Carlos Nobre was not on this year's all-Metropolitan basketball team, but to his teammates, parents, coach and schoolmates, no one better personifies the qualities that should win a high school athlete that recognition.
Fairfax County's Edison High School team finished last in its district and won only four of 22 games this year. But Nobre helped the Eagles keep their losing season in perspective. For Nobre, it was a personal victory just to have been on the team.
Nobre was born in Brazil 17 years ago with hydrocephalus, a disease in which the channels for circulating fluid in and around the brain become blocked. This causes pressure to mount inside the brain. Since an infant's skull is malleable, the head enlarges to accommodate the increased pressure.
Nobre has survived 15 operations and lives with the help of a shunt, a plastic tube implanted in the brain of a hydrocephalic which runs down through the neck and ends either in the abdominal cavity or in the ventricle area of the heart.
The shunt helps maintains proper pressure in the brain by draining off excess fluid, which is eliminated by the blood system or absorbed in the abdominal cavity.
Because of his shunt, Nobre had to protect himself by wearing a bicycling helmet during practices and games. But the helmet violated Virginia high school safety rules, since it could have injured another player. So nobre taped a mound of foam rubber onto the helmet to conform with regulations.
"I thought that I'd be laughed at wearing my helmet, but I just took it in stride," said Nobre, who also must overcome curvature of the spine and a left leg that is a couple inches shorter than his right. "It was really hot with the hat on, but I tried to forget about it. I only want to be treated like any other normal person."
The 5-foot-8, 120-pound left-hander made up his mind when he was 11 to play basketball and went out to hone his shooting, no matter what the weather, on the playground behind his parents' house in Alexandria.
"I told my friends that when I got older, I would go out for a basketball team, but they didn't believe me," recalled Nobre, who is learning-disabled but speaks an articulately as any of his peers. "They thought I'd try out for the junior varsity, but I told them that's for boys and I'm a man."
So last summer he wrote Eagle Basketball Coach Dave Muniz, who also teaches physical education to a group of physically handicapped teen-agers at Edison, one of two public high schools in Fairfax County with special educational programs for the handicapped.
"He explained that he was coming out for the team and was working on his shooting three to five hours a day," said Muniz. "Carlos has the feeling that there's nothing he can't do."
Five players quit the squad after that rigorous first workout, deciding it was too much effort. Nobre, too, was exhausted and discouraged, and his mother, Notecia (pronounced Matasha), pleaded with him to quit.
But Muniz judges those who aspire to his team on their competitive desire, attitude and ability. Nobre scored high marks in all three areas. Muniz told the other players it would be unfair not to give Nobre a chance.
"There was no objection to Carlos playing on the team," said Edison Athletic Director Blaine Morton. "There was a question as to whether a person with more skill was not playing, but no one was cut to make room for him. I have a great deal of admiration for Carlos' for sticking it out." f
It took time for Nobre, who played in all four preseason scrimmages, to earn the respect of his teammates. But during Christmas break, Muniz asked his players to come to a practice after being trounced by Mount Vernon, the defending state champion. Only six, including Nobre showed up, and most of the other five thought it was not right for them to work hard when the rest of the team wasn't even present.
"I put Carlos out in front and had the others follow him around the court in a sprint," said Muniz. "I told him to show them what it takes to compete and suck it up when you are down. When you're getting beat, you have to be strong and learn to hang in there."
"After a while I got very tired." Nobre recalled. "Then I got halfway down the court and went down like a piece of lead. Coach leaned over me and said that he was proud of me for hustling."
He also had won over his teammates.
Mike Terry, a junior point guard, admits that at first everyone wondered whether Nobre belonged.
But now Terry says, "He's got more nerve than any of us. I don't think anyone else with his problems would have had the guts to come out. He kept everyone going and fired up the whole school.
"He made the rest of us hang in there and not give up. After all, a losing season is only one year in your life. A few of my classmates said that there must have been a player more qualified than Carlos, but no one could have helped the team's mental attitude as much as he did."
The example of Nobre, who hopes to take painting courses at Northern Virginia Community College after graduation, got several other physically handicapped students involved with the team. Two youngsters confined to wheelchairs took towels to the referees during home games and another handicapped teen-ager helped build a scaffold and run the videotape unit.
"When we played Lee (the Gunston District champion) we were down by 20 points with 60 seconds left to play," said Terry. "Carlos came in and spectators on both sides clapped and stomped. We got the ball to him and he took a jumper from the corner (the shot went in and out -- "I froze and threw up a brick," explained the candid Nobre).
"After we played Groveton," Terry said, "a man came up to our junior varsity coach and told him that he'd been watching amateur athletics for 20 years, and to see Carlos out there was his greatest thrill."
Carlos Nobre Sr. gives a side of the story his son is hesitant to discuss.
"Fifteen days after he was born, he developed a high temperature and started to cry uncontrollably," said the elder Nobre. "We rushed him to the hospital and at first they didn't know what the problem was."
The boy remained at a government hospital in Rio de Janeiro, where the Nobres are from, and within a few days was diagnosed as hydrocephalic.
"We are from a very poor family and I was in the (Brazilan) navy at the time," the father continued. " They refused to transfer me to the United States (where the shunting procedure had been developed in the late 1950s) so I went to the American naval attache's office and spoke to a Navy doctor."
That physician contacted authorities here and with his own money paid for them to send the parts necessary for the shunting process. A few days later the shunt was implanted and Carlos' head returned to its normal size.
At that time it was common for shunts to clog, and when that happened three months later a doctor attempted to remove the blockage by manually pumping the shunt. That procedure failed and the child's condition deteriorated.
"My son's head was so tender they couldn't touch it anymore," the father said. "He was crying all the time and I was desperate. One day his arms and legs didn't move . . . only his eyes. So I grabbed the doctor in the hallway and almost strangled him. I told him he'd better do something for my boy or I'd kill him."
A new shunt was implanted, but the elder Nobre believes the delay involved might have caused his son's learning problems. By his first birthday, Carlos had developed hernias, which required another operation. Finally the father, a first-class petty officer before resigning in 1969 met a Brazilian naval officer sympathetic to his plight and was transferred to the Brazilian Naval Commission in Washington in August, 1965.
Two years later, at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, another hole was drilled in Nobre's skull and the shunt replaced. A physician there introduced the elder Nobre to Dr. Alfred Luessenhop, professor of surgery at Georgetown Medical School and chief of neurosurgery at Georgetown University Hospital.
"Today hydrocephalus is managed beautifully," said Luessenhop, who provides Nobre with free medical care.
"It can result in complete dementia if left untreated, but if recognized in time, any brain damage is usually reversed. These kids can lead normal lives as long as they avoid excessive physical contact, like football or rugby."
Coach Muniz tells his physical education class of youngsters with twisted hands, vacant looks and crutches and wheelchairs for legs that he never wants to hear them say "can't."
Because that word is not in Carlos Nobre's dictionary.