Before Friday’s senior night game against Anderson County, Halls boys basketball coach Clint Sharp pulled senior team manager Maddox Shields to the center of the locker room.
“What do seniors do on senior night?” Sharp asked Maddox.
“Party?” Maddox replied.
Sharp laughed, then broke the news: “They also start.”
Maddox, who has Down syndrome, has been the team’s manager for four years. His mother Tina said she has no idea where he got his passion for basketball. He isn’t an NBA or college basketball fan — he just loves to play.
“He literally woke up one day and was like 'I love basketball,'” Tina said. "We were like, ' Where did that come from?' because none of us are basketball people. He likes to dribble. He shoots about 60 layups every practice. He just loves being part of it."
His first experience as a team manager was at Powell Middle School, but Tina said the experience wasn't what the family hoped. Maddox was not allowed to travel to away games, attend practices or join the team in the locker room.
At Halls, it was a different story. Maddox is included in everything the team does, from sharing pizza in the locker room to game day warmups.
"His favorite days are late practices because he comes straight from class and goes to the locker room and hangs out with all the guys and then goes to practice," Tina said. "He would be here all the time if he could. The boys have just embraced him and they love him, and you can see it in the way they treat him."
Senior Luke Simpson said he first had the idea for Maddox to play on senior night during their sophomore year. He said the team loves spending time with him and they wanted to give him a special moment to remember.
"This whole idea came up because of the players. They really wanted to do this for him," Sharp said. "We had a meeting Wednesday and when I told them, they literally jumped up and down and screamed. It was like we had just beat a rival or something they were so excited."
After Anderson County scored the first points of the game, junior Caleb Shaffer inbounded the ball to Maddox, who dribbled down the court and scored his first varsity points on a layup. The Halls student section chanted his name as the gym gave him a standing ovation. Maddox also scored the final shot of the game to secure an 84-59 win for Halls.
"It means a lot to us because he's always hype for us, but to see him be even happier is just amazing," Simpson said. "I want him to know that everybody here cares for him and that everybody has his back. Anything he needs, we've got him."
The jersey and starting spot were a surprise for Maddox — his family, team and most of the Halls student body managed to keep it quiet until game time. Tina argued with him on Thursday night because Maddox wanted to wear his favorite sneakers to the game instead of his team-issued basketball shoes, but she couldn't tell him why matching the team was so important.
Tina said Maddox struggled in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic because he does not know how to use a cell phone or other digital forms of communication, so he was isolated his friends and teammates. Knowing those struggles made Maddox's layup feel surreal for her.
"I remember when they told us (he had Down syndrome) ... and there's certain things you just dream of, and you want him to be a part of things," she said, tearing up. "This is that moment you dream of, and all week I've just been so giddy."
Contact Emily Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @eaadams6.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Halls basketball manager with Down syndrome earns senior night start