Basketball practice at UD Arena was over and Devon Scott had caught a ride back to his campus dorm with an older teammate.
Although he lives at Marianist Hall with fellow Dayton Flyers freshman Dyshawn Pierre, he promptly padded down to another room at the end of the hall wearing sandals and socks, knocked twice on the door and walked in.
“Hey dude, wassup?” he said as he walked over to Tyler Heckman, exchanged a fist bump and then flopped down on Tyler’s bed, just beneath a pair of taekwondo medals and a black belt framed and hanging on the wall.
Minutes later Pierre came in, exchanged a quick greeting with Tyler and joined the conversation.
Although it might not seem as if the trio has much in common, they all are teenagers away from home for the first time – Scott is from Columbus, Pierre from Canada, Heckman from Centerville and Alter High School – and all three draw second looks on campus.
“Tyler’s at the opposite end of the spectrum, but he’s the same as us, too,” Scott said. “People stare at us all the time because of how big we are and I’m pretty sure he gets the same looks for opposite reasons. I can kind of relate.”
The bearded Scott is 6-foot-9. Pierre is 6-foot-6.
Tyler said he can never quite remember: “I’m either 3-foot-9 or maybe 3-11.”
Size does matter on the basketball court and when you’re trying to reach a beaker on the back of a science lab counter, but it didn’t mean so much the other night in Tyler’s dorm room.
This is a story of an unexpected friendship of three guys, all of whom are on scholarship.
Scott and Pierre, both starters for the Flyers, have full athletic rides. Heckman, a biology major, has some financial help thanks to Father Chaminade, Virginia W. Kettering and Kettering Rotary Club scholarships.
Each of the trio was honored in high school, as well.
At Columbus Northland, Scott was All-Ohio and ranked the No. 6 senior prospect in the state by ESPN. Pierre set school records in Whitby, Ontario, with 3,566 career points and 1,793 rebounds and was Team Canada’s leading scorer in the world championships in Latvia last summer.
Heckman, thanks to the perseverance he showed in four years of school and a moving “Triumph Through Adversity” essay he wrote, won the prestigious Valor Award at Alter.
And now all three are just trying to find their way at UD. At the past two home games against Temple and Xavier, as Scott and Pierre toiled on the court, Tyler was behind the south basket, in Section 116, with his dad.
“It’s hard for some folks to grasp that I know those guys out there on the court,” he said. “But I just go, ‘Yep, those kids live on my floor. We’re friends.’ ”
Scott agreed: “He’s not the normal standing guy, but I’m the type who likes to communicate with everybody and I approached him first. In the beginning the conversation was about basketball, but now that we know each other, we talk on a more personal level. He’s a cool kid.”
Pierre said they play video games and then, of course, there’s the occasional spin on Tyler’s “sweet ride.”
To get to his far-away classes on time, Tyler’s parents, Lou and Kim, got him a battery-operated mobility scooter. He doesn’t like using it because he doesn’t want to stand out, but there’s no denying it has been a source of fun for Pierre and especially Scott.
The Flyers’ big man lowers himself onto the seat — his legs, knees, elbows and shoulders hunched around it until he looks like a big spider wrapped around a lady bug — and starts gliding down the hallway.
“One of the first times he rode it he went to check out girls and it was hysterical,” Tyler said with a grin as Pierre nodded in agreement.
“Hey, it worked,” beamed Scott. “We went to the store downstairs on it and it pulled in all the girls.”
Lou and Kim are both medical professionals.
He’s a doctor of internal medicine. She’s an orthopedic and wound care nurse. But neither knew something was different about Tyler until he was about 2.
“He was a late walker, but we didn’t think much of it because he could crawl so fast,” Kim said. “He could get away from you in a split second, so we just figured he didn’t walk because of the way he could crawl.
“But when he got to be 2 and wasn’t walking like he should, a pediatrician ordered some X-rays and he happened to see what they call a flared end of the bone in his wrist. That’s a sign of dwarfism.”
Tyler was diagnosed with pseudoachondroplasia, a type of short-limbed dwarfism, and though that meant he wouldn’t grow to the size of most other kids, Kim and Lou wouldn’t let him take a smaller approach to life.
“Our thoughts were, ‘OK, so you’re small. That doesn’t mean you can’t walk, that you don’t have a brain,’ ” Kim said. “There were times where we were in public — say we got in an elevator with someone in a wheelchair or something — and I don’t want this to sound crass, but after they left I’d say to Tyler, ‘That could be you. But you’ve got two legs, you can walk around and do whatever you want to do.’
“I didn’t want people to feel sorry for him, I wanted them to see who he truly is.”
