The audacity of joy   

Updated: December 9, 2008, 3:26 PM ET

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BENTON, Ky. -- There's this kid in a wheelchair. He doesn't want for much. Always rolls around with a smile on his face. And a basketball on his lap.

The kid's family doesn't have much money -- and that's an understatement -- but like so many Americans in the wake of this financial meltdown, they aren't outwardly complaining, just struggling with pride.

At a basketball tournament, during halftime of one of the 10 games taking place on this day that many would say is the greatest day in high school basketball, the kid wheels himself out on the court.

The mission: Make four shots (a layup, a free throw, a 3-pointer and a shot from half court) in 30 seconds and win $1,000.

It's a near-impossible task that's been going on all night long; no one has gotten past the 3-pointer.

But the kid in the chair does not have to make all of the shots himself; he just has to make the first one. The other three shots are the responsibility of two other people.

Now this story is not about the kid in the wheelchair, a young man named Brock Etheridge who has spina bifida. It's not even about Jeff Sheppard, the former University of Kentucky sharpshooter who is on board to shoot the free throw and the 3-pointer.

This story is about the guy who has to shoot the half-court shot. His name is Nick Burton, and 'round these parts he's known as "Game Day."

He's a left-handed 18-year-old who apparently shot 45 percent from half court in high school whenever he had time to practice. The fact that Nick is left-handed is only mentioned because he has no use of his right hand or arm.

Game Day, you see, has cerebral palsy.

Earlier in the day, Game Day put on a little show for the crowd.

Assisted by his caretaker/manager Chad Ricketts, Game Day went 8-for-18 on half-court shots. At one point he sank five in a row. Then he had the nerve to turn around and sink one with his back to the basket, tossing the ball underhanded. It took him only five attempts to get one of those to drop.

But in the seven years Game Day has been doing this, he's never made it in one try. It's all been fun for him. A joy. But this is where the joy stopped, because knowing how bad the kid in the wheelchair and his family could use the money, Game Day made the kid a promise.

"I told him, 'I will hit this shot -- one shot, I will hit it. I will not let you down,'" Burton said, "Now, I've never hit my first shot. I've never done it in one try. But I couldn't tell that kid that. I've never had this much pressure on me to make a shot. I've taken over a thousand shots but none like this. I prayed. I prayed with the kid before we went out there."

How does someone with a lifetime disability find a way to feel the need to do something for someone else? How does someone without full use of the right side of his body make an impossible promise to make an impossible shot to someone who has a more debilitating handicap and is in no emotional position to have his heart broken? Especially when that promise is made by someone he wishes he was, whose shoes he wishes he could walk in … literally.

The clock starts.

The kid in the wheelchair quickly rolls up to the basket and tosses in a perfect layup off the glass. Sheppard grabs the ball out of the net and runs back to the free throw line. Release, swish. He grabs the ball, runs back to the 3-point line. Release, miss. Fifteen seconds. He runs faster, grabs the rebound, flies back to the 3-point line and adjusts his feet and shoulders. Release, swish.

He immediately grabs the ball as it falls through the net. Fifty-five hundred people are now standing and screaming in what could only be described as subtle hysteria, if there is such a thing. He tosses the ball to Game Day, who is standing exactly in the middle of the court. As the ball comes to him, Burton steps into the pass. Four seconds. With the same form he's developed over the years inside the Mount Vernon, Ind., high school gym where he's nurtured this gift as a craft, he releases the ball quickly after it touches his hand.

One shot. From one kid with a disability for another kid with a disability. The wherewithal of someone with a disability to see someone else's situation and realize that he could -- with God's help -- do something to make that other person happy, to make someone else's life better just by making a shot.

The audacity of joy.

All Game Day could say afterward as he wiped tears from his eyes was, "I kept my promise to the kid. I kept my promise."

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.


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