COLUMBIA — When Robert Cheadle hears the chant, he can't help but smile.
Usually, it starts when the Rock Bridge boys basketball team is up big with a few minutes left in a game. The student fans are realistic.
Class 5 Sectionals
Rock Bridge (22-4)
vs. Waynesville (12-14)
WHEN: 6 p.m.
WHERE: Missouri S&T in Rolla
They are also clever. Against Hickman, the chant began a little earlier — when Rock Bridge was pulling away from the Kewpies. The chant demoralizes opponents familiar with it. When the chant starts, it means that the opponent has no hope left of winning.
But the chant's meaning— to encourage Rock Bridge coach Jim Scanlon to give Cheadle rare playing time in a game— does not bother Cheadle. He knows there's another reason for it.
The students chant "We want Cheadle!" because he makes them smile, too.
Cheadle is one of four seniors on Rock Bridge (22-4) whose high school basketball careers will end sometime in the next two weeks, be it in the sectional game against Waynesville (12-14) on Wednesday or three games later in the Class 5 state championship on March 12.
Unlike his best friends, teammates Karon Hayes and Matt Kelly, Cheadle hasn't played an integral role in the Bruins' nine-game winning streak and run to a district championship. And unlike C.J. Ross, Cheadle won't be sent into the middle of a game to change things up.
Sometimes Scanlon even ignores the chant.
But Cheadle is the class clown loved by his teammates, classmates and coaches because he keeps spirits high even when his own might not be.
Cheadle said he tries to be funny, and his friends call him a "jokester," but according to Kelly he cracks them up regardless of intent.
"He can pretty much say anything since he has that high voice," Kelly said.
Then there's the video of Cheadle dancing with his cousins and sisters two years ago which delighted friends at Rock Bridge.
"He was jerkin to it and having fun," Kelly said. "That kind of tells you the type of kid he is."
Cheadle played on the JV team as a sophomore and junior. He hoped to get regular playing time on the varsity team this year and dunk in a game.
Then one day in math class last October, Cheadle felt the entire left side of his body go numb. Paramedics rushed him away, and Kelly watched his friend pass by on a stretcher.
When Hayes heard, he didn't register that it was Cheadle.
"I thought it was a different Rob," Hayes said. "It was a shock hearing about it being your friend."
Doctors determined that not enough rest and too much stress caused Cheadle's stroke symptoms, which had never occurred before. He admitted to worrying about the upcoming basketball season and especially his grades, which were not his best.
Cheadle didn't miss any school, but he couldn't work out with the basketball team for two weeks. He had to spend that time in the training room.
"When I got back, some of the other players passed me up," Cheadle said. "I guess I started working hard a little too late."
But his teammates think another reason why the crowd wants to see him play is the distinct possibility Cheadle will score. Kelly said his buddy could work more on his defense, but Cheadle has proven he can shoot. He made two 3-pointers against Lincoln Prep on Feb. 5 and another against Sumner on Feb. 14.
"He's not that bad," Hayes joked. "People just want to see him play."
Cheadle has enjoyed his moments of glory, but he said the most memorable game of the season for him was watching Hayes go for — and botch — a second dunk in one quarter against Jefferson City.
"Karon got his dunk, and then he was celebrating," Cheadle said. "The next time he came down, he got hung. That was great."
"He told me I had no hops," Hayes said. "We laughed about it and moved on."
Cheadle said he hopes to play at Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City next year, but he was excited for what he considered one more chance to get his dunk against Waynesville.
Can his friends envision a situation in which Rock Bridge not only builds a big enough lead but Cheadle also has a chance to slam one down?
"I think I'll leave the gym if that happens," Hayes said.
Asked what he thinks when he hears the chant, Cheadle joked, "I'm thinking that I'll hopefully get into the game." He admitted to wishing he could play more, but said he's also determined to always keep his head high.
After all, they're chanting his name for a reason.
"I guess I'm the fan favorite," Cheadle said. "It makes me smile that people think about me and want me to do good. It puts a smile on my face."