Rarely has a basket that tied the score at 2 meant so much.
With Tee Salinas’ name being passed around the country on Twitter, with fans in the stands at North Oldham High School wearing shirts with his face on it and with his first-ever high school basket eliciting cheers and tears, this was his moment.
North Oldham High School honored Tee, a senior manager on the boys’ basketball team who has Down syndrome, by allowing him to start the Mustangs’ last home game of the season — a 51-32 loss to DeSales on Friday — and setting him up for an early layup.
“They’re my teammates and my family,” Tee said.
The start of the game in Goshen had been planned days in advance by both teams, but there was no shortage of drama.
DeSales won the tipoff and went in for an easy basket. Tee then inbounded the ball, ran downcourt and received the ball for a drive to the basket. He needed eight tries to make his layup — “He missed the first and started pressing,” said his dad, Tony Salinas — but no one seemed to mind.
The packed house of about 2,500 erupted in applause, and the North Oldham team came off the bench to mob him at half-court.
“Tee’s meant the world to this program,” North Oldham coach Chris Stobaugh said. “… We thought it would be special if we let Tee play with us because that’s what he is: He’s one of us.”
Brenda Salinas said she, her husband and Tee’s younger sister, Brianna, who is also a North Oldham senior, were touched and “overwhelmed” by the gesture.
“It’s just being very humbled and honored that God blessed us with the privilege of raising this remarkable young man in such a wonderful community that would give him this opportunity,” she said. “What an opportunity not only for himself but just to show the love and support of people with disabilities. It’s just heartwarming.”
News about Tee being honored spread fast on social media.
North Oldham students, including football star Austin Metcalfe, helped spearhead an effort to get ESPN’s “SportsCenter” to feature Tee on its Friday night broadcast using the hashtag #GetTeeOnSportsCenter.
By Friday afternoon, the tweets in support of Tee, including one by ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale, had gone viral.
Even students and athletes from North Oldham’s bitter rivals, South Oldham and Oldham County, were tweeting about Tee’s big night.
The first 100 North Oldham students to arrive received a “Tee” shirt with his picture on the front. Stobaugh said he wished he’d ordered at least 100 more.
Tee led the team out of the locker room for warm-ups as the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” blasted over the speakers — a fitting song because it turned out to be such a “good, good night.” The 1,000 or so students chanted, “We want Tee! We want Tee!” After the starting lineups, Stobaugh handed Tee a basketball to roll across the court at the mass of students, who all pretended to fall over like bowling pins. “They were saying, ‘Go, Tee.’ It made me proud,” he said.
After he scored, Tee left the game to a standing ovation, and Stobaugh gave the family a commemorative ball. Tony Salinas said he couldn’t hold back tears.
“As a father, you always dream of seeing your son get into the game, and tonight he got the moment,” he said.
Sports have helped Tee grow socially.
He participates in basketball, bowling, track and golf in the Special Olympics. Tee’s given name is Antonio Salinas II, and his dad, a lifelong golfer, nicknamed him “Tee” because of Tony’s affection for that sport. He and his father will represent Kentucky in golf in the national Special Olympics in New Jersey this summer.
Tee’s participation with North Oldham’s basketball teams — first for the middle school, then the high school — has been one of his most rewarding endeavors and helped him make friends and feel included and accepted.
He does the team’s laundry, runs the clock in practice and gets water for the Mustangs. In Friday’s early junior-varsity game, he executed his regular duties, cheering at the end of the bench and getting up to hand water bottles to the players as they came off the court.
“He lives and dies with North basketball,” Stobaugh said. ” … On an everyday basis, he brings an energy and enthusiasm that most kids don’t.”