When Nathan Bay first started playing basketball at age 5, he found himself unable to dribble or shoot the ball, and therefore decided he “hated the game” and was going to quit. That lasted for three days.
Despite the physical challenges Bay was facing — he had been born with a dislocated hip, a club foot, and a tethered spinal cord, and one of his legs was two inches shorter than the other — Bay felt a compulsion to stick with the sport.
“I felt like I should give it my full effort, one hundred percent, so I shot baskets every day outside and practiced dribbling,” said Bay. “By the next year, I was good enough to compete with kids my own age.”
Bay’s lifelong passion and determination to excel as a basketball player has led the now 18-year-old Highland Park High School senior to a dream he said he’s had for as long as he can remember: to be a member of his school’s varsity basketball team.
“I always had a mindset that I wanted to be a high school basketball player and be out there on Friday nights in front of my community and in front of lights,” said Bay, who has been playing house league and travel basketball since he was 6. He also played on his junior high school team. “When the coach told me there was a spot for me, it was kind of a blur. I didn’t even care what it was, I just knew I was part of the team and was so happy about that.”
Bay, who is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, didn’t make the Highland Park freshman team, but continued to play competitive basketball for one reason and one reason only: love of the game.
“I just feel like I’m in my element when I’m playing basketball. Shooting and being around my friends, all the outside worries go away,” said Bay, who has had 12 surgeries in his life, including his biggest one last summer: a five-hour hip reconstruction and leg lengthening procedure designed to give him complete hip functionality, flexibility, and more range of motion.
Bay said he made the decision to try out for the varsity basketball team in the spring of last year (his junior year). He reached out to the coach, Paul Harris to let him know of his interest and goals. He also participated in the school’s summer league and tournaments in the months before his surgery.
“It’s a lofty goal when you’re someone who hasn’t played high school basketball, and all of a sudden you want to take this on,” Harris said. “Couple that with the surgery, and I was impressed with his courage and willingness to take a risk. Every day over the summer, he showed us this was something that was really important to him.”
Because Bay couldn’t practice for several months after his surgery, Harris granted him a tryout once the doctor cleared Bay physically.
“At the end of the tryout, I told him he wasn’t varsity basketball ready right now, but because of everything he showed us, he earned the opportunity to stay in the program,” Harris said. “It was his courage. His courage to meet with me, his courage to try out, his courage to put himself out there and compete on a daily basis — that’s why he earned a spot on our team this year.”
“I always look out for people, and I’m good at picking people up when they’re down,” said Bay. “I have a positive attitude whether we are winning or losing a game. Whether we’re up 30 or down 30, I think it’s important that everyone looks at the game the same way, meaning don’t play the scoreboard, play how you always play and give it your best effort no matter what.”
Bay said although he hasn’t played in any games so far this season, he loves being part of the team, has gotten close to his teammates, and has become a better player.
“I do whatever is needed of me, whether they need me to play a five-on-five in practice to make sure the starters are prepared for the game, or they might need me to film games, or if players are having a hard time I offer support and help them stay focused,” Bay said.
“Nathan has the willingness to be loyal and unselfish and to put the needs of the team ahead of any personal goals he has for himself,” Harris said. “To me, that’s the sign of someone who just wants to be involved for the right reasons.”
Harris said Bay exhibits immense passion, both for the game and for the team.
“He clearly loves what he’s doing. Every day, he attacks success and doesn’t fear failure and it’s the reason he keeps improving,” said Harris. “It’s a great lesson to all the guys. You can look at challenges as obstacles or as opportunities, and Nathan looks at his personal obstacles as opportunities instead of negative obstacles. The guys have tremendous respect for him. He’s humble, he’s positive, and he has strong personal discipline.”
Bay, who is also president of the Highland Park High School rotary club, said he plans to play intramural basketball in college.
“I love the game so much and will play as long as my body allows me to,” he said. “Even if you are a bench player and you only play for 10 seconds, give it everything you’ve got, like you’ll never set foot on the basketball court again.”
• Jackie Pilossoph is a freelance columnist for Chicago Tribune Media Group. She is also the creator of her divorce support website, Divorced Girl Smiling. Pilossoph lives in Chicago with her two children.