NORMAL - Ryan Alsman just wants to be a normal 14-year-old kid who plays basketball. He looked the part while going through practice drills at Metcalf Junior High School last week, smiling and joking with his eighth-grade buddies.
To opposing players, nothing seems out of the ordinary about the 5-foot-10 Alsman.
Sometimes, even his coaches are fooled.
Metcalf seventh-grade coach Mike Sondgeroth thought Alsman was a kid with a bad attitude last year. Alsman would always shake his head or turn it to the side when Sondgeroth talked.
"Nothing he did when he walked in my gym made me believe he was anything less than a person who was perfectly able to see and hear," said Sondgeroth.
Then a fellow teacher clued in Sondgeroth, who has coached hearing-impaired players before.
Alsman can hear all right.
Seeing is a little more difficult.
Alsman is afflicted with a disease called nystagmus, which is defined as involuntary eye movement. He also has cone dystrophy, which is a disease in which the cells that receive light stimuli in the retina of the eye deteriorate and cause impaired vision.
With contact lenses, Alsman has 20-200 vision in his left eye and 20-400 in the right.
In other words, Alsman is legally blind.
Doctors ruled out playing baseball, which stung this die-hard Chicago Cubs' fan. But other sports, such as basketball, would be fine.
"He has a great attitude, work ethic and is very dedicated," said Metcalf eighth-grade coach Ryan Knapp.
Alsman - and his teammates - have to make several accommodations. He can make out passes that come in shoulder high or above. However, anything that comes in lower is a struggle. Because he has trouble making out things sideways, running into screens sometimes is a problem, too.
Plays have to be called out, not flashed with a hand signal. Defensively, he said he has a tendency to lose his opponent because he can't make out numbers on the jerseys. He compensates by trying to keep in close contact.
"It's incredible," said teammate Nick Pagluica. "Sometimes he'll miss the ball, but he tries one of the hardest on our team to go after it. He's probably one of the best posts we have on the team. I couldn't believe it when he told me he was blind.
"He used to hide it. Now he jokes about it openly. He's pretty cool."
Alsman's sense of humor helps him cope.
"Everywhere you go you can tell when I'm getting ready to shoot free throws because I'm bent over holding the ball. Everyone is laughing, but I don't care," he said, smiling. "I used to have Peter McKinzie, my best friend, move me over (at the line) about two inches.
"My free throw shooting has actually gotten a lot better this year. I tend to line up a little more right than everyone else. I learned to shoot that way."
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As Sondgeroth can attest, Alsman often shakes his head. His father, Allen, said his son is trying to find the point where he can make out something in front of him.
"Before every game I always tell the officials (about Ryan)," said Knapp. "The only reason I tell them is if they call a foul on him and he starts looking at them directly he'll start going like this (shaking his head).
"I try to make sure they know he's not arguing the call. Most of the time they'll say he's a good player."
Alsman said he usually doesn't know the score of game. He can't read the scoreboard. When Alsman goes to watch Illinois State play, he brings binoculars to follow the action.
To do things most teenagers take for granted, Alsman has to make adjustments. He is provided with devices at school that magnify books and papers so he can get close and read them.
He needs help crossing a street. In two years, his classmates will be getting their driver's license. Alsman won't.
But, thanks to the help of the Lions Club low-vision program, Alsman is making it through sports and school just fine. Allen and Sandy Alsman are grateful to the care, through the Lions Club, provided by Dr. Tracy Williams of Naperville, who happens to be the optometrist for the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls.
"There isn't anything Ryan has ever put his mind to that he didn't accomplish," said Sandy Alsman. "I think the worst was when Dr. Williams told him he couldn't play baseball. That broke his heart."
Allen Alsman said he also has some vision problems, but his can be corrected to 20-20 in one eye and 20-40 in the other. The Alsmans' other child, 12-year-old Josh, is not affected.
The Alsmans say they are not overly concerned about watching Ryan play basketball and possibly getting hurt because of his limited vision. Quite the opposite.
"Ryan has some moves under the basket," said his father. "He surprises me."
Ryan Alsman also has gotten interested in another sport - golf. He shaved 17 strokes off his score last summer, shooting a best round of 94 at Normal's Ironwood Golf Course.
Outside of carrying a special instrument that looks like a miniature telescope in his bag, Alsman is just like any other golfer.
"I find where the pin is at. I kind of point and see the end of my finger," said Alsman. "I know the pin is that way and the wind is going this way, so I need to aim that way."
Alsman took lessons last year from Highland Park Golf Course professional Phil Aldridge.
"He's pretty amazing. I know I have to keep a good eye on the ball during our lessons, but he's made up for it pretty well," said Aldridge. "He has shown remarkable improvement since I started with him.
"He has a good sense of the timing of the swing and good balance to go with it. Those two factors can go and make up for other deficiencies."
Alsman hopes to continue his basketball and golf careers when he attends University High School in the fall. Knapp and Sondgeroth believe the increased speed of the game might make basketball more difficult for Alsman in high school.
But, as Sondgeroth said, "If anyone has a shot, he's going to be the one that does."