Part of the team
CLARK – During December’s Huron Holiday Classic, the Clark/Willow Lake Cyclones boys’ basketball team was enjoying the final moments of what would be a 68-35 victory over the Wessington Springs Spartans, when Tate McGraw entered the game.
As I texted with Curt, our editor, during the end of the game, we both cheered for Tate to make a shot. After the final buzzer sounded with him missing all of his attempts in the game, I sent the following text:
“He got his shot. Different night for the Disney ending.”
Turns out, that night was the next night.
The very next night, the Cyclones played Milbank, and in the midst of a 79-35 victory, McGraw got time at the end of the game.
He missed his first attempt, but he made his next attempt. In a video that went viral on social media, Milbank players on the court were seen jumping and cheering for McGraw as the ball sliced through the net, as excited as, or if possible, even more so than Tate was.
That Tate McGraw was even on the court is the subject of yet another viral video this year.
When the Cyclones were to get team photos taken, Kim McGraw, Tate’s mother, expected to help her son, who had been a student manager for the basketball team for a number of years, get ready for pictures, but when she went to view the team student manager roster online, she didn’t find her son’s name.
He was on the team roster instead.
Cyclone coach Jerome Nesheim explained that an opportunity presented itself, and it was a chance for his team to show their true colors.
“Over the summer, we had ordered new uniforms, and we were able to order more than 15,” Nesheim noted. “The move was really started by Trey (Huber) and the the rest of the seniors were on board to get Tate a jersey. So I let them present it to him.”
The move surprised Tate’s parents.
“It was a shock to us,” Wade McGraw, Tate’s father recalled. “But the school and the kids have always been great for Tate. I’ve always said that I pity the person who tries to pick on Tate because he will have lots of backup.”
Tate worked with the team, and Coach Nesheim hoped he could potentially get Tate into a game or two, perhaps scoring a basket or two over the course of the season. Instead, the Cyclones had an exceptional season and the team pushed hard to give McGraw court time by playing hard early and putting the game out of reach.
“The guys kind of rally around getting Tate in,” the coach observed. “So they want to push that score up, and he’s been in eight or nine games. The other teams have been great about it as well, which has been good.”
Photo by Benjamin Chase/Plainsman - Under the watchful eye of Clark/Willow coach Jerome Nesheim, and with the encouragement of his teammates, Tate McGraw hones his three-point shot during a late-season Cyclone practice.
Tate also plays basketball and bowls in Special Olympics. He says that he has been student manager since he was in eighth grade. He’s a fan of watching old Clark/Willow Lake YouTube videos from old state basketball tournaments and watching other local teams that played in state tournaments, so basketball is definitely on his mind frequently.
Asked if he liked playing the game better, Tate answered an enthusiastic “Yes!”
McGraw comes in the game typically with other players who are on the end of the bench, and he says the other players “help him” on the court.
That help doesn’t end on the court, though, according to Tate’s mother.
“They’re supportive of him off the court,” Kim says. “You’ll see the actions and inclusion when they’re riding the bus or walking to school and other places rather than just in the public eye. It’s not just one person, either; it’s multiple kids.”
Coach Nesheim noted that Tate has a good relationship with his teammates.
“Tate’s pretty good about giving these guys hard times,” he said. “And they give it right back to him. He’s just one of the guys. It’s great to see.”
Those same teammates that help Tate during games took time recently to come cheer him on as he participated with his Special Olympics basketball team.
“He had his own cheering section,” Wade McGraw chuckled.
Photo courtesy Heather Jordan - Clark/Willow Lake players launch themselves from their bench to celebrate Tate McGraw making a shot against Arlington on Feb. 24. In the background, even the Arlington Cardinal mascot cheers for McGraw.
McGraw scored his first varsity points on December 20 in a game against Florence/Henry, which just happened to take place the day before his birthday. He was able to score in multiple other games this season, as the Cyclones were 14-5 entering the postseason, with all five losses on the year coming to teams that ended up in either the Class “A” or “B” state tournament.
Along the way, Tate has been part of the team, and the community has embraced his participation on the roster.
Kim McGraw shared the story of a young child of one of the coaches observing that opposing players often give Tate space to shoot when he’s in the game.
The young girl considered why that would be, with parents and other adults who heard the question expecting to have a conversation about different abilities until the child piped up with, “…it must be because he’s so short!”
Standing 5-feet, 3-inches in a sport where most guys on the court are over six feet tall, her observation makes perfect sense, but it also is an indication of just how normalized Tate’s spot on the Cyclones has become that she didn’t see a disability — only a member of the team.
“Obviously, we’re going to say he’s special,” Kim McGraw stated. “His chance to play and be part of things shouldn’t be, though.”
Coach Nesheim echoed her thoughts.
“The whole thing in our program is that I want kids to leave here with a great experience no matter if we win a state title or not,” Nesheim explained. “We wanted to make sure that Tate gets that same experience.”
Tate did get a chance to be part of the team. The team didn’t have the Disney ending either, falling in the Region 2A semifinals, but it doesn’t dampen the impact of the experience on the life of a young man who has inspired so many, hopefully opening the door for more just like him down the road.