MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Mike Stephenson couldn't talk and still managed to get himself suspended from Minnesota Timberwolves practice for saying too much.
He couldn't walk and still managed to crawl out of his wheelchair to wipe up a wet spot he noticed on the court before anyone else could get there.
He couldn't shoot and still managed to leave a lasting impact on the organization that took him in and treated him as one of the guys.
Stephenson was born with cerebral palsy and died earlier this week after the latest in a long line of bouts with pneumonia, leaving Timberwolves past and present to mourn one of the team's biggest fans, and biggest inspirations. He was 42.
"He was so good for the players and the rest of us," former coach and executive Flip Saunders said. "They all make a lot of money and are kind of on a different level. But Mike helped them get a better understanding that there's other things, bigger things, that make the world go round."
Stephenson was born in the small town of Spring Valley, about two hours south of the Minneapolis. Cerebral palsy rendered him unable to talk and sentenced him to life in a wheelchair.
"When he was born the doctors told us he was severely mentally retarded and we should just put him in a home and forget about him," his mother Barb Stephenson said.
Barb and Randy Stephenson didn't do that and their son grew up to earn a bachelor's degree in political science from Southwest State University before moving to the big city and latching on with the Timberwolves.
A passionate sports fan, Stephenson started showing up to Timberwolves games regularly near the turn of the century. He had an elaborate electronic board mounted on his wheelchair that would allow him to hit certain buttons, which would prompt a computerized voice to say sentences he constructed. Never bashful, he once chased down former Wolves executive Kevin McHale at a Twins game and asked for his email.
Saunders would see Stephenson scooting around Target Center and struck up a conversation. Stephenson asked to come to practice, using that gregariousness he got from his father.
"I'll talk to a wall if it will listen," Randy Stephenson said.
Saunders started allowing Stephenson to come and watch practice, a privilege granted to very few. It came back to bite him later when Stephenson called into local sports talk radio station KFAN to break the news that the injured Wally Szczerbiak was practicing and likely to play in an upcoming game. Saunders barred him from practice for a week.
"Loose lips sink ships," McHale playfully chided him once. But all was clearly forgiven because Stephenson even appeared in the team's official photo in 2002-03.
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