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Eleven freshman boys are spread across the locker room floor after their basketball game, sitting and listening to coach Ryan Hintz talk about their 30 point victory over the SM North Indians. He goes into detail about all the things done well, and finishes with possible improvements. Just as he is wrapping up, a small voice in the back pipes up.
Freshman manager Hunter Bickers makes his way to the front. Hintz, surprised, said, “Well, uh, sure. Everybody turn your attention to Hunter.”
Beaming, Hunter turns around and looks at the team, and then enters into his speech. “First of all guys,” he said. “Great game, awesome job!”
Immediately the room erupts into cheers and hollering, and high fives are traded from player to player.
“I am so proud of you guys,” Hunter continues. “Way to kick some butt. You know guys, if you can play like that, as well as you did, every game, we’re gonna dominate this season.”
Giving his famous speeches and pumping the team up has always been Hunter’s favorite part of his job, and although he more than enjoys working as manager for both A and B teams, it’s not a true substitute for being able to play on the team. What holds Hunter back is his mild cerebral palsy. He was diagnosed with the palsy when he was born–doctors predicted he would never be able to walk. Although he struggled with walking as a young child, he managed to prove them wrong.
When Hunter was in elementary school, he had problems with extremely tight muscles and temporary inability to walk. Depending on how good his legs were feeling, he would switch between a wheelchair, and special boots that gave him support but allowed walking at the same time.
“Hunter has gained quite a bit of mastery over his cerebral palsy,” Hunter’s father, Patrick Bickers, said. “He has learned to go around many obstacles. But as a child, he walked unsteadily and frequently fell if he tried to run.”
After struggling with little things like walking up stairs, running and riding a bike his whole life, naturally, Hunter gets frustrated some days.
“I usually end up thinking to myself ‘When is this gonna end? This is ridiculous. I’m so sick of this,” Hunter said. “Then after being mad all day, I’ll start thinking and realize that I will be in this wheelchair for maybe four or six weeks, while there are people out there who have the same thing I have, who will be in wheelchairs for their entire lives. Then, I tell myself to be glad that it’s not me, and to be thankful for what I do have.”
One of the worst parts of growing up with cerebral palsy for Hunter was the load of teasing that came with it. Patrick’s most significant memory of Hunter being teased goes back to when he was nine or ten.
“In the fourth grade, name-calling was getting so frequent and upsetting that I telephoned his teacher and the principal about it,” Patrick said. “Unfortunately both of them said, in effect, ‘Boys will be boys,’ and threw up their hands. That was an eye-opener for me as a parent.”
Although Hunter admits to a lower level of teasing since grade school, he still gets a decent amount today.
“Whenever I get teased, I always say to myself, ‘You know what Hunter? It’s not you. Odds are, they’re making fun of you because they think its funny, or they’re trying to make themselves look cool,” Hunter said.
After long days whenever he feels stressed or angry, Hunter’s one escape is music.
“I plug in my iPod, and it just calms me down,” Hunter said. “It just keeps me cool. My favorites are the Beatles, Altarbridge, Shinedown, Disturbed, the Monkeys and Queen.”
At the end of the day, the one thing that he always comes back to is basketball. Hunter knew from the start that he wanted to tryout for the team in November. He grew up shooting hoops after school in his backyard for hours on end, and watching KU basketball with his dad during the week.
“I’ve just always loved the sport. I knew I wasn’t the best at it, but I really wanted to try out,” Hunter said.
When the big day came, Hunter was nervous. Even though he had practiced his lay-ups and free throws for weeks, he still had the jitters.
“I was very nervous the first day, but it got less each time,” Hunter said. “I wasn’t very confident in my skills, but I knew I was giving it 110 percent every time. That’s one thing you can count on with me. I never, ever will give less than 100 percent.”
During tryouts, it was obvious to the players and coaches that Hunter put out the most effort of anybody there. For freshman A coach Ryan Hintz, Hunter’s efforts truly stuck out to him on the last day of tryouts.
“During the hardest part of tryouts when some of the other kids sat out, Hunter tripped and fell and his glasses came off,” Hintz said. “He ran over to get his glasses, put them on and then started sprinting again. Quitting never even crossed his mind. He won my respect right there.”
Three days passed, and finally the lists were posted. Hunter’s eyes scanned the pages multiple times, and to his disappointment, didn’t find his name.
“I was disappointed at first, but it all changed one day at lunch,” Hunter said.
Hunter is sitting with his friends at their table when, unexpectedly, varsity coach Shawn Hair approaches.
“Hey Hunter,” Hair said. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
The first thing that pops into Hunter’s head is, ‘What did I do?’ Despite his hesitation, he agrees and goes off to the corner to talk.
“So I talked to the freshman coaches,” Hair said, “And they said they really loved how hard you worked and your perseverance. They want to know if you want to be their team manager.”
Hunter gladly accepted the offer, and was told that the first practice was that night at seven.
“At first I was a little nervous, especially when coach was introducing me to the team,” Hunter said. “But as he was talking, my face just grew into a huge grin. I tried to hide it because I didn’t want to seem too excited.”
“I was happy for him when I found out he was manager,” freshman basketball player Sage Thomson said. “I knew he really wanted to make the team…so this way he had a part in it.”
As a manager, Hunter’s prime duties are working the clock when the boys do their sprints, filming their games, each including his own commentary, and even joining in a scrimmage as an all-time defender, if he’s lucky. Hunter is unique in where he takes each little job and does it to the best of his ability.
Thirty minutes before the home game and five minutes before coach gets there, Hunter arrives and is headed down to the basketball offices. He scrounges through piles of equipment to find ten water bottles and three towels. After filling each bottle and wetting down one of the towels, his preparations are done. Finally, Hunter heads upstairs and meets up with the rest of the players.
“Hunter’s really fun during the games,” Thomson said. “He gets really excited. He jumps up and down and screams until he starts coughing.”
“I love going to games just because I get to see how it has all paid off,” Hunter said. “In practice you get to see them working so hard, and in games you get to see them just clobber the other guys.”
Hunter loves his job, without question. Sometimes, though, in the back of his head, he still dreams of actually making it to the court.
Hunter plans to try out again next year, and shoot for making the team, although he may change his mind before then. If things fall the right way and Hunter decides to try out, Patrick will support him the whole way.
“I encourage Hunter to follow his heart.” Patrick said. “If he wants to try out next year, I’m behind him 100 percent and I’ll practice with him all summer, if he wants.”
But for now, Hunter is content with where he is. He’s met many different types of people and made many different friends. According to Patrick, the whole experience has been more than rewarding.
“Hunter enjoys being part of the team, and enjoys the camaraderie with the other boys,” Patrick said. “He’s learning any team or groups of people needs more than “stars” to succeed. They need people who will come to the task every day and give their best effort. Hunter does that.”