest passes.
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He was “a kid who loves the game of basketball more than anyone I’ve ever met,” Coach Nick Wilkins said as he described Warner to The Washington Post. So with a minute to go, Wilkins finally gave the senior his chance.
Warner, short and lean with close-cropped dark hair, fumbled as he tore off his No. 24 warm-up shirt and hustled over to the scorekeeper to check into the game, bringing the fans in the bleachers and his teammates on the bench to their feet.
“Clay Warner, the heart and soul of North Polk, is coming into the game!” the teenage announcer yelled. “This is a big moment.”
After the other team sank a pair of free throws, Warner was already waiting in position downcourt, anticipating a pass before North Polk had even inbounded the ball. The North Polk point guard brought up the ball and everyone knew where he was going. He dribbled it right up to Warner and tossed him the ball in the bottom right corner, 15 feet out.
Warner took a dribble. Then came the pullup jumper. “Clay Warner with the shot …” the announcer said as it hung in the air.
A perfect high arch, it pierced through the net, barely touching the rim on its way down, and the place erupted. “AND IT’S GOOD!” the announcer yelled. The North Polk bench was jumping in the air, screaming like they just clawed their way out of a nail-biter with a last-second shot. The other team’s players stood and clapped, too.
“I looked over near the student section and saw that his mom was tearing up,” McCoy said.
Warner, meanwhile, simply hustled back on defense, Wilkins said. The senior told local news station WHO-TV that he could hear “the whole gym yelling my name. … It was like I was a little kid again.”
His mother, Melissa, told WHO-TV on Monday that Warner was born with cerebral palsy at 23 weeks gestation, making him a “micropreemie.” Even with his glasses, she said, he is still legally blind. But he found a way to get around it by focusing on just the right spot on his glasses every time he lifted the ball to shoot. He had been playing since the third grade, he said in a team Q&A, loves LeBron James and, if he had to describe himself in one word, he would pick “baller.”
He had become the team’s biggest inspiration, McCoy said, the only guy who still seemed to believe they could win a game while down double-digits with only a few minutes to go. He led every pregame huddle, telling the boys to “grind it out,” Wilkins said, and gave them a hard time if he caught them losing focus.
He didn’t know ahead of time on Friday whether he would get the chance to play, Wilkins said, which is what the coach said made his work ethic most remarkable. He worked just as hard as the others without any guarantee he would ever be rewarded, Wilkins said.
They all had a feeling that if he took a shot he would make it, Wilkins said. The Comets lost, 63-48, but nobody was sulking after Warner’s shot.
“It was one of those times when you have chills running up and down your spine,” Wilkins said, “something the team will remember forever.”