Player of the Game

Player of the Game

From A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Player of the Game

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Source Unknown

Senior Byron Houston, star forward on the Oklahoma State University basketball team, threw a final pass to Bryant Reeves and watched the gawky blond freshman slam the ball through the hoop. The two OSU Cowboys were winding up practice for that night’s home game against the University of California, Berkeley. Just then, they saw Cowboys coach Eddie Sutton walk toward the court with a man pushing a kid in a wheelchair.

“I want you to meet Scott Carter and his father, Mike,” the coach said, after calling the whole team over.

“Hi, guys,” the soon to be 12-year-old said brightly, waving a bony arm. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses too large for his pale, sunken face, and a baseball cap that covered his bald head. From beneath the sweatpant on his left leg jutted the plastic shank of an artificial limb.

Sutton explained that Scott had lost part of his leg to bone cancer. Then the coach asked Scott if he wanted to say anything to the team.

The players expected him to speak about his illness. Instead, Scott shrugged. “Well, I don’t know, Coach,” he said wryly. “My speech to the football team didn’t do them much good. They didn’t win a game all season!”

At first there was silence; then all the players roared with laughter. That is one gutsy kid, Houston thought.

Freshman Reeves, especially, was awed by Scott’s poise. The shy center had taken several minutes to stammer a reply to a question during his first press conference. He turned red-faced just thinking about the courage it took to talk in front of these athletes.

The youngest of three children, Scott had always loved sports, even though he wasn’t a natural athlete. He also adored fishing with his Grandfather Bo and Uncle Tom, both of whom had died. He lived in Tulsa with his father, who was a lawyer, and his mother, Paula.

When Scott first complained of pain in his left knee, the Carters assumed it was a sports injury. Later, when told their son had a malignant tumor and would need a complex operation to remove it, Mike and Paula began weeping. Scott looked at his parents, then turned to the doctor. “What I don’t understand,” he said in mock annoyance, “is why they’re doing all the crying. I’m the one with the bad leg.”

Scott’s irreverence continued through 10 months of stomach-wrenching chemotherapy. When asked how he felt after he awoke from the leg surgery, he responded: “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

A week after the Cowboys beat Berkeley that December night in 1991, the team was slated to play Wichita State University before a sellout crowd in the Cowboys’ stadium in Stillwater. Just before the tip-off, assistant coach Bill Self caught a glimpse of Mike Carter trying to squeeze his son into a crowded row. “Look,” he whispered to Sutton.

“If the kid wants to sit at the end of the players’ bench,” the coach said, “it’s okay by me.”

When Self relayed Sutton’s invitation, Scott bobbed up and down excitedly. Seated beside the team, the 12-year-old cheered boisterously. Then Byron Houston came off the court for a rest.

Growing up, Houston had spent his younger years on the tough streets of Kansas City, Kansas. Now a top-billed athlete, he kept his distance from fans and often from his teammates.

Scott began to needle Houston about having elbowed an opposing center. “You think you’re a bruiser, but you’re playing like a teddy bear.”

The young athlete tightened his jaw. Who was this sickly kid to judge his prowess? But then Houston caught Scott’s ironic grin.

“Watch out,” said Houston, kidding back. “You’re going to hate holding this teddy bear.”

After the game, OSU’s ninth straight victory, Sutton invited Scott to follow the athletes into the locker room. Running his hand across one player’s shaved head, Scott joked, “We must have the same barber.”

As Sutton watched how easily his Cowboys accepted Scott, a thought struck him. “You just may be our good-luck charm,” the trim, graying coach drawled. “How about sitting on the bench at all our home games?”

Scott’s eyes widened. For once, he was speechless.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” the coach said.

Soon a ritual was born. During one game, as Scott sat on the bench, a Cowboy leaving the court high-fived him. Then another player did. By early January, no Cowboy ever left without high-fiving Scott.

One night Scott and his father caught a post-game radio show. The sponsor named one of the Cowboys its “player of the game.”

“Dad, how about if we give out our own award?” Scott suggested. The two fashioned a certificate with the words “Scott’s Player of the Game” printed across the top. The award would go to the person who gave his team the best he could muster in a game. In the February loss to the University of Colorado, Scott watched sixth-man Cornell Hatcher make three steals and dubbed him the “Cowboy Burglar.” Another player was given the “Pine Time Award” for good humor on the bench. Players loved these awards, taping them up in their lockers and dormitory rooms.

