Bulldogs' sportsmanship helps injured Alton player live dream

The Gainesville Bulldogs may have fallen short of their goal to win a state basketball championship this year, but to the athletes, parents and teachers at Alton High School, the 2010-2011 Bulldogs are Class A heroes.

The Bulldogs finished the season 19-8, losing to Dora in the district semifinals. But it was their sportsmanship in a game against the Alton Comets on Feb. 24 and what they did for an injured Alton player that became the talk of the town.

The Bulldogs went into the game at Alton as favorites to win, and they did win, 65-50. But what Gainesville did that night was more than play basketball.

Rewind to last summer

Alton senior Kevin Smith was enjoying his summer. Having been a standout starter for the Comets for the past three years, Smith was keeping an eye on his favorite NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers, who were marching toward their second consecutive championship.

It was a typical June day. A day where Kevin, his brother Mark, and several other basketball players were helping a friend move. After helping the friend, they decided to go to McDonald's in nearby Thayer. They wouldn't make it to Thayer.

Kevin, Mark and several other Alton students were in a vehicle that was involved in a terrible car crash.

"Kevin was in the hospital for six weeks," said his coach Blake Reece. "The first four weeks, he was pretty much unresponsive." Kevin had a severe head injury, but eventually regained consciousness and slowly started to heal.

The crash devastated the Alton community, and an outpouring of support was shown for Kevin, Mark and the other students who were injured.

Mark, despite having severe injuries himself including a broken back, healed in time for basketball season. Kevin, once a Comet standout, could not play.

Fast-forward to February

Reece could not stand to see his standout sidelined.

"If it would have been any other team, we probably wouldn't have done it," Reece said. "But I've know Aaron (Dalton) for a long time, so I contacted him and told him that, even though he had not been cleared to play, I wanted to start Kevin and let him shoot just one shot."

Dalton agreed and told his team the plan. So when the two teams met on Feb. 24 before a packed house at Alton, Kevin Smith was introduced as a starter. It was senior night, and the senior who had lived and breathed Alton Comet basketball for so many years ran out onto the floor as the crowd erupted.

"It was standing-room only," Reece said. "I think Kevin had told everybody he knew that he was going to get to start."

In the early minutes of the game, Kevin got the ball. In spite of his injuries, he tossed up a shot. A three-pointer. He missed.

Soon, his coach pulled him out of the game. Kevin again received a roar of cheers from the audience.

"It was a pretty emotional moment at the time," Dalton said. "It was clear how much it meant to Kevin, and so many of the other people at the game, for him to be able to play."

The two teams got back to the business of basketball, as Gainesville pulled away from the Comets late in the game. Once it was clear Gainesville was going to win late in the fourth quarter, Reece walked down the sideline and told the Gainesville coach he was going to put Kevin in again.

"My boys and I had not talked about this scenario," Dalton said. "That is what made me so proud of their actions during the next couple of minutes. I had mentioned to the boys earlier that Kevin did not want us to just let him make a basket, but that he really wanted to hit a three. The boys went out of their way to make sure that Kevin got as many opportunities as possible to hit a three," Dalton said.

With just a few seconds left in the game, Kevin was able to do just that - nail a three at the buzzer.

"The crowd went crazy," Dalton said.

Kevin recorded his sentiments on his Facebook page "I was so happy I got to play that night," Kevin wrote. "And to bust a three made it better."

The Bulldogs are being credited with the assist.

"The Gainesville boys should be commended," Reece said. "They made sure Kevin got several chances. One of them even dove out of bounds to save it and get it to Kevin so he could shoot."

"I think our boys learned more about sportsmanship in the last minute and a half of that game than they've learned all their lives up until now," said Gainesville parent Karla Smith, who was at the game. "I was blessed to just be a part of it."

"It was really sweet of you Bulldogs for doing that for me," Kevin wrote on his Facebook page. "Yes, the Bulldogs were awesome!!!!!!!"

Coach Dalton said since the game several Alton parents have called and sent e-mails applauding what the Bulldogs did that evening. The coach also received two papers filled with dozens of names and notes from students and teachers at Alton School. Surrounded by notes and signatures, the letter says "The basketball game between Gainesville and Alton on Feb. 24 will be talked about for years. The CLASS and SPORTSMANSHIP the team, coaches and fans showed in honoring the injured Kevin Smith is what all schools should strive for."

Kevin also signed the letter with a personal message to the Gainesville boys: "Thanks guys so much for that night. I love you guys for doing that for me! I felt famous after that game because of you guys!"

Alton senior Kevin Smith walks onto the court Feb. 24. Smith, who was critically injured in a car crash over the summer, hit a three-pointer at the buzzer before a packed house at Alton. Members of the Gainesville Bulldogs basketball team have been credited with the assist.

Kevin Smith

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