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Youth Sports Heroes (One Year Later): Jonathon Montanez and Mitchell Marcus (El Paso, Tex.)

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This column has always followed a "one and done" approach. I  tell an inspiring story, and then seek a new one for the following month. I have never recycled old "heroes" columns because the media provides a steady stream of positive stories for readers who are concerned about values in youth sports.

This month's column is different because it revisits the story of Jonathon Montanez and Mitchell Marcus, who were last February's heroes for a generous gesture in the final 13 seconds of a high school basketball game in El Paso, Texas. The game's first anniversary approaches on February 12, but the story has not grown old because it continues to capture headlines, culminating (so far, at least) with major fundraising for the El Paso Children's Hospital. 

"It's Your Time"

To refresh everyone's recollection, El Paso's undefeated Coronado High School Thunderbirds were only 13 seconds away from downing their crosstown rival, the Franklin High Cougars, 53-40, to win the district championship. Rather than run out the clock beneath Franklin's basket, Franklin's Jonathon Montanez inbounded the ball to Coronado senior Mitchell Marcus, who was appearing in his first and only varsity game. Mitchell, a special needs student with a developmental disability, had served as Coronado's student manager since his freshman year.

Coronado coach Peter Morales and his players had agreed that, in the season finale on "senior night," Mitchell should suit up for the first time, pursue his dream of seeing action in one game, and perhaps even hit a basket. With an undefeated season on the line and plenty of time on the clock to lose a ten-point lead, the coach put Mitchell on the court for the last minute and a half. "He's a kid who deserved it," said Morales, for "the dedication he has to our program." 

After Mitchell missed a few shots, Jonathan, who usually saw only limited playing time himself, helped make it happen. "Shoot it," he said as he delivered a bounce pass to his surprised opponent. "It's your time." It took a few tries, but Jonathan and his Cougars teammates watched as Mitchell scored with only one second remaining and left the court on the shoulders of his teammates to the resounding cheers of both teams' fans.

"The Perfect Turnover"

Memories of the Coronado-Franklin game would have faded quickly, except that video footage of the final 13 seconds went viral on the Internet and captured the public imagination. The Texas State Senate honored Jonathan Montanez and Mitchell Marcus for "the basketball shot heard across the country." The El Paso Times called the inbounds pass "the turnover seen round the world," and CBS News called it "one of the most memorable turnovers of all time."

Within days, the two high school seniors appeared together on the CBS Evening News, ESPN's SportsCenter, the Ellen DeGeneres Show (see clip above), and other national television programs. In late March, the NCAA hosted the Coronado and Franklin teams as special guests at the Men's Basketball Sweet 16 and Elite 8 March Madness tournament games in Dallas. After Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul watched video of the turnover, he flew Jonathon and Mitchell to Los Angeles for courtside seats at a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Texas Tech University offered Jonathon a full scholarship. On Thanksgiving Day 2013, he and Mitchell were honorary grand marshals at El Paso's 77th annual Sun Bowl Parade.

By the end of 2013, the final 13 seconds of the already-decided game produced a lasting gift. A local filmmaker's documentary, "The Perfect Turnover," helped raise $200,000 for an interventional cardiology program at the El Paso Children's Hospital.

A Meaningful "Thank You"

Now that a year has passed, last February's El Paso high school basketball story is not about one game. Nor is it about one bounce pass, or about two players who would otherwise never shine in the national media spotlight. The story delivers a broader lesson about respect for student managers, whose contributions to high school teams often go unrecognized.

The Montanez-Marcus episode recalls a few recent news stories about teams that allowed the student manager see a few minutes of game action, typically at or near the end of the senior season. The gesture usually passes under the media's radar screen, but the opportunity says "thank you" to a team member who supports the squad, fills water bottles, gathers sweat suits, and performs so many other behind-the-scenes chores that help make teams click.

Coaches have a few ways to assure that the manager gets a few earned moments on stage if the manager wishes, and if the opportunity can happen safely and within the rules of the game, including the league's eligibility rules. The coach can list the manager on the roster submitted to the league at the beginning of the season if a spot is available and would not deprive another student who would be more likely to see regular playing time. Depending on league rules, the coach might also be able to suit up the manager on short notice with the consent of the league or the opposing team.

Where the team rewards the manager with playing time, the coach accomplishes two worthwhile goals. The manager wins lifelong memories, and the whole team learns the lifelong lesson that people who perform seemingly ordinary chores in near anonymity deserve a meaningful thank-you from the people who benefit.

"The Great Gift of Human Beings"

Jonathon Montanez's spontaneous bounce pass also delivers a lesson broader than any one game. "I was raised to treat others how you want to be treated," he said as he sought to deflect the attention directed his way. "I just thought Mitchell deserved his chance."

Whether he realized it or not, Jonathan described what Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep calls "the power of empathy," which she says is "the great gift of human beings." Without diminishing the desire to win, he taught a worldwide audience a thing or two about this gift in the waning moments of a game that saw the Coronado and Franklin squads both try their best all night to defeat the other.