ROYERSFORD >> Eli Vivian runs a tight ship.
The 17-year-old Spring-Ford junior always looks for three things, and he reminds his players of them often. Threes, defense and dunks.
On the day before the Spring-Ford boys basketball team’s second-round matchup in districts, Vivian, the team’s manager, is looking for those things in practice.
Sitting back in a white chair, with a freshly 3D-printed Spring-Ford Rams chain that matches his blue hoodie and shoes, Vivian has his hands folded in his lap, eyes front, making sure everything is up to par before a big game against West Chester Henderson, where a win would punch the team’s ticket to states.
After running some halfcourt drills, balls flowing fluidly between different sets of hands, sneakers squeaking frantically on the hardwood, Vivian greets his players as they come off for a quick water break, forming a fist-bump line.
At the end of the line is 6-foot-4 forward Tommy Kelly, towering over Vivian as they connect fists. Vivian often reminds Kelly to get dunks in their family consumer sciences class during school, but doubled down on his expectation of the sophomore, requesting those big plays once more.
“It’s been fun to be a part of this group,” Vivian said.
Once upon a time, Vivian played basketball. And it was entirely in the cards that he could be on the court preparing to play in the postseason as well.
But for 10 years now, Vivian has been living with metachromatic leukodystrophy (MLD), an inherited neurometabolic disease that affects the brain and the central nervous system, that slowly made life look and feel different.
It also made Vivian’s role on the team different. And with his involvement, that team just so happens to be the top-ranked Class 6A squad in District 1 of Pennsylvania high school basketball.
Vivian had other loves growing up, like soccer, baseball and football. He’s a devout Philly sports fan who was more than upset at the way this past Super Bowl ended in an Eagles loss.
Sports have given Vivian the type of joy that any adolescent knows. But when he was diagnosed with MLD at age 7, it meant his days of competing were at an end.
MLD causes severe damage to the nervous system, creating extensive and progressive neurological disability. In Vivian’s case, walking and speech can prove difficult.
“You’ll see some issues with walking and motor skills in general. Some nerve ending issues, all related back to the brain,” said Steve, Vivian’s father.
There is currently no treatment available in medicine to reverse the deterioration and loss of function that MLD causes, though Vivian has undergone gene therapy to slow down the effects.
Given that MLD is a genetic disease, once Vivian was diagnosed, his siblings were tested as well. Younger sister Ella has MLD too, though it was caught much earlier on, making gene therapy treatments more effective in slowing down MLD’s progression. Older brothers Evan and Eric are carriers of the gene.
Second-year Spring-Ford head coach Joe Dempsey has known Steve his whole life, the two having competed against each other — Dempsey for Archbishop Kennedy, Vivian at Bishop Kenrick.
“(Assistant coach) Michael Allerton was instrumental in hooking me up with Eli. He knew Eli’s story, thought he might benefit from being around the team,” Dempsey said. “The kid has given us more than we’ve given him, trust me. The guys light up when they see him.”
The players have been lighting it up on the court, too. Once Vivian hopped aboard, the Rams rolled out to a pristine 9-0 league record in the Pioneer Athletic Conference, locking up the Liberty Division and top seed in the PAC tournament.
With each passing game through Pioneer Athletic Conference play in the regular season, it became clear that there was something special happening within Spring-Ford’s program. The wins kept coming, and Vivian liked what he was seeing from his team.
“I felt like we were clutch,” Vivian said. “Undefeated, unbelievable.”
Dancing in the rain
Whether it’s a coincidence, a product of great coaching, solid execution by players or Vivian’s impact on the team — perhaps a combination of it all — Spring-Ford’s season has been storybook this winter.
In an unusually dominant year, the Rams rode a 20-game win streak through the regular season. The team’s Twitter account routinely credited Vivian for being undefeated as a manager for much of 2022-23, having joined just after Spring-Ford’s season-opening loss against 5A West Chester East at State College’s tipoff tournament.
Let’s catch our breath…
*Record:19-1, 11-0 in the PAC 10
*clinched Liberty Division, #1 seed in PAC playoffs.
Upcoming Games; Tues:Methacton (A)
Junior Manager Eli Vivian and the guys celebrate big win on Thursday night!! pic.twitter.com/vJAlk569uf
— Spring-Ford Boy’s Basketball (@BoysSF) January 28, 2023
The cherry on top was the Rams’ first PAC championship since the 2015-16 season on Feb. 14, a 74-55 win over Frontier champion Upper Merion.
When the team posed with the conference plaque on its own court, it was Vivian who was front and center, holding it as families gathered around for pictures, soaking in both the moment and the fruits of a season’s worth of labor.
“It felt like a lot of confetti would come down, like a Sixers game,” Vivian said. “It felt like I was part of the Spring-Ford family.”
There might not have been confetti, but Vivian did get a piece of the net. That, and something else that isn’t quite as tangible.
“It’s a diversion from what’s going on. Any time you can divert from reality and find excitement, it’s welcomed. We welcome it,” Steve said. “That’s exactly what it’s been and for the team to do as well as they have, has just been the icing on the cake.”
Game-by-game, win-by-win, Spring-Ford kept knocking down the dominoes behind a defense that allows just 45.1 points per game — the leading defense in the PAC.
Vivian’s mother, Becky, is an avid blogger who posted about the aftermath of the PAC championship. In it, she discussed how it was hard to attend games at first, thinking of how her son should be on the court competing. That by now, it’s easier, more manageable to take in when she sees him smiling after every win, brimming with pure excitement and celebrating with his teammates.
In the post, Becky shares a quote from motivational speaker Vivian Greene, ‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.’ Spring-Ford’s team has been dancing all season, and with it, Vivian and his family.
Treating every day as a gift, not knowing what the future looks like. Rolling with the good times now as they come.
“We can’t wait until things are perfect. Nothing is ever gonna be perfect,” Becky said. “But, if we can find the joy in the moment that we’re actually living in… some people look at us and say, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ It’s a really challenging life at times. You just have to keep going and find the joy wherever you can.”
MLD is a storm that will never pass. The clouds will always be there, and some days will have heavier rain than others.
But the Spring-Ford boys basketball team has been an umbrella.
“For us as parents, it’s emotional,” Becky said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see all these kids, because those are his peers, he’s 17 years old. To see them all come together and treat him like one of them, I mean they don’t really treat him any differently. They treat him like he’s a part of the team. And he is. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Back to the grind
In between sessions, players dap up Vivian and even have special handshakes. Senior guard Caleb Little was among the first to create one with the manager, hands clapping back and forth a few times before a bicep pat.
“It really encapsulates our mentality as a team, our togetherness,” Little said. “How much of a family we are and how much we love each other.”
Whether it be the handshakes, having Vivian front and center of a championship celebration or even his new 3D-printed Spring-Ford bling, the team has given back to Vivian as the manager pours everything he has into the program.
On that last day of practice before the start of Spring-Ford’s run through the District 1-6A tournament, Vivian was itching to get going. The longer wait with a first-round bye was the price to pay for the team being successful.
By this point, Spring-Ford was using the full court. The ball flew into the hands of Kelly along the wing. He promptly drained a 3-pointer, one of the three things Vivian wants to see more of.
Spring-Ford’s manager cracked a smile.
“That was pretty good.”