published Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Kennedy: Tiniest Moc is basketball team's secret heartbeat

My 7-year-old son starts begging for a bedtime story at breakfast.

"Please, Daddy," he'll say, "can you think of a story before tonight?"

So a couple of weeks ago, I concocted a story about Baby Boy, the pint-size hero of our nighttime tales.

In my story, Baby Boy -- who, I explained, "is no taller than a No. 2 pencil, but can dribble a basketball 180 times a minute" -- becomes a member of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team.

My son, like countless children across the city, has fallen under the spell of coach Will Wade's Mocs. His eyes got big as I described Baby Boy sitting on the end of the Mocs bench, his knees bouncing as he waited for a chance to play.

As the story unfolds, the Mocs endure a rash of injuries and Baby Boy is pushed into action in the final seconds of the final game of the Southern Conference tournament. So tiny he is barely visible to defenders, he dribbles down the court and throws up a buzzer-beater.

Sitting straight up in bed, my son blurts expectantly, "Nothing but net?"

"Nothing but net," I said, waving three fingers in the air. "And the crowd went crazy!"

Sometimes I think God presents us with inexplicable coincidences to amuse himself. So here's what happened next.

Two days later I got an email, passed along from Times Free Press Sports Editor Jay Greeson, that suggested Baby Boy is real and that his name is Keegan Morgan. Actually, Keegan is even more brave and heroic than my made-up Baby Boy character.

Keegan is 9 years old, a third-grader at Chattanooga Christian School, and he is a full-fledged member of the Mocs basketball team. He even has his own jersey, No. 9, and a locker to boot.

Late last summer, Keegan signed a national letter of intent with the Mocs. This was arranged by the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, a national nonprofit that pairs kids with brain tumors with college sports team.

"They (the sick kids) may be able to play sports, but never high school or college," explains Leslie Morgan, Keegan's mom. "They have a lot of fatigue."

The Friends of Jaclyn website explains its origins: "In 2004, 9-year-old Jaclyn Murphy was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor. In 2005, through chance of events, Jaclyn became connected to and later adopted as an honorary member of the Northwestern Women's lacrosse team. Jaclyn's strength, courage, relentless spirit and joy for life inspired the players. The team began to play for Jaclyn and achieved a magical 'perfect season,' winning Northwestern's first NCAA national championship in 64 years."

Jaclyn is in college now.

Could lightning strike twice?

Keegan's brain tumors were diagnosed in 2009. He has had one operation at St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, and another is planned for this summer. The tumors have affected his pituitary gland and, as a result, he is small for his age. He has to take a shot once a day, and his parents wake him up at night to give him pills.

"We really don't know what we're dealing with," says his mother. "We just know it's slow-growing."

The Mocs have kept news of their tiny teammate quiet, perhaps not wanting to tip off their opponents to their secret weapon. This is no publicity stunt. Keegan is a tangible source of team strength that has perhaps helped fuel the Mocs' fast start in conference play.

Keegan tried to tell his classmates at Chattanooga Christian that he was part of the team as the Mocs began to make headlines for their winning streak, but some of them brushed him off.

"I AM part of the team," 4-foot-4 Keegan insisted.

"No, you're not," said one of his friends.

The teasing ended one day when seven Mocs filed into his school's cafeteria to eat lunch with Keegan. A table full of giants has a way of hushing up naysayers.

"Our team has five core values and No. 1 is appreciation," explains Wade, who notes that hanging out with Keegan has taught his players what it's like to fight through big challenges. "Our team has bonded with him."

Once the team babysat Keegan and his younger brother, Christian, so his mom and dad could go on a date. Keegan also sits in on real team meetings before big games.

A week ago Saturday, the Mocs coaches asked the players who wanted to go see Keegan play a basketball game at North River YMCA, and everyone's hand shot up.

"We're at the YMCA and here comes this whole group of super-tall guys in their UTC warm-ups," explains Keegan's mother. "If it wasn't the whole team, it was 98 percent of them. They stayed and watched the whole game. They clapped and cheered. I was floored. They had a game that night, for crying out loud."

Unlike Baby Boy, Keegan Morgan will never make it onto the court for UTC. But that doesn't mean his heart and spirit are not in the game.

You can see Keegan Morgan in the cool confidence of Ronrico White when he steps to the free-throw line. He's right there in the audacious baseline drives of Casey Jones, and the thundering rejections by Zaccheus Mason.

And when adversity arrives, which it always does in sports, little No. 9 will be in the stands to inspire and encourage his friends -- and teammates.

"That's my team," he tells his Mom proudly, pumping his fist as the Mocs take the court.

Yes, baby boy, it most certainly is.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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