How far is it to Centerville?”
Our sports producer here at the Argus Leader in South Dakota, Brian Haenchen, asked me that earlier in the week.
I like to help out occasionally hosting videos featuring top-performing high school athletes, so I figured that was what he had in mind.
“About an hour,” I answered. “Probably hard to justify unless we’ve got a real phenom.”
Well, he is phenomenal.
And it’s an honor to tell his story.
James Brown is the only senior on the Centerville Tornadoes basketball team.
It’s a young team – only seven high schoolers on it – and with a record of 0-16, it had been been a bit of a learning year.
Nobody in attendance on Feb. 13 , though, will forget the lesson taught on the court that night.
“I’ve always had in the back of my mind we would have a James Brown night,” coach Kory Muller told us.
“James is just kind of special.”
There were 224 students in the Centerville district at the start of this school year, and Brown “connects to everybody,” Muller said.
Kindergartners through seniors, “he knows everybody.”
He also loves basketball, starting in seventh grade as a team manager and working his way up to some playing time once he was a freshman. He plays for Special Olympics, too.
So for Brown’s last Centerville home game, Muller wanted to honor the senior with some extended playing minutes. He emailed Bridgewater-Emery coach Scott Schultz with the idea.
Incidentally, Bridgewater’s season is going the opposite of Centerville’s.
The Huskies came into the game with a 16-0 record, ranked top in the state in their class and readying for the postseason.
“He wanted us to play hard, and he said don’t try to ruin your team formula and chemistry,” coach Scott Schultz said.
His reply to Muller’s idea was simple:
“No problem. I’ll talk to my guys, and I’ll see you tonight.”
Few people at the gym that night knew what was in store for Brown. And Muller had no idea Schultz’s “players and him were prepared to allow James to have the night he had.”
As the game started, Muller announced Brown would be starting in his final home game against the top opponent in the state.
“He heard that and went right out on the court ready to go before the lineup was called. He was excited,” Muller said.
“No one knew what the night would turn into.”
Brown controlled the opening tip.
He caught a pass down the court.
And made it.
“It was just one of those things, you had to be here,” Muller said.
And it wasn’t over.
Brown was just warming up.
By the end of the first half, he had scored 18 points.
Each one earned a high-five from his opponents and a roar from both sides of the crowd.
This was James Brown’s night, no doubt about it.
By the time he left the game, he had tallied up 25 points, three rebounds and a standing ovation.
The team from Bridgewater-Emery took a photo with him at center court.
“They were tremendous. I couldn’t be more proud of our boys. They all had smiles on their faces,” Schultz said. “Fans from both teams played a big part and were really energetic and cordial throughout the whole night. It’s kind of what sports is all about.”
As Muller pointed out, “that could have and probably should have been a game that in the end nobody felt good about.”
Bridgewater probably would have won by a lot without having to work very hard.
Centerville, further hampered as two players were out with influenza, likely would have lost in ugly fashion.
Nobody would have remembered much about it.
Instead, I doubt anyone there will ever forget it.
“I think our boys and our fans and our coaches and everybody here probably learned far more about what’s important in life than just a game, than just winning or losing,” Schultz said. “I think James taught all of us a big lesson as far as motivation and determination. In that respect, it was as good or better for my kids and my players than anything.”
In business, and in life, we all have opportunities to lift people up.
And when you find someone with heart, for your work or anything else, and you give that person a chance, incredible things can happen.
“If you’ve got a kid like that, you’re going to go beyond what you’d normally do,” Muller said. “He’s worth the effort.”
I’m willing to bet many of us could say the same about others we encounter in all kinds of capacities.
The record book will show Bridgewater-Emery ended up beating Centerville 80-45 that night.
It also will show James Brown was the leading scorer.
But the real outcome of that game is one we all should strive for as often as we can: