Cory Pitsenberger scored two memorable points for the Eastern boys’ basketball team Monday night.
The senior manager, who has special needs, made the Eagles’ first basket in their 62-59 loss to visiting Atherton. The final score, however, was secondary to the moment Pitsenberger experienced at the start of the team’s final home game of the season.
“It felt good. It was exciting,” said Pitsenberger, who is in his fourth year as the team’s manager. During that time Pitsenberger has made his mark on the program with his enthusiasm, work ethic and attention to detail, Eastern coach David Henley said.
“He’s at every practice, he goes with us on the road, he loves Eastern High School, he really loves Eastern basketball and he really does a good job of keeping me on my toes,” Henley said. “Every day when we get together after practice we start talking about the next game, or the next practice, there’s always something I leave out and Cory’s the first one to catch me. He’ll ask me, ‘What time do we have to be here?’ or ‘What time’s the bus leaving?’ He’s on top of everything.”
The idea to have Pitsenberger suit up for the Eagles came from Henley, who had a manager (Tee Salinas) with Down syndrome while he was coaching at North Oldham who later played in a varsity game there and was inspired by similar stories like that of Jason McElwain, the young man with autism who suited up for his high school team in New York for one game in 2006 and made six 3-pointers.
“He deserves something like that for all the time and effort he’s put in,” Henley said. “We just wanted to take this chance to reward him, let him get to experience a senior night like so many kids across, not just Kentucky, but across the country. And give him a chance to get out and show his skills.”
So Henley reached out to Atherton last week.
“They were all for it,” he said.
On Friday, Henley informed Pitsenberger of the plan to play him.
“He’s been surprisingly calm,” Tom Pitsenberger, Cory’s grandfather, said before Monday’s game. “But I think there was a little trepidation on his part.”
Wearing No. 31 (“It’s just the number coach gave me,” he said) in white, Pitsenberger was the first one introduced when the Eagles’ starting lineup was announced.
After Atherton won the tip and scored the game’s first basket, the 6-foot-3 Pitsenberger, who plays for Eastern’s Unified Team and earlier this season scored 39 points in a game, posted up in the lane. With the Eastern student section chanting, “Cory! Cory! Cory!” Braxton Johnson passed to Pitsenberger, who made an uncontested left-handed layup 18 seconds into the game.
“It was really exciting, We had the crowd going,” Pitsenberger said.
After making his shot Pitsenberger went over to the Eastern bench, where he was mobbed by his teammates. Then, he checked out of the game as the student section continued to chant his name.
Afterward Pitsenberger, who according to Henley “when we lose he probably takes it harder than anybody,” was understandably disappointed.
“It’s a tough way to go out on senior night,” he said.
Pitsenberger, however, isn’t done playing basketball. This weekend he’ll compete with his Special Olympics team in the regional tournament. Then he plans on playing for the team at the Ahrens Learning Center, which Pitsenberger, an honor roll student at Eastern who has a 3.8 GPA, will begin attending in the fall.
However, he likely won’t forget Monday night anytime soon.
“The wins and losses, they soon fade away, but a moment like that you’ll have forever,” Henley said. “I’m sure it will for him and his family. Those moments are pretty special.”
ATHERTON 62, EASTERN 59: The Rebels relied on their outside shooting to clip the host Eagles. Atherton made nine 3-pointers (five above its average), including six in the second quarter, on the way to its fourth straight win.
Junior guard Jordan Pulford tallied 16 points to pace three in double figures for the Rebels (13-15).
Senior forward Caleb Williams scored a game-high 23 points for Eastern (15-12).
ATHERTON 62, EASTERN 59
Atherton (13-15): Flynn Calnon 8, Keion Bentley 10, Abe Barthelemy 5, Ty Lauderdale 7, Jordan Pulford 16, Jordan Johnson 3, Jastine Lado 10, Jacob Walsh 3.
Eastern (15-12): Braxton Johnson 6, Kahlil Garmon 2, Caleb Williams 23, Javen Rushin 6, Cory Pitsenberger 2, Jacob Robinson 11, Isaiah Ross 3, Myles Goodrich 6.