Bill Wallach never had to tell Alex Beckett to shoot the basketball before.
But for a minute and a half on one special night in February, Beckett was reluctant to shoot. He passed the ball. His teammate passed it back to him. The defense sagged off him. He passed again.
"When he's playing with me, I have to continually say to him, 'Alex, you've got to share the ball, Alex, you've got to share the ball,'" said Wallach, the Guilford High Unified Sports coach. "Here, he's passing it and I'm saying, 'Shoot it! Shoot it!' He was a little frightened."
Beckett finally let a shot fly. He missed. His teammates patiently passed it back again. He squared up and let it go, bang — he hit it — a three-pointer. The gym erupted with quite possibly the loudest cheer ever heard at a boys junior varsity basketball game between Guilford and Branford. There were high-fives all around. Beckett came out of the game and his teammates on the bench congratulated him. The Branford junior varsity coach came over to shake his hand. The crowd chanted, "Al-ex, Al-ex, Al-ex!"
His father, Yale athletic director Tom Beckett, sat in the stands proudly with his wife, Kim. Alex, a senior at Guilford High, is their only child. He has an intellectual disability, on the autism spectrum.
"It was something that looked as normal as any basketball game you would come to," Tom Beckett said. "But if you went over and asked the people who were watching the game, they would tell you it was one of those moments that were very, very special.
"We're elated that we're part of a community that cares so much about young people with special needs and cares so much about trying to make those young people feel included. What we as a family experienced tonight was something that was priceless."
Alex, 18, has been the Guilford High basketball team manager for four years. He also helps out with the boys lacrosse team and ran track with the Unified Sports team this spring. He has been playing Unified Sports — soccer, basketball, track, floor hockey — for six years. He will walk with his graduating class on June 26 but will remain in the school system until he is 21, with an emphasis on vocational training.
The first ball Alex ever had was a basketball, his father said. He started playing in the driveway when he was 5 or 6 years old. But he didn't play organized sports until he started with the Unified program.
"The idea of getting him involved in a program actually was encouraged by [Guilford Principal Rick] Misenti and Bill Wallach, who runs the Unified program here," Tom said. "Alex has loved every minute of that. It's been a very special part of his personal development."
One night after Unified practice, the Guilford junior varsity team was getting ready to practice and Wallach and JV coach Jim Lamb started talking. Wouldn't it be nice if you could get Alex in for one play or something in a junior varsity game? Wallach asked him.
"I've got a 5-year-old special needs grandson. I work for SARAH, which has programs and services for individuals with intellectual disabilities. There are all these links," Lamb said of the foundation in Guilford that helps people with disabilities live independently.
"He mentioned it and I said, 'God, that's a great idea.' I went to Jeff Demaio, the head coach, and he loved the idea. So we started covering the bases. The administration checked with the Becketts. We talked to Branford [High] and they were great. And Rusty [Gordon], their JV coach says, 'He's got to score. It will be the greatest moment of his life.'"
Guilford High athletic director Jake Jarvis got on the phone to the CIAC and made sure that Alex would be eligible to play.
"Jake Jarvis, he called us and said we have to go through the eligibility for Alex with the state, so they filed all the paperwork," Tom said that night. "I mean, how many administrators — the principal and the athletic director — would go to that effort? I'm almost going to cry."
Alex practiced the day before with the team, walking through a few plays but he didn't know he was going to play in the game until his mom, Kim, drove him over to the school in the car that night.
"I asked everybody to not share it with him because he gets very excited," Kim said. "It gets to the point where he can't focus on anything else. So I told him on the way here and his response was, 'Are you kidding me?' I said, 'No, I am not kidding you. You're going to be playing.'"
He was made an honorary tri-captain before the game, walking out to center court to talk to the officials with the other captains. Then the game started.
"Just seeing the smiles on the Becketts' faces made it worthwhile," Lamb said.
With less than a minute left and Guilford holding a comfortable lead, the crowd started to chant "We want Alex!" Lamb put him back in for the final 30 seconds. "Shoot it, Alex!" Wallach yelled. He did, but missed, and time ran out. He left the court to another round of applause.
"It was awesome," Alex said after the game. "It was a good game. We won."
Wallach said he wouldn't be able to put some of his Unified athletes into that kind of a situation. It needed to be a player like Alex who understood the game, the protocol and the rules, so as not to compromise the integrity of the contest.
"I've got some kids who would go out there and run all over the place and you don't want that," he said.
Lou Pear, the director of CIAC Unified Sports, came to the game that night and stood on the sidelines, watching.
"The way it worked out, which was neat, was he took three shots and made one," Pear said. "He played like a minute and a half. The score was 3-2 [at the start]. It wasn't a big advantage or disadvantage. It was a game. It maintained the integrity of the game."
"I thought it was handled extraordinarily well by the officials, by the coaches, by the athletes," Tom said. "It was a true high school basketball game."
"The whole idea is showing that kids with special needs can be included in the right time and the right place," Lamb said. "That sends a powerful message to everybody."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun