BY JOBY FAWCETT
Sometime in the afternoon, hours before game time, the only light on in the gym at Elk Lake High School illuminated from the scorer’s table.
As assistant boys basketball coach Marc Weisgold flipped the switch, he became startled.
At center court, all alone, collecting his thoughts and emotions, stood senior Billy Guenter.
Soon, the 18-year-old who lives with the pervasive development disorder Aspeger’s Syndrome knew, this would be his stage.
His one moment in time.
His one moment to shine.
On Friday, when the Elk Lake community celebrated and honored its senior basketball players and cheerleaders, the night belonged to Guenter. Sporting jersey No. 1, signifying his place in their hearts, and after five years as the team manager, he played in his first varsity game.
And stole the show.
He entered in the final minute of the first quarter and played the last 58 seconds of the game, and the raucous student section roared for their favorite player as he fired several shots at the basket.
None whisked through the nets, but that didn’t dampen the mood of Elk Lake’s 52-38 win over Lakeland.
“It was awesome,” Guenter said, fighting back tears. “I enjoyed every single second I was out there. I had excitement, emotion and joy. I had lots of fun.
“I will remember this forever.”
As per tradition, the senior players joined their parents at half court and were presented with flowers and a plaque.
Once the roll call of cheerleaders had concluded, athletic director Tony Blaisure announced loudly and proudly, “No. 1 Billy Guenter and his grandmother, Janet Guenter.”
A round of applause echoed throughout the cavernous gym where coach Mike “Red” Wallace and all-state legend Bob Stevenson carved the Elk Lake basketball tradition.
Students waved cutout photos of Guenter as they cheered his name.
His smile grew broader. His embrace grew tighter.
“It brought a tear to my eyes,” Janet Guenter said, her voice cracking with every word. “He loves basketball so much.”
When Guenter was just 4, his father, Dan, a single parent, died of a heart attack, leaving his grandparents, Janet and William F. Guenter, to become his legal guardians.
While coping with Asperger’s, Guenter’s grandmother encouraged him to join the basketball program as a manager.
“I thought being a manager was good for him, because of his small motor skills,” his grandmother said. “He is so much part of the team. This was so special. He’s a good boy. He was a pleasure to raise.
“We are so proud of him.”
Once at practices and on the sideline for games, Guenter became like family.
More important, he became an inspiration to those more fortunate in their athletic gifts. His contributions, and sometimes criticisms of the team, drove everyone who wore the proud green and white colors of the Warriors to excel, appreciating their place on the team.
“It’s about time that he got the smile that he has given to so many of us,” Elk Lake coach John Warnero said. “I always talk about players giving hustle or playing defense. Billy gives us the one thing that everybody needs. He makes us better people.
“It’s great to see him get what he deserves: His moment.”
His time to shine
Devoted to the sport he loved, Guenter had a quick wit and developed a powerful bond with the players and coaches.
He could recite players’ statistics at a moments notice and point out a weakness in the team’s game on a long bus ride home through Dimock.
In appreciation, his coaches knew the perfect way to honor his commitment.
When the time was right, leading 14-13 in the first quarter, he tapped the top of the scorer’s table and the horn stopped play.
As he trotted onto the floor, tears were shed.
“It was beyond what words can explain,” senior teammate Joe Woolcock said. “There was extra motivation to get him out there.”
His glory lasted only 11 seconds, as did his shower of applause.
In the fourth quarter, however, as his fellow seniors Woolcock, Mark Bush, Bryan Grosvenor, Bo Bushnell and Bobby Benscoter put the game away with a 12-4 run, Guenter entered again.
It overwhelmed his teammates.
“We wanted to get up big so he could get into the game,” Bush said. “He means so much to us. When he got in, it was awesome.”
Lakeland, classy in defeat, never lost sight of the bigger picture. Time and time again, Elk Lake got Guenter the ball in space.
Each time, the audience gasped, hoping one would go through the rim.
None ever did.
It didn’t matter.
“Billy is a great kid who everyone knows,” Grosvenor said. “He’s so special. He’s a guy who we will never forget.”
This was his time.
And after his teammates gave him one final massive hug, he looked up at the sign that said it all about this night.
‘We love Billy G. He’s our #1.”
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