Teen not on court, but definitely part of the action
What's a boy to do if he loves sports but can't quite physically play them? Become a school sports announcer, and a really good one at that.
Fifteen-year-old Zain Bando, who was born with cerebral palsy, announces games for freshman boys basketball and girls volleyball at Downers Grove North High School, where he's a freshman.
Zain also has his own Internet-based sports talk show at blogtalkradio.com, where each Saturday morning he gives analysis and commentary on Chicago sports teams and all the major games of the week.
His listeners aren't that many -- maybe 20 or 30 -- but it's a blast nonetheless, he said.
"Since I'm unable to play any of the sports, unless I get them adapted for me, I wanted to be able to express my feelings about it," he said.
Zain's can-do attitude impresses peers and adults, said Bill Kilgore, physical education teacher at Harrick Middle School in Downers Grove.
Back when Zain was in seventh grade, it was Kilgore who first suggested that he channel his love for sports into announcing. On the occasion of his last game at Harrick, the boys' basketball team thanked Zain by presenting him with a basketball signed by all the players.
"It's just unbelievable, if you know what he's dealing with," Kilgore said. "He always stays so positive. He's just a great kid."
Zain made announcing fun from the start, Kilgore said.
"He was really into it. It was exciting," he said. "I had to pull him back sometimes. I had to remind him, 'It's a PA. You can't favor the home team.' It was really a great experience for everyone involved, from the players to the coaches to myself."
Zain, which means "with honor" in Pakistani, was born premature at 25 weeks, weighing just 1 pound and 12 ounces. Despite his health challenges -- including several surgeries, the first one at age 7 and the latest one about a year ago -- he's always been a talker, which makes his passion for sports announcing all the more fitting, said his mother, Saba.
She and her husband, Matt, attend all of his games.
"It's kind of like watching your child play in a sport. It's really important to Zain," she said.
Zain tried out wheelchair basketball and sled hockey, but either he was not good enough or practice didn't work out with his schedule, he said.
"I tried tennis. That was probably the best sport for me. But I didn't think that I could make a long-term commitment," he said.
Her son always puts on a brave face, even if he might feel differently inside, Saba Bando said.
"He tells us a lot of about how he feels, but outside of our home, he wants people to see that he's doing OK," she said. "We try to teach him that it's OK not to be perfect, it's OK to show emotion. Some of it could be personality, but some of it could be the result of always having to count on somebody else."
Always relying on others can be hard, Zain said.
"I need physical assistance for everything physical," he said. "I have to have my mom put me in the chair, I have to have my dad bathe me in the shower. I have to have help for everything."
So are there times when he gets mad about it all?
"Yes, I get mad. But I focus on positive," he said. "Whenever I am mad, I let it out, but then I realize I have to get back to doing what I am able to do. I can't worry on what I am not able to do."
Zain is a good student who gets all A's and B's and is well-liked by everyone, said Downers Grove North English teacher Jena Abrahamsen. A school aide helps him with his physical needs, and he uses a computer, iPad and Google technology to keep up with his studies.
"Zain is a really personable, inspirational, fun kid," Abrahamsen said. "From the beginning when I met him, he always talked about his interest in becoming a better communicator. He's really engaging and funny, and he gets along well with other people."
His greatest strength is his dedication to getting it right, she said.
"I allow all my students to revise their work, but he will come back at me with multiple revisions until it's perfect," she said. "It's rare that they're that persistent."
He also devotes a great deal of time to watching games and following analysis and commentary. His favorite broadcasters are the Blackhawks' Pat Foley, the Bears' Jeff Joniak and 670 The Score's Laurence Holmes, but he tries not to copy anyone, he said.
"I try to have my own unique style, which is to bring the game to you and have a little bit of bias toward a particular team," he said.
As for mistakes, sure, it happens, he admits with a smile.
"I made a horrible mistake once the other night, when I said a basket was a 2-pointer but it was three points. I saw the scoreboard and I was like, 'Oh, no!'"
As vocal as he is on the sidelines, it's not always easy to advocate for yourself when you depend so much on others, Zain said.
A major turning point came last year when -- after hesitating for weeks -- he spoke up about a physical therapist who pushed him too hard, he said.
Zain is a driven young man, said Dr. Charles Sisung, medical director of the pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation program at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
"He has a tremendous amount of ego strength and a tremendous sense of personal self-worth as an individual," said Sisung, who's known Zain since about age 7. "That's a wonderful characteristic that a child with a disability has."
Credit also goes to Zain's parents and their positive attitude in helping him manage a condition that can be extremely challenging during the early teen growth spurt, Sisung said. Zain had specialized nerve surgery about a year ago to deal with that.
Zain has his future all mapped out -- he's going to college away from home, will study broadcasting, journalism and history, and become a professional radio or TV sports broadcaster.
"I have this sculpted out in my head for like, three years," he said. "I just have to do everything that I need to do to get there."
He also hopes that researchers someday will develop technology to help him walk. Last year, he tested at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago a Lokomat robot-assisted walking device, which he called "amazing."
"This may all sound like a lot, but I'm not afraid of hard work," he said. "What makes me even more confident in my future is that I have a good support system with my family, RIC, my school and community."
Zain BandoAge: 15
Hometown: Downers Grove
School: Downers Grove North High School
Who inspires you? My parents Saba and Matt. They want me to do my best in school, they want me to be a good person around other people, and they also want me to try to take on new opportunities.
What book are you reading? "The Glory Game: How the 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever" by Frank Gifford and Peter Richmond.
What music are you listening to? Top 40, R & B and classic rock.
The three words that best describe you? Outgoing. Happy. Thoughtful.