Tyler remembered those conversations: “My mom always told me, ‘You know not to be a pity person and be all boo-hoo about everything,’ and that’s pretty much how I took it.”
When he was a fourth-grader, he and younger brother Cole, now a freshman football player at Alter, decided to try taekwondo and eventually both earned black belts.
But a couple of years later, Tyler began to have trouble walking and ended up having three leg-alignment surgeries at Akron Children’s Hospital. First one leg was broken and straightened. Then the same was done to the other. The third operation was to remove hardware from one leg.
Tyler was in a full leg cast for much of three years and had to get around by wheelchair and a walker. His mom remembers him going to his eighth-grade dance in his wheelchair.
“Never once through all of this have I ever heard Tyler complain and say, ‘Why am I like this?’ or ‘Why did it have to be me?’ ” Kim said. “I’m not saying he didn’t think it to himself, but he never made it an issue out loud.”
What did happen is that he developed a real empathy for his fellow man. “He has a heart of gold,” Kim said. “He’d do anything for you.”
Although he couldn’t play sports in high school, he went to all the football, basketball and soccer games to cheer on his friends. For a job, he went to the Lincoln Park assisted living and nursing home facilities and worked with the elderly.
When it came time to pick a college he debated between Ohio State, where his dad went to medical school, and UD, where 17 family members, including his mom and dad and grandparents, had gone.
The smaller size, the feel and family ties to UD won out, but that still didn’t alleviate his initial fears.
“I was extremely nervous about coming here,” he admitted. “I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know who’d be on my floor or how I’d fit in.”
Never give up
The first semester wasn’t easy for Tyler. He had to figure out how to get around to everything on campus. He coped with the death of a school friend from Alter and his beloved grandmother — Mary Lou Heckman — was going through the final stages of her battle with cancer, a disease that claimed her life last month.
The transition was made easier by help from his professors and the friendships he began to make on campus. Among the guys he got to know on his floor were the four UD freshmen basketball players — Jalen Robinson and Khari Price who live next door, and especially Scott and Pierre who live across the hall.
“He doesn’t ever talk about any of his struggles, he’s just a positive guy who’s always asking about other people,” Pierre said.
Tyler shrugs off any analysis: “I’m just a generic guy and I don’t try to be anything else. Even though I am a little person — and I might have to do things in a little bit different way sometimes — I try to be like everybody else. I’m not any different than the other guys.”
And yet there is something Scott and Pierre and the other Flyers could learn from him in what has been an especially trying season for UD. It’s the same lesson Tyler passed on to his ailing grandmother.
She told the story to Tyler’s mom before she died:
Back when Tyler was still recovering from his leg surgeries, the family went on vacation to Hilton Head and when everybody headed down to the beach, they brought Tyler to the sand in his wheelchair and then set his walker in front of him and said, “OK, you’re on your own.”
He wanted to go down to the water but seemed hesitant to go by himself so his grandmother told him she’d walk with him.
“I got a picture of the two of them,” Kim said. “I never knew it at the time, but while they were walking he told Mary Lou, ‘You know what grandma? You never give up. Just never give up.’ And that day he took the walker right into the waves and just had a great time.”
Then this past November, right after Thanksgiving, Mary Lou was alone one day in her Kettering home. The lung cancer had spread to her brain and she was really struggling. She fell early that day and couldn’t get up — for eight hours.
“She told me as she was lying there she remembered that walk with Tyler and she kept saying to herself, ‘Never give up … Never give up.’ ” Kim recalled. “And she didn’t.”
When her son couldn’t reach her, someone was sent over to check on her and that’s when she finally got help. And though the cancer worsened, Mary Lou fought back, had a wonderful last Christmas with her family and even got to follow her beloved Flyers for a part of the season.
Although at the time the team didn’t make the connection that Mary Lou was Tyler’s grandmother, the players did all autograph a basketball and sent it to her bedside at Lincoln Park.
And when she died, the signed ball was displayed near her casket.
Now the memento is in Tyler’s dorm room, though it’s simply propped against a wall, no more noticeable than the cache of food — maple syrup, cheese spread and other snacks — on a shelf in the corner or the pile of shirts and sweatshirts tossed atop the scooter.
Then again, an autographed ball doesn’t hold the same sway as the guys who signed it, especially when two of them join you on the quickly-cleared-off scooter in the hallway.
Soon their laughter was loud enough that other students opened their doors to see what was going on.
And that’s when they saw three guys — one 6-foot-9, one 6-foot-6 and the other “3-foot-9 or maybe 3-11” — having fun.
Size didn’t matter.