‘The whole gym just erupted’
By ANDREW McGINN
When Kourtlin Thacker got the ball and put up a shot during Paton-Churdan’s basketball season opener, it was like watching a Cinderella team about to knock off a top seed during March Madness or witnessing a buzzer beater in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
The crowd that night in Churdan looked on with just that kind of nervous anticipation.
It hardly mattered that the Rockets were so far up on Southeast Webster on Dec. 3 that two more points wouldn’t have made a difference.
But when the ball swished effortlessly — literally nothing but net — it seemed the only one who wasn’t surprised was Kourtlin Thacker.
The Paton-Churdan sophomore, who has Down syndrome, sank the shot and instinctively hustled back down the court to play defense.
The gym erupted.
“It’s one of those goose-bump, hair-raising things that sends chills down your spine,” head coach Chris Stimson said, recalling Kourtlin’s shot that helped make the final score 77 to 46.
“Three-fourths of the crowd was crying,” added Annie Smith, principal at Paton-Churdan Community School. “I couldn’t hold back the tears. Just tears of utter joy.”
For Kourtlin, it was the first shot he ever attempted as a member of the varsity Rockets squad.
“It was priceless,” explained Karibeth Baker, Kourtlin’s mom. “I was so proud.
“I was just starstruck.”
With the 2013-14 season just barely under way, though, there are plenty of games left for Kourtlin to work his special kind of magic.
Whether he actually scores again is irrelevant.
“He’s a positive, positive influence in our school system,” Stimson said.
Kourtlin, 17, is the first Paton-Churdan student in recent memory, according to Smith, to have Down syndrome, the instantly recognizable genetic disorder that causes cognitive delays.
To say that the student body has embraced him — and the extra chromosome that makes him so unique — is pretty much an understatement.
“It’s such a positive experience for everyone involved,” Smith said.
On March 21, Paton-Churdan celebrated World Down Syndrome Day for the first time, Smith said, and will again in 2014.
But as a hard-core basketball fan — Kobe is his guy and the Lakers are his team — Kourtlin was practically destined to earn a spot on the Rockets’ hoops squad.
“He loves basketball,” Baker, his mom, said. “We have a half-court and a hoop at home. He’s out there every spare minute that he can.”
To acclimate him to the team, Baker and her husband, Corey Baker, along with Smith and Coach Stimson, decided it would be best to use what they call “stepping stones.”
“It wasn’t a question of ‘could he.’ It was just a matter of how we’re going to do it,” Smith said.
Last season, Kourtlin served as the team manager — mainly just to see whether his attention could hold out, his mom explained.
“He had to make a few concession stand runs,” she confessed.
This season, Kourtlin suits up for home games.
“It’s given him a huge sense of pride,” Baker said.
When asked how it makes him feel to put on his basketball uniform, Kourtlin flashed two thumbs up.
Being on the team is actually working wonders for Kourtlin.
His parents moved to Greene County from Boone on word that Paton-Churdan would be a good fit for their eldest son, whose condition affects one in every 691 babies annually in the U.S.
The life expectancy for someone with Down syndrome has risen dramatically — from just 25 in 1983 to 60 today.
Communication, which has been an obstacle for Kourtlin in school, is improving ever since joining the team, Smith said.
Behavioral problems also have lessened at both school and home.
“I thought it was a great opportunity for him to get some time on the court to reward that behavior,” Stimson said, describing how Kourtlin came off the bench during the Rockets’ recent season opener.
He took to the court again during P-C’s win over Exira-EHK on Dec. 10.
“He loves being around the kids and the kids love having him around on the team,” Stimson said.
Looking ahead to spring, Kourtlin is now thinking about running track, too.
“Seeing him go through his daily struggles and still bring that lightheartedness to the team,” Stimson explained, “that’s one guy I can look at and it brings things back to reality.
“His personality just lights up a room.”