It was a cool December morning in 2007 when junior Ryan D. entered my office and announced: "That's two weeks straight!" I looked at the clock and it read 8 a.m. He was right on time once again.
It wasn't always like that.
Ryan struggled for the first two years of high school. A close member of his family passed away his freshman year, he lost interest in school and his grades plummeted. He was raised solely by his dedicated mother, and commuted nearly an hour to school each day. Ryan sneaked by, and he was infamous for arriving late and being an underachiever.
I met Ryan in September 2007. It was my first year at the Academy of Urban Planning in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I would be his guidance counselor. Ryan was quiet, unassuming and seemed harmless enough. I optimistically assumed that we'd bond right away, but that was clearly a rookie mistake. I hadn't heard about his reputation, but soon learned it was true.
In the first month, Ryan was constantly late and was the antithesis of a morning person. He was often straight faced, distant and unmotivated. I met with him. I met with his mother. We created action plans, contracts, and I even bought him an alarm clock. Nothing seemed to work. Ultimatums were ignored, encouragement was dismissed, and my alarm clock gift was thrown out the window, literally. Ryan failed most of his morning classes, but excelled once he woke up. He aced exams, papers, and standardized tests with minimal studying. In fact, he would later record the highest SAT score in the school. He was truly gifted, if only he took school more seriously.
During his free time in class, Ryan was a voracious reader. He finished class work quickly, and then simply took out a book, magazine, or newspaper to read. It was common to see Ryan's face hidden behind The New York Times or Sports Illustrated.
Ryan's other true love was basketball. When he discovered that I was the junior varsity basketball coach, a bond started to form. Eleventh graders could not be on the team, but he still attended practices and games just to watch and be a part of something. We spoke daily about our NBA idols. For him, it was Steve Nash, and for me it was Larry Bird.
Something clicked during these talks. It was like discovering that we both spoke the same language. Our conversations no longer hovered around improvement plans and academic goal setting. Instead, we talked about the sanctity of basketball. As we reveled about game winning shots, no look passes, and fade-away three pointers, all of the problems in his life, and in my life, seemed to fade away. Basketball broke down those walls and brought us together.
It was during one of our basketball discussions that we came to an agreement. Ryan would arrive to school on time for one month straight, and as a reward, I would take him to his first ever NBA game. He looked me in the eyes, flashed a rare smile, and shook my hand in agreement.
Each day going forward, Ryan popped into my office to declare his punctuality. He'd either announce what day he was on or simply say: "I got this, Cooley." His morning teachers were so surprised by his presence that they assumed there was a mistake with the clocks. Ryan fulfilled his 30-day promise, and on March 29, 2008 we attended his first ever NBA game.
The Phoenix Suns and Steve Nash were in town to play the New Jersey Nets at the Izod Center. Ryan's eyes lit up as we saw the action up close and took in the NBA experience. We even snuck down a few sections to get a better view of the game. Steve Nash didn't have his best performance, but still dished out 11 assists, and Ryan elbowed me each time to remind me. The Suns were victorious, and so was Ryan. Attending the game may have been the reward, but the true victory was seeing his grades and confidence increase over that time. He never hit the snooze button again.
In December 2007, the Celtics were gearing up for a championship run, the Nets were still in New Jersey, Steve Nash was an all-star and Ryan was a struggling high school student. In 2014, things had changed. The Celtics were now playing for the lottery. The Nets were now in Brooklyn, and Steve Nash was struggling to remain healthy and stay in the NBA.
But during all of the changes, there was one constant: Ryan and I kept going to one NBA game together each year.
Every year it gave us a chance to reconnect. And every year, I was updated on Ryan's progress. In his senior year of high school, Ryan passed all of his classes, came out of his shell, and even emerged as an all-star on the debate team. He graduated from high school on time, and enrolled at a local community college, and achieved a 4.0 GPA. He even took morning classes. Apparently, his alarm clock was never thrown out the window again.
Ryan and I attended our seventh NBA game together on March 21, 2014. This year we watched my Boston Celtics get trounced by the Brooklyn Nets.
While Brooklyn schooled Boston on the court, Ryan and I caught up and reflected about the past seven years. We joked about alarm clocks, morning classes and past basketball games. Ryan caught me up on his life too. He is nearly finished with his bachelor's degree from John Jay College. He is majoring in English, on the dean’s list, writes for the school paper and has a serious girlfriend. Like I said before, things had changed.
This year's game was especially memorable. Afterwards, we met up with Ryan's girlfriend and his mother, whom I hadn't seen since graduation. We shared smiles and hugs and stories. We reminisced about the past and spoke about the future. There was a sense of pride and hope as if we all went through this journey together, and Ryan was the centerpiece. It was like we had won the title.
There are times when a team is counted out. There are times when people are counted out. These are the underdogs. People lose hope, but I never do. And once in a while, we are rewarded for our faith and become a part of something that we'll never forget.
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