LOS ANGELES – First impressions typically tend to go a long way. In the case of Dawud Morrison-Muhammad, he initially appears to be your standard run-of-mill teenager, strikingly similar to most his teammates on the University High boys' basketball team.
He is standing along on the baseline, with Will Thornton on his left and Andrew May on the right, and preparing for yet another grueling set of drills requiring an all-out sprint up the court followed by what is supposed to be a full-speed jaunt back.
Next thing you know, Wildcats coach Steve Ackerman is blowing the whistle dangling around his neck. The sound echoes throughout the gym, and a split second later, bodies are in motion. Morrison-Muhammad and his teammates are off.
Right then you realize something is amiss, ever so slightly. The stride is a tad bit different from the others. Morrison-Muhammad has a hitch in his step. That, however, does not prevent him from finishing the mad dash in a timely fashion.
As a youngster, Morrison-Muhammad was diagnosed with a mild case of cerebral palsy, the symptoms coming in the form of ataxia and dysplasia. In layman's terms, the condition affected the development of his muscular coordination during his formative years.
Despite obstacles, his desire to become a contributor on the varsity level never seemed to waver. And the dream became a reality earlier this season when Morrison-Muhammad had the opportunity to suit up in a University uniform for the first time.
“When I was growing up and trying to decide what I wanted to do in life, what sport I wanted to play, basketball was it. I wasn't going to let cerebral palsy, or anything else, stop me from doing exactly what I wanted to do in the future,'' said Morrison-Muhammad, 17.
“At times, I was told that I can't do this, or I can't do that, but that kind of stuff never bothered me. It made me want to work harder and prove everyone wrong. The main thing is, I feel like you can't beat me. I feel like, if we get on a treadmill and you say run, I'll run until my legs give out. If you say shoot, I'll shoot until I can't lift my arms anymore.
“I don't want my coach or my teammates to treat me any differently because I have cerebral palsy, and the good thing is, they don't. They don't see me as weak, they don't take pity on me. I wouldn't be on the team if that was the case. You go hard at me when we're on the basketball court and I'm going to go hard at you. I'm just one of the guys.''
Morrison-Muhammad is indeed just one of the guys, a 5-foot-10 senior for the Wildcats (22-7 overall), who play at Venice on Wednesday in a Western League game.
There was, however, a time when playing basketball, as well as walking without experiencing varied levels of discomfort, appeared to be in serious doubt.
At age 2, Morrison-Muhammad was fitted for leg braces and he wore them until he was 10. The hope was that the braces would help correct the some of the problems he had, particularly with the lower half of his body.
“Dawud developed a passion for basketball at a young age,'' said his mother, Quadeera Muhammad. “I remember buying him a little hoop, he could barely stand at the time, but he sure could make baskets whenever he wanted. Basketball has always been his thing.
“As he got older, his love for the game grew. So, I checked things out with his doctors to make sure it was a safe sport for him, that's what concerned parents do right? They told me Dawud might not be the fastest player, or the slowest, aside from that, he should be just fine.
“Honestly, it didn't matter what the doctors said, there was no way his cerebral palsy was going to hold him back from playing basketball, or doing whatever else he wants to do in his life. Dawud is a special kid, I'm not saying that because he's mine, he's an inspiration.''
With the all-important go ahead from the family physician, all signs pointed to Morrison-Muhammad being fully prepared to embark on his basketball journey. Encountering several bumps along the way was never a part of the master plan though.
He first attended nearby high schools, Los Angeles Dantzler Charter and Central Los Angeles No. 9, because of the close proximity to his downtown home.
Unfortunately, both institutions did not have overly competitive sports programs, at least not up what Morrison-Muhammad was looking for.
In search of a challenge, he learned about the University tryouts taking place in August. Accordingly, Morrison-Muhammad jumped on a bus and made the 45-plus minute trek each way and showed up at the gym ready to show what he was capable of.
The rest, as often is said, is history.
“I met Dawud this past summer. He came up to me, introduced himself and told me he wanted to be on the team,'' Ackerman, the University coach, said. “Seeing him out on the court for the very first time, you could obviously tell that he had some sort of disability, there were some factors working against him, factors I did not know much about at the time.
“I've got to tell you, I was impressed with what I saw from him on that first day. He might not have been as talented as the others, but he had desire and passion. You can't teach that. You could see the size of his heart, you could see he was a high-character kid.
“Giving him a spot on the varsity team was a no-brainer decision. I told him my expectations, I told him there might not be a lot of minutes for him, but he would have a role and he's embraced his role. He epitomizes what University basketball is all about.''
When given the chance, Morrison-Muhammad has made the most it this season. He made his only shot against his former teammates from Dantzler Charter, a three-pointer, in an 81-37 victory in early December. The next day against Van Nuys, he duplicated the feat, connecting on a another three-pointer in a 69-45 victory.
Two games. One attempt in each. He found the bottom of the net both times.
It probably best explains how he has become a fan favorite in such a short time. When it comes to support from the Wildcats' fans, Morrison-Muhammad is without opposition, regardless of whether he is in the game or sitting on the end of the bench.
“Dawud brings energy that this teams needs,'' said David Nwaba, University's unquestioned leader and one of the City Section's premier players who is averaging 22.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game this season. “He knows how to keeps us focused during the big games, and when we need to be loose, he knows how to keep us relaxed. We need him and he's always there for us, that's the kind of teammate everyone needs.''
As far as the future is concerned, Morrison-Muhammad's days of competitive basketball seem to be coming to an end. Nevertheless, he made his impact felt at University. Perhaps more important, he achieved one of his life-long goals and not many people can state as much.
“All I ever wanted was a chance...,'' Morrison-Muhammad said. “It took me a while to realize things because I would question why would God would give me a dream, a goal, a drive for basketball, but not the physical tools. Then, I realized if I had all of the talent some other people have, I wouldn't work as hard and appreciate the game the way I do.
“I work hard every day. Basketball is a privilege.
“I'm representing an idea, it doesn't matter your physical limitations or your mental limitations, if you want to do something, you can do it. I feel like that's my purpose in life. Basketball is a tool to help me teach others that anything is possible.''
Sean Ceglinsky covers preps for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.