- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
ARLINGTON, Texas -- It was an ordinary Sunday, a boring Sunday, when Texas graduate Larry Connolly sat down at his computer and wrote the e-mail that would change his son's life.
"At the improbable chance that you will respond to this," Larry wrote, "I felt that it was worth the effort to contact you because as a parent, I'm running out of resources."
For years, Larry had tried everything to help his son lose weight and shape his body: weekly swimming sessions, tennis lessons, lengthy meetings with the pediatrician.
Nothing worked. Silas Connolly was 5-foot-7 and weighed more than 220 pounds.
And he was 12.
Out of ideas and nearly out of hope, Larry dashed off the e-mail.
"I have been an attentive follower of Dexter Pittman's metamorphosis and sort of wish he'd adopt my son so he could be inspired to follow his extraordinary example," wrote Larry, before pressing send on that December day back in 2007.
A thousand miles away in California, Todd Wright was standing on the Pauley Pavilion court when his Blackberry vibrated, alerting him he had a message.
As Texas prepared to play UCLA, the Longhorns' strength and conditioning coach quickly glanced down at the message and then typed out the three words that would change everything:
"Call me tomorrow."
Wright's ability to transform Pittman and Pittman's dedication to remolding his body has been well-documented and rightly applauded.
But the Texas duo's real success story lies in the newfound spirit of a teenager.
Two years ago, Silas Connolly spent the days being teased by classmates and the nights uncomfortable in his own skin. He wouldn't look people in the eye and slumped his shoulders, unconsciously trying to shrink himself so he'd be less conspicuous.
Two weeks ago, Silas Connolly walked, shoulders erect and proud, into an Arlington-area restaurant, smiled, stuck out his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Silas."
"I feel comfortable," he said. "I don't feel like I have to worry about things anymore, about what people are going to say. Because of Todd and Dexter, I know who I am."
And then Silas said the six words that would bring any parent to their knees with gratitude.
"And I like who I am."
The most merciless place in the world is a middle school hallway.
Dexter Pittman can attest to that. He was the big kid who was too sweet to defend himself, a combination of the kind nature of his mother Selma and the 7-foot frame of his father Johnny, who played hoops at Oklahoma State.
"Oh, it was bad," Selma said. "Kids kids are awful. They'd call him fat and say he couldn't run up and down the court. It was very hard on him."
In his heart, Pittman believed what his beloved grandmother, Faye Harris, told him -- to ignore the people who said he'd be a nobody because she knew he'd be something special. But it was hard. He was a kid. And like every kid, Pittman craved nothing more than to be like everyone else.
Except he wasn't. He was the worst thing a kid could be in a kid's eyes: He was different.
Pittman grew so self-conscious about his size, he'd scrunch his feet into shoes too small in hopes that people would stop laughing at his oversized sneakers.
An immovable force in the low post who scored 1,154 points in his high school career, Pittman was pushing 400 pounds by the time he graduated. He looked more like an offensive lineman, but Texas coach Rick Barnes saw the fluidity of movement lost in the big man's bulk. Pittman ran on his toes, not with the heavy-footedness typical of someone his size, and he slid from block to block with such ease and grace that Barnes knew he had a diamond in the rough.
He also knew he had a secret weapon.
Wright looks like a typical strength coach -- his neck is approximately the size of a normal person's thigh. His voice, thanks to a Boston accent that won't leave him 16 years after moving out of Massachusetts, only reinforces the tough-guy veneer.
But Wright is no lunkhead, giddily and mindlessly shoving weights on a bar to cut muscles into someone's unsculpted arms.
He and Barnes met more than 16 years ago at Clemson, where the two shared an office before Barnes became head coach. Wright would drive the coach nuts with questions as Barnes broke down film. What do you want this guy to do? What are you looking for on that play? Barnes thought Wright was trying to be a coach.
In fact, he was trying to figure out how to do his job better. His goal wasn't just to make his athletes fit, but to fit their skills for how coaches wanted them to play. If Barnes wanted someone to jump higher, Wright would design the players' workouts toward explosiveness. If a kid needed strength, Wright would target the weights.
