The first shot 13-year-old Owen Groesser ever took in an organized basketball game came on Wednesday, and it landed him on SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays’’ the same night.
All season long, Owen, who was born with Down syndrome, had dutifully performed his job as team manager without missing a game or a practice for the Van Hoosen Middle School basketball team in Rochester Hills, Mich., and his coach wanted to reward him.
When the eighth-grader finally got his chance to shine in a game on Wednesday, the crowd went delirious after he swished a 3-pointer on his first attempt. It inspired his excited classmates to make a push on Twitter to get Owen national attention for the shot, and the online campaign resulted in video of his performance making it to SportsCenter hours later.
“The best part about this story is that everybody else wins,’’ Owen’s father, Chris Groesser, told TODAY.com. “It was awesome. It’s still so surreal.’’
A month before the team’s last regular-season home game, head coach Jeff Howell had planned on putting Owen in the game to reward him for all his hard work as manager, which entailed sweeping the gym floor and taking care of the basketballs. Word had spread among the school that the popular teen would get a chance to play, resulting in a packed house.
Owen checked into the game with two minutes left in the first half to the chants of his classmates, and then the team ran “The Owen,’’ a special play that Howell had designed to get him the ball. He took one dribble and launched a 3-pointer, splashing it through the net as the crowd erupted and his teammates jumped up off the bench and mobbed him. He missed his next two shots before burying another 3-pointer on his way to finishing with six points in a 35-26 win over Boulan Park Middle School.
“I have to be honest, my eyes welled up pretty good when he hit that first shot,’’ Howell told TODAY.com. “I tried to be the cool guy and hold it back like a coach should, but it was tough. The place erupted, and I was watching the principal and vice principal just fist-pumping and high-fiving people in the stands.’’
“I wasn’t surprised that he made the shot because we play at home in the driveway and he shoots 3-pointers a lot,’’ Chris Groesser said. “It was just very cool that he got a chance.’’
After Owen’s big moment, his classmates started the hashtag “#GetOwenOnSportsCenter” on Twitter to try to get it to be a "trending" topic, and it worked. That same night, the highlight of Owen’s shot was featured as No. 10 on the show's “Top Plays” segment.
“When I went to bed that night, his play was number 10, and the next morning they are counting down to number one and it’s Owen,’’ his father said. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was incredible.’’
Owen’s moment came close to not even happening at all. The game was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but a miscommunication in which Boulan Park erroneously thought Van Hoosen had cancelled school that day due to weather resulted in the game not happening. Howell said middle school games are rarely rescheduled, but he reached out to the Boulan head coach, his friend Kevin Wilson, and asked if they could play the game on Wednesday. The two worked out the logistics, allowing Owen to have his magical moment after all.
“In all my years here, we’ve never made up a middle school game,’’ Howell said. “I don’t know if it was fate or destiny or what.”
The days since have been a whirlwind for Owen and his family. In addition to several local television appearances and an interview on SportsCenter, the Harlem Globetrotters appeared at an assembly at Owen's school to present him with a certificate and invite him to a game, and the Detroit Pistons also invited him and his family to a game.
On Thursday, Owen — who also competes on the school’s football and wrestling teams — took the court again, scoring four points in a championship game against rival Reuther Middle School just a day after his heroics made national headlines. The game was played in the larger gym at nearby Rochester High School, packed with a capacity crowd eager to see Owen in action.
“That game was also incredible,’’ his father said. “He made the last bucket near the end, and he was mobbed by players from both teams and the kids and cheerleaders who were there to play a game after that. That court looked like when a college team wins a national championship. He was signing autographs, all the girls wanted pictures with him, and people were giving him basketballs to sign. It was unbelievable.’’
“I would never imagine it would have gotten this big,’’ Howell said. “He's such a great kid that everybody is so happy to see him have success. He’s always high-fiving everyone else when they make baskets, and now this time everyone else showed him the attention.’’