A basketball game was played at Winthrop University Sunday afternoon. Shots made, points scored, cheers. But before and during that game, real life took over. And an entire arena stood to give ovations to men whose lives, and the death of one, is not a game.
The people in the arena stood in the first half as four York County cops walked – or limped, or were wheeled – to the free throw line. The crowd clapped. They cheered. They cried.
Even the players and coaches for both teams, Winthrop and Longwood, stopped the game to clap. They stopped their quest to win a game, and clapped for courage and greatness for men for whom life is not a game.
There world can be about bullets and blood and courage and survival. Even death.
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Three of the officers were wounded in the line of duty during an ambush with a domestic violence suspect in January near York, police said.
The wounded from that awful day made their way on court. The public address announcer said their names. The words echoed in the arena.
Sgt. Randy Clinton of the York County Sheriff's Office, the first one shot and wounded Jan. 15., waved at the crowd from his wheelchair.
Sgt. Kyle Cummings of the York Police Department, limping still, wounded in the same incident in the wee hours of Jan. 16 after the shooting had gone on for hours.
Sgt. Buddy Brown, pushing himself behind a walker after he was shot.
And Chris Doty, twin brother of York County deputy Mike Doty, walked out on the court. Mike Doty could not be at the game. Mike Doty, 37, died Jan. 17, a day after he was shot in that incident near York a month before.
The crowd heard the names as the officers stood there. The crowd roared. The crowd seemed as loud as any Winthrop crowd maybe has ever been, for any reason. Basketball titles, graduations, any time the place has thousands in it: Few times if ever did the Winthrop Coliseum shake with emotion as it did for these men.
The crowd cheered for life, and courage, and heroism. It was called First Responders Appreciation Day at Winthrop.
It turned out to be more than appreciation.
It was love, and honor, and respect.
And heartbreak, too.
The shooting of the four officers has been in the news around America for a month. In Rock Hill, and York County, even more so.
Likely, almost every adult person in the arena knew that these officers had been wounded, and one died.
And here they were, the fans, seeing the officers in real life with their wounds. They saw the walker and wheelchair and the families.
The crowd cheered for the officers that Winthrop Coach Pat Kelsey called “heroes among us.”
Kelsey, proud of York County and Rock Hill and one of this area’s biggest and most public cheerleaders, even invited the officers into the locker room before the game started. The team was preparing, getting their minds ready for a game – and in walked and limped and rolled the wounded officers.
The team, these players whom Kelsey said are “lucky enough to play on national television, in a game,” rose and clapped. They clapped for cops.
Usually the clapping is for them.
These players, they clapped for these police whose job is no game.
The cops tried not to get emotional, tried not to cry, as they were honored.
“It's an honor to be here,” York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson said in that locker room.
Tolson spoke for all the officers, whose presence was more powerful than any speech. The fact that they were alive, and fighting to survive, was their oration.
Kelsey, the coach, fired up his team, motivated them, with the officers in the locker room.
He spoke to the young men, the players.
“You get to live your lives, do what you do, and these guys right here get up every morning and risk their lives so you can do it,” Kelsey said to the team.
And in the case of Mike Doty, said Kelsey the coach, the life that is risk is more than a chance. That life was taken. Ended. Gone.
Kelsey told Chris Doty, and the other officers, “We love you.”
Every player said it, too.
Kelsey told the players to go play for someone else, a loved one, Sunday in that giant arena.
There was a prayer, and then the coach pulled the team together for a last minute huddle. The huddle got larger. Buddy Brown, the wounded sergeant, standing with a walker was pulled into the circle of players. A player put his hand on Brown's back.
Randy Clinton, the wounded sergeant, a K-9 officer, in the wheelchair was in the middle of the circle. Players grabbed to hold his hand.
Sgt. Kyle Cummings was pulled into the circle by the players and coaches and more, by the sheer magnetic pull of the human heart.
Chris Doty, brother of slain officer Mike Doty, made that huddle, that circle, complete.
Then it was game time.
The players ran out onto the court to cheers from the adoring crowd. The officers wheeled and walked and limped out.
The officers’ faces shone.
They looked up into that crowd when they were at the free throw line.
The public waved at them and clapped.
The officers waved back.
The officers named Cummings and Doty and Clinton and Brown, hurting, wounded in body and in spirit, yet unwilling to yield to bullets and broken-hearts, smiled and waved back.