By early February 1992, the Cowboys were ranked the No. 2 college basketball team in the country. Then scoring leader Byron Houston suffered a severe sprain. With Houston sidelined, the University of Missouri overran the Cowboys 6652, handing them their fourth straight loss.

Sutton knew that without Houston in the upcoming match against the University of Nebraska, the team would have a tough time. He sat Houston down before the game. “Do you think you’re up to playing?” he asked him.

“No,” the young athlete mumbled, fingering his swollen left ankle.

Scott wheeled his chair over to Houston, joking, “I guess I’ve got to suit up if you don’t play.” Houston chuckled, and then the irony hit him. His ankle was only sprained. This child was missing half a leg. He gave the boy a playful jab. “I’m going to play the greatest game— for you.”

When the final buzzer sounded that evening, OSU had whipped Nebraska 7251. Few would have guessed by the 17 points he scored that Byron Houston was in constant pain.

Scott Carter wheeled himself into the post-game locker room. “Tonight’s Player of the Game award goes to a guy who doesn’t quit, no matter how hard things get,” Scott said. “I admire him because he cares about his team and he’s my friend.” On the certificate, in a 12-year-old’s scrawl, was the name Byron Houston.

Tears in his eyes, Houston walked up to the boy. “Thank you,” he mumbled, then retreated quickly from the limelight.

A week later, after the Cowboys’ last home game of the season, as Houston jogged off the court to a standing ovation, the graduating senior finally uttered what he had not been able to say in the locker room. Wrapping a long, muscular arm around the frail boy and weeping openly, he whispered in Scott’s ear, “I love you, buddy.” Scott responded, “I love you too.”

It was a hopeful time for Scott. He was getting around on crutches. Lung and bone scans had revealed no new tumors, although he did appear to have a small spinal fracture. If Scott remained tumor-free, doctors promised, he could quit chemotherapy, even go swimming and fishing again.

Then Scott’s doctor called Paula. “That area on your son’s spine isn’t a fracture but a malignant tumor.” Scott would need a painful operation, followed by six months in a neck-to-hip body brace, and more chemotherapy and radiation.

Paula had always tried to urge Scott to be upbeat about his condition. He took the news with a simple nod of the head. But when Paula continued to cry, he hugged her and then shook a finger in motherly imitation. “Now, Mom, we can’t be un-positive about this.”

Scott took refuge in the plight of others. One day, seeing a trembling boy being lifted into a wheelchair at the hospital entrance, he said to Paula, “Next time somebody says they will pray for me, I’m going to tell them to pray for him. I’ll be all right.”

Paula and Mike often talked to their children about God and heaven. At every turn, Scott demonstrated a kindness and concern for others that convinced the Carters he understood there was more to life than fulfilling one’s selfish needs.

The news of Scott’s latest tumor hit the Cowboys hard. Their sadness deepened when they learned that surgeons hadn’t been able to remove all of it, since doing so would have risked leaving Scott paraplegic.

Coach Sutton longed to do something special for
Scott. One day an idea struck him. He ordered a Cowboy practice uniform, in Scott’s size, to be shipped to the boy.

“I guess this means I’m really a Cowboy!” Scott said when he called Sutton.

“You’ll always be a Cowboy, Son,” Sutton assured him. “You’ve got a warrior’s spirit.”

No one was more dazzled by Scott’s continued good humor than Bryant Reeves. Now that Houston had graduated, the shy blond center had become the Cowboys’ star player. But as confident as he was on the court, the sophomore was still agonizingly reticent elsewhere.

On a frosty night in late February 1993, the Cowboys played Missouri. Back in the hospital, Scott was watching the game on TV. With the team trailing 64-61 with two seconds left, Reeves had been told to tip the ball to either wing, where guards would try for a long three-pointer. Instead, Reeves reached for the ball and turned toward the hoop. Just as the buzzer sounded, the ball swished through the net. Reeves’ incredible 45-foot shot sent the game into overtime, and the Cowboys won 77-73. In that giddy moment, Reeves felt possessed of the same courage and confidence he’d seen in Scott. He wished he could tell him how he felt, but of course the boy wasn’t there.

Weeks later, Reeves sat quietly at the head table in the student union center as the annual basketball banquet— with 600 fans, reporters and players’ families—was coming to a close. The task before him was perhaps the hardest of his life.

