John E. Hoover: Nathan Mitcham dresses out for Owasso, provides everlasting memory
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
2/13/13 at 7:42 AM
Go to John E. Hoover's blogOriginal Print Headline: Special moment
OWASSO - Sometimes the world just isn't big enough.
Stitches strain. Buttons bend. Tiny cracks start to form around the edges. Everything swells, bulges for an almost imperceptible moment, and then, boom! Reality bursts at its seams.
Tuesday night at the Owasso High School gym, the world wasn't big enough for Nathan Mitcham.
It wasn't big enough for the moment he rose from the Rams' bench, walked to the scorer's table and stepped into a real basketball game for the first time in his 18 years.
And it most assuredly was not big enough when he caught a pass, spun, dribbled into the paint and launched an off-balance shot that clanged off the rim, off the glass and through the net.
"I didn't think I hit it," Nathan said.
Nathan did a little more than dress out.
Nathan Mitcham, the special needs senior at Owasso High School, the team manager who got the blessing of his coach and the backing of thousands of Twitter denizens last week with the hashtag #dressNathanout, stepped into Oklahoma high school basketball lore when he scored eight points in the final 3:23 of the Rams' 75-55 victory over Sand Springs.
"When that first shot went through, I thought I was gonna need a box of Kleenexes," said Owasso coach Mark Vancuren. "It was just an unbelievable amount of emotion that overcame me."
It was magic. It was electricity. It was fireworks, bound by a slow-burning fuse.
The gym's official capacity is around 1,400, but actual attendance might have been closer to 2,000. Folks were shoulder to shoulder for the junior varsity girls game - four hours before tipoff.
Local merchants handed out #dressNathanout T-shirts (with #rampower on the back). Banners hung from the rails.
Two hours prior, star point guard Jaylen Lowe arrived in the coaches office flustered that he had to park so far away.
It was Lowe who assisted on Nathan's two 3-point baskets.
Then again, it was Lowe who assisted on Nathan's big night.
Lowe, also a star quarterback who signed last week to play football at the University of Tulsa, launched the grassroots Twitter campaign. But it soon burst beyond the confines of Lowe's Owasso fame. Kevin Durant, Toby Keith, Carrie Underwood, Johnny Manziel - soon enough, millions of Twitterers had seen their retweets.
It all culminated on Tuesday night.
"One thing that means so much to me is to see how much everybody has gotten behind it," Vancuren said. "The whole community is involved."
It did take a while - longer than everyone figured. The Rams crushed the Sandites 106-40 the last time they played, but this game was unexpectedly close. Owasso led 22-3 halfway through the first quarter, 30-11 at the start of the second quarter and 51-25 at halftime. But when Vancuren pulled his starters, Sand Springs started pressing and it was just 67-51 with five minutes left.
It was a big game for the No. 4-ranked Rams. Winning the season-finale against No. 6 Broken Arrow on Friday would give them the conference championship. So winning Tuesday had to be the first priority.
Still, the gym squirmed.
With five minutes left, a chant went up, "Put Nathan in!" At the 4:20 mark, another rose, louder: "NA-THAN! NA-THAN!"
When he stood up with 3:30 to play, the emotional dam burst.
Wearing his special Nike Zoom KD V shoes - a size 11, Thunder-blue and white gift from Sand Springs, stuffed in an orange Nike box signed by dozens of Sandites players and fans (Caleb Smith wrote, "If they don't fit, call me and we can fix that! PS, Get Buckets!") - Nathan launched a 3 from the left corner that just caught the rim. It was rebounded by John Cole Neph, who kicked it back out to Nathan at the top of the key.
He dribbled, twirled, stepped to the left elbow of the free throw line and elevated. His right leg kicked out, his left hand dropped, but the shot went through.
"I didn't know he had that in his game," Lowe said. "Nate's a baller, man. He's a baller."
The world was not big enough for the noise that ensued.
"I've never seen anything like that," Lowe said. "That was the loudest I've ever heard this gym. My ears were dying.
"I knew he was gonna score. I didn't know he was gonna do a little celebration dance, though. That was nice."
Nathan missed another 3 on his next trip down, but Lowe flew in and tossed it back out to him. This time, with 2:32 to play, it went in, and once again, the world was not big enough.
Really, you could see the cracks.
On the next trip, another 3, this one with 1:56. That was the topper. He made 3-of-8 shots for eight points in all.
When the clock expired, the OHS student body stampeded onto center court, where they raised Nathan on their shoulders.
"How can you end it any better?" Vancuren said. "You talk about a storybook ending. When you have your own student body lift you up on their shoulders at midcourt, chanting your name, you can't write it any better than that. It was perfect for him."
Afterwards, perhaps a bit sore from hundreds of backslaps, Nathan met reporters, smiling, chattering in his staccato, talking basketball.
His parents marveled.
"He's just out there doing what he loves to do," said his mom, Linda. "He got to feel like he can play ball, no matter what his disability is."
Said his dad, Bob, "These are the kind of moments that dreams are made of. For special needs adults, to go through all he's gone through - and here he just passes the physical yesterday!
"He earned the right to be on the team," Bob Mitcham continued, "one, by just being himself, and two - um, the boy can hoop. I'm sorry. The boy can hoop."
Sand Springs coaches and players deserve a sportsmanship ribbon for giving Nathan room to have his moment. But his dad is right - the boy can hoop.
A half-hour later, outside the locker room, the energy was still palpable. The Oklahoma City Thunder will welcome Nathan and his teammates on April 17 for a game against the New York Knicks. The Thunder gave him an OKC jersey, too, and he also received a replica jersey of his favorite player, Kobe Bryant.
But the jersey he'll always cherish the most is cardinal and white, number "25."
"Thank you," Bob Mitcham said to Vancuren as Nathan posed for pictures nearby. "I'll never forget you."
Nathan Mitcham pumps his fist as he celebrates with fans after Owasso's game with Sand Springs. Mitcham, who is mentally disabled, scored eight points in the game after dressing for the first time. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Nathan Mitcham lines up a shot during Tuesday's game at Owasso. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Nathan Mitcham (left) accepts a pair of basketball jerseys from Owasso coach Mark Vancuren before Tuesday's game at Owasso. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Nathan Mitcham gets a hug from Dacia Lyon after playing in Tuesday's game and scoring eight points. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World