NORTH KINGSTOWN—Senior night.
For nearly every high school athlete, it’s the one event that always leaves a lasting impression.
It was certainly a special night Tuesday for the eight seniors on the North Kingstown boys basketball team – Jake Mansfield, Spencer Bode, Grant Gillis, Chris Lenox, Evan Gaudreau, Isaiah Butler, Kellen Coleman and Zac Brady. But for Brady in particular, it was a momentous occasion.
“Just to start in the varsity game made my high school career,” he said after the game. “If I scored that’s just a bonus. It was good that I scored, but I was more excited just to be a part of the starting lineup.
“…It just made me feel like an actual player out there. Even though I’m a part of the team, it made me feel more like a teammate, rather than a manager.”
Looks can be deceiving.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Pick whichever cliché you’d like for underestimating someone, and it likely applies to Brady. Upon first glance, it’s easy to see why.
As his father Jim explains it, he and his wife Linda were at his brother’s wedding in Virginia when they noticed 15-month old Zac was not acting like himself.
“We brought him to the hospital, and they thought it was viral meningitis,” Jim Brady says. “He started to improve, and they sent him home.”
The next day – back in Rhode Island – Zac “crashed,” and was admitted to Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence where it was later discovered he had encephalitis.
“It’s the worst thing you could go through as a parent,” Jim Brady says.
Zac spent the next two weeks in intensive care at Hasbro, and the virus left him with “gross fine motor issues,” as his father put it.
Even with his physical limitations, Zac never let them define who he was and ultimately, they would become the impetus to his persevering personality.
Zac walks the way he walks.
Not different, just in his own way – the only way he has ever known. And that’s how, as he grew up, he played sports.
It wasn’t until around sixth grade though, he fell in love with basketball.
“Sixth grade was when I started to get involved with Special Olympics,” he says, “and I just loved basketball ever since.”
From there he spent many of warm summer days in the backyard perfecting his shot – upwards of two-plus hours at a time – and anyone who has seen him play before knows, he’s lethal from beyond the arc.
It wasn’t until two years later though, when he went to an open tryout for the Davisville Middle School basketball team in eighth grade that Zac truly understood what the sport meant to him.
“I went to the first open gym,” Zac says, “and I never went to the second open gym.”
While he did not make the team as a player, Davisville’s coach at the time, Kyle Bodington, saw something in Zac that could be a major asset to his team.
“He was real disappointed, but I knew I could get him to be a big part of the team,” Bodington says. “I think he was upset not making [the team with] the initial group of guys.”
So Bodington – who called Brady “one of his favorite kids he’s ever coached” – enlisted one of his Zac’s friends, Alex Gershkoff, to ask Zac to come back to the team as the manager. It would prove to be a defining moment in his young life.
“It made me understand who I am,” Brady says. “Obviously I can’t be out there, but it’s just fun being around the team. Even though I don’t play, it’s still a good experience because I want to be a coach when I’m older.
“At first I was mad that I wasn’t out there, but now because of Special Olympics and Unified I’ve got my own season. It’s just fun hanging out with these guys.”
Zac may not have been on the court all the time – he did get into a few games at Davisville – but he was undoubtedly a big part of the team.
Zac talks the way he talks.
Not different, just in his own way – the only way he has ever known. And that’s how, as he grew up, he learned about basketball.
Uneducated people often associate stuttering with lack of intelligence, but more often than not that stereotype couldn’t be any further from the truth. Zac Brady is a perfect example of that, and anyone who knows him can attest. He’s articulate, intelligent and well spoken.
“I’ve sat next to him in classes and he’s helped me more than I could have ever have thought of it,” Bode says. “We’re in the same advisory, I’ve had class with him every single day since freshman year. I’ve changed schools, my sophomore year I didn’t go [to NK] and when I came back he was still my friend.”
Being the well-spoken individual he is, when Zac got to high school he expressed to head boys basketball coach Aaron Thomas that he wanted to be the team manager – insisting on being with the varsity according to both his father and Thomas.
“From day one he’s been a part of the team,” Thomas says. “I mentioned to the players sometime when he was a freshman, I said guys, ‘if there’s any issues with Zac anywhere, I expect to see you guys stand up for him.’ The players reassured me of that. They have.”
A big part of that was Derryck Kilgore, a senior on the team who was in attendance Tuesday night to watch Zac get his first career start.
“[Thomas] just told me that we had a new manager,” Kilgore says. “As soon as I found out I just wanted to get to know the kid. He’s actually a really good kid. My senior year wouldn’t have been as fun as it would have been if not for Zac.
“…Even off the court, I was always seeing Zac in classes, always running into him, always messing around with him in the hallways. Having fun. It feels like just yesterday I came onto the court for my senior year and he was a freshman.”
Since his freshmen year some of the teammates have changed, but it’s always been the same Zac; he’s a part of the team.
“We see him as one of us,” senior Jake Mansfield says. “When we go around talking to each other, we talk to him as one of us.”
Whether it was joking with Kilgore or shooting contests with Owen Heath, Zac has always been a Skipper. That’s what made Tuesday night so special, not just for Zac – who by far received the loudest ovations of the night – but for his teammates too.
Brady scored the first points of the game against Coventry – on an uncharacteristic 1-for-3 performance from the senior sharpshooter – before making his way back to the bench, where he sat with his signature smile.
In the end, it couldn’t have gone any better for NK. All of the seniors got to play, they won the game and the division, and Zac even got a few more seconds at the end of the game.
“It was fair,” Thomas says. “Some years I would say that kids would say, ‘oh, come on,’ but not this year. Every kid went, ‘absolutely, what do you want us to do coach.’
“…The point we made to the kids was some things are more important than winning and losing. He’s getting on the floor. He’s earned the right to be on the floor, so whatever happens, happens. He’s been a great manager, a great scout for us, he’s helped us out tremendously. It’s his time.”
Zac is who he is.
Not different, just in his own way – the only way he has ever known. And that’s how, when grows up, he’s going to be involved in basketball.
Tuesday night was undoubtedly a special one for Zac Brady, seeing his first varsity action and getting his first varsity points. But, it is what he has done off the court that is going to truly prepare him for life.
In addition to his managerial duties, Zac has also gone out and scouted other high school teams. According to Thomas and the players, his reports are spot on. It is part of what has led him to continue his involvement with basketball at Johnson & Wales in the fall, where he intends to major in sports management – with the ultimate goal of getting into coaching.
“Sports management isn’t about coaching; it’s about events, all those big raffles at games but at Johnson & Wales they have a minor in coaching,” he explains. “That’s what attracted me, and Johnson & Wales isn’t that far away. I figured it would be a nice school to go to.
“I e-mailed the [basketball] coach, and I’m trying to be the manager of the basketball team at Johnson & Wales. If everything works out, I’ll be able to do what I’m doing now over there.”
There’s little doubt that Zac Brady will succeed in whatever he puts his mind to. In his life, he’s fallen down – “a lot,” he says with a smile – but that is not what has defined him; it’s his ability to pick himself up each time he does.
“It’s not how many times you fail, it’s about how many times you learn from it,” he says. “If you love something, you shouldn’t give up even though it’s tough. I’ve always been that way.”
And likely always will.