PLEASANT RIDGE, Kan. — A junior varsity basketball game last month between Pleasant Ridge and Tonganoxie high schools was about more than the game itself.
"You want your kids to be respectable - you want them to be athletes, but you also want them to be good kids,” said Christopher Reid-Pinson, Tonganoxie High School special education teacher and JV basketball coach. “It was a special feeling to see see all my kids want to be part of something bigger than the game."
That bigger moment was set aside for Gage Gildner, a sophomore on Pleasant Ridge's JV basketball team who has Asperger's Syndrome.
With 15 seconds left on the clock, Reid-Pinson called a time out.
"I said, 'OK, we have to get this kid the ball, so here's what I want us to do,” Reid-Pinson said.
At first, the plan was just to pass the ball to Gage.
"But Alex, our point guard on the team, he put a little extra flair on it and decided to do all this dribbling and really sold the moment to make it look pretty cool,” Reid-Pinson said.
Alex Crowley, Tonganoxie freshman and point guard for the JV basketball team, said he thought it was "really cool" that they gave Gage a chance to make a shot.
“He hit me with the nastiest pump fake ever,” Crowley said. “I thought he was going to throw it to me and then he swished it, so I went crazy because it kind of felt like he was on our team at that point."
When Gage went to make the shot, the entire gym went quiet.
"I'm sitting here going, please go in, please go in, please go in…” Randy Heim, JV basketball coach at Pleasant Ridge High School, said.
When asked if Gage had any words for Crowley after the shot, he shook his said saying, “He didn't have to."
The Tonganoxie team, according to Reid-Pinson, was all in on the special moment for Gage.
"It was actually pretty funny - usually as a coach you kind of want your kids to not want to turn the ball over, but we had two or three kids who were like no - I’ll take the turnover, I'll take the turnover, I'll take the turnover," he said. "Because they all wanted to be part of Gage's special moment."
And when Gage's time came, Reid-Pinson said, the sophomore was “cool as a cucumber."
"He just hit it and then walked right to his bench,” Reid-Pinson said. “It was like what you would see in a Game 7 of an NBA when they're just locked in, he just nailed it and he was like - this is what like this is is my job."
Heim said when Gage hit the shot, it wasn't just his team's fan cheering -- it was everyone in the gym.
"I think when kids are playing against Gage and he gets out there and he's successful - I think they realize how lucky they are,” Heim said.
It was a moment Gage’s mother, Becky, said moved everyone that night.
"I had tears in my eyes," she said, "but, you know, I was excited for him, for everybody. I mean, to know that the kids are that compassionate and accepting of my child."
Because they accepted and appreciated a young man, of few words, who inspires those around him.
“That's one thing you always want for your kid is to succeed and to be accepted and so kids with special needs it is a little bit more different,” Becky said. "It makes me proud that they were able to do that and that they will learn from that and be more compassionate in life."
Reid-Pinson said the moment was like something straight from a movie.
"I just felt like that feeling that he had inside of him was just nothing he's probably ever felt before in a game, that feeling when you make the shot... is unexplainable," Reid-Pinson said.
Love our program. Our JV coach called a timeout so their student-athlete with Special needs could hit this BIG TIME shot! This is why I coach. I’ve never been more happy for our team to get scored on! @kmbc @kshb @EasternKSSports @sportsinkansas @espn @fox4kc pic.twitter.com/0WcdcB0sHK— Tongie Boys Basketball (@TongieBoysBBall) January 30, 2021
Showing everyone in the gym that night - sports isn’t always about winning, but opportunity. The chance to have a shot, and be surrounded by people supporting you as you go for it.
"I was lucky to be there and lucky to show that I am more than just an athlete,” Crowley said.
Crowley said in that moment, “it doesn't really matter what team you're on, if you win or lose - I mean of course you want to win, but at the end of the day they're happy… we're happy.”
“And that's what high school sports should be about,” Heim said.
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