Athletes from “the 941” have given sports fans plenty of reasons to cheer in recent months. Trey Burton of Venice became an overnight sensation by throwing the “Philly Special” touchdown pass to help the Philadelphia Eagles win their first Super Bowl. Antonio Blakeney of Sarasota is the area’s first basketball player in nearly a quarter century to make it to the NBA, displaying his prowess as a rookie with the Chicago Bulls. And the Korda sisters, Nelly and Jessica, of Bradenton finished 2017 ranked among the top 76 female golfers in the world.
For sheer inspiration, however, there may not be a better story than what 20-year-old Ryan McMahon of Sarasota is doing at the University of Louisville.
Four years ago, McMahon was the region’s most dynamic high school basketball player, routinely scoring more than 30 points in a game, with an uncanny ability to make game-winning shots that propelled his Cardinal Mooney team to its best record in school history. But deep into his final season, McMahon did not have a single Division 1 college scholarship offer, principally because, in a sport of giants, he stood 5-feet-11 and weighed 150 pounds. “Ryan just didn’t pass the eye test,” says his father, David.
It took a one-eyed septuagenarian to make college scouts see what they were missing. College basketball announcer Dick Vitale, who lives in Lakewood Ranch, showed up at a high school game to watch Blakeney, but it was McMahon who caught his attention by scoring 27 points and nearly leading Mooney to victory. “Wanting to see if this kid was legit,” Vitale recalls, he went to see McMahon again, then again, and each time Ryan’s performance was better than the last. Vitale, who has been blind in his left eye since being poked by a pencil when he was a child, had seen enough. He sent out 25 to 30 video highlights of McMahon to coaches around the country, urging them to offer Ryan a scholarship. All but one said no. The exception was legendary coach Rick Pitino at Louisville.
McMahon’s moxie and skill impressed Pitino just as it had Vitale, and that led to a full scholarship offer to play for a three-time national champion in what is widely considered the toughest conference in college basketball, the ACC. Ryan, who always wanted to measure himself against the best, quickly accepted the offer. But instead of celebrating his good fortune, fans and the media, even in Ryan’s hometown, questioned its legitimacy. Pitino was doing a favor for his old friend, Vitale. Ryan was too small to ever see the floor for a program like Louisville’s. Instead of "Local Star Makes Good," it would be "Local Hotshot Way Over His Head."
“Some of the comments were pretty malicious,” Dave McMahon recalls. “Even some of our friends asked, ‘Does Ryan know what he’s getting himself into?’”
One person who did not share those doubts was Ryan himself. In his first practice, McMahon bombed so many three-pointers over Louisville’s veteran players that Pitino kept stopping the workout to yell at his players “to get out on that kid.” Ryan sat out games as a freshman, a move called redshirting, but started to get minutes last season. He came off the bench and scored seven points in overtime to lead the Cardinals over Syracuse. This year, despite missing the first seven games with fractured ribs, Ryan has come into his own. Through early February, he was averaging nearly seven points a game and showing no fear. In a January game at conference rival Florida State, he sank a three-pointer late in the game to tie the score and then had a steal and two free throws to clinch the victory. Vitale says coaches have told him that five of Louisville’s victories through the first two-thirds of the season were attributable to McMahon’s clutch shooting.
“Teams were cautious about recruiting him because of his size, but Ryan can flat-out shoot the basketball,” Vitale says. “Plus, there’s a toughness to him that belies his size. And he’s a great young man on top of it.”
Pitino was fired last year in a recruiting scandal expected to lead to NCAA penalties against Louisville. But McMahon has persevered. Strength training has added 15 to 20 pounds of muscle to his frame. And he’s on target to graduate with a degree in marketing in 2019, meaning, with two more years of eligibility, he can use his basketball scholarship to pay for graduate school. Where his career will peak, McMahon won’t hazard a guess, but he says players such as Steph Curry are proving that there’s room for smaller guys in a sport of giants.
“I’m blessed to be playing the game I love,” Ryan says. “I’m just going to keep working hard and make the most of this opportunity.”
A Banner Year
Bradenton’s Sebastian Korda, the younger brother of star golfers Nelly and Jessica, won the junior boys tennis title at the 2018 Australian Open and, as of February, was the No. 1 rated junior player in the world.
Quarterback Bryce Carpenter of Venice High School was named Mr. Football in Florida after leading the Indians to the 2017 7A state championship.
Whitney Osuigwe of Bradenton in 2017 became the first American girl since Jennifer Capriati in 1989 to win the French Open junior tennis title in 2017 and is the No. 1 ranked junior player in the world.