By TIM DAHLBERG, AP Sports Writer
Fri Jun 10, 3:40 PM ET
CLOVIS, Calif. - The chant began late in the fourth quarter in the basketball gym at Clovis East High. The students started it first, clapping their hands in unison and pounding the bleachers with their feet. It didn't take long for the parents to pick it up, too. The noise grew until the whole gym seemed to shake. "We want Ryno. We want Ryno."
Pacing the sideline, coach Tim Amundsen felt himself getting goose bumps. Less than 4 minutes remained in the game, and Clovis East was winning comfortably over rival Buchanan High. Now Amundsen had a decision to make.
It was senior night, the last time Ryan Belflower would wear his home uniform. Everyone in the gym knew his story.
Ryan was a special education student who would do anything to fit in and worked tirelessly to make that happen. His basketball career began as a ninth grader passing out balls to the girls' team. Then he hooked on with the boys' team, getting there every morning at 6:30, helping out in drills, running the practice clock and cleaning up afterward.
Now, he sat proudly on the sideline in his own white No. 12 uniform.
The crowd wanted him in the game. Amundsen wanted him in, too. But he was also afraid the slightly built 18-year-old might get hurt.
Amundsen considered all this as he walked toward Ryan and patted him on the shoulder. Off came the warmup jacket, the buzzer blew and Ryan kind of half hopped, half ran onto the court, his left leg trailing slightly at an odd angle.
The noise was deafening as he ran out on the court.
In the stands, Justin Belflower was near tears. A few years earlier, he was a jock at Clovis East, one of those big men on campus. He knew how hard his kid brother had worked for this moment.
"If you had said four years ago he'd play in a varsity basketball game, I'd say stop lying because it will never happen," Justin said.
On this afternoon in February, it did.
And Clovis East would never be the same.
Shooting a basketball was never that big a problem for Ryan. He figured that out during countless hours of playing H-O-R-S-E with Justin in the driveway of the family's modest home in this Fresno suburb.
Playing in a game was something entirely different. Ryan couldn't grasp the concepts of filling lanes, going to spots, running routes.
As a child he struggled to understand the smallest things. He could tell you his name, but for years he couldn't tell you his age.
"You would try to teach him at every birthday, but sometimes it just didn't sink in," said his mother, Shauna Belflower.
His mother knew early on that Ryan was different. He was barely speaking as a toddler, and he just didn't act like his older brother did at that age. She took him to a speech and language specialist, who examined Ryan for about five minutes before turning back to his mother.
"I'm not sure how to tell you this, ma'am, but there's a lot more wrong with your son than his speech," the woman said.
Shauna Belflower searched for answers, though few came as the years went on. Ryan had autistic symptoms, but no one ever formally diagnosed him with that. She took Ryan to different doctors, and even locked him in a psychiatric hospital for 16 days when he was 5. He went on medication, but it made him violent and he had to be weaned from it.
"It was almost like having a little Helen Keller. He had no way of communicating," his mother said. "He knew words were a way of communicating, just no way of knowing what they meant."
In the end, there wasn't much doctors could do. Ryan would improve as he learned things, but for years he struggled to understand and carrying on a conversation was almost impossible. He would look at the ground when he talked, and it was a long time before he could answer a question like "How are you?"
Increasingly, though, that talk was about sports. Ryan memorized statistics, watched ESPN constantly and found out everything he could about his favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers.
Still, he struggled in his vocational special education classes, struggled to find his place in a big high school, struggled with life's little oddities every single day.
One day during his freshman year, girls basketball coach Meredith Pulliam asked her class if anyone wanted to help the team.
In the back of the room, Ryan's hand went up.
Every day he'd be at practice, handing out balls, trying to figure out how to run the clock. At first, the girls were wary of this boy who said almost nothing but was always around. But, as time went on, they grew to love the scrawny kid who worked so hard and did everything he could for them.
Ryan was finally a part of something. And the kid who could barely talk to anyone a few years earlier now wanted to be manager of the boys' team. Maybe, just maybe, he could even play. After all, he did know how to shoot.
"I had a long day to figure it out, but I wanted to play," Ryan said. "I really did. And if I didn't make it, at least I tried."
Amundsen knew about Ryan's work habits and his determination. After Ryan tried out as a junior, he told him he could be the boys' team manager. If he worked real hard, maybe he would earn a uniform.
"A lot of times kids like that end up disappearing after two weeks," Amundsen said.
He got up early, swept the gym, put out basketballs and got players water.
