LAWRENCE, Kan. — Every shot counts since it’s nearly playoff time for metro high school basketball teams. That includes the Free State Firebirds, a program that may have scored the school’s sweetest basket ever.
“I had butterflies in my stomach,” said Kyle Portella, a senior equipment manager on the Firebirds basketball staff. “I was nervous.”
Portella had never played in a Free State game — until Tuesday night.
When Portella, who was born with cerebral palsy, arrived for Tuesday night’s home game against Shawnee Mission Northwest, Firebird coaches had a plan they’d coordinated with visiting coaches. Cerebral palsy affects the way Portella walks, but his mind is sharp and his heart is as strong as a slam dunk.
Portella started the game for Free State and was introduced in traditional Senior Day regalia. Both teams’ coaches agreed that he would score the game’s opening basket, and although it took him two tries, he buried the 5-foot jumpshot, to the delight of a roaring, crowded gym.
See the awesome moment in the video player above.
“I knew Coach always had my back,” Portella said, smiling on Thursday morning. “It was awesome. Just going up there and being part of the team, like, actually playing.”
His teammates said they’ve never thought of him as living with a disability. To his fellow Firebirds, he’s just one of the guys.
“We didn’t see him warming up, and then, here he comes with a jersey and everyone was just overwhelmed. It was a really nice moment,” said Ethan Lincoln, Free State shooting guard.
“He was able to get his recognition, and he deserves it. There’s no one better, in terms of our program, for what we stand for, and showing up and working hard every day,” said Sam Stroh, Firebirds head coach.
Four years ago, Portella’s teammates at Southwest Middle School performed a similar act of kindness, getting him into a game to score.
He’s off to study business in college next year, but this moment as a high school senior is something he’ll never forget.
“All of my life, I’ve been told I can’t do anything, basically. I would be dead, basically. I wouldn’t be able to walk or see. I’m going to prove them wrong,” Portella beamed.
Make or miss, his jumpshot looks just right. Portella will return to his equipment manager spot next Tuesday, when Free State hosts a playoff game against Junction City.