The first magical moment of Cory Weissman’s basketball career was scoring his 1,000th point for Jackson Memorial High School in Jackson Township, N.J.
Only the ninth player in school history to reach the milestone, Cory did it in sensational style – swishing a long 3-pointer over a tall defender in a home game against a budding rival, in front of a crowd packed with family and friends. As a reward, his name was inscribed on a gym wall.
Four years later, Cory scored the only point of his college career. And it was so magical, Hollywood just made a movie about it..
At Gettysburg College – a private, liberal arts school made famous by a decisive battle during the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address – Cory’s freshman year ended with a championship in the team’s Division III conference. While Cory is front and center in celebratory pictures, he played only three games that season and didn’t score.A few weeks later, while lifting weights with a friend, Cory tried picking up a dumbbell. He couldn’t get it to budge. He went into a hallway and couldn’t sit up straight. As he and his friend headed to the athletic training room for help, Cory's left leg became useless, leaving him dragging the leg, and the friend dragging Cory. The left side of Cory’s face was numb, too. An athletic trainer immediately recognized the 19-year-old likely was having a stroke.
He was. A tangle of arteries and veins in his brain – an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM – had burst. He’d been born with this problem, but as with most AVMs, it was discovered in a brutal way. Two days later, Cory underwent a procedure to stop the bleeding. Less than two weeks later, he moved to a rehabilitation facility.
He still couldn’t use his left side. This point guard couldn’t even walk.
Basketball helped in ways big and small.
A ball autographed by friends became a constant companion. Dribbling helped revive the feeling in his left hand, which had been paralyzed. Most of all, the sport gave him a goal.
“Before the stroke, my source of motivation was to become a better player,” Cory said. “Once I had the stroke, in my head, I was still a basketball player, so my motivation was to get back on the court. I never doubted I was going to do that.”
He returned to campus only months later, having already progressed from a wheelchair to a cane to walking very slowly, but – most importantly – on his own. Surgery to remove the AVM left a C-shaped scar on his head and nerve damage that will never let him fully control his left ankle and foot. He also endured about a dozen seizures. Although he knew he’d never truly play again, by his senior year, Cory was putting on his No. 3 jersey. He took part in pregame warm-ups, then watched games from the bench.
Until Feb. 11, 2012.
For Senior Day, coach George Petrie arranged for Cory to be the starting point guard. Right after the tipoff, time would be called and Cory would go to the bench. The opposing coach, Rob Nugent of Washington College, told his players not to make contact with Cory.
"Once I got subbed out,” Cory said, “that was already the greatest day of my life.”
Actually, it was only the start.
With Gettysburg College ahead by 18 points in the final minute, Petrie went to Cory and said, “Do you want to go back in?”
“Hell, yeah,” Cory said.
Since the opponents already knew Cory’s story, they backed away. He got the ball several times and passed it along without incident.
With 19 seconds left, the opposing coach called a timeout. He wanted to call a play. For Cory. He signaled to the Gettysburg College bench that Cory would be fouled so that he could shoot free throws. Petrie relayed it to his squad as if he was setting up a game-winning play.
“He got out his clipboard and had someone set a screen for me,” Cory said. “It wasn’t necessary, but he just knew it would make me feel like a basketball player again to see my name on the board and having a play drawn up for me.”
A gentle foul sent Cory to the line for two attempts.
Every basketball player has a pre-shot routine on free throws, and Cory slipped right into his: Several dribbles, a spin of the ball in his hands, aim and fire. Because of his balance issues, he had to jump a little to get the ball to the hoop. It still didn’t have enough oomph, hitting the front, left of the rim.
With fans standing, cheering and clapping, Cory went through his motions again. A still photo shows him smiling just after the ball floated off his fingers. Like any good shooter, he knew the result just by the feel. Swish!
Teammates and fans shrieked with delight. Cory looked quickly toward his team’s bench, then hustled back on defense. “
Just me being a basketball player again,” he said.
When time expired, someone handed the ball to Petrie. It was meant to be a souvenir commemorating his 322nd victory at Gettysburg College, putting him No. 1 on the school’s career list.
Petrie – whose brother, Geoff, was a star player and successful executive in the NBA – gave the ball to Cory.
Cory graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in health sciences. He lives in Los Angeles, promoting the movie and hoping to launch a career as a motivational speaker. He’s already being recognized as a Stroke Hero by the American Stroke Association. It’s fitting because his story validates the importance of knowing the warning signs, and the theme that stroke is treatable and beatable.
In speeches, Cory’s message is simple and universal. It’s about overcoming obstacles, whatever they may be.
“I like to say it all starts with taking the first step,” he said. “My first step was waking up in the hospital and saying I was going to get back on the court. If you don’t take that first step, you’ll never get anywhere.”