Shawn Jansen: Rocco's pursuit something to marvel at

Shawn Jansen
Shawn Jansen

We can all learn something from a kid like Jesse Rocco.

In many ways, Jesse is like any other 16-year-old boy.

He rides BMX bikes.

He plays video games.

He loves listening to music. Lil Wayne and Akon happen to be his favorite artists.

He loves watching "The George Lopez Show."

But basketball is at the top of his list. It's his passion.

It's not uncommon for Jesse to spend hours outside the house, shooting baskets.

That's when the 5-foot-1, 130-pound sophomore becomes Kobe Bryant, hitting game-winning shots for the Los Angeles Lakers.

What sets Jesse apart from other kids is he suffers from Sensory Integration Dysfunction.

SID is a neurological disorder that makes it hard for the brain to process information brought in by the five senses.

Jesse is highly sensitive to being touched and loud noises.

"His brain is inconsistent when it has to process information," said his mother Dawn, who adopted Jesse when he was 3 years old.

"The information is in there. It's just not always easy to get it out."

SID hasn't prevented him from participating in the sports he loves.

He just has to work harder than most kids.

It took Jesse nearly a month to get over his fear of getting in the starting gate for bike races at the BMX track in Atwater.

The loud noise when the gate went down gave him the most trouble.

"We tried everything we could to get him in that gate," said Keith Nance, who worked with Jesse at the track. "We bribed him with money, a free lunch -- you name it."

Finally, an old track operator, Dave Lueck, promised to ride down the starting hill backwards if Jesse got in the gate with him.

He did it. He hasn't had a problem with the starting gate since.

"When he first started to ride a bike, he would crash into parked cars," Dawn said. "He would be looking the other way.

"When he was racing, I was always worried he wouldn't go the right direction. But he did."

Jesse may get his determination from his father, Nick Rocco. Nick is the Merced College groundskeeper -- despite suffering from cerebral palsy his whole life.

Whether it's food, sports or music, Jesse is always willing to try new things.

For instance, when Golden Valley had a day for students to sign up for various clubs on campus, Dawn received a call from his teacher.

Jesse had signed up for five clubs, including the debate team.

He's down to three clubs now, but basketball will always be his first love.

Jesse started playing organized basketball at Hoover Middle School.

His mom likes telling a story about the time he entered a game and hit a shot that brought the crowd to its feet.

Chants of "Jesse! Jesse! Jesse!" roared through the gym.

"I asked him what he thought about the crowd chanting his name," Dawn said. "He said, 'It was OK, but they weren't guarding me. But did you see my next shot? They were guarding me and I almost made it.'"

I witnessed a similar scene a few weeks ago when Jesse entered a game late against Buhach Colony.

Jesse entertained the crowd with his signature dribble through his legs at midcourt.

He was fouled and promptly stepped up to the free-throw line and sank his first attempt.

Kobe couldn't have done it any better.

Fans for both Golden Valley and Buhach Colony went crazy.

"It always makes me cry," Dawn said. "I get tears in my eyes when everyone is yelling for him."

She definitely wasn't the only one who shed a tear.

"You can definitely hear it when Jesse scores," Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter said. "It's exciting."

When Dawn approached Hunter last year, she asked him if her son could serve as a team manager.

It was Hunter who suggested they enroll him in athletics, then go from there.

Jesse spent last year playing on the Golden Valley freshman basketball team.

However, he didn't get to dress out with the team for games until the end of the year.

Jesse moved up to junior varsity this year. He was so excited about getting a uniform he called his mom from school.

"When they told me I had a uniform I said, 'Thank you,'" Jesse said. "It's cool to be on the team.

"I want to be treated like everybody else."

That means if Jesse screws up at practice, he runs.

He can get in trouble just like any other player.

"If he makes a mistake, I let him know," GV junior varsity coach Hector Nava said. "He's the type of guy that would ask: 'How come you're not getting mad at me?'"

Still, there are times when the team does a drill that is above Jesse's skill level.

That's when he goes to the side to shoot around.

"It's so good for him because of the social aspect he gets from knowing kids that he wouldn't get a chance to," Dawn said.

Jesse isn't the only one benefiting from being on the team.

His teammates can learn a lot from his determination and dedication.

The varsity players have noticed.

"You can't help but be inspired by how hard he works," senior Alex Fletcher said.

"He's fun to be around. He gets mad when he misses a shot. You try to tell him it's all right. He's out there having fun."

Isn't that what sports are supposed to be about?

"It's always going to be a battle to get through things sometimes, but he's doing pretty good," Dawn said.

It's hard to disagree.

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at