Senior Night was more significant than usual for the boys’ varsity basketball team at Franklin Road Academy in Nashville, Tenn., on Friday, and it had little to do with the Panthers’ 64-47 win over University School of Nashville.
Instead, it had everything to do with an emotional last-second basket from the most unlikely player on the roster.
Robert Lewis has served as a manager for the basketball, football and soccer teams at Franklin Road throughout his entire high school career, and last Monday, Franklin Road coach John Pierce told Lewis, who has Down syndrome, that he’d be dressing out for the team’s final home game later in the week.
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The honor has been a tradition for senior managers at Franklin Road for the last decade, but it was still unclear whether Lewis would actually get a chance to play against University School, where his younger brother, Matthew, is a junior on the team.
"If we’re ahead comfortably or behind and kind of out of the game, we’ll put those guys in at the end of the game, and we’ve had some good moments with those guys over the last 10 years," Pierce told FOX Sports on Monday. "But we’ve never had anything close to what happened Friday night."
Robert and Matthew Lewis
Fortunately, the result was in hand with just over a minute to play, so Pierce instructed Lewis and fellow manager Joshua Larkin to check in. Upon seeing Lewis at the scorer’s table, University School coach Mike Jones called upon Matthew Lewis to do the same, allowing the brothers to play together for the final few possessions — a move that was not orchestrated by the coaches beforehand.
"What an act of class and sportsmanship by them," Franklin Road athletic director Kris Palmerton said. "Before the game (the University School players) were all hugging (Robert) and giving him high-fives, saying ‘What’s up, Money?’ — that’s his nickname — so it was like he was one of them, too, just like he was one of ours. But it’s clear Robert bleeds blue and white, that’s for sure."
After subbing in, Lewis first got back on defense, then after a made basket by University School, he rushed down to the right corner and waited for a pass. He missed his first 3-point attempt short, but after a quick University School 3-pointer, Lewis returned to the corner for a second try from the same spot, with his kid brother guarding him on defense.
This time, with less than 10 seconds left on the clock, he hit nothing but net.
"I was leaning up against the wall right near where he took it, so I had the best seat in the house to see him let it fly," Palmerton said. "It looked true and ripped through that net and the emotions that overcame me were just beyond words. It was awesome."
The crowd erupted as the shot dropped, and afterward, players from both teams congratulated Lewis, with Matthew Lewis the first to pat his brother on the back as the players ran down court. Then once the final buzzer sounded, fans rushed from the stands to the floor, lifting Robert up into the air in celebration.
"The thought that he was going to make a shot honestly never crossed my mind," Pierce said. "I was really proud of our guys for getting the ball to him and letting him get a couple shots, and the way it all happened — I would have never imagined that it would happen like that. But the way it came together and the crowd came onto the court, it was a really special night."
And while normally frowned upon, this particular instance of court-storming isn’t likely to draw too many complaints.
"It’s always an athletic director’s nightmare, and I’m always guarded against it," Palmerton said. "But it wasn’t an act of poor sportsmanship. Both teams were literally celebrating Robert, and it just kind of went from there. It was a court-storming out of sheer love by both squads, by both schools."
"I don’t think anyone’s going to levy any fines for that one," Pierce added. "It was awesome."
Robert Lewis, Matthew Lewis and the rest of the crowd watch on as Robert’s shot heads for the net.
On Tuesday, Franklin Road returns to the floor for its final regular season game before district tournament play starts on Friday, and as he has been for the last four years, Robert Lewis will be on the bench ready to do whatever is needed for the team. Those duties almost certainly won’t entail wearing a jersey or taking another shot, but for one special night, Lewis was the king of Franklin Road basketball with his brother by his side, and those memories alone are more than enough.
"I remember asking myself, ‘Did that really just happen?’" Pierce said of the shot and its aftermath. "I really couldn’t believe — it felt like a fairy tale. And then I got thinking about all the other things that went into making that event happen.
"We had a younger player who gave up his jersey so that Robert could dress, and we have another manager who was kind of under the radar even though he was on the court at the time," Pierce continued. "He was sacrificing maybe getting his own shot so Robert could take his. So for all that went on for that to happen for Robert and his family, it was really unbelievable."