"I paid the price," Ryan said. "I didn't want to quit and I wasn't going to."
Just before the last game of the year, Amundsen handed him his No. 12 uniform.
"He did it the right way. He earned it," Amundsen said. "You don't see that much these days."
With Ryan finally in the game, the chant grew even louder in the Clovis East gym.
"Give Ryan the ball. Give Ryan the ball."
Ryan wanted it, too. He ran down the court to the corner by himself to wait in case someone saw him. If no one did, he would run back behind the 3-point line to get a pass.
On defense, the 5-foot-6 player ran after Buchanan High's biggest man.
"Coach told me to guard anybody I saw," he would explain later.
Ryan had played a few seconds in a few games already his senior year. It hadn't gone well.
In his first game, the other team was running a fast break off a miss and Ryan couldn't get out of the way. He was sent sprawling about 10 feet down the court. It wasn't anybody's fault, but it made Amundsen wary.
The other kids were bigger and stronger. They saw plays developing. They reacted quicker.
About 2 minutes remained in the game, and Ryan's teammates were trying their best to get him the ball.
Suddenly, he had it unguarded out beyond the 3-point line. As he launched the shot, everyone in the gym froze. On the sideline, his teammates rose as one.
The shot missed badly, clunking off the lower backboard.
By now, the Buchanan players seemed to recognize what was going on. When Ryan got the ball again they fouled him, sending him to the free throw line so he would have a chance to score.
But all the games of H-O-R-S-E hadn't prepared him for this moment. His free throw arced high off the top of the backboard.
In the stands, Justin was crying tears of joy. His brother may have missed, but at least he got a chance. He could always talk about the night he played.
The final seconds were ticking off the clock and Clovis East got the ball one last time. This time, Ryan found a spot just beyond the 3-point line to the left of the key. He got a pass, and turned to shoot.
The noisy gym quieted for a split second as the ball seemed to hang in the air forever.
It swished through, the way it did so many times in the driveway in front of his house.
"Nothing but net," he exclaimed.
The buzzer sounded as Ryan ran joyously toward his bench, attempting to chest butt a teammate in celebration.
In the stands, Justin tried to scream, but nothing came out. He wasn't alone. Grown men and women hugged each other and cried.
The kid who wouldn't take no for an answer could now say he was a player, too.
"All the parents were bawling, and the students were too," Amundsen said. "My coaching staff all had tears in their eyes. It was an unbelievable moment."
It wasn't over yet. As the teams shook hands, two football players grabbed Ryan and hoisted him on their shoulders. He held his arms high in celebration, a big grin on his face, as they carried him on a victory lap around the gymnasium.
"I've never seen anything like it before and I probably never will," Amundsen said. "He'll be my example the rest of my life as a coach."
Word traveled quickly about Ryan's shot. He was on the front page of the Fresno Bee. Local TV replayed his shot again and again.
The attention has been a bit overwhelming, but his mother says he has handled it well. He makes sure he looks a visitor in the eye when he talks about it.
"It's about showing the love," he said.
The entire Central Valley has shown its love to Ryan, too. He's not really sure what it all means, but he knows he's been accepted.
"You can see how he's kind of trying to figure it out. I don't know if he fully comprehends what is going on," said his special education teacher, A.J. Blackburn. "His ability to process how huge this has become isn't quite there. With disabilities you don't understand abstract concepts. They need to be concrete. He understands what he did was important, but doesn't truly understand why."
Ryan's future is uncertain. He walked with other students at graduation, but the special education kids don't get diplomas. He had never had a date, but recently worked up the courage to ask a member of the girls' basketball team to the prom.
He's thinking of trying to be the team manager at Fresno City College, and wants to have a career in sports. He memorizes statistics and can tell you how every member of the 49ers did last year.
"My dreams now are to be a sports analyst," he says. "I know so much and people say I'm good at it."
That dream will be harder to achieve than hitting a 3-pointer.
"It's going to be a tough transition from this sheltered place called high school," Blackburn said. "Eventually I envision Ryan to be for the most part independent with some counseling. He will always need some assistance, but once he gets in a routine he will be able to live a life much like the rest of us."
Whatever happens, they can't take away the moment that brought a school together and made a town proud. They can't take away the shot that made Ryan a hero.
"He's a guy who tries more than most people ever do," Pulliam said. "He's probably put in twice the work and gotten half the results of anyone else. But he gives others like him hope that there might be a moment in life for them, too, in some way."