‘Bigger than basketball’: Firebirds rally around family in win over O-West

Free State teacher Nolan Henderson holds onto a check from the school's spirit squad during halftime of the Free State boys basketball game on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018 at FSHS alongside his daughter Ella Avant. His 4-month-old son, Grit, is battling a rare skeletal muscle cancer and the school held a T-shirt fundraiser.

Before Free State’s boys basketball team earned a 92-58 victory over Olathe West in the first-ever meeting between the two schools Tuesday, players were united in warmups by the color gold.

Organized by Free State’s spirit squad, the night was dedicated to Grit Henderson, the 4-month-old son of Free State teachers Nolan and Laura Henderson who is battling a rare skeletal muscle cancer. The bleachers featured fans in gold on both sides.

Free State coach Sam Stroh contacted Brad Ball, Olathe West’s coach, on Sunday to let him know that his team and fans were welcome to wear gold. Ball responded in 30 minutes to ask if they could make their own shirts — “We’ve got you Grit!” Olathe West players and coaches wore them throughout the night.

At halftime, the spirit squad presented Henderson and his daughter Ella Avant with a $4,000 check from a recent T-shirt fundraiser. The shirt, which was worn by Free State players, coaches and many people in attendance read: “No one fights alone” with “Team Grit” below it and a gold ribbon over the middle.

Nolan Henderson, who works as a public-address announcer for home games, stood at center court and told the crowd how thankful he was for all of the support. Johnny’s West, which held a fundraiser Monday night, presented him with another check and other organizations followed. Laura and Grit watched via FaceTime from St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Free State's spirit squad poses for a picture with Nolan Henderson, middle, and his daughter Ella Avant during halftime of the FSHS boys basketball game on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018 at FSHS. The spirit squad read messages of support during a ceremony for Henderson's 4-month-old son Grit, who is is battling a rare skeletal muscle cancer.

“We don’t hear enough about how great people are and how giving people are,” Henderson said afterward. “We hear about that political crap on TV. It’s just awesome and I’m so grateful. I may never leave this town now. I don’t want to say never but what this community has done for me, I’m going to give right back to it the best I can.”

Free State players said the night was about more than anything they did on the court. But they certainly showcased why they are ranked No. 2 in the state. The Firebirds (13-3, 9-1 in Sunflower League) shot 70 percent through the first three quarters, making 12 of their first 14 attempts from behind the 3-point arc.

It was their highest scoring performance in at least the last 10 years. By the end of the third quarter, they had scored 84 points in 24 minutes. The only thing that moved faster than their tally on the scoreboard was their ball movement.

Senior point guard Zach McDermott set the tone in the first quarter, scoring seven points with three assists. When the Firebirds did miss, they crashed the offensive glass for putbacks. All five starters– McDermott, Garrett Luinstra, Simon McCaffrey, Reece White-Downing and Jalan Robinson — scored at least nine points.

“When we keep moving the ball and keep knocking down those shots, we can be a dangerous team,” said Luinstra, who scored a game-high 19 points.

In the second half, which featured a running clock for the entire fourth quarter, senior reserve guard Avant Edwards excited the crowd with back-to-back baskets. In the fourth quarter, senior Charlie Newsome, a fan favorite, converted on an acrobatic layup which prompted the student section to chant his name.

Playing, perhaps, their best offensive game of the season, the Firebirds always kept their minds close to Grit Henderson. Before they take the court for games, they see his name on the white board in the locker room.

“We write up on the board now, ‘Hard, smart, together with some grit,'” Stroh said. “It’s a good message for our kids. Sometimes things are bigger than basketball. When they think they are having a down day, it keeps things in perspective.”

Olathe West (58)

Alston Mason 5-10 4-6 16, Jonas Pinkerton 2-4 0-0 5, Jon Jenkins 2-3 0-0 5, Dominic Messina 5-12 2-2 12, Sam Nicodemus 2-3 0-0 6, Austin Hashagen 0-0 0-0 0, Robel Pinkerton 0-1 0-0 0, Kellen Welsh 1-2 0-0 3, Jerry Maritim 1-4 0-0 2, Connor DeLong 1-2 0-0 2, Brady Stauffer 3-3 0-0 7. Totals 22-44 6-8 58.

Free State (92)

Garrett Luinstra 7-9 2-2 19, Simon McCaffrey 4-5 0-0 11, Reece White-Downing 3-5 3-5 9, Zach McDermott 7-9 0-0 18, Jalan Robinson 4-5 1-2 9, Bansi King 2-5 0-0 6, Noah Butler 3-5 2-2 8, Jared Hicks 0-1 0-0 0, Avant Edwards 2-2 0-0 4, DK Middleton 1-1 0-0 2, Charlie Newsome 1-3 0-0 2, Andrew Piper 2-4 0-0 4, Alyus Wisdom 0-1 0-0 0, Kris Daniels 0-2 0-0 0, Turner Corcoran 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 36-57 8-11 92.

O-West 16 19 7 16 — 58

Free State 26 28 30 8 — 92

3-point goals: O-West 8-13 (Mason 2, Nicodemus 2, J. Pinkerton, Jenkins, Welsh, Stauffer); Free State 12-16 (McDermott 4, Luinstra 3, McCaffrey 3, King 2). Fouled out: None. Turnovers: O-West 13, Free State 9.