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Friday, March 7, 2014
Updated: March 8, 3:10 PM ET
A sight to see for Louis Corbett

By Greg Garber

BOSTON -- Back at home, in Auckland, New Zealand, he's a basketball point guard when he's not playing cricket in the backyard -- or being a typical 12-year-old.

But on Wednesday night at TD Garden, Louis [Lou-ee] Corbett was awestruck when he and two members of his family were called onto the court during a first-quarter timeout. As a half-dozen television cameramen jostled for position, the public address announcer offered a brief summary of the monstrous challenges he's facing and slowly the near-capacity crowd rose to its feet. The applause continued to swell and washed over the surprised visitors.

Tim Corbett, the father, who fully understands what's at stake, found himself crying for the fourth or fifth time in a week. Jerome, the 14-year-old brother, waved tentatively. Louis himself, who doesn't seem to fully comprehend what's ahead, beamed. Hazel eyes wide, he turned 360 degrees and took it all in.

Which, as it turns out, is the whole point.

Over the past six months, Louis has lost about half his vision to retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a hereditary disease. The way this aggressive strain of the disease is going, in another year or two, he could be completely in the dark. The irony? Point guards have to see the court better than anyone.

When his parents asked him what he wanted to see most, he reached halfway across the world and offered up his favorite team, the Boston Celtics.

"NBA game," he said earlier Wednesday in a television interview, "and to go to America and experience seeing the game and the atmosphere. And they were more into Europe.''

And then he laughed, clearly a family trait.

The images we capture with our eyes make their way into our consciousness and reside there as memories. But what if that window to the world were to close forever? What if you actually knew the darkness was coming? You could recoil and live a life paralyzed by sorrow. Or, you could just get after it.

When the oldest son, Benjamin, was diagnosed with RP years ago, Tim asked a friend who was blind what his parents had done to ease him through adolescence.

"They took me to Europe and showed me colors and different sites," he told him. "And it meant when someone said to me, `Blue,' I could say, `Mediterranean blue? Sistine Chapel blue?' "

Tim and his wife, Catherine, took out a second mortgage on their home and brought Benjamin to Europe. Today, at 25, he's a successful lawyer but retains only about 5 percent of his vision.

With Louis, there is an even greater sense of urgency.

"Catherine said, `Right away, we act. Straight into it, we built the plans,' " Tim said. "We had to make sure we see as many waterfalls as possible, sunsets, petting dogs, stacking in as much as possible."

An accelerated case

"If you bump into any normal 12-year-old, they'll be a sports nut, they'll be going at 110 miles an hour -- huge smile on his face -- has a grab at everything he tries," Tim said of Louis.

Problem is, he's all of those things -- except normal. Catherine and Tim both see fine, but somewhere in their combined genetic pool of twisted DNA strands a visual flaw exists.

Three of their children -- 17-year-old Jacob is also afflicted -- have RP, which can exhibit 100 subtle (and not-so-subtle) variations in 100 people. Siblings Isabella (17) and Jerome have talked about it; they don't have it, but when Louis was diagnosed, they felt a little guilty.

Most afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa, in which the rods and cones of the retina slowly degenerate, limiting peripheral vision, won't become legally blind until they approach the age of 40. Louis' is a rare, savage case.

At the start of school last year, he could see close to a full 180 degrees, the writing on the whiteboard at school and could pretty much read books.

"Now," Louis said, holding his hands about 18 inches apart in front of his face, "I can only see that much. The writing's blurred and I can't read books anymore. I need to enlarge them on my iPad."

He has a tough time when the sun starts going down.

"Louis can see the pencil across the room," Tim said, "but it's the elephant under his feet that trips him up."

The recent diagnosis took the Corbetts by surprise. The specialist told them it was progressing quickly

"Long story short," she told the family, "If you want him to see anything, this is the year."

Tim, a hyper-kinetic, humorous man who is in advertising back in New Zealand, sighed.

"You go, `Oh, man. One in five, now two in five and now three in five,' " he said. "You wake up with it every day, you've been there before. It's relatively normal for us, but it's really hard for us to get our heads around it. Your main behavior is, `That can't be happening. Let's bowl on.'

"He sees it coming, because his brothers have it, it's just normal. He's got these different tricks and tools that he uses at night. At the moment now, he sort of flips between, `Oh, I am going blind' to `where's my next ball?' "

Catherine and Tim set about fulfilling a bucket list of experiences, a visual database from which, going forward, Louis could borrow. He met and trained with the Breakers, his favorite New Zealand professional basketball team. The family took a three-week biking vacation and visited Abel Tasman National Park, a breathtaking costal venue that features seals, octopi and stingrays.

The family saw the world again through Louis' eyes.

"Yeah," Tim said. "What would be the word ... fresh, very raw. With a slight sense of almost fatality, or finality about it as well."

Are there times when he feels sorry for himself?

"Not really," Louis said, face tightening. "Unless it's in the dark and I run into a pole. That's when I feel sorry for myself."

