You have seen it on every basketball court in the country, a team trying to get the ball to the right player.
In the movie Hoosiers the kids from Hickory tried to get the ball to Jimmy. In Miami they try to get the ball to LeBron and in Dallas they try to get it to Dirk.
In Wortham, the kids on the girls JV basketball team want to get the ball to Taylor.
But the reason is different and so is Taylor’s story.
Taylor Johnson is one of those kids who steals your heart with a look and a smile, a one-of-kind young lady who makes everyone around her feel better just by being Taylor.
When Taylor was younger she was diagnosed as autistic, but through hard work in the classroom she has grown in every way and is a good student at Wortham High School, where she is a sophomore.
“When she was growing up they said she was autistic,’’ said Taylor’s mother, Sheneita Johnson. “She was autistic in her younger years but in sixth grade she no longer was listed as that. The only thing that is autistic is in her speech and in her communication. She has so much in her and it is hard for her to get it all out.’’
What Taylor does get out is a joy for life that touches everyone she meets.
She’s been challenged all her life but it has never stopped her from not only trying but succeeding in the classroom, in church, where she has learned the Bible and sings like an angel, and on the basketball court, where Taylor has worked to improve every year since she began playing in seventh grade.
She may not have the grace or speed or sheer athleticism of greater players, but she has a heart that dwarfs all of that and more.
“We all love Taylor,’’ said Madison Lopez, a freshman on the JV team. “She’s just a great person. She loves basketball and puts in a lot of effort and works hard. We know it’s kind of hard for her, and we admire her so much. She’s always happy and always has a smile on her face.’’
All the kids and coaches admire Taylor and that’s why whenever she gets in a game all the Wortham kids pass the ball to her, hoping Taylor will make a shot.
There was never a team meeting, and the coaches never said a word. It’s just the way life is at Wortham. When Taylor gets into the game, the kids want her to have a chance to make a basket.
“It just evolved,’’ Taylor said. “They throw me the ball. Every time, they throw me the ball.’’
Then Taylor’s story took an even sweeter turn.
Last week in a game at Cayuga, the Wortham kids were down late in the game, and Coach Lindsey Coffman does what she always does — she put Taylor in the game.
Immediately, when Wortham brought the ball up court everyone looked for Taylor and passed her the ball. But it was an unlucky day and Taylor missed a few shots. That’s when the twist came. One of the Cayuga players saw what was going on and she started getting the rebounds and giving the ball back to Taylor.
The Cayuga coach and players all encouraged it and Karissa Richardson, a sophomore at Cayuga, grabbed the rebound and passed the ball to Taylor.
“We always try to pass her the ball when she’s in the game,’’ Coffman said. “The kids do it on their own. When I put her in the game the first time it was an amazing feeling to see the unselfishness of these kids. Then at Cayuga the other team’s player, No. 34, Richardson gave the ball to Taylor. It was something special, so sweet.’’
It shocked Taylor.
“When she passed me the ball it surprised me,’’ she said. “It caught me by surprise.’’
Wortham varsity coach Carla Freeman, who has known Taylor for years, broke down.
“I just started crying,’’ Freeman said this week at practice, choking on her words. “I’m about to start crying again, just thinking about it.’’
Richardson said it just felt like the right thing to do.
“You’re not trained to (let the opponent score), but I saw their players passing her the ball,’’ Richardson said. “I played with her in middle school and I never saw her make a shot. I felt she deserved to make a shot because she is brave enough to get on the court. It’s hard for her to get on the court. I know she’s not as fast as everyone else. If I was her I would be scared to get on the court, terrified.’’
Taylor missed a few shots so Richardson told her to come closer and was almost handing the ball back to Taylor after each missed shot.
“Even though she was missing she kept a good attitude,’’ Richardson said. “I told her to come in a little closer and then she made the shot. After she made it, her facial expression when she ran down the court made me so happy. It made my day.’’
