The fan base for the Lodi Flames varsity boys basketball team has grown exponentially this season. But no one was more stoked to follow the players' rise to success than Scott Bandoni.
"I love basketball," said Bandoni, his eyes lighting up behind his black-framed glasses.
Bandoni is the team manager. He fuels the fire with big grins and a true passion for the sport. Cerebral palsy keeps him off the court for the high school leagues, but nothing can keep him away from the game.
Cerebral palsy is a movement disorder caused by a lack of oxygen in the brain during development. The disorder covers a wide spectrum, and Bandoni fits right in the middle. It affects his gross motor skills including walking and speech, especially on the right side of his body.
Fresh from physical therapy, Bandoni talked about his love of the game and highlights from the season.
The best part?
"Just being there," he said. "Making the playoffs was big."
The teenager is quick to smile, and says he loves basketball for the fast-paced, frenetic energy of the game. The 15-year-old cruises through campus on a red scooter. When he's out with his family, girls walk up to hug him.
"All the kids know him," said his mom, Shelly Bandoni. "He's always dealt with his disability with a smile on his face. There are no complaints from someone with a lot to complain about."
From his perch on the bench at every game, Bandoni is quick to throw up a high five to each player as they come off the court. He sports a white polo shirt with "Lodi Flames Team Manager" embroidered in red.
Connecting with the basketball team was serendipitous. Bandoni took P.E. during sixth period his freshman year, where he spent every free moment shooting hoops. Coach Dave Nutting saw his passion for the game and asked if he wanted to manage the team.
Bandoni got permission from his parents and he's been committed ever since.
Bandoni runs the clock and the scoreboard during practices to track players as they move through drills. His help frees up the coaching staff to concentrate on working with players.
At the games, Bandoni is an unstoppable positive factor for the team.
"He's just a happy kid. We can be down by 20 or we can be up by 20. It doesn't matter. He loves being there," said Nutting.
This season has been a rollercoaster that only goes up for Bandoni.
In the final moments of the game against Sacramento High School on Feb. 24 when the coaches saw a win on the horizon, Bandoni exploded with excitement.
"He must have high-fived the J.V. coaches 25 times," said Nutting.
But actually making it to the semifinals of the section playoffs against McNair High School was unbelievable, he said. Bandoni and his family are die-hard fans of the Sacramento Kings, and the game was played on their home court at Power Balance Pavilion.
It was a big moment for Bandoni to take a seat on the same bench where former Kings coach Rick Adelmen led his team.
The loss against Antelope High School in the section final was disappointing, but Bandoni was already looking forward to playing for the NorCal title and the possibility of heading to San Mateo on Saturday for the NorCal second-round game.
Players are happy to have Bandoni there to cheer them on.
"It's great. It makes me want to play harder," said Grant Hennecke.
Alex Eaton said Bandoni is always with the team when they gather.
"I think it inspires our team. Before we go out, we all give him a special handshake," said Eaton. The handshake is a complicated series of high fives and fist bumps that seems to change with every big game.
When he's not keeping up with the Flames, Bandoni plays on adaptive baseball and basketball teams. Only two ranks remain before Bandoni earns his Eagle Scout Award for Boy Scout Troop 209. Music pours from his bedroom while he plays guitar and drums, or listens to his current favorite country songs. But his real happy place is in the backyard, shooting hoops.
If you see Bandoni at the next game, don't hesitate to give him a high five. He'll gladly return it.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.