In Pittman, Wright found his biggest project.
"When coach introduced us, I wasn't sure," Wright said. "I could tell he had unbelievable potential, but would he commit to the program? He did. He did it."
Under Wright's tutelage, Pittman rose each day at 5:30 a.m. for grueling workouts and reconstructed his entire diet. Out went the fried food and soda.
In came a dedication to eating right, so extreme that Pittman would call Wright from area restaurants and read off the menu choices.
As the weight came off, out came a new person, the person Faye Harris knew was hidden in her grandson, the person Selma Harris worried would never emerge.
"I knew he had so much to offer," Selma said. "I just didn't know if he'd ever feel good enough about himself so others could see it."
Pittman now weighs around 285. His body-fat percentage, measured in the summer of 2006 at 41.6 percent, is down to 13.5 percent. As his weight has gone down, his stats have risen steadily. The 6-foot-10 senior is second on the second-ranked Longhorns in scoring (13.6 ppg) and rebounding (6.5 rpg) and leads in blocks (24).
He is not only a better basketball player because of the weight loss, but his stamina has improved to the point that he recently played 26 minutes in a run-and-gun game against North Carolina without issue. Oh, and he contributed 23 points and 15 rebounds in the Longhorns' 103-90 victory. There is little doubt that he has moved himself onto the radar of NBA scouts.
But if you ask him about his changes, Pittman won't talk about the points, rebounds or basketball productivity.
He'll tell a story about walking out of a recent Texas women's volleyball game and, as he crossed the parking lot, watching a man stop his car.
"He put the car in park and got out. Stopped traffic," Pittman said. "And he walks up to me and just says, 'I just want to shake your hand. You've been an inspiration to me.' You can't imagine how that makes me feel."
No longer self-conscious, Pittman proudly shed his shirt in Maui when the Longhorns played there last year and now boasts about his size.
As he walked through a revolving door at a Dallas hotel recently, three pint-size preteens circled in behind him.
"Oh my God, are you a basketball player?" they asked. "You're like three of me. How tall are you?"
Pittman laughed and patiently answered their questions.
"Before, I was missing a part of life," Pittman said. "I would walk around with my head down and wouldn't talk to anyone. I was embarrassed. When I lost the weight, I became a different person. I used to hate being in public. Now I love it. I love talking to people. Would that have happened if I hadn't lost the weight? I don't think so. I think I would be shut out from the world, antisocial and unhealthy."
The day Dexter Pittman met Silas Connolly, it was like stepping back in time.
"Why did I want to help him?" Pittman asked. "Because I was him. I was that kid. All you want to do is fit in, wear the same clothes and the same shoes. You hate being different. When I first met Silas, his confidence level was so low and so was his self-esteem. He was just like I was."
Just like Pittman, who used to change in the depths of the Texas locker room to avoid being seen by his teammates, Silas never shucked his T-shirt at swimming pools.
Much like Pittman, Silas would leave school demoralized, his self-esteem taking a daily beating from rounds of cruel teasing.
"You can tell a lot by a person's posture," Larry Connolly said, "and I'd pick him up after school and think, 'Something has to be done. This isn't healthy.'"
And just like Pittman, Silas ached to be someone else, someone "normal."
Silas' only outlet was on the stage. He loved being in school plays, a stunningly public place for a kid so self-conscious.
Except to Silas it made perfect sense: "That was the only place I was comfortable," he said, "because I could be somebody else."
Larry tried everything. He watched TV's "The Biggest Loser" for tips and then coaxed Silas into every fitness activity he thought might work. At his father's insistence, the preteen developed healthier eating habits than his older sister.
But Larry also knew for a change to really stick, it would have to come from Silas. And for Silas to be inspired, he'd have to hear it from someone other than his father.
