I was running on the treadmill this morning watching the local news on one TV and ESPN Sportscenter on another. A story came up on ESPN that almost stopped me in my tracks. With a lump in my throat I continued to run as the story continued on the screen.
Two missed free throws, ordinarily the cause of a coach's headache, became the symbol of sportsmanship in a Milwaukee boys' basketball game earlier this month.
Milwaukee Madison senior Johntell Franklin, who lost his mother, Carlitha, to cancer on Saturday, Feb. 7, decided he wanted to play in that night's game against DeKalb (Ill.) High School after previously indicating he would sit out.
He arrived at the gym in the second quarter, but Franklin's name was not in the scorebook because his coach, Aaron Womack Jr., didn't expect him to be there.
Rules dictated Womack would have to be assessed a technical, but he was prepared to put Franklin in the game anyway. DeKalb coach Dave Rohlman and his players knew of the situation, and told the referees they did not want the call.
The referees had no choice. But Rohlman did.
"I gathered my kids and said, 'Who wants to take these free throws?'" Rohlman said, recounting the game to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Darius McNeal put up his hand. I said, 'You realize you're going to miss, right?' He nodded his head."
McNeal, a senior point guard, went to the line. The Milwaukee Madison players stayed by their bench, waiting for the free throws. Instead of seeing the ball go through the net, they saw the ball on the court, rolling over the end line.
"I turned around and saw the ref pick up the ball and hand it back to the player," Womack said in the Journal Sentinel. "And then [McNeal] did the same thing again."
Said Rohlman: "Darius set up for a regular free throw, but he only shot it two or three feet in front of him. It bounced once or twice and just rolled past the basket."
"I did it for the guy who lost his mom," McNeal told the newspaper. "It was the right thing to do."
Womack, overwhelmed by DeKalb's gesture, wrote a letter to the DeKalb Daily Chronicle, which had first reported the story.
"As a principal, school, school district staff, and community you should all feel immense pride for the remarkable job that the coaching staff is doing in not only coaching these young men, but teaching them how to be leaders," Womack wrote.
DeKalb had traveled more than two hours for the game, and waited another two as Womack rushed from the hospital, where he had been with Franklin, to the school to gather his team.
"We were sympathetic to the circumstances and the events," Rohlman said in the Journal Sentinel. "We even told Coach Womack that it'd be OK to call off the game, but he said we had driven 2½ hours to get here and the kids wanted to play. So we said, 'Spend some time with your team and come out when you're ready.'"
The two schools had met twice previously, and this one ended with a Madison victory, but as in the other games, they also shared a pizza dinner, "four kids to a pizza, two Madison kids and two DeKalb kids," Womack told the Journal Sentinel.
"That letter became a big deal in DeKalb," Rohlman said in the paper. "We got lots of positive calls and e-mails because of it. Even though we lost the game, it was a true life lesson, and it's not one our kids are going to forget anytime soon."
Womack, in his letter to the DeKalb Daily Chronicle, added this at the end: "I'd like to recognize Darius who stepped up to miss the shot on purpose. He could have been selfish and cared only for his own stats [I hope Coach Rohlman doesn't make him run for missing the free throws]."
As a principal, school, school district staff, and community you should all feel immense pride for the remarkable job that the coaching staff is doing in not only coaching these young men, but teaching them how to be leaders.
--Milwaukee Madison boys basketball coach Aaron Womack Jr.
These players are well on their way to becoming outstanding adults.