The list of things that are wrong with sports seems endless. Steroid scandals. Rising ticket prices. Greed trumping loyalty. Individual statistics over team accomplishments. A lack of accountability. Fewer and fewer role models.
So it is refreshing to see the level of class shown by Darius McNeal in Milwaukee on February 7th. It’s stories like this that keeps my passion for sports alive.
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
At first, Johntell Franklin just wanted to watch his friends play basketball.
“I wanted to go and support my team,” said Franklin, an 18-year-old senior at Milwaukee Madison High School. “I’m a captain. I set an example.”
As it turned out, Franklin wound up teaching everyone in the Madison gymnasium a lesson – about friendship, about the value of sports, about themselves.
A somber cloud hung over the Knights as they played DeKalb, Ill., High School on Saturday, Feb. 7. News spread quickly that Franklin’s mother, Carlitha, had died earlier that day after a five-year battle with cervical cancer. She was 39.
Madison coach Aaron Womack Jr. was in Madison’s laundry room, washing the Knights’ uniforms from the previous night’s game, when he got the news.
“I didn’t have my cell phone with me back there, so by the time I heard, the junior varsity game had already started,” Womack said. “I headed straight to the hospital. Johntell, understandably, he was despondent.”
Carlitha Franklin had been in remission recently. But Womack said she had begun to hemorrhage on Saturday morning – while Johntell was at Wauwatosa East High School, taking his college entrance ACT exam. By late Saturday afternoon, the decision had been made to turn off the life-support system.
At the hospital, Womack asked Franklin if he should call off that evening’s game. “He said, ‘No, tell the guys to go out and do their best,’ ” the coach said. “I told him we would, and I went back to school.”
So Womack gasped with surprise when he saw Franklin walk into the gym early during the second quarter.
“A few seconds after I spotted Johntell, all the people in the stands did, too. They surrounded him. The players, his friends in the stands, the cheerleaders,” Womack said.
“They were showing me that they were supporting me, comforting me,” Franklin said. “Yeah, on a hard day, that’s a nice feeling to have.”
Then came another surprise: Franklin didn’t just want to watch. He wanted to play.
“I’m a competitor. I can’t just sit there and watch,” he said.
Womack sent Franklin, a 6-foot-2 forward, to suit up. He returned to the cheers of the crowd – including the coaches and players from DeKalb, whose amazing display of fellowship and sportsmanship had just begun.
“I was late getting back from the hospital, and they could have called us on that,” Womack said. “But they were great about it.”
“We were sympathetic to the circumstances and the events,” said DeKalb coach Dave Rohlman. “We even told Coach Womack that it’d be OK to call off the game, but he said we had driven 2 1/2 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.’ ”
Since some of Franklin’s teammates had joined him at the hospital, Womack entered only eight names into Madison’s official scorebook. The game began almost two hours behind schedule.
But Franklin’s desire to play created another problem: The referees were required to call a technical foul against Womack for failing to list Franklin in the scorebook.
“I told the referees I knew there would be a technical,” Womack said. “I put Johntell in after DeKalb called a timeout (midway through the second quarter), and the next thing I heard was DeKalb’s coaches complaining that they didn’t want a technical.”
“We argued, but the referees said those were the rules, even if there were extenuating circumstances,” Rohlman said.
The discussion lasted more than seven minutes. Eventually, Rohlman devised a solution: His team had to shoot two technical free throws . . . but didn’t have to make them.
“I gathered my kids and said, ‘Who wants to take these free throws?’ Darius McNeal (a 5-11 senior point guard) put up his hand. I said, ‘You realize you’re going to miss, right?’ He nodded his head.”
During technical free throws, no other players are allowed around the free-throw lane. So Womack gathered Madison’s players around his bench, on the other end of the court, and was trying to reel in their emotions when he saw something odd out of the corner of his eye:
Instead of swishing through the basket, the ball rolled slowly across the end line.
“I turned around and saw the ref pick up the ball and hand it back to the player,” Womack said, “and then he did the same thing again.”
“Darius set up for a regular free throw, but he only shot it two or three feet in front of him,” Rohlman said. “It bounced once or twice and just rolled past the basket.”
“I did it for the guy who lost his mom,” McNeal said. “It was the right thing to do.”
After the second shot, everyone in the gym – including all the Madison players – stood and applauded the gesture of sportsmanship.
“Any one of my teammates would have done the same thing, and I think anyone on the Madison team would have done the same for us,” McNeal said.
Madison broke open a close game after the timeout and went on to win, 62-47. Franklin finished with 10 points, matching his season average.
“Just being in the game was a good feeling,” Franklin said. “I knew my Mom would have wanted me to play. She was always proud of me playing basketball.”
A friendly rivalry
This was the third straight year that DeKalb and Madison have played a non-conference game, and as in the other visits, both teams gathered for dinner afterward. “We set it up so that there were four kids to a pizza, two Madison kids and two DeKalb kids,” Womack said.
Franklin stayed for only a minute and didn’t have a chance to thank McNeal for his gesture.
“It’s OK,” McNeal said. “I just would have told him I was sorry for his loss.”
Womack was so moved by the events of the day that he wrote a letter to the DeKalb Daily Chronicle, praising the Barbs’ coaching staff and players.
“That letter became a big deal in DeKalb,” said Rohlman, whose team is 14-10 with three regular-season games remaining. “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.”
Carlitha Franklin’s funeral on Friday was attended by dozens of Johntell’s Madison friends, teammates, coaches and administrators . . . plus the cheerleading squad, in full uniform.
“Even the cooks from the lunchroom came,” said Womack, whose team is 6-10 overall but upset Milwaukee King, 46-43, on Jan. 27. “You never know how much you’re loved until a tragedy happens. It was amazing. It shows what a good kid Johntell is.”
“I’m all right now. It helps to have so many people behind me,” Franklin said. “This will be my first week back in practice, and we have a big game (tonight) against (Milwaukee) Hamilton that I’m looking forward to.”
An all-City Conference linebacker, Franklin has drawn some interest from Division I and II programs, most notably Ball State.
“That’s what I want to do next. I really want to play college football,” he said. “I want to keep competing.”