The coach never considered any other option.
It didn’t matter that his DeKalb, Ill., High School basketball team had ridden a bus 21/2 hours to get to Milwaukee, then waited another hour past game time to play. Didn’t matter that the game was close or that this was a chance to beat a big-city team.
Something else was on Dave Rohlman’s mind when he asked for a volunteer to shoot two free throws awarded his team on a technical foul in the second quarter. His senior captain raised his hand, ready to go to the line as he had many times before.
Only this time was different.
“You realize you’re going to miss them, don’t you?” Rohlman said.
Darius McNeal nodded his head. He understood what had to be done.
It was a Saturday night in February, and the Barbs were playing a nonconference game on the road against Milwaukee Madison. It was the third meeting between the two schools, who were developing a friendly rivalry that spanned two states.
The teams planned to get together after the game and share pizzas and soda. But the game itself almost never took place.
Hours earlier, the mother of Milwaukee Madison senior captain Johntell Franklin died at a local hospital. Carlitha Franklin had been in remission after a five-year fight with cervical cancer, but she began to hemorrhage that morning while Johntell was taking his college ACT exam.
Her son and several of his teammates were at the hospital late that afternoon when the decision was made to turn off the life-support system. Carlitha Franklin was 39.
“She was young, and they were real close,” said Milwaukee coach Aaron Womack Jr., who was at the hospital. “He was very distraught, and it happened so suddenly he didn’t have time to grieve.”
Womack was going to cancel the game, but Franklin told him he wanted the team to play. And play they did, even though the game started late and Milwaukee Madison dressed only eight players.
Early in the second quarter, Womack saw someone out of the corner of his eye. It was Franklin, who came there directly from the hospital to root his teammates on.
The Knights had possession, so Womack called a timeout. His players went over and hugged their grieving teammate. Fans came out of the stands to do the same.
“We got back to playing the game, and I asked if he wanted to come and sit on the bench,” Womack said during a telephone interview.
“No,” Franklin replied. “I want to play.”
There was just one problem. Because Franklin wasn’t on the pre-game roster, putting him in meant drawing a technical foul that would give DeKalb two free throws.
Though it was a tight game, Womack was willing to give up the two points. It was more important to help his senior guard and co-captain deal with his grief by playing.
Over on the other bench, though, Rohlman wasn’t so willing to take them. He told the referees to forget the technical and just let Franklin play.
“The refs told them, no, that’s the rule. You have to take them,” Womack said.
McNeal went to the free-throw line, dribbled the ball a couple of times and looked at the rim. His first attempt went about 2 feet, bouncing a couple of times as it rolled toward the end line. The second barely left his hand.
The Milwaukee players stood and turned toward the DeKalb bench and started applauding the gesture of sportsmanship. Soon, so did everybody in the stands.
“I did it for the guy who lost his mom,” McNeal told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It was the right thing to do.”
Franklin would go on to score 10 points, and Milwaukee Madison broke open the game in the second half to win, 62-47. Afterward, the teams went out for pizza, two players from each team sharing each pie.
Franklin stopped by briefly, thankful that his team was there for him.
“I got kind of emotional, but it helped a lot just to play,” he said. “I felt like I had a lot of support out there.”
Carlitha Franklin’s funeral was Feb. 13, and the school turned out for her and her son. Cheerleaders came in uniform, and everyone from the principal and teachers to Johntell’s classmates was there.
“Even the cooks from school showed up,” Womack said. “It lets you know what kind of kid he is.”
Basketball is a second sport for the 18-year-old Franklin, who says he has had some scholarship nibbles and plans to play football in college. He has a few games left for the Knights, who are under .500.
It hasn’t been the greatest season for the team, but they have stuck together through a lot of adversity.
“We maybe don’t have the best basketball players in the world, but they go to class and take care of business,” Womack said. “We have a losing record, but there’s life lessons going on, good ones.”
None so good, though, as the moment a team and a player decided there were more important things than winning and having good stats.
Yes, DeKalb would go home with a loss. But it was a trip the team never will forget.
“This is something our kids will hold for a lifetime,” Rohlman said. “They may not remember our record 20 years from now, but they’ll remember what happened in that gym that night.”
Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.