High school basketball bounces more on heart than height, and by that measure, the Hughson Huskies had one of the winningest teams around this year. The 2013-14 season long will be remembered, not for trophies or tributes, but for a player who drew standing ovations with every swish.
“Some things happen once in your life,” head coach Tony Romero said. “Being able to see the inspiration he brought. Everybody’s different. Everybody’s got their limitations. But to see how he tried, makes them think, ‘Well, maybe I can work that much harder.’ ”
Senior Pablo Alvarez, 18, had only one year on the team, but he made the most of it. The special-education student never missed a practice. He shot hoops every minute he could and had the highest shooting percentage at Husky games.
But the points didn’t matter. Pablo played only in the final quarter, when the team was way ahead or far behind and the gym pulsed with the chant, “We want Pablo!”
Romero said he did not put Pablo in when the score was close, “but if it’s one way or the other, everyone should get to play.”
When Pablo went in, it was a moment everyone treated with respect. “He just kinda found his spot on the court and we gave him the ball and he did his thing,” said teammate Tanner Duron.
Nobody on the other team rushed this special player. Nobody blocked his shots. And if Pablo’s ball went through the net, the crowd went wild. “Everyone in the gym stood up and applauded. Our players. Their players. Our families. Their families. They all stood,” Romero said.
“Having someone with a disability, well, it’s unfortunate for them, but when he shot, the whole crowd stood up, regardless of the score,” said teammate Daniel Cornejo. “Regardless of the score, it wouldn’t be right to not cheer.”
Said Chase Cheatwood, “He inspired us even to play a little harder so he could come in.”
The team put this year in the win column, despite an overall 9-16 record. “We didn’t do as well as I would have liked. It was still a fun year,” said Tyler Johnson-Clark.
Pablo’s family, however, never watched him play. “He was always really excited to come and play. But he didn’t want us to come. He’s embarrassed to have us come,” said his younger sister, Brenda Alvarez, as Pablo hid his head across the table.
Coaxed to look up, he said he plans to be a janitor after finishing high school. “I won’t get to play anymore. I want to play one more year,” he said.
Pablo will be a hardworking, on-time employee, said special-education teacher Marla Woody. She’s a fan of Pablo’s, and of the whole Hughson High team. “I am really proud of these boys. They accepted him, as is. And this is not being nice for five minutes, it was for months, when they were practicing hard and being competitive. It takes a lot of patience,” Woody said.
The team, limited to 11 players, decided together to make another spot for Pablo, the coach said. “For me, it was a brand-new experience. The kids liked him right away. They welcomed him,” Romero said.
“It was amazing having him on the team. It was the highlight of my year,” said Duron, a senior. “We were a closer-knit team. We all came together for him.”
Sitting with the team at a lasagna dinner before the annual team awards ceremony Thursday, junior Tyler May said next year just won’t be the same. “It’ll be weird. I really liked having Pablo around. He just brought that, like, passion to the team,” May said.
At the dinner, Woody unveiled a surprise for Steelers fan Pablo from Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu. Polamalu regularly honors a student of the month, and picked Pablo as his January honoree. He sent a weighty basket of high-tech toys and an autographed football and team shirt.
In announcing Pablo’s selection on his website, Polamalu wrote: “Pablo has faced many challenges this school year. Being brand-new at a school can be very daunting for a student in itself, but on top of that, Pablo has some academic and social challenges. Despite these challenges, he has set a career goal, applies himself in everything he does and seems to continually exceed expectations in all of those things; all the while capturing those around him with his dedicated but quiet demeanor. Sometimes the quieter ones are overlooked because they don’t always stand out in the ways we typically expect, but understated humility and quiet strength is certainly something we should all value.”
Woody’s nomination included this, “I have been a teacher for 16 years and I have to say that Pablo will be a student I will never forget.” The passage ends with, “He may not be the typical ‘standout’ student, but when I look at Pablo, I see a young man with all heart.”
That heart inspired everyone, his teammates said, voting Pablo their “Most Inspirational Player.”