This is a story about two men who made a good decision, who did the right thing, who decided that being good coaches happens by caring more about their players than about just winning games. It’s also about a little boy who has had a moment in the sun, an instance that will probably stay with him for the rest of his life, and who, hopefully, knows that even though there will always be good people nearby to help him, the best things in life often start with having the courage to take a chance.
This tale, as well, is about a whole host of other people: folks who, if they didn’t know it already, discovered that even the most intense rivalry doesn’t really mean very much when a true moment of magic happens.
Allen Cobb is the dealership operations manager at Fuson Buick, Cadillac and GMC in Terre Haute; he’s also the president of the town board in Montezuma, a father of two, and a husband. And in his spare time, when he can find it, Allen is the fifth- and sixth-grade basketball coach at the small Parke County town’s elementary school. Allen just happens to be a former student and assistant coach of mine, too; he even took my job when I hung up the whistle.
One of Allen’s players this past season was Jarot Walters, in many ways a most-typical fifth-grader with the most-typical interests. One desire near the top of his wish list was to play on the basketball team.
That’s when his parents stepped in and told him that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea, because even though Jarot is typical in so many ways, he deals with something that most kids don’t: A stroke after heart surgery as an infant left him with a good deal of paralysis, particularly on his left side.
Jarot’s parents, Linda and Darin – both of whom just happen to have sat in my classroom years ago – have tried to make their son’s life as normal as they can. They just didn’t know if basketball was doable.
In stepped Jarot’s grandma, Cheryl Walters, who just happens to be our school secretary and a great lady. She called Allen to see if Jarot could sit on the bench with the team; basketball means a lot to her grandson and her grandson means a lot to her. Allen, with the help of his youngest son (sixth-grader Brennan), talked to Jarot, and soon had the youngster next to him on the bench (I should say next to the spot where Allen sometimes sits …). Within a week or so, and at the urging of his wife, Terry, who just happened to play for me in the old purple and gold (I’m not saying how long ago that was), Allen had Jarot in an Aztecs’ uniform, and the little guy was running drills with the team.
Allen said, “That really started me to thinking about somehow, some way, getting Jarot into a game.”
Brennan, who himself deals with autism, knew Jarot when they attended a developmental preschool together. Allen added, “As a parent of a special-needs child, I think I may see things a little differently. As I watched Jarot in practice, I thought there had to be a way.”
That’s where Steve Hartman comes into the picture. Steve, 23, and pursuing a business degree, is the fifth-grade basketball coach at Rockville Elementary. Allen approached Steve before the Rox and Aztecs met in a regular-season game last December and asked him if he would mind if, after the game had been decided one way or the other, they could work out a way to get Jarot into the action to shoot a free throw or two. Steve told Allen that he didn’t care what the score was or who was winning; he and his team wanted to be a part of getting Jarot onto the floor.
“When Allen first talked to me about a little boy who would never really get a chance to play in a game, my heart just went out to him. I was just so impressed with Jarot and his love for the game — what an incredible individual he is,” Steve said.
“My kids’ reaction to this whole thing was special, too. I told them in the locker room before the game, and it was so cool to see how they felt about it and about Jarot. Many of them know him, and they were very excited about it,” he added.
So, a plan was put into action. It even involved the referees, one of whom I just happened to know since he played in three sports against my son in high school, a big redhead by the name of Robert Harrison. With three minutes to go in the game, the whistle was blown, and Allen stepped toward Jarot, who had no idea what was about to happen.
“It’s your time, big fella,” Allen told his player. “We need you to shoot two free throws for us.”
By that time Jarot, very much afraid, and a little dazed, walked onto the court, and the fans, both those dressed in purple, and those in blue, realized what was happening and started to cheer. Shooting with only his right hand, he drew both the bank board and the rim on his first shot, but missed. After Harrison nudged him a bit closer to the basket, he carefully eyed the basket, wound up, and banked the second one in.
The entire gymnasium erupted. The Aztecs’ coach ran out to the free throw line to embrace his player, and soon both teams and coaching staffs were lined up to give him a high-five or shake his hand or pat him on the back. And there were three minutes left to play …
A whole host of people besides Allen and Steve helped make Jarot’s day a memorable one. For instance, Allen’s brother, Don, and Buddy Wilson — who just happen to be former students of mine, too — worked with Jarot in practice every day. Rockville’s scorebook keeper, Marie Wimsett, insisted that Jarot’s point was placed into the record and that it was shown on the scoreboard. I guess you never know; a hopeful grandma here, a supportive crowd there, and a pair of parents who were scared but brave, can move mountains.
Isn’t it remarkable that in an era in which we are strafed with the negative, with stories in the news about this athlete’s indiscretion, that politician’s poor decision, that today, in this space, you got to read a story about people who had the opportunity to do the right thing, a good thing, and did it. How fortunate I am to have known so many of them.
Doing things right, well, that’s good business. But it just so happens that doing the right thing is a whole different ball game.
Mike Lunsford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him C/O the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Mike will be speaking and signing his books at the Brazil Women’s Reading Club on March 16, and at the Clinton First Baptist Church on March 17. Visit his Web site at www.mikelunsford.com.