When the loud music started, signaling that the Magruder team was about to enter the gym, the crowd started clapping and cheering. Then we saw him—Patrick—holding the ball and leading the team in.
Usually, Joe Emerusabe would lead the team into the gym before the game. But on February 4, 2011, there was Patrick, jogging just ahead of Joe, leading the Magruder Colonels in. He said later that it was Joe’s idea for Patrick to be at the front of the line. I just couldn’t believe it. He turned the ball over to Joe, who started layup lines with the other players. Patrick went onto the court to slap hands with each player as he came back around to the line. He was having the time of his life.
What was so exciting for him was acting like and being treated as any other varsity player. It was very important to him that he not look out of place. He wanted to fit in and experience what it was like to be a Magruder varsity basketball player. He would look up at us occasionally and smile, but other than that, he was just another Magruder team member.
This whole scene was very poignant because Patrick’s hair had just started to grow back. I had taken him to the barbershop that day to get a trim. It was growing in unevenly, and he thought he looked a little shaggy. (It was the first haircut he needed since his diagnosis.) Patrick was wearing the Magruder basketball shirt that Coach Harwood had given him. He was wearing the team shoes he had used his Christmas money to buy. All that really mattered to him was looking as much like a team member as possible. I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes as I watched and clapped for Patrick and the team.
Following warm-ups, the referees called the team captains out to midcourt to discuss the rules and encourage both teams to play hard but fair. Joe and Salim took Patrick right out with them. Patrick listened very seriously to the referees’ instructions and then shook hands with both referees and the Sherwood captains. He went back to the bench to await the introductions of the starts. Before that, Coach Harwood took the microphone and invited Patrick to midcourt. Coach Harwood introduced Patrick to the crowd and explained that he had been diagnosed with cancer the previous April. He went on to say that Patrick was in treatment and doing well. He said he told Patrick that he could expect to see Sherwood play with class and to play a very hard game, and he would see Magruder play the same way. But he went on to say that what everyone would see that night was just that: a game. Basketball is just a game. Patricu is playing the real game, and he’s doing a great job. At that point, all the fans started cheering and clapping.
…After Coach Harwood finished his inspiring talk, he and Patrick went back to the bench for the introductions. As the Magruder starters were introduced, Patrick was at the end of the line to hold J.J.’s pretend mirror, do the jerk with Nick, take a jump shot with Joe, high-five Garland, and slap hands with Salim…His smile lit up the gym, and it was easy to see how much he was enjoying it.
The game started, and it was really exciting. Just like Coach Harwood said, both teams played with everything they had. Patrick sat on the bench and cheered for Magruder. He slapped hands with every player who came out of the game. He stood in every huddle. He cheered with the team every time they cheered. He went into the locker room during halftime. He was really part of the team during this game.
Unfortunately, it was not Magruder’s night. Sherwood won the game. It was close, and every Magruder player gave his all. Of course, Patrick wished the team had won the game, but only for them. It didn’t matter to Patrick. Each of those players and all of the coaches are—and always will be—champions to him…They will never know how much they helped Patrick. Or how much they buoyed our family when we were really down.
Kathy Boehlert writes about her nine year-old son’s battle with lymphoma and their neighborhood’s role in his recovery and their family’s stability in The Little Things That Matter in the Big Game. She lives in Gaithersburg with her husband, Steve, and their three sons, Daniel, Bryan, and Patrick (who co-wrote the book).