The minute David Baumann arrives, it starts.
The William Blount High School coach walks hurriedly into his office at the school’s Marvin Boring Gymnasium. Almost as quickly, Micah Ballard, the school’s sophomore star, is there at the door, pounding a basketball fiercely into the floor.
“I own him!” Baumann says of their post-practice H-O-R-S-E battles.
“Yeah, but I beat you the other day,” Ballard fires back.
And on it goes.
“The record, he’s got,” Ballard adds, “but it’s always fun to beat him because he’s so competitive. It’s always good to put it in his face because he gets so mad.”
Baumann encourages the bravado from the normally soft-spoken Ballard. He knows it’s only a matter of time before the talented, 6-foot-1 left-hander starts administering a beat down on a regular basis. He’s looking forward to it. It’s the thing he hopes for most right now.
“He’s had to grow up at an early age,” Baumann said. “He’s had to go through some things a person his age shouldn’t have to go through.”
Ballard’s father, Stan, succumbed to a decade-long battle with cancer two years ago.
Last week, Ballard, now a headliner on the same court his dad once trod, learned his own long-term health may be in question when tests at Vanderbilt Medical Center confirmed he has an arrhythmia that causes his heart to beat dangerously slow at times.
The American Heart Association estimates the normal resting pulse for a well-conditioned athlete of Ballard’s age can be as low as 50 beats per minute.
Through a monitoring device he now wears, Ballard, 16, has been measured as low as 38.
Compounding matters is the fact the arrhythmia is localized in three places on Ballard’s heart.
“I feel like, ‘here we go again,’ “ Lisa Ballard, Micah’s mother, said.
Ballard will wear the monitoring device for the next 30 days. Each time it sounds, indicating an irregular heartbeat, he uplinks the information it records to the medical center via phone line. Ballard’s teachers at William Blount have been informed of his condition.
At the end of the monitoring period, Ballard will return to Vanderbilt, at which point doctors will decide on the best course of action.
“The scope of what that answer could be is scary,” Lisa Ballard said.
Ballard’s condition could prove one that medication can control, she said, allowing a return to basketball come fall.
Micah has been forced to suspend play with his summer AAU team and is only allowed to take part in shooting drills at William Blount.
Doctors could also inform them Micah needs surgery, Lisa said, likely bringing her son’s athletic career to a close.
Ballard is largely matter-of-fact about what lies ahead.
“If they do find something, I’ll know,” he said, “and I’ll go from there.”
He’s hopeful, he said, doctors can bring the arrhythmia under control with medication and he can return to sports. If not, he’s preparing for any and all alternatives as best he can.
“He’s one of the most mentally tough people I know,” Baumann said.
He’s had little choice.
“Most of it comes from my dad,” Ballard said, “his situation, and how he went through it. The stuff he was able to do was ridiculous.”
Ballard’s show of strength is no act, William Blount senior Corey Welch said.
“If any other person was going through what Micah’s going through, they wouldn’t be able to handle it,” he said.
It’s evident, Welch said, in the way Ballard plays.
In only his second season with the Governors, Ballard proved a go-to player for William Blount this past year. A shooting guard, he rarely reached the free-throw line, but, when he did, he was money. He finished the year 30-of-33 from the charity stripe, a number limited only by a broken ankle that cut short his season in December.
“We put the ball in his hands at the end of the game,” Baumann said. “A lot of his free throws came in the fourth quarter, when it was clutch.”
The Governors were 8-5 with Ballard in the lineup, including the night he played the second half and overtime with a broken nose in a win over Karns. William Blount was 4-9 the rest of the season without Ballard. In the Karns game, he hit 6-of-6 free throws in the extra session to put William Blount over the top.
“You could tell he was going to will them in,” Baumann said.
Even the night his season ended did little to faze Ballard. Instead, he chose to make light of it all.
“He likes to tell everyone he broke it dunking on (6-foot-9 Bearden junior) Demonte Simpson,” Baumann said, “but he tripped over the 3-point line.”
Ballard has always played basketball with a certain ease, seemingly two dribbles or two passes ahead of his opponents, said Kasey Hayworth, Ballard’s coach at nearby Carpenters Middle School.
“He was probably the smartest player I’ve ever had as far as basketball IQ was concerned,” he said. “He did things middle school players just don’t do.”
It wasn’t Ballard’s basketball acumen, though, that Hayworth said he told Stan Ballard so much about during the latter’s last days.
“I told his dad when I met him, ‘Micah is a great basketball player; he’s a better kid,’” he said. “He was one of the most mature kids you can meet, even in the eighth grade.”
Micah reminds him a lot of Stan Ballard, William Blount public address announcer Gary Stinnett said. Stinnett, associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Maryville, was a member of William Blount’s first senior class in 1980 and knew Stan Ballard well. Micah’s and Stan’s demeanors may differ, Stinnett said, but it’s not hard to see the father in the son.
“He reminds me a lot of his dad,” he said. “Stan was a little more fiery. You don’t see it in Micah, unless you know him.”
It’s intentional. It’s something Stan and she drilled into Micah from the time he began following Stan, a former high school coach, to the gym at age 4.
“We always told him, ‘If you have to brag on yourself, it means nothing,’” Lisa Ballard said. “If other people brag on you, you’ve accomplished something.”
Ballard and he have talked about the arrhythmia, Stinnett said. It’s quite surprising the approach the Governor guard is taking, and, as Welch alluded to, it’s no act.
“I’ve heard him make this statement a number of times,” Stinnett said. “He says, ‘There are a whole lot worse things than this.’”
It’s that aspect of Ballard — not the player that averaged 11 points per game as a sophomore and hit 91 percent of his free throws — that floors him, Baumann said. It’s inspiring.
“He teaches you a lot,” Baumann said.
Ballard claims to have taught Hayworth a great deal recently. Like Baumann, Hayworth once dominated Ballard at H-O-R-S-E. Not anymore.
“I beat him regularly,” Ballard said.
Only in his dreams, Hayworth says, only in his dreams.
Editor’s note: William Blount High School sophomore Micah Ballard, an All-Blount County selection on the Governor basketball team this past season, was recently diagnosed with an arrhythmia that causes his heart to slow to dangerous levels. Ballard will be reevaluated a month from now at Vanderbilt Medical Center, at which time doctors will decide on the best course of treatment.
A Note from Mom
Lisa Ballard, Micah’s mother, asked Blount Today to print the following note to her son as the family hopes for the best.
“At the age of 16, Micah is the greatest man that I know.
“I was recently told by a close friend, ‘Adversity does not build character, it reveals character, or the lack thereof.’
“That is so true.
“Micah is so positive-minded. He has a no-quit attitude; he stands up for his convictions; and he refuses to quit at anything that he has made a commitment to. That is a man, and a champion.”