LA PINE — Matthew Stone watches the basketball action intently from the end of the La Pine bench as the Hawks engage in a tightly contested game against Klamath Union.
He shouts words of encouragement as he looks on, joins the team huddle during timeouts, and even confers with the coaches at the end of the first half.
When a 3-point shot at the end of the game rims out for the visiting Pelicans, Matthew is on his feet celebrating the Hawks’ 68-65 win.
Matthew, a La Pine High School senior with Down syndrome and a leukemia survivor, is serving as a “guest coach” for the boys basketball team this season.
Six years ago, Matthew played on a sixth-grade team with many of the current La Pine players. While the others’ skills continued to progress after that season, Matthew’s did not, so he stopped playing competitively.
But he never lost his love for basketball.
Matthew’s parents, Jim and Pat Stone, asked La Pine coach Kent Wieber before this season if their son could help out the team in some way.
Wieber, who had coached that sixth-grade team and has coached many of the current La Pine players since kindergarten, did not hesitate. He brought on Matthew for all home games this season.
“Even though he’s a little different, he’s valuable, and my guys understand that so we try to include him in things,” Wieber says.
Dressed in a short-sleeved plaid shirt, a blue tie and black-framed glasses, Matthew, 18, is all smiles after the Hawks’ victory over the Pelicans.
Asked what it is like to be part of the team, Matthew responds: “Really fun!” He also shares some advice for the La Pine players: “Pass and shoot. And don’t give up, and just keep going.”
Matthew says his favorite players on the team are “Sam and Adam.” That would be Samuel Wieber, the coach’s son, and Adam Ramirez.
“He stays positive the whole time and he just keeps us positive,” Adam says of Matthew. “None of us want to get on each other in front of Matthew.”
Adam, also a senior, will likely always be special to Matthew. In sixth grade, he helped make a moment in Matthew’s life that neither will ever forget. Kent Wieber still talks about it.
By the last game of that sixth-grade season, the team decided it would do something special for Matthew, whose physical abilities were further weakened by chemotherapy as he battled a type of leukemia. He had played a minute or two in each game, but he had yet to score a single point. For that final game, his teammates came up with a plan.
Near the end of the game, which was played at Bend’s Sky View Middle School, Adam dribbled toward Matthew and handed him the ball, coach Wieber recalls. Adam grabbed one of the Sky View defenders and shouted to Matthew, “Go!” Then Matthew drove with the ball toward the basket, and the Sky View players all stepped out of the way for Matthew, who made a layup.
“It was amazing,” Adam recalls. “I’ve never seen somebody’s face light up so much after a basketball game. It was crazy. It was unexplainable. People were crying on the sideline.”
Kent Wieber says he hopes to tell that story again during the commencement ceremony for the La Pine senior class in June.
“Sky View was very classy in handling that situation,” Wieber says. “Those boys understood, and they moved out of the way. You don’t see that very often anymore.”
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes a host of problems, including abnormal growth and delayed development. Pat and Jim Stone learned that their son had the disorder shortly after he was born.
When they took the infant Matthew, their fourth and last child, for a routine checkup at two weeks, the doctor noticed that something was not right. A blood test confirmed the doctor’s suspicions.
The Stones — who have lived in La Pine for about 25 years now and have five grandchildren — were determined from the start to give Matthew many opportunities in his life.
“We’ve always had to push against the system, if you will,” Jim says. “From the beginning, we wanted to find out what HE could do, not what a book said he could do. We wanted him to find his limit, not put the limit on him.”
Basketball was always a way for Matthew to be part of the crowd. Pat says the entire La Pine community has embraced her son.
“Everyone is his friend,” says the proud mother. “We’re known as ‘Matthew’s parents.’ It’s just very comforting to know he has a place … to know that he has a life ahead, not simply just where he’s going to be existing. He’s got involvement, he’s got support, he’s got friendships.”
Jim notes that Matthew — a die-hard Oregon State Beaver fan — spends hours on the Internet researching trick basketball plays that he tries to teach himself. He is also interested in parkour, a form of free-running in which practitioners use their bodies and surroundings to propel themselves over obstacles.
Matthew reads at a second-grade level, according to Pat, and he recently overcame tunnel vision through vision therapy.
In August 2005, when he was 10, Matthew was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a serious blood cancer that occurs more frequently in people with Down syndrome, according to the National Institutes of Health.
After 3½ years of chemotherapy, at age 13, Matthew was finally cancer-free. And he has remained so for the past five years.
“It’s the absolute worst cancer treatment,” Pat Stone recalls. “It was nonstop. There was not a day he was not on a chemo drug.”
Jim Stone is retired from the U.S. Forest Service, and Pat has been working as a cashier at the La Pine Bi-Mart store for the past four years.
“All of his (Matthew’s) cancer treatment depleted our savings,” Pat says, “but we’re making it out of the tunnel, finally.”
After graduation, Matthew will continue at La Pine High School in a transitions program until he is 21. The ultimate goal is for him to finish with a job in place, Pat explains.
“School is awesome,” Matthew beams.
Wieber, the coach, says the Life Skills program at La Pine High is “very strong.”
“All the kids understand that they’re valuable human beings even though they have some disabilities,” Wieber observes.
Adam says he likes seeing Matthew being active and involved with the basketball team.
“He does everything he can, really, he just wants to be a part of it,” Adam says. “He gets us water on breaks. He’s always cheering, and he always gives us a halftime speech: ‘Don’t give up,’ every time, every time.”
Matthew speaks from experience. He will never give up — because no one has ever given up on him.
— Reporter: 541-383-0318, firstname.lastname@example.org .