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West Point High's Tanner Caldwell sits on the bench during a game earlier this season.

Heith Yearwood had heard the question before. Tanner Caldwell had asked it many times before.

But on this night Caldwell got what he wanted: A chance to play in a varsity basketball game.

“Tanner’s always asking if he’s gonna play,” said Yearwood, West Point High’s boys basketball coach. “Before the game I told him to be ready because he was going to play that night.”

A little background information is needed to fully understand the significance of Yearwood’s promise.

See, Caldwell isn’t just any member of West Point’s basketball team. As the players will tell you, he’s as important to the team as anyone in the starting five.

But as a student with Down syndrome, he’s never had an opportunity to touch the floor in a live game.

Or at least that was the case until Jan. 11, when West Point hosted Class 4A, Area 11 foe Dora.

“I told him to be ready and we let him dress out and go through warmups with the game,” Yearwood said. “We’ve done that before, but I had no idea what was about to happen later on.”

What happened was that Caldwell got to make his varsity debut and ended up being the star of the game.

One of his teammates, Zack Baswell, even tabbed Caldwell as the most valuable player, telling him, “We won the game, and you won it for us,” in the locker room following the Warriors’ 89-48 loss.

Yes. That’s exactly what Baswell said, following a Warriors’ loss, nonetheless.

But those digits on the scoreboard were just a technicality because it would be difficult to say there were any losers in Jim Boyd Gymnasium that night.

But inspired people? There were plenty of those on hand.

That includes West Point principal Darrell Brock.

“I have been attending West Point basketball games for the past 45 years and I’ve watched some great teams and games over the years,” Brock said. “I’ve had my share of thrills in the gyms at West Point but none was better than what I witnessed during the last 1:18 of that West Point-Dora game on Jan. 11.”

A memorable moment, indeed.

But it was also one that almost didn’t happen.

With his team trailing Dora by 40 with a 1:30 remaining in the fourth period, Yearwood turned to Caldwell and told him to enter the game.

“And he shook his head and acted like he didn’t want to,” Yearwood said.

As the seconds continued to tick off the clock, Dora coach Heath Burns looked across the scorer’s table and realized what his counterpart was trying to do. And instead of letting time expire, Burns called timeout with 1:18 remaining to give Yearwood another chance to put Caldwell in.

“He (Burns) noticed Tanner during pregame and he told me to get him in if I ever got a chance,” Yearwood said.

Burns said it was Caldwell’s enthusiasm that stood out.

“He was just having such a great time,” the Bulldogs coach said. “When I saw that kid during warmups, I knew I wanted to meet him. And I told Coach Yearwood that no matter what happens, we need to get that kid in the game. I didn’t care if we were down by 10 trying to come back late, that needed to happen.”

And it did happen — with a boost from everyone sitting in Jim Boyd Gymnasium.

The West Point students sitting behind the Warriors’ bench started chanting Caldwell’s name during the timeout. Almost everyone else sitting in the stands — including the Dora fans — followed suit when they realized what was happening.

And Caldwell responded by getting off the bench and entering the game.

That’s when the magic started.

Dora star Jo-Jo Walls intentionally turned the ball over with a bounce pass to Caldwell on the Bulldogs’ first possession. Caldwell went on to score a team-high eight points in the final minute — finishing 4-for-6 from the field — with everyone in the gymnasium cheering him on.

It was obvious that everyone participating in the game wanted Caldwell to have his moment to shine.

Both teams’ coaches not only discussed it, but they made sure it happened.

Both teams’ players made sure Caldwell had plenty of opportunities to score.

Even the referees were understanding. There were no whistles blown during that final 1:18, even when traveling would have been an obvious call.

“I’ve never been a part of anything like that in all my years of coaching,” Burns said. “It was an inspiration to me, my kids and everyone else who saw it. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place.

“This was a great reminder that we play sports because they’re fun. That’s what I talked to my players about after the game. There were just so many lessons that could learned that night. I think we all left there better off because of it.”

Yearwood agreed.

“It was one of those great moments, one where you have to believe God had his hand in it,” he said. “It was one of those moments that puts everything in perspective … makes you realize there’s more important things in sports than wins and losses.”

• Justin Graves can be reached by phone at 734-2131, ext. 257 or by e-mail at jgraves@cullmantimes.com.

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