Rise Above: Tristan Braverman


April is Autism Awareness Month. The May/June issue of ESPNHS Magazine featured an abridged version of this profile of Tristan Braverman, an autistic athlete from Long Island, N.Y.

Seven seconds left in overtime, down by 1. Quarterfinals of the New York State Association of Independent Schools tournament.

Tristan Braverman comes out of the timeout and walks to his spot near the right baseline. Trent Parrish, his teammate at Lawrence Woodmere Academy (Woodmere, N.Y.), takes the inbounds pass from the Lions' own end and is pressured immediately by a Horace Mann (New York) defender as he drives down the center of the court.

Four seconds.

Parrish is bumped above the 3-point line, just as Tristan rolls toward him, tracing the line with his steps. Parrish picks up his dribble and scoops an underhand pass to Tristan, who immediately fires from deep.

Two seconds. One second. It feels like an eternity.

* * *

Something was wrong with Tristan.

At first, they thought he was deaf. Tristan would sit in front of "Barney" transfixed, and while that wasn't unusual for many babies and young children at the time (such was the popularity of the big purple dinosaur), Tristan could stare at the screen for hours without moving. As a test, a doctor recommended his parents, Steve and Stacy, bang a pair of pot lids inches behind his head. Tristan didn't flinch, his eyes glued to the TV.

But Tristan wasn't deaf. A neurologist -- a series of neurologists, in fact -- eventually confirmed he had autism.

Autism is now so well-known -- if not yet so well-understood -- it's easy to forget that when Tristan received the diagnosis 14 years ago, it was uncommon enough that the first doctor his parents consulted told them to get in touch in a couple of years if the symptoms persisted.

"The first doctor we went to said, 'Don't even worry about it; call me when he's 3,'" Steve recalled. "Can you imagine?"

A March study released by the Centers for Disease Control (based on 2008 statistics) found that 1 in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism, a rate so astonishing in its growth -- up nearly 80 percent from 2000 -- that it's unclear whether the disorder is increasingly prevalent or just more readily diagnosed.

But back then, there was far less attention paid to autism, which encompasses a wide "spectrum" of symptoms and severity.

Stacy didn't care what it was called. She just knew Tristan needed help.

The Bravermans fought for a "massive amount" of early-intervention services, and they were lucky enough to have the means to pay for those things the state didn't provide.

"Basically, Stacy wouldn't take no for an answer," Steve said. "We ended up with five different therapists that would come work with him for eight hours a day."

For years, Tristan received every type of treatment imaginable -- speech therapy, physical therapy, special education, occupational therapy, family therapy, applied behavioral therapy -- and when the professionals left, Stacy would take over. She videotaped every session so they could monitor his progress and mimic the therapists' techniques.

"I don't think I got out of my pajamas for three years," she said. "I did everything I could possibly think of doing -- everything."

The family is convinced that the early intervention is the reason strangers might not know Tristan has autism today. He still struggles with social interaction and interpersonal communication at times -- hallmarks of autism -- but he's a nearly straight-A student who, for all intents and purposes, seems like a "normal" kid.

Because the autism spectrum is so broad -- the symptoms so variant -- it's hard to generalize, hard to quantify the disability. Terms like "high-functioning" are often used to describe kids like Tristan, but they're imprecise. Some children with autism will never make the strides Tristan has; some didn't have cases as severe as his to begin with.

Since he is, by most appearances, so normal, Tristan's story might seem like much ado about nothing. Kid with autism plays high school basketball. Big deal.

But that would ignore the countless hours of work he and his family put in to get him to this point. It would gloss over the many times he was picked on for being different -- almost always when his older brother Hunter wasn't around to teach the tormentors a lesson -- and the fact that he has struggled to make close friends.

The obstacles persist to this day.

"Communication-wise … I'm never able to find the right things to say," Tristan said. "I always have exactly what I want to say up here -- and what I want to prove -- but being able to convey the message to whoever I'm talking to has always been difficult.

"Obviously now it doesn't seem so prevalent, but it still comes up occasionally."

Tristan, 16, likes to say he "beat" autism, which isn't to imply that he discounts the diagnosis. Far from being embarrassed, Tristan likes serving as an example of what's possible for autistic kids. He pointed out that April is Autism Awareness Month -- he'd noticed NBA coaches wearing the blue puzzle piece that represents Autism Speaks, the nation's largest autism advocacy organization -- making it the perfect time to tell his story.

"I hope that children with autism would see me as a role model," he said, "as someone they would aspire to be like."

* * *

There was one other form of therapy that was pivotal in Tristan's development: basketball. In the first organized game he ever played, his dad said, 6-year-old Tristan got the ball on the right elbow and buried a 10-foot jumper.

