At the south end of the Palestra, the last kid in the pregame layup line for Bonner-Prendergast High School didn't shoot a layup. He didn't have to. He is 6-foot-8, and he lifted off from just inside the foul line like a once-caged kangaroo, with a kind of energized bound, and at the peak of his jump he was directly over the hoop, so that he could let the basketball fall through it as if he were dropping a balled-up sock in a hamper. So Jake Wilson did, and only then did he join his teammates on the sideline. Only then was he ready for the biggest game he would never play.
Bonner-Prendie beat Archbishop Carroll, 48-45, in the Philadelphia Catholic League boys basketball semifinals Wednesday night. The Friars won the game in the same manner that they've won all season, in the same manner that they've won games over the last four seasons, actually: without one of their most talented players, maybe their most talented player, seeing a second of action.
Jake Wilson is a senior, and anyone who has watched him throw down a dunk or hover around the three-point arc flushing 20-foot jumpers will tell you he has the ability to be a Division I recruit. "He's a freaky athlete," Bonner-Prendie coach Jack Concannon said. But he also has Marfan syndrome, a condition, found in one in every 5,000 people, that weakens the connective tissue of the aorta, the primary vessel that sends blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The bumping and bodying that's part of any basketball game – an elbow to the chest, a fall to the floor – could cause an aneurysm, or cardiac arrest. It's not likely to. But it could.
So since his diagnosis, early in his freshman year, Jake has never suited up for an official Bonner-Prendie game. He has played sparingly for his AAU team in the spring and summer – coached by his father, Ron, who played at Villanova and is Bonner-Prendie's junior-varsity coach – and takes part in the occasional pickup game. But in the PIAA and the Catholic League, the competition is more intense, and there are liability issues and physical exams and thresholds that have to be met. It is the way of the world, which means the chance for Jake to do the thing he loves most, with the people he loves most, is always just out of reach.
In October, when he and Ron made their annual visit to Children Hospital of Philadelphia, a cardiologist told them, There's only a 1 percent chance of something happening, but that's not enough for me to clear you to play. Jake cried during the entire car ride home, a full 30 minutes. Can you blame him? Sitting across the court from him Wednesday night, with the Palestra full to its corners and hot and loud, I wondered how he could fold himself onto that bench and place himself so close to his dream without driving himself crazy.
"I can't sit there and be like, 'Damn, I wish it was me,' " he said in a walkway after Wednesday night's game, "because I know my teammates are playing for me, in a sense."
The Friars are 21-3 this season. On Monday night against Roman Catholic, they will try to win their first Catholic League championship since 1988. They have junior point guard Isaiah Wong, who scored 10 points Wednesday and has already been targeted by Villanova. They have senior forward Ajiri Johnson, who had eight points and eight rebounds and has accepted a basketball scholarship from Rider University. They have sophomore guard Donovan Rodriguez, who scored all eight of his points against Carroll in the fourth quarter. And they have Jake Wilson, who acts as a peer-coach during practices and games, talking strategy and situations with his teammates. Who was the first person off the bench when the final horn sounded so he could shoulder-bump Johnson, his best friend. Who was the only Bonner-Prendie player without his number on the nape of his white warmup shirt, because even though his teammates voted him one of their captains, he doesn't have a jersey or a number.
"He's gotten down at times, but he's fought through it," said Ron, who learned in 2010 that he, too, had Marfan. "I look at everything we've accomplished, and I have to say that Jake has had his hand in just about everything. He's just been that type of kid, and I really couldn't wish for more than that. I couldn't be more proud."
"It's torture for him. It's torture for all of us," Concannon said. "Selfishly for us as coaches, we say, 'Man, what if?' But he's handled it really well. He's a really, really mature kid. He's one of the leaders in the school. He's the first kid our administrators take with them when they're going to visit eighth graders. He's like the Pied Piper with them. He's been nothing but an absolute pleasure."
He holds out hope that someday he'll return to CHOP and hear something different and wonderful from a doctor there, but he is realistic about his future, knowing that it's unlikely he'll ever play organized basketball again. "It's not really at the forefront right now," he said. "I'm looking at college, keeping my grades right. You have to treat it as, 90 percent, this is not going to happen, but that 10 percent is still what keeps me going. That's all I really need."
He applied to Rider, so that he and Johnson can remain in school together, and he calls its admissions office every day, he said, for an update. He wants to get into coaching or training, something basketball-related. To keep in shape and stay sharp, he lifts weights by himself, looks up drills on YouTube, and goes to a few local gyms to put himself through them. He and Ron went to the Temple-Houston game at the Liacouras Center on Sunday, and he kept his eyes on Quinton Rose, the Owls' leading scorer, 6-8 and slim and smooth, and he thought, That's the kind of game I'd like to have.
After Bonner-Prendie's victory, he stepped out of the locker room, one of the last to leave, and found his father and mother, Leeydra, for a couple of proper postgame hugs. In the Palestra media room, reporters were interviewing Wong and Johnson and Rodriguez. Jake asked where his teammates were.
"Over there," I said, pointing. "The writers are talking to the guys who …"
I paused, realizing what I was about to say, and mumbled the rest of the sentence.
"… played in the game."
Before starting toward the interview room, he smiled a reassuring smile, put his hand on my shoulder, and leaned in.
"You don't have to worry about saying 'played in the game,'" he said. "I'm cool."