Stick Salute: Two Missed Free Throws, One Step Toward Healing

Jennie LuptakCorrespondent ISeptember 29, 2009

At the end of college hockey games, players gather at center ice and ceremoniously raise their sticks in salute to the fans. Similarly, this weekly installment will pay homage to those feel-good stories that remind us how wonderful sports really are.

Dave Rohlman was furious. He argued with the referees, demanding they look at the situation objectively. The rule didn't apply, he claimed. These were extenuating circumstances, he pleaded.

For seven minutes Rohlman disputed the call, but the referees didn’t have a choice.

Finally, Rohlman—head coach of the DeKalb (Ill.) High School boys basketball team—relented. He sent Darius McNeal, a senior guard, to shoot the two technical-foul free throws. Before McNeal took the court, Rohlman looked him in the eye.

“You realize you’re going to miss, right?”

McNeal nodded.

Johntell Franklin, a senior at Milwaukee Madison High School, was taking his ACT exam while his mother was dying.

Carlitha Franklin’s cervical cancer had been in remission for five years when she began hemorrhaging the morning of February 7. That afternoon, the family decided to remove her from life support.

When his basketball coach offered to cancel that evening’s game against DeKalb, Johntell declined. Instead, he told coach Aaron Womack, Jr. to “tell the guys to go out and do their best.”

Womack promised they would.

Midway through the second quarter of the game, Johntell walked into the gym. Instantly enveloped in a sea of fans and friends, the grieving senior wasn’t there to watch his team—he was there to play.

Womack hadn’t anticipated Johntell would dress that night, so his name was left out of the scorebook.

The referees assessed Madison Milwaukee a technical foul, a foul Dave Rohlman didn’t want.

As Darius McNeal lined up alone on the foul line, the Madison High players huddled around their coach at the other end of the floor. Womack was trying to focus his understandably emotional team when he saw the ball rolling slowly across the baseline.

“I turned around and saw the ref pick up the ball and hand it back to [McNeal],” Womack told the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

“And then he did the same thing again.”

“Darius set up for a regular free throw,” Rohlman said in the Journal Sentinel. “But he only shot it two or three feet in front of him. It bounced once or twice and just rolled past the basket.”

He was only following coach’s orders, but it’s not hard to believe the scene would have played out the same way if McNeal was left to his own volition.

“I did it for the guy who lost his mom,” McNeal explained to the newspaper. “It was the right thing to do. 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.”

This week’s stick salute goes to every single person in this story. The coaches ignored consequences, the players saw the big picture, and the fans met DeKalb’s sportsmanship with a standing ovation.

For anyone who doubted the healing power of sports, look for no further proof—sports can drive the poison from a room and, even if for a short period of time, ease the pain of loss.

Photo Credit: Johntell Franklin (pictured), The Courier-Journal Blog