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A high school basketball game proves sports can embrace good, not greed

February 18, 2009 | 11:10 am

ESPN's "Mike and Mike" show can be credited for bringing attention to a column in the Milwaukee Journal by Art Kabelowsky that is worth reading, even if you aren't a sports fan.

It is the story of Milwaukee Madison High School and DeKalb (Ill.) High School, and what happened in their game can now serve as the brightest symbol of sportsmanship.

It centers on Milwaukee Madison senior Johntell Franklin, who lost his mother, Carlitha, to cervical cancer late in the afternoon on Feb. 7. That night Franklin's team was set to play DeKalb, and the grieving 18-year-old senior told his coach not to call off the game.

As it was, his coach, Aaron Womack Jr., arrived late to the Madison gym -- having come straight from the hospital. He hadn't expected DeKalb's coach and players to understand, but they did. Womack also hadn't expected Franklin to play that night. But he did. In the second quarter, Franklin came walking in, suited up.

But Franklin's name was not in the score book because Womack hadn't expected him to be there. And rules dictated that Womack would have to be assessed a technical (worth two free throws) if he played Franklin. It wouldn't have mattered to Womack because he knew Franklin needed to play -- for his mom. It was part of the young man's grieving process.

DeKalb Coach Dave Rohlman said he and his players knew of Franklin's situation.

"We were sympathetic to the circumstances and the events," Rohlman said. "We even told Coach Womack that it'd be OK to call off the game, but he said we had driven 2 1/2 hours to get here and the kids wanted to play. So we said, 'Spend some time with your team and come out when you're ready.' "

Rohlman told the referees he did not want the call.

Well, referees go by the rules. So what happened when it came time to shoot the two free throws?

The first ball was rolled slowly across the end line, counting as a missed free throw. Rohlman and his players knew the rules too, you see. They knew what would count and what wouldn't, what would be the more shining symbol of sharing a boy's grief.

The second free throw? Another roll.

Both free throws were courtesy of DeKalb senior Darius McNeal, who had volunteered to be the one to miss.

"I did it for the guy who lost his mom," McNeal said. "It was the right thing to do."

Now, if you are one of those who says sports are frivolous or meaningless, or are tired of the A-Rods of the world, print this out and tape it somewhere where you can see it every day. Dare yourself to believe that sports is not all cheating and greed. Sports can elicit generosity, unity of spirit, compassion. Sports can be faith, hope and, yes, love.

-- Debbie Goffa