Spurs Camper Perseveres, Inspires Others

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.

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It was the kind of heart-pounding season no kid should endure. On the basketball court, 15-year-old Willie Wylie felt dizzy. His vision began to fog. Energy seeped out of his body. What no one knew is that Wylie suffered from Atrial Tachyardia, a condition that causes the heart to beat too rapidly.

Despite the irregular heart rhythm, Wylie played on and performed well, averaging about 13 points a game as a shooting guard for the East Central High School freshman team. One day at home, though, he collapsed. At the hospital, doctors broke the news to his parents, Bryan and Cynthia Wylie.

Then a straight-A student, Willie accepted the diagnosis and underwent surgery. Ten days later, he returned to the basketball court wearing a heart monitor that sent readings to his cardiologist. "He wore that for a month," Cynthia says. "But he continued to go to school and play basketball."

When the school year ends today at East Central High, Willie will break for the summer with a $245 Ashley Furniture scholarship to attend a Spurs basketball camp July 5-9 at the University of the Incarnate Word. He won the scholarship after his mother penned a compelling nomination letter, detailing his character and work ethic.

Two years ago, Cynthia wrote, Lou Gehrig's disease claimed the life of Willie's grandfather, a man her son adored. Willie was bedside when his grandfather passed, and the loss hit him hard. The two lived next door to each other and often played hoops and H-O-R-S-E. On the day of the funeral, Willie's seventh grade soccer team had a playoff game. The coach said he and the team understood if Willie couldn't play. But Willie "knew he was the only goalie his team had," Cynthia wrote, "and he didn't want to let them down, so he played."

For over 25 years, the San Antonio Spurs, along with the Silver Stars, have trained and developed boys and girls ages 7-18, from all over the world to be better basketball players during our summer camps.

The goal is to provide campers with a basketball educational experience both on and off the court and to become a better basketball player.

This year Ashley Furniture Homestore, the Spurs and the Silver Stars teamed up to reward 70 scholarships to kids that display outstanding values both on and off the court with Teamwork, Integrity, Sportsmanship and Hard Work.

Playing for his grandfather, Willie shutout the other team and Legacy Middle School won a shootout, 1-0.

The next year, Willie was at his grandmother's bedside when she succumbed to heart failure. He took the court after her passing, dedicated the game to her and delivered his best performance: 18 points, 10 steals, 9 rebounds. "I felt like my grandmother was watching over me," Willie says.

The coach leaned on Willie for more than scoring. He asked him to tutor teammates who were struggling with Algebra. Willie obliged, then did the same as a freshman. He met with students before class to help them with geography and geometry. "I like tutoring," he says. "It's fun."

Before collapsing at home, Willie maintained a 91 average while taking pre-Advancement Placement classes. After surgery, his grades slipped to a B average as he spent considerable time after school getting medical checkups. "I had to study in the car going to the hospital and coming back," he says. "I didn't have any time at home."

Still, his parents marveled at how their son balanced school with basketball and so many hospital visits. Willie didn't stop tutoring; he didn't complain, either. Recalls Cynthia: "He never once said, 'Why did this have to happen to me?'"

Willie's quick return from heart surgery wowed Chip Moxley, the freshman basketball coach. Moxley made Willie sit on the bench for one game, then, after receiving medical clearance, allowed him to play. "He didn't miss a beat," said Moxley, who coaches a run and gun offense. "I don't know any kids who would go through the heart procedure he did and come back and go as hard as he did. It was very impressive to see him give 100 percent."

The collapse and the surgery, the comeback and the heart monitor, the trauma of losing his grandparents -- Willie has persevered through storms of adversity while inspiring those around him.

"He constantly uplifts ... teammates by encouraging them to do better and not worry about any error that has been made," Cynthia wrote in her nominating letter. "He will give the shirt off his back if you ask him to. He wants to be a pediatrician when he grows up."

Yes, Willie nurtures big dreams. He also carries a big heart. Six weeks ago, it was beating irregularly. Now? Willie says the heart is beating fine and that's great news. With the pace he keeps during the school year, playing, studying and tutoring, he needs a heart that can keep up.