Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014 | 2 a.m.
From his teammates and coaches to the student fans who were chanting his name to even the opposing players and referees, everybody wanted Clayton Rhodes to score as he entered his last basketball game at Faith Lutheran High.
Rhodes had come onto the floor with less than 2 minutes left, waving his hands high above his head to energize the Senior Night crowd. They responded, not because he was a prolific scorer or great rebounder but because they knew some things about Rhodes from off the court. One, he’d participated in basketball and football during all four of his high school years, going to countless practices despite rarely seeing playing time. Two, he has an infectious passion for sports and is a great teammate. Three, he has Down syndrome.
“He’s a cult hero here,” said Steve Buuck, Faith Lutheran’s CEO.
When Rhodes entered the game, Faith Lutheran was in the final minutes of a 30-point win, and the other seniors had already had their moments. But the night wouldn’t be complete unless Rhodes got in the box score by putting the ball through the net.
The whistle blew, and the game resumed. Rhodes, wearing a headband seniors received as part of the last-game festivities, sport-glasses around his head and with his usual smile, received the ball and drew a foul to earn a pair of free throws.
The referee bounced him the ball, and Rhodes put up a two-handed free throw attempt. It was off the mark, but no matter: With the ball still in the air, the referee blew his whistle to signal no shot.
Later, the ref would say that he failed to present Rhodes with the ball in the correct manner, and therefore the shot didn’t count. It was a charitable call, just like the foul call preceding the free throws, which happened even though the closest defender was several feet away from Rhodes.
Nobody objected. They didn’t want to deny Rhodes another chance, not after what he’d done for Faith Lutheran and his teammates.
Rhodes was a participating member of both the varsity football and basketball squads, going through summer workouts and two-a-day practices, riding the bus to road trips and having a locker in the team room. But game days were different.
He played in three basketball games and for a handful of snaps in football, only after coaches coordinated with the opposing team and game officials because he was at risk of being injured.
“He’s got a big heart, No. 1,” Faith Lutheran coach Bret Walter said. “He’s always happy and always in a good mood. It’s great for everybody because he makes you feel blessed. The guys really understand him. They love him.”
With the ball back in his hands on Senior Night, Rhodes took his second shot. This one headed toward the basket, but it hit the back of the rim and fell helplessly to the floor.
As he received the ball for the ensuing foul shot, fans grew even louder in their encouragement.
Rhodes shot. This time, the shot banked off the backboard and plunged through the hoop.
The fans went into a frenzy of cheers, but little did they know that he was just getting started.
On Faith Lutheran’s next possession, teammates rushed the ball up the court to give Rhodes another chance. He received the ball about 8 feet from the basket and squared up for a shot, unpressured by defenders as part of an agreement between the teams.
As soon as the ball left his hands, there was no doubt what everyone in the gymnasium was thinking: Go in. That’s exactly what happened, with his midrange shot looking routine as it swished through the net.
“It was great to see the crowd and the team behind him,” Pahrump senior Jesse Crain said. “I’m glad I was able to be part of it.”
That was a common sentiment as the game ended and Rhodes finished with 3 points.
In the pregame devotion, which is common at the religious school, players were reminded about the value of being a good teammate. Walter told the group that No. 24, referring to Rhodes by his jersey number, epitomized someone who always put the team first.
Rhodes is a basketball junkie and diehard UNLV fan, often showing up to practice with a new play he diagrammed for the team to run. He watches basketball highlights on YouTube.
When Clayton Holthaus, Faith Lutheran’s 6-foot-7 center, threw down a dunk against Pahrump, Rhodes was so excited an assistant coach had to make sure he didn’t run onto the court to congratulate him. It’s that sheer enjoyment of being part of the team that makes Rhodes so popular.
“He’s loose. He fun,” said Sean Kay, a Faith Lutheran senior guard and one of Rhodes’ closest friends since they attended preschool together. “He’s always loved sports. Nothing has stopped him from playing.”
Rhodes is part of Faith Lutheran’s Mark 10:14 program for special-needs students. The program, named for a Bible verse in which Jesus welcomes children, treats students equally regardless of ability.
One child with severe autism is in the school band and will take Rhodes to an upcoming school dance. Another is on the wrestling team, competing in coordinated 30-second exhibitions with an opposing team’s wrestler after the match ends.
Some schools would have a special-needs student be the team manager. At Faith Lutheran, they go one step further. The program has become such a success that staff members from out-of-state schools have traveled to Las Vegas to observe it.
“The school has the goal to include those kids as much as possible,” Walter said. “I had my doubts at first, but it has worked out. That’s a credit to the teachers in that program. We have found a way to make it a positive experience for everybody.”
Rhodes reads at a second-grade level but has little problem communicating with teammates. He’s been classmates with most of them at Faith Lutheran since the sixth grade, building a bond and trust that they always have his best interest at heart.
Everyone has a different story of what makes Rhodes special. He once hid the basketball team’s practice jerseys for three days in his locker, laughing when they were finally found and calling it an April Fools’ Day prank. It was January.
Last football season, as the Crusaders were on their way to winning the program’s first state championship, Rhodes provided another memorable moment by rushing for a 2-point conversion against Western at the end of a lopsided game. Like his appearance in basketball, coaches coordinated with game officials and the opposing team, making sure they were on board with catering to Rhodes. He rushed in untouched.
“To be able to block for him was pretty cool, something I’ll never forget,” said John Molchon, a Faith Lutheran offensive tackle in football and a basketball player. “It’s great to get to work with him. He has such a positive attitude.”
Western, which has gone winless the past two seasons, could have easily refused the request to help Rhodes score. Instead, its players and coaches looked at it as an opportunity to do something meaningful, sending an appreciation letter to Faith Lutheran officials for allowing them to be part of the moment.
“It wasn’t the fact he scored. It’s the fact he was out there,” said John Rhodes, Clayton’s father. “To see him on the sideline as part of the team and other kids including him was just amazing. I don’t know how many young men (with Down syndrome) get to experience a state championship in football. Not many.”
As soon as the basketball game ended, players greeted family and friends on the court, celebrating a big victory to close their home careers. Rhodes stood with the other seniors for one last photo, flashing his smile and content with his contributions to the night.
“To see him elated and get excited about stuff like winning (the state) football game or getting to play in a basketball game, that’s what life is all about,” Walter said. “That’s what gets us all excited.”