The crowd erupted and players and coaches from both teams applauded.
“It was awesome,’’ said Hannah McCord, who plays for Wortham’s JV team. “I just started tearing-up. It was the best moment in my high school career.’’
All the Wortham kids were emotional about what happened.
“I never liked Cayuga, but when she did that I just wanted to pat her on the back and say ‘thank you, you don’t know how much that means to us and our team,’ ’’said Larissa Riveria, who plays on Wortham’s JV team. “I can’t even explain to you what a joy it is to be on the same team with Taylor.’’
McCord feels the same way and both Lopez and McCord said they wouldn’t trade a state title for the chance too play on the same team with Taylor.
“She is just such a great person, always smiling,’’ McCord said. “She makes everyone else feel better just being around her, and when she makes a basket and runs down the court, she’s the first one back on defense and that smile on her face is just amazing.’’
It’s like that at home games when Taylor is in a game, because the Wortham fans know her and love her — and there’s nothing better than when Taylor hits a basket.
That’s who she is, this light that brightens everyone’s life, this glimpse of inspiration wrapped in a mile-wide smile and driven by a love of the game LeBron James and others may never understand. They make millions in the NBA, but Taylor Johnson is priceless.
She has made three shots this season, including a 3-pointer. In a game against Cross Roads, the coach told the Cross Roads kids to step back out of their zone and give Taylor room to shoot.
“When it happened, I looked over and saw the Cross Roads coach smile,’’ Coffman said.
“Her first points of the year were on a 3,’’ Coffman said. “The first time I saw her score I went nuts. I’ve been coaching eight years and have never seen anything like (what happened at Cayuga). It goes deeper than winning and losing. It’s that other people who don’t even know her are going to lengths to make this young lady happy. When she scores she just smiles all the way down the court.’’
Lopez has known Taylor since sixth grade and seen how much her friend has improved.
“I’ve known her since the beginning when she started playing basketball,’’ Lopez said. “It’s such a nice story. She works so hard and is always in a great mood. Sometimes you can get overwhelmed with the winning and losing, and then Taylor gets out there and makes a basket and you realize what it’s all about.’’
Her mother wasn’t at the game, but almost cried when she heard about what happened.
“When I heard about it, I got goose bumps,’’ Sheneita Johnson said. “It’s something very rare. It’s beautiful.’’
Johnson has been amazed and appreciative at how the Wortham kids have embraced her daughter.
“Those kids have been awesome,’’ she said. “In the summertime the kids and coaches really helped her learn the business of the game. I’m just now realizing how much they love her. She loves them, too.
“She just loves basketball and has been playing junior high,’’ she said. “When she got to high school her freshman year Coach Freeman just took her under her wing, and she’s gotten better every year.’’
Brooke Salisbury has played on the same team with Taylor for three years.
“I wish I was half the player Taylor is,’’ Salisbury said. “She plays with so much heart and she’s got a great shot.’’
“Taylor can shoot free throws better than half my (varsity) team,’’ Freeman said. “She has no fear. She plays with all heart.’’
Taylor has always loved sports.
“She’s a sports fan and her father’s sports buddy. She will go with her dad to football games and they watch football games on TV together. She has always loved sports,’’ Johnson said. “She wants to play tennis and volleyball, but I wouldn’t let her. She has to work a little harder to play basketball, but she loves it. She motivates me. She gets out there and gives it everything she has. Her goal is to be a good player.’’
She has other goals.
“She is a good student and makes very good grades, and she is amazing at math,’’ Johnson said. “She has had academic gaps because of her speech. We have tried to figure out how to get the information out of her. She’s amazing and her goal is to go to college.’’
“Everyone in our family is musical, and Taylor plays the drums and sings at church,’’ Johnson said. “A couple of weeks ago she just broke out on the drums and got a little jazzy with it. She shocked everyone. And when she sings every word is clear compared to when she is talking to someone. That is awesome to witness.’’
So is Taylor.
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