St. Francis player won't let obstacles hold him back on the court

TJ Richardson, St. Francis Basketball player
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- Like most children in Kentucky, TJ Richardson was born and raised with a love for basketball.

"I started playing basketball when I was, like, four,” he said casually. “My dad bought a basketball rim and put it in the back yard, and when I saw my brother out there I just went out there and tried to shoot with him. That's just how I started."

TJ’s brother, Desmond, was a huge basketball influence growing up. TJ used to go to his brother’s games at Central High School and was in awe.

"He loves to see him play,” said TJ’s mom, Tracie. “He loved going to his games and tried to imitate him and do certain things, and yeah, he really looks up to him."

But in typical older brother fashion, Desmond never let TJ win.

“He always beat me really bad!” TJ said. “He taught me how to handle the ball and keep my head up. He taught me some moves, like how to spin and cross over real fast. And then he just taught me how to run and pull up and shoot."

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Desmond taught TJ fundamentals and technique, but more importantly he instilled a competitiveness and don't-give-up attitude in TJ that has been crucial for the 15-year-old's success.

Nowadays, you see the sophomore blowing by defenders with ease, similar to one of his professional heroes, John Wall.

"He’s so dynamic! He’s spectacular!” TJ said about the former Kentucky stand-out. “He does things that you think he's not going to do, and he does it anyway and scores. He never gives up.”

That sounds a lot like TJ, only he has to find success on the court using only one arm.

"He was born in 2000, 11 pounds 3 ounces at birth,” TJ’s dad, Timothy, explained. “His shoulder was impacted in the birth canal. The doctor was trying to force him out and things of that nature, so, ended up ripping the nerves. I guess, all the nerves to his arm and attached to the spine as well are all damaged."

TJ’s challenges aren't limited to his arm. He was born with five holes in his heart, spent 30 days in the neo-natal intensive care unit and has had multiple surgeries.

Doctors said his arm might change after about six months, but it never did.

"So then we are looking at this is going to be a lifetime thing,” Timothy said. “We thought in sports, what can he do with one hand? I mean there's not a whole lot, other than of course tennis. You know we thought about soccer. He didn't want to play soccer. So basketball just came naturally to him."

"I had to work harder, yeah,” TJ said simply with a shoulder shrug. “When I'm on the court, my mind is clear. There's nothing in my way, and I just can do anything. I feel like one of the regular guys out there. I can do the same thing they can do. I can do it better if I really try."

TJ has won multiple Special Olympics basketball awards and also plays tennis and softball with the organization. But like his brother, he wanted to play high school hoops. St. Francis gave him an opportunity and he has run with it.

"He's had to figure out how to adjust his skill set to be able to flow,” said St. Francis head coach Richard Butcher. “But that's probably the most impressive thing as a coach about him. I think why he's so special as a player and why this program is so happy to have him is the other things that he can teach the rest of the team."

"He doesn't shy away from anybody,” added his mom. “He's fearless. He's gonna guard, he's gonna try to steal the ball, he's going to do everything that everybody else does. He goes between his legs, he goes behind his back. Fearless, just fearless. I mean, yeah. He just loves to compete."

That competitive attitude has been not only helpful to TJ’s success, but now the Wyverns success as well. Players on the St. Francis team said they immediately knew this was a kid that could make their team better in multiple ways.

“The first practice, the first drill, he was out from the gun ready to take people on one-on-one, not backing down from anybody,” said team captain James Risley. “He’s always a crowd favorite. The whole bench or fans on both teams just love it when he does well or scores.”

I asked TJ if there have ever been times when he’s thought something isn’t possible. He thought about it for a beat and then said, “Maybe, but I don't think that a lot because my mom told me not to think like that. I think I'm really good at surprising them! I come out and they don't think I can do it. But then I do it and I just show them why I'm here."

"We don't call him a special needs child. We call him a special child,” said his mom. “I think people stick labels on kids and they’re stuck with them for life, you know. People need to treat people like people."

His teammates say he has inspired them to be better basketball players and people simply by just being himself.

“If you’re into sports, no matter what obstacles you have to overcome, that you can do it as long as you put hard work to it and don’t give up,” Risley said.

"I just like seeing them smile,” TJ said when asked how people react to seeing him play. “And when they smile, it just makes me want to go harder because they like what I'm doing out here. I'm making a difference. I want to go as far as they allow me to, as far as I can get."

TJ hopes to play basketball in college, preferably for Kentucky or Florida. His father said if he doesn’t have a career playing in the NBA, TJ would like to get an undergraduate and PhD degree in history, and become a historian.