The shot of a lifetime

Alex Lewandowski scores on a layup during an eighth-grade basketball game on Jan. 31. Lewandowski, the team’s manager, suffers from a physical disability that normally prevents her from playing, but she was given the chance to play the first 30 seconds of this game. (Staff photo by Matt Bunke)

Alex Lewandowski will likely go down as the all-time field goal percentage leader at Watertown-Mayer Middle School.
The manager of the eighth grade girls’ basketball team, who suffers from a rare physical and neurological disability, was given a unique opportunity to play in a game recently, and she certainly made the most of it.
With family and friends watching from the stands, and her teammates cheering her on, Lewandowski took the floor on Friday, Jan. 31, as one of her team’s starters against Norwood Young America. In an arranged scenario with the opposing team, Watertown-Mayer won the tip and quickly passed the ball to Lewandowski under the basket.
Without hesitation, Lewandowski banked in her layup to give her team the early 2-0 lead.
“I had butterflies, but not bad butterflies,” said Lewandowski, who added that she was confident she’d hit her first attempt. “I had one day to practice, and I made 13 in a row, all in one minute.”
The opportunity meant a lot to Lewandowki, a sports nut who can’t actually play sports because she suffers from hydrocephalus, a condition that her mom, Stacey, said resulted from a stroke in utero. In short, the condition caused bleeding on Alex’s brain that caused permanent damage. Typical of a stroke victim, Alex has weakness on the right side of her body, as well as neurological damage. Her right hand and arm don’t work well, and she also has weakness in her right leg.
Despite not being able to play sports, Alex loves everything about them. She watches ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning on a near daily basis, and according to her mother, “has an opinion on just about everything.” She’s a huge Vikings and Twins fan, and loves the sport of basketball in particular. That’s why she’s spent the last three years managing her grade’s basketball team, following her teammates from sixth grade all the way up to eighth grade.
Stacey Lewandowski said the opportunity for her daughter to play in the game meant a lot to both her daughter and the entire family.
“I don’t think I can even describe it,” Stacey said. “I know how much it meant to her. When she was young, she really wanted to play, and it was not a good conversation to have to explain to her that it wasn’t going to work. She’s been managing now for three years, and has really come to love doing it. The girls are just fabulous around her and have accepted her. She’s as much a part of the team as anybody. This was just a really big moment for her, and I’m glad she could have it.”
After scoring her basket, action was stopped as Lewandowski pumped her fist and was congratulated by teammates and coaches at center court. She then took a spot on the bench for most of the rest of the game, but in a blowout win for her team, she even got to back in the game on defense for the final 30 seconds.
When asked why she likes to spend so much time around the team despite not being able to play, Lewandowski’s response was simple.
“I just like to make sure they do things right,” she said.
The idea to play Lewandowski in a game came from coach Jim Erickson, who first asked Stacey if she was OK with the idea of her daughter getting on the court, as long as he could guarantee her safety.
Stacey was thrilled with the idea, and so was Alex.
“She had a permanent smile plastered on her face ever since she found out about it,” Stacey said.
Erickson said that once he explained the idea to the other players on the team, they were equally enthused about the opportunity.
“Alex is a really good person,” Erickson said. “She has a really good heart, and a smart head on her shoulders. She deserved this shot. If you asked all the kids, they’d say the same thing. She deserved to be on the floor.”
Erickson added that he believes Lewandowki will continue to follow her teammates all the way up through the varsity level.
“She’ll probably be part of the team until they’re seniors,” he said. “She just love sports and loves to be around it.”
Stacey Lewandowski said her family was grateful to Erickson and the team for the opportunity her daughter was given, and Alex’s father, Steve, also expressed gratitude to the Norwood Young America players and coaches for allowing the plan to proceed.
“We’re so grateful to Alex’s coaches and her teammates,” Stacey said. “We just think the world of the program they’re running here. I think every parent who has a kid on this team should feel really proud of the type of organization they have.”