Brad Hennefer is not the star of the Cherry Hill High School East basketball team.

But in many ways, he is its heart, the guy the crowd stands up and cheers for as soon as he bounds onto the court.

Hennefer is a senior, a three-point specialist and a solid athlete. He may be the only boys' varsity basketball player in the country with Down syndrome, say his coaches.

In East's official team photo, Hennefer's face is set in the same unsmiling stare as the other young men's. He sits squarely in the center, holding the basketball.

He is like any player, said Logan Marro, captain of the Cougars. Except that he's a little more popular.

"When Brad gets in the game, it's the best part of the season," Marro said. "Anyone with that work ethic is a real part of the team."

A two-sport varsity athlete - he is also on the golf team - Hennefer has quite a resume at 19.

He is a polished public speaker, having delivered addresses at national Down syndrome conferences. He is a state Special Olympics golf champion, and he helps coach young players with cognitive disabilities.

Recently, he has become something of a celebrity after being featured on Good Morning America for his athletic career at Cherry Hill East.

"It's been a great year," said Hennefer, who played in 15 of the Cougars' first 20 regular-season games and scored in seven - a total of 16 points. "The coach is great to me, I learn a lot, and I have a lot of friends."

Hennefer takes the court only when a game's outcome has been determined, but the 5-foot-10 swingman knows all the plays and runs every drill, only rarely needing guidance from a teammate or coach. He shares an easy camaraderie with his teammates, who cheer his accomplishments. And his is the loudest voice on the bench when someone makes a good play.

Except for some early problems with his ears and adenoids, Hennefer has had none of the health complications sometimes associated with Down syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by cognitive impairment and distinctive facial features.

He doesn't mind the grueling pace of the basketball season: three games and three long practices a week. Hennefer has always been busy - with homework, an after-school job stocking frozen food at Wegmans, a girlfriend, and a teenager's full social calendar.

His parents, Nancy and Bob, set the bar high for him, just as they did for his brother, Bobby, five years older and now a golf pro.

They first put a club in Hennefer's hand when he was 3. He was a natural, copying his big brother's form. When he was 5, Hennefer started T-ball.

"We've always felt he should have chances," Nancy Hennefer said. "We always gave him opportunities other kids would have."

Hennefer was the first Down syndrome student in Cherry Hill to attend a regular kindergarten class. Throughout his school years, he has learned with typically developing kids, with some extra help. After graduation, he may study at a community college.

When he entered ninth grade at East, Hennefer - who also plays Special Olympics basketball - decided he wanted to help out with the freshman basketball team.

His parents hoped he would be accepted as manager. Varsity coach John Valore and his staff had other plans, given Hennefer's commitment and his athletic ability. They created an extra spot on the team for him so he wouldn't take a position away from another player.

Hennefer played on the freshman team, then spent two seasons on the junior varsity before making varsity this year.

Valore is in his 32d season as East's coach. Hennefer, he said, is something special.

"He's committed. He's focused," said Valore. "I think we learn a lot from him, from what he does on the floor. When it's his turn to go in the game, he's ready mentally and physically."

Drew Berlinsky was Hennefer's partner for the very first passing drill freshman year. They eat lunch together. Berlinsky wrote his college application essay about Hennefer, and is amazed at his friend's progress.

"He inspires us," Berlinsky said. "He goes out every practice and he gets better. It makes me think, 'If Brad can do that, I can do it, too.' "

Bob Hulme, East's athletic director, said the school would miss Hennefer after his graduation in the spring.

"He's a good athlete and a great kid," Hulme said. "This is the best visual example we have of inclusion."

Funny and confident, Hennefer is a guy's guy, a fan of all sports, always ready to give a teammate a fist pound. He finds his parents in the stands - they attend all games and most practices - and flashes them signals that he's glad they are there.

Hennefer is matter-of-fact about all the attention. Really what he wants to talk about is regular-guy stuff: fun team bus rides, a heartbreaker of a loss to Eastern High, his own specialty on the court.

"I shoot threes on the back line," Hennefer said. "I'm good at those."

Before Thursday's game against Pennsauken, Hennefer's friend Eric Einbinder approached him.

"Hit a shot for me, Brad," Einbinder said.

It was a frustrating game. East dominated early, then Pennsauken gained the upper hand.

"Maintain your intensity!" Valore shouted to the squad after a sloppy play. "Cover your guy!"

Hennefer sat on the bench, his eyes fixed on the action, and nodded.

With 29 seconds to go and Pennsauken up, 60-49, Valore gave the referee a nod. A buzzer sounded, and Hennefer raced in to shouts of "B-Rad," his Cougars nickname.

B-Rad scooped up a low pass, sprinted up the court, and shot the ball in a perfect arc to score two with seconds left. He raised his arms, found Einbinder in the crowd, and pointed at him, face alight.

East lost, 60-51, but it hardly mattered. Fans filed out of the steamy gym, smiling and clapping at the last basket, Hennefer's beauty.

"Is there anything better than that?" wondered one man, nodding toward Hennefer, who was accepting hugs and high-fives from a legion of admirers. "There's nothing better than that."

For video of Brad Hennefer playing on the Cherry Hill East team and other high school video stories, go to http://go.philly.com/

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