A Touching Basketball Story that I Never Wanted to be a Part of
On May 16th of last year I was stuck in the middle of a nightmare. It was the day after my 18 year old brother-in-law to be, Spencer Datt, was killed in a car driven by a drunk driver. It was a scene out of a gut wrenching movie, but the roles were all played by my loved ones. All of us going in and out of fits of indescribable pain–the hardest hit of course being my future mother and father in law, my other future brother in law, and the woman who had become my fiance exactly one month earlier.
It had been 36 hours since our lives had been shattered. The big crowd at the house had thinned out and at this point, on an awful and dreary Monday night. We sat in my in laws’ kitchen quietly talking and figuring out arrangements. Then the side door opened and a teenager who I didn’t recognize walked in the room, followed by another, and then another, and then another. I looked to my fiance and her father and knew that this was Spencer’s high school basketball team coming to pay respects to the family that they knew not just from high school basketball, but summer league, rec league, and Magruder High’s summer camp. One by one each player greeted Spencer’s family–hugging each of them–most everyone crying.
When the kids had greeted everyone, my father in law did what he has always done during this awful year, thanked others for their kindness, and ensured them that Spencer loved them and that we were touched by their presence. We then sat around with the kids and they told us stories of how Spencer was as a teammate. They told us how funny he was and how great a shooter he was. We all cracked a smile and even chuckled a bit as they told us that no matter how intense Coach Dan Harwood’s timeout screaming might be that Spencer would often be biting his nails and staring at the rafters– unfazed.
I knew then that this was a special group of kids, because I knew the agony it was for all of us to be in the Datt house during that time. I could not imagine being 16 or 17 and choosing to go there and spend time with this heartbroken family. But they did. They were warm and loving and they made us truly feel that they were suffering in their own way too.
As months went by I would see tweets from Spencer’s teammates and even communicated semi regularly with one of them–Justin Witmer –a senior now who two years earlier had been taken under Spencer’s wing as the new kid who also liked to hover by the three point line and knock it down when given the chance. We never discussed basketball in our tweets back and forth–just Spencer.
Soon the basketball season came and we were again touched to find out that in addition to warming up to the song “Who Dat?” by J. Cole (with double meaning because Spencer’s last name is Datt and because he loved J. Cole), the team had decided to dedicate the season to Spencer and make warm up Jerseys that had Spencer’s number and the phrase “Who Datt?” on the back. It was a pretty nice thing to hear.
Magruder dropped their season opener to notorious DC area powerhouse, Dematha, but then quickly picked up a win. And another. And another. In fact, they would not lose again. As I write this story the team is still basking in the glory of the State Championship that they won this weekend. These same kids who had the heart to come check in on their friend’s mourning family just a day after the worst moment of their lives also had the heart to win 26 games in a row and a state championship. The starting five is made up of Witmer, Garland Owens (a high flyer and shut down defender), Luke Ruland, Nick Griffin, and an electrifying 5 ft 4 junior named JJ Epps.
When the game was over and the trophies had been handed out, the team gathered at center court to celebrate winning a championship with Spencer’s # 20 jersey in their hands, but this was more than just winning. Winning a championship does nothing to bring Spencer back, but it did bring a smile to the face of his parents who looked on from the crowd at Comcast Center in College Park. It also reminded us that we weren’t the only ones who knew just how special Spencer was. We were not the only ones who were touched by his smile and his kindness, and his sincere interest in other people. Spencer was a vibrant, warm, and smart kid who was wise beyond his years. And he was important enough to drive this team to heights that they will remember long beyond their playing days.