Sutton stepped to the podium and announced, “Bryant Reeves has something he’d like to say.”

Standing at the podium, hearing nothing in the terrifying silence but an occasional tinkling of glasses, the shy athlete took a deep breath and tried to focus his mind. Then, as he looked beyond the spotlights, he saw Scott, with his family, smiling up at him.

“Scott Carter is an inspiration to every player on this team,” said Reeves, his voice trembling. “I’d like to thank him for showing me what determination is all about.”

Reeves beckoned the boy to the dais. As Scott slipped his crutches under his arms and began to walk, Reeves lifted a basketball from underneath the podium. Scribbled across it were Reeves’ autograph and the words “Oklahoma State versus Missouri, Feb. 24, 1993, the Big Shot.’”

“I want you to have the ball I used to make that shot against Missouri,” the athlete said. “Nobody deserves it more.”

Scott, balanced on his crutches, fell into the huge athlete’s arms. As Reeves fought back tears, the room erupted into a standing ovation.

In early October 1993, a bone scan revealed new tumors growing around Scott’s spine, threatening to choke off his spinal cord. This would end his intense pain, but also destroy all sensation from the waist down. More tumors were found in his lungs and brain.

“It’s over,” the doctors told his parents. “He’s likely to die before Thanksgiving.”

The fear that had beat in Mike’s and Paula’s hearts from the moment they first heard the word cancer had now come to pass. They were being asked to summon the strength to say good-bye.

As Mike and Paula broke the news to Scott, the frail teenager listened quietly. When he finally spoke, he didn’t mention all the things he wouldn’t be able to do—graduate from high school, marry, become a father—but the one thing he would do. “I’ll get to see Uncle Tom again in heaven,” he said. “I’ll get to fish with him and Grandfather Bo.”

On Thanksgiving Day, vans started pulling up in front of the Carters’ house in Tulsa. “You won’t believe who’s at the door!” Paula called out to her son, now confined to a bed in the family room. Scott smiled as one by one the Cowboys, their coaches and their families filed through the Carters’ hallway.

Permanently paralyzed from the waist down, Scott’s body was bloated from heavy doses of steroids. Drugs to control brain tumor seizures slowed his speech. Yet the old Scott shone through. “You’d better win tomorrow night,” he told Reeves, “because I’m going to be there to make sure you do.”

The next evening, despite a packed house, one seat remained empty—at the end of the Cowboys’ bench. Throughout the first half of their game against Providence College, the Cowboys played mechanically.

Sutton shook his head. It had been foolish to hope that Scott could make the game. Still, he wished he could share one more win with the kid.

Then, beneath the crowd’s roar, Sutton detected the squeak of a wheelchair. He turned and saw Mike Carter pushing Scott toward the court. Scott, no longer able to sit up, was stretched out in a reclining wheelchair, his head propped to view the game. The Cowboys on the court sensed it immediately: Scott’s here. Now they would be playing for him. OSU beat Providence 113-102. Senior guard Brooks Thompson scored a career-high 33 points. And Scott got in a final barb. “Pretty good game,” he said to Thompson. “But why’d you miss that last shot?”

Then Scott did something he’d been doing for more than two seasons, though now it took every ounce of his energy. As each player passed him on the way to the shower, the boy lifted his pale, bony hand high in the air. One by one, every Cowboy spread open a sweaty palm and high-fived him.

It would be their last time. On December 2, 1993, minutes before the tip-off against Arizona State, Scott, surrounded by his parents and brother and sister, stopped breathing. At his side was a plaque with a Biblical verse from 2 Timothy 4:7. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord . . . will award to me on that day.”

Scott was buried in a black OSU warm-up uniform beside a creek like the one he had fished with his uncle and grandfather. “He’s in a better place,” Paula and Mike Carter told a red-eyed Coach Sutton and the Cowboys— Scott’s honorary pallbearers.

In the months to come, when Coach Sutton became depressed thinking about the empty spot on his bench, when he caught a player looking glum, he reminded the team of Scott’s awards. The Player of the Game, he told them, was the person who offered up his last ounce of breath no matter how defeating the odds. He was the player who valued his team, his fans and his faith in God too much to quit.

Scott Carter, he told them, would forever be his model for Player of the Game.

Suzanne Chazin

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