Height didn't keep 3-foot-5 player off Hillcats team
By JASON SCHREIBER Union Leader Correspondent
Fourteen-year-old Tristan Wilmott, center, joined Hillsboro-Deering High School's junior varsity basketball team this year. He was born with a rare condition that limited his growth, but it didn't stop him from becoming one of the team. (Jason Schreiber)
Hillsboro-Deering High School junior varsity basketball player Tristan Wilmott reaches for the ball during a game against Bow Friday night.
HILLSBOROUGH -- Height is an asset for a basketball player, but it’s not a big deal for the boys on Hillsboro-Deering High School’s junior varsity team.
This year, the Hillcats welcomed Tristan Wilmott to their team.
This freshman, who turns 15 in April, stands out, but it’s not because he towers over his teammates.
Tristan is 3-foot-5, weighs 42 pounds, and wears a size 1 shoe. He’s so small that his team had to special-order a uniform with his No. 1 because none of the uniforms on hand would fit him.
But despite his small stature, caused by a rare disorder, Tristan isn’t one bit intimidated when he’s up against 6-footers on the court.
He’s just used to it.
“I understand,” he said with a grin, “a lot of people are taller than me.”
Tristan’s coach and teammates agree that what he lacks in height he makes up in spirit on this team that hasn’t won a game all season.
In many ways, Tristan and his team have shown that sometimes the real winners are the ones who lose.
“He definitely raises the spirits of everybody on the team,” said coach Andrew Jones. He’s been in games where we’ve been down by a lot, and then at the end Tristan goes out and everyone on the bench is cheering and he’s taking shots and they’re hoping they go in, and it’s just an explosion when he does make it.
“A lot of teams, when they’re down by that much, no one cares anymore and they’re just waiting for the clock to run out.”
A rough start
Tristan’s journey to the basketball court has been tough.
At age 4 he was diagnosed with a condition called mulibrey nanism — an extremely rare genetic disorder that causes significant growth failure and other abnormalities affecting the heart, muscles, brain and eyes.
Doctors told his mother, Jessie, that he’s one of about 115 people in the world known to have the disease; most are Finnish.
As a young child, Tristan, who grew up in Hillsboro, underwent two open-heart surgeries and numerous biopsies as doctors tried to figure out why he wasn’t growing normally.
Tristan wasn’t expected to live very long. His mother said doctors thought he might make it to about 2 or 3.
He was sent to Walt Disney World through the Make-A-Wish Foundation when he was 5.
Tristan seemed to beat the odds after the wish was granted. He hasn’t been hospitalized since then, and he remains in good health.
The 10 medications he once took are now down to just a growth hormone shot.
“I’m not religious in any way,” his mother said, “but something happened.”
Determined to play
Tristan was always interested in competitive team sports, but his mom was hesitant.
“I’ve played sports. I don’t sugarcoat things with him. I make him aware of his limitations. I just didn’t think it was a good idea,” she said.
She thought individual sports would be better.
Tristan took karate lessons for about five years until his instructor was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Though Tristan avoided team sports for years, the Hillsboro-Deering High School athletic director encouraged him to play. Friends also told him to give it a try.
Even with that encouragement, Tristan’s mother wasn’t sure it was a good idea; she feared some wouldn’t want him on the team.
Tristan took it all in stride when he tried out.
“I either made it or I didn’t make it,” he said. “I wasn’t really nervous.”
He was psyched to land a spot on the team and has tried his best, scoring a total of 14 points this season.
While the team may have lost every game, Tristan tries to look on the bright side.“We’re getting close,” he said.
Winning is always nice, but at the end of the day, Tristan said, “It’s all about having fun.”
The team has one more chance to win when it plays its last game Friday at Kearsarge Regional High School.
As the season nears an end, Tristan’s mom has learned that letting him play was the right decision.
“They’ve all been great,” she said of the players and fans. “They’ve really encouraged him. He gets cheered on a lot. He’s got his own little cheer section. The girls love him.”
Opposing teams have also encouraged him and helped him out on the court, especially the players from Stevens High School in Claremont; he scored six points in a game against Stevens.
“It’s fun. I like getting points and making everybody happy,” Tristan said.
His coach admitted that he was concerned about Tristan’s safety early on, but that hasn’t been an issue so far. Jones said he has no regrets about putting him on the team. And the team has learned an important lesson in acceptance.
“He’s energetic, definitely. It’s always good to get him in in the last few minutes to get some points. He’s taught us how to really work as a team,” said teammate Sam Taylor, 17.
Freshman Kyle Bergstresser, 15, has known Tristan since preschool.
“He’s a positive guy,” he said.
Once the basketball season ends, Tristan plans to take snowboarding lessons at Pats Peak, where his mother works.
He’s also considering other team sports. “I’m planning on playing soccer and football next year,” he said.