By Brian Burnsed
Some turnovers matter.
Usually, they are unremarkable. They occur countless times on winter nights in cinderblock-walled high school basketball gyms and raucous college arenas across the nation. They are observed, noted in box scores and promptly forgotten.
But this was not the fate of a bounce pass thrown by Franklin High School senior Jonathon Montanez on Feb. 12, 2013 that found its way into Coronado High School senior Mitchell Marcus’s hands. The two schools are rivals – separated by only two miles on the west side of El Paso, Texas – but the pass did not draw the ire of Montanez’s coaches or teammates. The record of its existence, a lonely “1” in the turnover column of his stat line, grossly understates its importance. Nearly two months later, it has not been forgotten.
That turnover is the reason why Montanez, Marcus, their teammates, coaches and parents will be venturing to Dallas this weekend and will be guests of the NCAA at the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship South Regional. It’s the reason why they’ll be honored at halftime of Friday night’s clash between Florida and Florida Gulf Coast in front of tens of thousands of people at Cowboys Stadium. It’s the reason why millions of others already know their names.
The pass fell into Marcus’s hands with 13 seconds remaining in what would be his first and last high school basketball game. Marcus, who is developmentally challenged, had diligently served as the team’s manager for several years, ever-ready to help whenever called upon. That night – senior night – he received a promotion and a uniform. With 1:33 remaining and Coronado holding a double-digit lead, coach Peter Morales summoned Marcus from the bench, hoping that his devoted manager could end a career spent in the shadows in the spotlight, that he’d score a basket that would stay with him forever.
“He is a kid who deserved it,” Morales said. “You don’t understand the dedication he has to our program.”
But Marcus’s first 80 seconds as a varsity high school basketball player didn’t go as everyone in the gym hoped they might. A three-pointer from the corner barely missed its mark. Later, as he stood near the basket, a long pass from a teammate caromed off his shoulder and tumbled out of bounds. Devastated as the clock ticked away and Franklin gained possession after the miscue, Marcus began walking off the court. But Montanez, who played sporadically for Franklin, used his rare appearance on the court to hustle over to the sideline, call Marcus’s name and toss that fateful bounce pass. Turnover, Jonathon Montanez, the box score would read. Seconds later, Mitchell Marcus would record the only two points of his career. The buzzer sounded and Coronado students stormed the court, enveloping the team’s newest star.
The reverberations of that turnover are still being felt. Montanez’s pass has propelled both schools 600 miles east to Dallas, where both teams eagerly await the weekend’s Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games. The plan was set in motion when NCAA’s Executive Vice President of Championships and Alliances Mark Lewis, Managing Director of Marketing and Broadcast Alliances Keith Martin and Vice President of Men’s Basketball Championships Dan Gavitt caught wind of the story. Soon, they decided to invite Montanez, Marcus and their teams to the tournament to show their appreciation for the sportsmanship displayed by everyone involved. Quickly, Lewis’s staffers were busy making arrangements.
“It was a phenomenal story about sportsmanship,” Lewis said. “It touched all of us. More importantly, it’s what the game is about.”
To comply with NCAA eligibility rules, the high schools’ relied on booster clubs and fundraising efforts to pay for the teams’ round trip flights. When officials at Marriott heard about the trip, they quickly offered to provide free hotel rooms throughout the weekend for everyone in the large traveling parties – each is bringing more than 20 players, coaches and parents and will stay in Dallas through Monday morning. When Lewis called Morales to inform him that the NCAA was offering his team tickets for the regional finals, the coach and his players were surprised and ecstatic.
“They couldn’t stop smiling,” Morales said.
Dallas Mavericks players will meet with the teams and a video highlighting Montanez’s gesture will be shown on the large screen in Cowboys Stadium when the teams are honored on the court. Montanez, Marcus, Morales and Franklin coach Todd Bostic will all receive NCAA 75th Celebration basketballs as part of the ceremony.
The Dallas trip comes on the on the heels of a CBS Evening News piece detailing the event, a live interview on SportsCenter featuring Montanez and Morales and a trip to Los Angeles where Montanez and Marcus appeared on “Ellen” and met Chris Paul and Kevin Durant at a Los Angeles Clippers game.
“I think all the kids [on my team] recognize that we’re getting these opportunities solely because of Jonathon,” Bostic said. “It hasn’t really fazed him one bit. I think he’s come out of his shell a little bit. I think it’s been great for him; he’s usually a pretty quiet and reserved kid.”
Morales didn’t put Marcus into the game to garner attention. Montanez didn’t throw him the ball to so that he could meet celebrities or earn free trips to basketball games. Both actions were motivated by simple kindness. That kindness led to a turnover. That turnover led to a basket. That basket has propelled both teams into the limelight.
“It’s been overwhelming at times, but I wouldn’t trade this for the world, everything that Mitchell is experiencing,” Morales said. “I think what makes it more exciting for him is that he’s going to share it with his teammates.”