And he laughed again.

Heightened senses

Social media, as it tends to do, made the world an extremely smaller place.

Wyc Grousbeck
Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, who has a blind son, was alerted to Louis Corbett's story on Twitter.

There is a Facebook page for families who know the harrowing pain of retinitis pigmentosa. Catherine and Tim put together a Facebook page for Louis and soon donations started coming in to help Louis realize his dreams.

"The reach of that community is massive -- Canada, Turkey, England," Tim said. "A small boy in a central north island in New Zealand sent him five dollars, his pocket money. He wanted him to have it."

And so, Louis and his family made their way to San Francisco. Tim put out a message on the Facebook page, asking if anyone knew someone at Google. Twelve hours later, a insider tour was arranged. There, they met a woman who was blind. She told Louis her other senses had been heightened with the loss of sight.

"I found that pretty inspiring and it made me want to keep going," Louis said. "She'd always say, `Nothing's impossible.' Apart from driving cars, she said.

"Her ears got stronger and she could smell better. She said she could hear bugs crawling across the ground, which would be pretty spooky at night. Yeah, so hoping that doesn't happen."

There was also a visit to NASA's Ames Research Center. And, when they got to Los Angeles, an obligatory stop at Disneyland.

Warren Casey, who is a neighbor in Auckland, is also the CEO of a Boston-based software firm, Ceiba Solutions. He makes the 24-hour trip to Boston every six weeks and helped the family fly across the country and visit there this past week. The Celtics, too, could not have been more accommodating.

That's because Wyc Grousbeck, the co-owner of the team, and his wife, Corrine, have a son, Campbell, who is blind.

"One of our bloggers from Red's Army re-tweeted someone else's tweet about this boy from New Zealand," Corrine explained. "They called me out on Twitter, and of course I read the article and it started there."

Corrine helped arrange a fantasy tour. Louis and his brother had the run of the pro shop hours before the game, then visited the corporate offices on Causeway Street and posed with the 2008 NBA championship trophy. Later, they met general manger Danny Ainge, watched the teams warm up, met with head coach Brad Stevens and had a private audience with Louis' favorite player, a fellow point guard, Rajon Rondo.

As it turned out, Campbell Grousbeck -- all 6-foot-4 of him -- was at TD Garden on Wednesday night when the Celtics hosted the Golden State Warriors. He was part of the Perkins School for the Blind chorus that sang the national anthem.

"As a parent, I related so deeply to [Louis'] diagnosis, to hearing the news that I sort of relived the whole thing with our own son," Corrine said. "It really works if you just keep short-term goals and expectations. Twenty-one years ago when our son was born there was really no such thing as the Internet. And now he carries a smart phone in his pocket and he commands Siri to text and email. You couldn't even imagine that 20 years ago, so why was I worrying?

"Louis is going to be fine; the world is a different place. He's going to tragically, slowly, lose his vision but he's going to have a great memory bank of what it was like to see and draw on experiences in colors. It's going to be a full life, it's just going to be different."

Pulling him along

Louis has been told repeatedly what's coming. Neither his brother Jerome nor his father is completely sure he understands. Louis' inherent humor seems to be his way of coping.

Rajon Rondo
Rajon Rondo is Louis Corbett's favorite player, in part because they both play point guard.

"It's gotten a bit harder," Louis said when the subject came up. "I get blown-up sheets at school and they're big. All my friends laugh; it's pretty funny. I laugh with them. [But] they really can't laugh that much because I just got to America."

Why have people responded to his story?

"Inspiring -- brave -- yeah, things like that," Louis said. "And they say I have great parents. But they haven't met them, so they don't know."

This one even got a laugh from the usually professional camera crew.

The one thing this experience has taught him: People want the best for him.

"Every step of the way," Tim said, "people are looking out for him. They've got a hand behind him or a hand in front, pulling him along. Which, for us, is probably more important than supporting him if he falls. He doesn't need that.

"He just [wants to know] where's the next adventure?"

San Francisco and Los Angeles were terrific. The visit to the world-class vision doctors in Boston was educational -- and imminently hopeful for the future -- but it reminded Louis of those grueling appointments back home. Thirty years from now, you get the idea the day with the Celtics still will be there in his memory bank.

It must be said: The Celtics are awful. Rondo is surrounded by fellow starters Jerryd Bayless, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Kris Humphries. They lost to the Warriors 108-88, their seventh loss in eight games. Boston's record fell to 20-41.

Louis could care less. Sitting a few seats down from the Celtics bench on the edge of the court, those gleaming hazel eyes didn't miss anything. When the game ended, Green approached him, pulled off his gargantuan shoes, and handed them to Louis.

More than 12 hours into a day of days, Louis might have smiled his widest smile.

"It's always good to think on the bright side, I guess, just think of the positive" Louis had said earlier. "And sometimes I feel a bit grumpy and annoyed, but it always ends out fine. So yeah, it should be good."