The huge scoreboard clock above the court at Winthrop Coliseum stopped after eight minutes had played in the first half of the game pitting Winthrop’s women against Gardner-Webb.
The building, with a couple thousand in the stands, at least half wearing pink clothes because it was cancer awareness night, turned from cheers for baskets and blocked shots to momentary silence.
The game Thursday night that was part of a national Play4Kay promotion to raise money for cancer research in honor of late North Carolina State University coach Kay Yow became far more than dollars and change and cheap talk about toughness and courage.
A girl about 5 feet 2 inches tall, with a fresh growth of short hair on her head, left the Winthrop bench. She walked toward the center of the court. She walked with a Winthrop basketball player a foot and a half taller, Joab Jerome, who was sporting a hot pink pinstripe suit.
“Wearing pink for Emily,” said Jerome. His smile, too, would not cease.
Jerome held a ceremonial ball, signed by both Winthrop men’s and women’s basketball teams, that was for Emily. The public announcer called out, “And here, our honorary coach for tonight. Emily Elkins!”
The crowd did not clap. It roared. Every person in the place, including the security people and cops and those selling hot dogs and even the radio announcers, stood. They all cheered, every one of those people, for a little girl who refused to die.
Emily Elkins, 15 years old, wearing a pink sweatshirt and the largest smile in the history of the Winthrop Coliseum that has seen championships and graduations, brought the place to tears. A guy wearing a camouflage coat in the second row bawled. Women hugged their husbands. Kids jumped up and down. Strangers in the stands held hands.
All for Emily.
Emily Elkins, for two years of surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation, whose life teetered near the flat-line of a heart monitor dozens of times, plainly refused to die. She has so far beaten cancer. She is cancer-free. She has inspired this area, state and even the nation.
In the summer of 2012, a criminal stole a donation jar from a convenience store that Emily’s family had put out to try to raise money. After The Herald’s coverage of the theft, and Emily’s grace through the ordeal by saying she would have given the money to the thief, donations came in from all over the country. She used donations to help others and has even started an annual Christmas toy drive for the needy.
Winthrop now will annually hold a toy drive at basketball games in the fall before Christmas for Emily’s foundation – Emily’s Wish – to help children.
Thursday night, when Emily was on the bench as honorary coach, she high-fived players and the ladies hugged her and told her she was great. All wore pink uniforms. One player, mercurial Tiffany Charles, smiling so wide, prodded Emily into a team huddle.
“You are one of us,” Charles said into Emily’s ear.
At center court, during that timeout, the smile of Emily turned a sports event, a game, into magic.
Kevin Cook, the coach for the women’s team who had invited Emily after reading about her in The Herald on Christmas Day, whose job it is to inspire young ladies to greatness not in just in basketball but in life, clapped as hard as anybody. Maybe harder.
Emily’s mother, Annie, took pictures and seemed to float on air. A year ago, her daughter was fighting to stay alive. Thursday night her daughter received her first standing ovation.
The cheers caromed around the coliseum as the announcer tried to talk about Emily, but it was far too loud to hear anything. It did not matter, anyway, because the scene was not for words, but for joy. Just when a world that seems so hard and filled with despair puts up roadblocks that seemingly cannot be scaled, Emily Elkins unleashes that courage and that smile and the roadblocks turn into green lights.
An entire arena forgot about how hard they may have it in life, supposed crises, and looked at the girl at center court who had it harder and never complained and never quit and all in the place knew that they would never forget the sight of her in the middle of the court for as long as they lived.
Emily was her own spotlight at center court.
At the top of the arena, her father, Paul Elkins, clapped and clapped. This big man who worked all day at the S.C. Department of Transportation maintenance shop still wore his uniform. He clapped for greatness in that DOT shirt with his name over his heart.
Then the door at the end of the coliseum pushed open and from the portal pushed the rest of the Winthrop men’s basketball team. Every player came toward the middle of the court to give Emily a hug. Emily obliged them all.
The crowd, somehow, became even louder.
Those players never were greater.
Then the game had to resume. Emily walked off the court to her seat on the bench, to help coach her team for a night.
Emily was not crying. She was smiling. She rushed to her best friends, twins Caprice and Latrice Fischer. The teenage girls giggled and laughed and hugged.
“That was pretty awesome,” said Emily.
The game played on. Emily went back to the bench to coach. Even Emily can’t stop the game or the lives of people forever. The clock started again.
But for a minute or two, on a Thursday night at Winthrop, Emily Elkins and her smile showed an arena that sometimes, we all need to stop. And when greatness shows itself, cheer.