GRAFTON, N.D. - With one second remaining on the scoreboard clock, hopes were dim for the plan to get senior Blake Bjornson his first varsity basket.
The Grafton Spoilers were inbounding the basketball at the far end of the court, 94 feet from the hoop. A teammate rolled the ball down the court, Blake scooped it up 20 feet from the basket against a purposely passive Thompson Tommies’ defense, took one dribble and shot.
While he was mobbed by teammates streaming off the bench, cheers and tears were evident in every corner of the gym.
“I’ve never seen a gym react like that before, with both teams’ fans cheering at the end of the game,” Thompson Coach Brandy George said about the lopsided loss to the Spoilers. “Our fans had tears in their eyes.”
As a senior suiting up for his first-and-last varsity game in the regular-season finale, it was literally Blake’s last shot as a Spoiler.
“I felt nervous and happy,” Blake said about his emotions.
The ‘happy’ chromosome
Monday night wasn’t the first time students showed their affection for their special-needs classmate. He was voted the school’s homecoming king last fall.
“He didn’t take the crown off the entire week,” basketball teammate Brody Nelson said.
Wendy Bjornson said her son’s popularity isn’t a product of pity; it’s a product of his personality.
“Blake has Down syndrome, which means he has an extra chromosome,” she said. “I call his happy chromosome. He’s happy all the time and happiness is contagious. It’s impossible to be crabby when you’re around him.”
Mother knows best, according to senior player Austin Contreras. “If I’m in a bad mood, I get happy just by looking at Blake,” he said. “And he’s so passionate about the game that I thought he deserved to play in front of a big crowd and get recognized.”
Teammate Hunter Baldwin said the semi-orchestrated basket was a product of payback, not pity.
“Blake is very special to us,” Baldwin said. “He has made us better people. And, he has made our community a more hopeful place.”
While playing in B Squad and C Squad games over the last two seasons, Blake had made three shots. After draining his first 3-pointer, he showed his unbridled joy by running into the bleachers to high-five Grafton fans as play continued.
But, he had never suited up for a varsity game until Monday, when it was Senior Night. He was announced as a starter, to guarantee recognition in case the game went down to the wire. With game in hand, he entered in the fourth quarter.
“This was in the works for a long time because we wanted to do something special for Blake,” Grafton Coach Riley Lillemoen said.
“He’s a sports fanatic. Everyone loves him. But, more than anything, our players wanted him out there.”
That affection was clear from the horseplay before Thursday’s practice and the concern during practice, when Baldwin retied Blake’s shoelaces.
“The reason Blake likes school is not because he’s learning (schoolwork),” said Deb Slominski, his special education teacher. “It’s because he likes people and he can be around people here.”
Blake will go through graduation exercises this spring, but will continue to attend classes at Grafton High School until he is 21 years old. But, his high school basketball career is over.
Plans are to find a Special Olympics team for Blake to join, for basketball and other sports, mother Wendy said.
“I told Blake that he’s retired for now,” his mother said. “It’s been a love story between a kid and basketball and this is the perfect happy ending.”