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July 17, 2013
The first couple shots were just off, bouncing off the front rim or hitting the backboard and the rim before falling to the floor on Keady Court.
This hoop was a bit taller than the one Alex Grady is used to playing on, said mom Sandra Hinckley, watching from a cushy seat on the sidelines Tuesday inside Mackey Arena.
But then D.J. Byrd piped up, reminding 17-year-old Grady to "hold that follow through." Didn't take long after that for Grady to sink his first shot, and a shy toothless smile crept across his lips. Then when Byrd put his hand up for a high five, the excitement spread to Grady's eyes, lighting up when he extended his hand to meet Byrd's.
And, in that moment, Boiler-Maker-Wish's goal was met. The group of athletes who started the new program got the reaction they were hoping for - bringing a smile and delivering an always-remembered experience to a child with a physical disability or life-threatening illness.
But it was only one moment in an hour-long event full of them.
After making that first basket, Grady promptly made three more in a row and many others after.
He got to work on passing with Byrd, the target of Grady's wish.
He got to spin the ball on his finger, Byrd facilitating that, too, by first getting it going on his own and then working to transfer it to Grady's finger.
He got an assist, directing Byrd under the basket and then delivering a pass, which Byrd finished with a reverse layup.
"Just being out here," said Grady when asked his favorite portion of the evening. "I came to meet him and to know more about him and spend time with him."
But this wasn't just about getting on the court.
Byrd wanted to give Grady a behind-the-scenes glance at what it's like to be a player for the Boilermakers.
"I kind of picture it as myself when I was a kid. Anyone who plays basketball and is older, you always look up to. I've just tried to be a good example of that. (Tuesday), him being able to hit some shots and just give him some encouragement, I think it's made his day and hopefully makes his summer," Byrd said. "That's the idea behind it and hopefully he can continue to enjoy basketball and seeing behind the scenes of what the players do and all that. So that's the goal.
"He'll get to come back for a game and he'll feel like he's a player because he's been through it. So it's cool."
After meeting Byrd and the core group of athletes who started Boiler-Maker-Wish - Carly Mercer, Julia Comodeca, Courtney Moses and Charles Torwudzo - Grady and his mother took a tour of the facilities in Mackey. They hit the new weight room first and then headed out to its balcony that overlooks Cardinal Court.
The next stop was the women's basketball locker room - essentially the same as the men's from which Byrd's access apparently has been revoked.
Moses took the lead a bit on the tour at that point, but Byrd often spoke up, too, letting Grady know what the pregame approach was. On the large white dry-erase board, Byrd said Coach Matt Painter would have his instructions scribbled, and they always included "Rebound, defense and play hard."
Grady got to "dress" for a game, too, as Moses pulled out a jersey from a locker. It just so happened to be No. 21, Byrd's number.
After posing for some pictures, Grady got some warmup gear to get ready to run onto Keady Court.
The athletes formed an "arch" that Grady ran through onto the court.
And then the basketball drills began.
It was quite a sight for Sandra, who has seen her first-born son in some dire situations over much of his life.
Grady has mild autism, hearing loss in one ear and severe scoliosis of the spine. He's had six surgeries, spent five months in a hospital in St. Louis in the last two years and has been in a full-body brace.
"He's suffered a lot," Hinckley said. "There have been lots of challenges, but he's a trooper. He always says that what can he change? So he has to keep trying.
"To watch an athlete is neat to him and how amazing they are. I think he probably thinks they're super heroes.
"I'm happy if he's happy. If he's smiling, my heart is warm. More smiles the better."
There were plenty of those on Tuesday.
Even when the night was ending, walking the halls of Mackey with an orange Gatorade tightly grasped in his hand, Grady was happy.
High fives and hand shakes were exchanged before he left the building.
The smile stayed.
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