"As he was running back his face was just lit up," Steve said. "I mean, a gigantic smile. That was it. That moment was the moment when he just was like, 'I'm going to play basketball for the rest of my life.'"

"Barney" gave way to NBA games, and Tristan now has an encyclopedic knowledge of the league and its players -- particularly those on his favorite team, the New York Knicks. Basketball helped him develop physically and socially, and it gave him a positive outlet for the hyperfocus that can be both a blessing and a curse for people with autism.

In terms of Tristan's basketball development, autism was a "double-edged sword," according to his father. He would practice shooting for hours on end, and for that reason he makes 90 percent of his free throws.

"When I'm practicing … I always have this focus," Tristan said. "My brain is locked on to it and nothing else around me matters except the ball and the rim."

But there's a downside, too. He's very literal, so he sometimes follows instructions to a fault. While this, combined with his basketball knowledge, makes him eminently coachable, it hinders the kind of improvisation the sport often requires of great players. Tristan has a tendency to overthink things, which is virtually impossible in such a fast-paced game.

"The only issue, I would say, is that in a basketball game you need to make decisions fast," Tristan said. "And focus, for me, has always taken a long time. I need to read a situation, I need to see it and then develop an answer. That takes time, and I don't always have that time."

Don't get the wrong idea, though: It's not as though he freezes up on the break. Lawrence Woodmere coach Jeff Weiss thinks Tristan is overstating the problem; he rarely notices Tristan hesitating on the court.

"The truth is, outside of one or two instances I don't think it's hurt him at all," Weiss said. "He 100 percent understands our team concepts. He understands the in and outs of the game. I think his playing basketball for years and watching basketball for years has certainly helped him overcome any hindrances he may have."

Indeed, Tristan was either the best or the second-best player on the JV team last year, and Weiss has big expectations for him coming into this season. Tristan came off the bench at the beginning but earned more and more playing time as the season went along, eventually starting the lion's share of the team's second-half and playoff games.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that when Lawrence Woodmere took that timeout with seven seconds to go in overtime, Weiss told Parrish to look for Tristan on the wing.

"I said, 'If he's open, you've got to give it to him,'" Weiss said. "Make or miss, he's going to make a good shot."

On the other hand, Parrish was his captain and star player, and he was having another good game. For the 6-foot-3, Morehouse College-bound senior to give up the ball with the game on the line was exceptionally unselfish, but also unquestionably the right basketball play. He didn't hesitate.

"I'm sure everybody had confidence in him that game," Parrish said. "He'd hit a lot of big shots for us before so it was nothing new.

"We don't treat him any different. Everybody likes him. He's always in the gym. He loves shooting. Everybody treats him the same; he's one of us. When he struggles we all struggle. When he succeeds we all succeed."

Now a 5-11 (and possibly still-growing) junior, Tristan wants to play for Columbia or Stanford while he studies medicine. He'd like to be a doctor, but first he wants to be a starting guard for the Knicks.

His room is covered in basketball paraphernalia, from the framed Harlem Globetrotters jersey and ball he got when he attended a game (and nailed a 3-pointer at halftime) to the rack of trophies to the autographed picture of Willis Reed hobbling out of the locker room before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals -- a picture he said taught him "a lot about persevering."

He literally sleeps with two basketballs.

"Basketball is Tristan's entire life," Steve said. "If all of a sudden basketball disappeared, he would be completely lost."

"I would spontaneously combust," Tristan joked, getting a laugh from his family.

* * *

Stumbling back, Tristan holds his right arm aloft, hand bent at the wrist, watching as the ball glides through the air on a medium arc.

"Every basketball fan grows up imagining themselves in a moment where it's them in the spotlight with however many seconds left in the game -- three seconds, two seconds," Tristan said. "And when they imagine it, it feels great. But actually being in that situation? There's nothing that you can compare it to."

The ball glances the rim as it falls through the net. The buzzer sounds; the backboard alights with red. Lawrence Woodmere wins 64-62.

Tristan's mouth goes agape and he lets out a scream, backpedaling a few more steps before turning to meet the mob of teammates rushing the court.

"After we saw it go in, the whole gym erupted," Parrish said. "Everybody ran out on the court. It was just a real big win."

The celebration is short-lived, no more than a minute before the coaching staff corals the team into the postgame handshake line. Walking back to the sideline, senior forward Spenser Berry puts Tristan in a playful headlock, and high-fives and hugs are exchanged with Weiss and the rest of the team.

"He made it an awesome experience for everybody," Weiss said. "What an exciting game."

Tristan shares a long embrace with his dad and then Hunter, who's calling their mother to give her the news. His face is brighter than that backboard.

Lucas O'Neill is a senior writer for ESPNHS. Follow him on Twitter @LucasESPN.