A meeting with a doctor drove him to the breaking point. Silas went in with an Achilles injury and the doctor -- not the family's regular pediatrician -- spent the entire session lecturing father and son on physical activity and eating habits, presuming Silas was a video game-playing, junk food-eating kid, when in fact he was anything but.
So on that Sunday, a desperate Larry wrote to Wright.
He didn't expect a response.
But Wright was so moved that he not only wrote back; two years later, he still has the e-mail.
"Why did I write back? Because I'm a parent," Wright said. "I could hear how desperate he was in his letter and I told him, 'I wish every parent loved their kids as much as you loved your son.'"
Wright invited Larry and Silas to campus a few days after the UCLA game and, with one sentence, turned everything Silas had heard and believed about his size on its ear.
"He told us that Silas was genetically gifted," said Larry, his voice cracking and his eyes turning red as he recalled that first meeting. "All those years, we had never heard that before. He said Silas' size was a gift. Can you imagine?"
At first Wright offered some basic training advice, suggesting Silas do something -- anything -- physical for at least 15 minutes a day. Then he introduced him to Pittman.
Pittman told him his own story -- how he, too, was teased, ridiculed and humiliated as a kid. And most importantly, how he felt about himself now.
Suddenly, Silas, a kid who would bring a book to basketball games, turned into a gym rat. Every day for six months, Silas went to the local gym to play basketball, often by himself.
The 15 minutes a day turned into 40 minutes, the 40 minutes into hours.
"I didn't even like sports before," Silas said. "I was just inspired by Dexter. I wanted to do what he did."
A switch to a new middle school, where Silas could start fresh -- coupled with constant contact from Pittman and Wright -- motivated Silas enough to learn the intricacies of the game.
Some instruction turned his original two-handed heave into a decent shot, and the decent shot landed him a spot on the middle-school team and a local select team, the Austin Wildcats.
"When I first started, I wouldn't talk to anyone," Silas said. "I was scared they would make fun of me. But it was like Dexter told me, to just be proud of who I was, so I started talking to people and they were so nice."
It's hard to know who has inspired whom more.
In Dexter, Silas found a role model who understood him.
In Silas, Dexter found a purpose.
"I have this dream," Pittman said. "If I make it in the NBA one day and I'm a millionaire, I'll have kids like Silas -- kids like I used to be -- over to my house, spend time with them and help them. This isn't about basketball. I want to make a difference in people's lives. It's like there are fireworks going off inside my head. I'm just scratching the surface on who I can be."
The sincerity in his words is backed by his actions. His was no one-time meeting with Silas. The two exchange e-mails or messages on Facebook regularly. As Pittman talked on a recent evening, he scrolled through his phone, reading the messages Silas and Larry send him.
Silas and Larry know everyone will want a number: How much weight has Silas lost? A lot, they both agree, but it's hard to quantify because, while he's been exercising and eating better, he's also grown. He's 14 now and already 6 feet tall.
Besides, to them, anyone who focuses solely on how much Silas weighs is missing the point.
His success can't be measured by what the scale says.
His success flourishes in the normalcy of the everyday.
The kid who once was ashamed of his size has no problem telling you he wears a size 17 shoe now (his sneakers, by the way, have Pittman's No. 34 etched on the ankle). And he will laugh when asked where he finds his shoes: "BigShoes.com, of course."
The bookworm who never felt athletic enough to compete not only is playing basketball, but the football coach at Austin's Westlake High -- where Silas will enroll next fall -- is already after him to play, and Silas is seriously considering it.
The kid who loved to lose his identity on stage is still acting, but recently he really put himself out there, taking the lead as a porcupine in "The Princess and the Porcupine."
And the kid who was teased and ridiculed? He has friends -- tons and tons of friends.
In other words, he's a kid.
A happy, healthy, normal kid.
"As parents, it's like the old Army ad: All you want is for them to be all they can be," Larry said. "I was worried Silas would never be all he could.
"It wasn't about weight loss. It was about confidence and liking himself. I'm not sure what would have happened without Todd and Dexter. I just don't know. I just know that they are heroes to us real heroes."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
7dESPN The Magazine