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Riverside sharpshooter Weiner still lighting it up after emergency brain surgeries
Riverside Military Academy basketball player Jake Weiner watches early action during a recent game against Lakeview Academy. - photo by Tom Reed

It's an hour before practice and Jake Weiner is on the basketball court.

He stands alone behind the 3-point line, dribbles twice and lofts a shot toward the basket. Arcing like a rainbow, the ball falls silently through the net and bounces a few times on the floor. Weiner walks forward, retrieves the ball and repeats the process.

And again.

It's a daily ritual for the Riverside Military Academy sophomore. It has become a part of his life, just one notch behind eating and sleeping on his hierarchy of needs.

"Basketball is my favorite sport," he said. "Ever since I started playing. I always loved watching it when I was younger, watching all the professional players. So that's what I wanted to do."

It's the competition, he says, that attracts him to the game. The thrill, like many other kids, of being the one with the ball in his hands as the final seconds tick off the clock.

"I love hearing the ball go through the net," he said with a satisfied grin. "The swish sound. And when there's pressure on the line, getting the ball and knowing that everyone trusts me to take the shot. It's a good feeling."

But what if that feeling was gone? What if that thrill was suddenly stripped from him?

It's a reality he's faced for his entire life.

Under pressure

Weiner started playing basketball in fourth grade. Two years later, he began to take it more seriously.

"My best friend played basketball, and we used to always play one-on-one before I ever had any actual training. I used to always want to beat him," he said. "So I got more serious about it, and about a month later, I could beat him. I wanted to stick to it."

And he did.

He'd watch games on television and film of older players. His favorite was Reggie Miller, the former Indiana Pacers sharpshooter, perhaps a reason for Weiner's own knack behind the 3-point line.

But simply learning the sport was only one piece of the equation. For Weiner, other issues stood in his way.

Ever since he was six weeks old, he's had a third ventricular right shunt - a tube that stretches from his brain to his abdomen to help the flow of cerebrospinal fluid throughout the body. A blockage in the third ventricle of his brain had prevented the fluid from flowing properly, and the resulting pressure could have caused mental disabilities or even death.

With the shunt, physical sports could have been out of the question. Anyone who thought that would keep Weiner off the court, however, didn't know him well enough.

"My neurosurgeon always told me that if I was going to play basketball, I couldn't set charges or crash hard for a rebound," Weiner said. "But in a game, I've got to say, I just kind of go in there. I like to help out my teammates as much as I can. Even if it's a slight risk, I'm willing to take it."

In practice, however, he sits out of charging drills, and when he gets hit, he has to feel around his body to ensure there is no swelling from the shunt.

"The drill doesn't seem all that fun, but it's not a good feeling to have to be excluded from your team," Weiner said. "It's just the mentality. It'd be nice not to have to deal with that."

But his coach said that Weiner never used the condition as a crutch. In fact, the team didn't really know many of the specifics.

"He didn't talk about it a whole lot, so we really didn't know," Riverside coach Ron Smith said. "We knew he had some issues when he was a kid, but really didn't know to the extent of how serious it was."

The serious nature of the condition came crashing down upon all of them, however, just before the break in December.

The valve on the shunt disconnected at some point, leaving just a weak flow of the fluid through the tube. Slowly, pressure built on Weiner's brain.

"It was hurting my eyes, and I couldn't see straight," he said. "I couldn't eat and I wasn't feeling the same."

He was taken to the hospital, and doctors were forced to perform an immediate brain surgery.

The goal was to correct the blockage, a procedure that would leave his body independent of the shunt. The procedure itself has just a 50 percent success rate. When pressure built on Weiner's brain on a flight home to Miami, Fla., three weeks after the surgery, doctors were forced to perform another emergency procedure.

His family was present for both procedures.

"It was the scariest thing in the world," his dad, Jeff Weiner, said. "It's every parent's nightmare. And not being physicians, we felt helpless."

The surgery came with plenty of risks: Paralysis if the surgeons hit the spinal cord, loss of sight and even a chance of death. One of the biggest worries for Weiner, of course, was whether he would ever get to play basketball again.

"When I woke up from the first one, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to play," he said. "At all. I didn't know what I was going to be able to do. At the time, I couldn't even wiggle. I could barely move at all. So, I was worried."

And, he thought about his teammates.

"It's funny," Jeff Weiner said. "The whole time, Jake's primary concern was his teammates and Riverside basketball."

His teammates reciprocated the support.

During his time away from the court, they kept in touch through text messages and Facebook. And a lot of prayer.

"We were concerned about Jake," Smith said. "We prayed for him on a daily basis. We were really concerned for a few days, but we knew he was tough and that if anyone could pull through, it would be him."

The team kept Weiner close during games, leaving a seat empty on the bench with his jersey hanging over the back. They wore his No. 20 on their arms.

"It was overwhelmingly wonderful," Jeff Weiner said. "It gives you the chills in a great way."

Teammates D'yves Martin and Adrian Humphrey both spoke to the importance of Weiner to their team.

"It was hard," Martin said. "He's not just an asset as a teammate, but as a close friend."

"He was a missing piece," Humphrey added.

And it didn't take long for that piece to return in a big way.

"Basketball, I love a lot," Weiner said. "It's not just a hobby for me. I always wanted to come back and get back in the game. I was really happy I got to."

Back where he belongs

His return came quicker than most could have imagined, and in a fashion no one expected.

While he was away, missing a total of six games, Weiner was constantly bothering his neurosurgeon to let him get back out onto the court. Finally, weeks after the surgery, he got to go shoot for the first time.

His first shot sliced through the net.

"Being out on the court, I didn't even feel like I was hurting," he said. "I had been in a little bit of pain throughout the day every day. But when I was on the court, I felt great."

His first game felt even better.

It was Jan. 27 against George Walton Academy at home. Against all odds, Weiner returned to the court in dynamic fashion, hitting five 3-pointers and helping his team to an overtime 54-51 victory.

He had had games like that in the past, but just being back on the court was a blessing.

"It was cool, because I didn't know how I was going to be able to practice or even dribble the ball again," he said. "I could barely get out of bed and walk for the most part for weeks after I was out of the hospital."

Martin spoke to the excitement of watching him perform in that game.

"Excitement was a good word for it," he said. "We didn't know when he was coming back or if he was coming back at all."

It was a rewarding experience for someone who places such a high regard on the sport. And, for Weiner, the journey is far from over.

"I'm just happy to play every game," he said. "And the team still has a lot of stuff that we hope to accomplish this season. The surgery was a minor setback. Now I'm back, and hopefully we'll be able to do some good things to finish it off."

Smith added his take on the game as well as Weiner's future in basketball.

"It just makes you smile," he said. "Everybody was pulling for him. Everybody at Riverside was pulling for him. And still is."

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