Chicago teen doesn't let visual impairment stop him from playing sports he loves

ByJohn Owens Localish logo
Wednesday, March 8, 2023
Chicago teen's visual impairment doesn't stop him from playing sports
"Anybody tells him he can't do something, he's gonna prove them wrong."

CHICAGO -- At first glance, Triston Burns doesn't seem like a ball-hawking, defensive-minded combo guard on the basketball court.

The slender 13-year-old Chicagoan from the city's Austin neighborhood on the Far West Side was born with ocular albinism, a condition which greatly impairs his vision. Due to his impaired sight, he wears prescription glasses, designed to greatly magnify the world in front of him.

"Everything has to be close to his face," said his mother, Christina Person. "Even when he looks at his phone, everything has to be close or enlarged."

But Burns hasn't let that stop him from playing multiple sports, and playing them well.

Right now, the 13-year-old plays basketball in the Chicago Westside Police and Youth Sports Conference, a league administered by a charitable organization called City of Refuge - Chicago.

The organization, sponsored by groups like the Chicago Police Department and Catholic Charities, provides activities and events for young people in low-income neighborhoods in Chicago.

Starting in May, Burns will be on the baseball field, competing as a pitcher for the conference for his third straight season.

"Anybody tells him he can't do something, he's gonna prove them wrong," Person said. "That's how he is."

Burns' basketball coaches say that despite his disability - the rim is a blur and he can't see distances very well - he is a whiz at defense.

"It's his tenacity that stands out," said Brandon Wilkerson, one of his coaches. "He works extra hard. He dives for loose balls, he fights for every rebound, fighting through screens. He's just an energizer bunny on the court."

Burns says he knows exactly where he is on the court.

"The basket is a little blurry, but I can see it mostly," Burns said. "[And with defense], I can hear their shoes, their squeaks, and I can take a few steps up and see their jerseys. So I know where to go."

Indeed, Burns has been a revelation for his coaches, who have been playing him as a sixth man. They have started to encourage him to shoot more, and he's now occasionally hitting three point shots.

"I'm still confused sometimes, because people say, 'he can't see, he can't see', but yet he knows where the basketball rim is," said Jonathan McDonald, another one of his coaches.

His mother started Burns on his path towards athletics. He was born with albinism, which affects the production of melanin, the pigment that colors skin, hair and eyes. That condition was an impediment to Burns' time at a public school in Austin, where he was initially struggling in school due to his impaired vision.

"He was struggling at schools and his grades started suffering, because he couldn't see what was on the blackboard," Person said. "We had to move him to a school on the North Side, which specialized in educating students with disabilities. And he's been doing much better in school since."

But Person wanted to also create a positive environment at home for Burns. So she encouraged him to try out for the Chicago Westside Sports Conference's baseball team in 2019.

Baseball coach Jessie Duncan was skeptical at first. But he suggested that Burns try pitching, since it was hard for him to see ground balls or balls hit in the air.

"You don't have to see the ball if you're throwing it," Duncan said. "He can't see the catcher's glove when he's pitching, but he can see the shadow of his arm, so I told him to throw at that."

"He's definitely an effective pitcher," Duncan said. "He wants to try first base, but I tell him he's too good as a pitcher."

Burns' success in baseball gave him the idea to also try out for the conference's basketball team last year.

"He had trouble with his coordination at first," Wilkerson said. "He couldn't make a layup or dribble, and he traveled a lot. But he worked twice as hard as everyone else on the team. He was the first person in the gym, and the last to leave. And he would always ask questions."

Burns was soon getting regular playing time, and, after initial skepticism from his teammates, he was accepted by them, too.

"When I started, my teammates thought I was different, so they'd try to talk me down and order me around," Burns said. "But now they're helping me out. They try to get me points, so I try to take four or five shots per game."

Despite his visual impairment, Burns wants to continue playing sports once he starts high school in the fall. His coaches are encouraging him to do so.

"He's got all the tools to be successful in life, inside or outside of sports." Wilkerson said. "Anything he decides to do, he's gonna do it. 'Cause he's gonna apply what he learns."