LOVES PARK, Illinois -- The night Amadeus Russo scored his first basket his mother nearly wept.
Born with Down syndrome, two holes in his heart and a failing liver, Amadeus couldn't walk until he was almost 4 years old. Now he plays basketball alongside his able-bodied peers at Harlem Community Center.
The 10-year-old's energy and infectious enthusiasm made him an instant favorite among teammates. At the first practice, he was dead last in full-court sprints. But his teammates were encouraged by his hustle and showered him with support.
"They would cheer for him to get to the end," his mom, Stefanie McKinney, said. "They even started chanting 'MVP' his very first practice. I cried; it took me everything I had not to bawl."
When McKinney asked Amadeus whether basketball was something he wanted to pursue, she didn't think twice about signing him up at HCC.
"I was really more worried about the coach than anything, being willing to work with him or having any background in special needs," she said. "I just put on the paperwork that he had Down syndrome and that was it, and it's just kind of worked out."
It worked out because Russo was placed on Chad Reuber's team. Reuber has been coaching his third- and fourth-graders since they were kindergartners, but he also coaches Special Olympics.
"The director called and asked me for a big favor and said, 'Hey there's a new kid on the team and he's got Down syndrome. Can you take him?'" Reuber said. "It was an automatic yes for me."
Amadeus is the only child in the HCC league with a disability, but to his 11 teammates, he's just another kid.
"It's cool to be able to help him. Even if he shoots and he misses he's still really happy," said 9-year-old Barron Sholl. "I treat him exactly how I treat others. I think he needs to know that there's nothing wrong. He's fine just how he is."
Amadeus is most often in the game in a defensive role, so it comes as no surprise he says his favorite thing to do is "steal the ball and shoot."
On Jan. 17, the team was up 24-9 when teammates positioned Amadeus under the net and passed him the ball. He pushed it up with both hands. The ball hit the top left corner of the backboard square and banked into the net. Teammates, coaches and the everyone in the bleachers jumped up and cheered.
"I'm in the stands trying not to bawl," McKinney said. "It's overwhelming joy and excitement. Yeah, it's cool that he's playing basketball. So are a lot of other 10-year-olds, but not all 10-year-olds respond to him like this team has, especially for such a tightknit team that has played together for years. They treat him like he's been there since Day One."
Reuber said it was easy to accept Amadeus as a member of the team because he instantly became the heart of the team.
"He's just a great kid to have around," Reuber said. "He brings a lot of laughter to the team, a lot of smiles to the team and just brings us together as a team. They have treated him not as somebody who has Down syndrome or special needs or anything like that. He's another teammate and another friend."