Whenever scandals rock the sports world, many observers at home become a bit disillusioned with athletic competition and why they care so much about it.
Yale men’s basketball point guard Javier Duren ’15 may have been able to sum it up best with just a few words.
“Sports can change lives, man,” the senior leader of the Bulldogs said.
This week provided the fans of Yale’s men’s basketball team perhaps its best reason to root for the Elis when Yale officially welcomed Riley Mack to its roster on Tuesday.
Mack is not a four- or five- star recruit poised to star at Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater or garner All-Ivy recognition when this season comes to a close, but his arrival may be the most touching in recent school history.
Riley, a 14-year-old Connecticut resident originally from Florida, was adopted by the Bulldogs through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation. The organization, founded by Denis Murphy and inspired by his courageous daughter Jaclyn, matches children suffering from brain tumors to college programs across the country.
Riley has been combating his vicious ailment with awe-inspiring strength since the age of three, persevering despite setbacks and both physical and mental anguish. In the Yale home locker room and in the company of his mother, Donna, Riley met his newest set of teammates, primed to support him in his battle.
“It gives me the chills to see how the team embraced Riley and his mom,” Murphy said. “And they know it’s a long-term commitment. This isn’t a one game or a one season deal. This is as long as Riley is alive.”
The unique pairing demonstrates more than just a touching story of a 14-year-old boy’s life journey. It shows that sports provide hope in the face of adversity, support and unity in times of loneliness and a reason to smile when the harsh realities of life are far too overwhelming. In the words of Duren, it can change lives.
Head coach James Jones echoed his starting point guard, stating that the impact of sports is impossible to quantify.
“What sports have done to galvanize people, you can’t put a price tag on,” Jones said. “It’s invaluable.”
For Riley, this pairing has already paid dividends.
Murphy relayed how Riley has often been unable to muster the energy necessary to complete his physical and occupational therapy sessions. Riley, however, was invigorated by the excitement of meeting more than a dozen new brothers. He also received a brand-new Yale jersey — he will wear number one — hanging up in his very own locker, complete with a nameplate.
That excitement quickly transferred into energy. Riley went on to play with the Bulldogs for over an hour at Payne Whitney Gymnasium, the most physical therapy he has completed in some time, according to Murphy.
“[Riley] sits down in his house a lot and rarely gets up … and he stood out on that basketball court in front of his mother and she was shocked,” Murphy said. “He’s out there smiling, with his chin up, shoulders back … that’s the magic of Friends of Jaclyn right there.”
However, this is not a one-sided relationship. Whereas Riley has found himself an invaluable set of role models, which Murphy referred to as the “very best in the nation,” the Bulldogs may stand to benefit even more than their newest recruit.
In Duren’s eyes, having Riley around provides an immeasurable sense of humility.
“He’s going to be able to impact us more than we can impact him,” Duren said. “Whenever we’re feeling down, whether it’s because of practice or it’s because of games, we know that we can look at Riley for support and he’ll be there for us.”
Riley will be attending as many Yale games as his body will allow him. Unfortunately, he is still at a difficult stage in his progress where no future plans can be promised nor guaranteed.
What can be guaranteed, however, is that the team will provide a much-needed escape . For Murphy, that is the goal.
“Our mission is about quality of life and what can we do for children today, not tomorrow or a year from now,” Murphy said. “The program is about love, support and affection. That’s what the Yale men’s basketball team is providing.”
Murphy decided to make this foundation after seeing how his own daughter, now 20 and studying at Marist College, responded so positively to having a close relationship with the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team following her brain tumor diagnosis at the age of nine.
After introducing Riley to the Yale squad — the 520th child to be adopted thus far — Murphy said that even over 500 children later, the emotions and sheer power of the moment a team meets its adoptee have not diminished one bit.
“It’s hard because we’ve lost 103 children. I’m around death. People see me and they run,” Murphy said. “You don’t know how long a child’s journey going to be, whether it’s a day or a week or a year — that’s how insidious this disease is. But one day at a time, that’s why we live in the moment and play in the moment.”
Yale opens its 2014–15 campaign on the road against rival Quinnipiac on November 14. The Bulldogs hope to have Riley in attendance.