NORMAL — Leslie Lambert’s left-handed half-court lift whistled through the net as the horn sounded at Redbird Arena.
The Illinois State men’s basketball team immediately rushed in and harassed the 13-year-old boy from Lexington like he nailed a game-winning buzzer beater to win a Missouri Valley game Conference.
“It’s the best day of his life,” said Tricia Lambert, who boasted that her son was a die-hard ISU basketball fan.
Redbird coaches and players hosted youth and young adults with disabilities on Saturday morning as part of a Beautiful Lives project.
Still, it was evident that the ISU players derived as much satisfaction and enjoyment – and perhaps more – from the event as those they helped and encouraged for a few hours.
“Really just understanding my blessings…it was a great opportunity to get out here and meet the community and the kids with special needs,” said ISU junior guard Luke Kasbuke. “Just to experience and learn from them, they also have things to teach us.”
Malachi Poindexter even met someone with the same name in 14-year-old Malachi Horton from Rockford.
“I love the environment here and I love being able to make someone else’s day a little happier and make mine too,” said Poindexter, a junior guard at Redbird. “It’s a great way to start the day. My whole day is going to be better because of it.”
The event was organized by Bryce Weiler, co-founder of the nonprofit Beautiful Lives Project, which helps people with disabilities achieve their dreams through sports and other programs. They hosted an event with the West Michigan football team earlier this month.
Weiler, who is blind and lives in upstate Claremont, was unable to attend Saturday’s program at Redbird Arena. Weiler said he met Pedon when the freshman ISU coach was on John Groce’s staff at the University of Illinois and appreciates Pedon’s commitment to people with disabilities.
“I know how important programs like this can be because I was fortunate enough to sit on the basketball bench at the University of Evansville from 2010-2014 at the invitation of the University of Evansville. Former Aces basketball coach Marty Simmons,” Weiler said. “This opportunity was life changing for me, and I wanted to empower people with disabilities to have similar opportunities and create friendships that could last a lifetime.”
Pedon admitted afterwards that he didn’t realize how much of an impact the day was going to have on his players.
“Watching our guys today kinda struck me. You could clearly see that they weren’t just ticking a box to be here or fulfill an obligation,” he said. “They’re here because they wanted to and once they’re here it made more sense than they probably expected.
“As a coach it means a lot, and it also means a lot to know that we had an impact on a group of children who came today and their families.
Josh and Erin Horton brought their sons, Malachi and Elijah, 12, on a two-hour, overnight family trip south. Erin Horton graduated from ISU and thought this was a great opportunity for her kids to see campus. The Hortons have previously come to the ISU for the Special Olympics Summer Games for track and field.
“Fun and more experience (for them),” said Josh Horton. “Our youngest is a big fan of all sports. So seeing an arena and playing basketball there is a bit more exciting than the local neighborhood or the gym or something like that.”
Erin Horton said Malachi didn’t want to participate initially, so they didn’t enter him. That quickly changed.
“We got here and he’s been there the whole time,” Erin Horton said.
“He’s all in,” Josh Horton said.
The Hortons have never attended an ISU basketball game at Redbird Arena before, but Erin Horton said they plan to do so in the future, especially after player interaction and coaches.
Leslie Lambert, who competes for SOAR (Special Opportunities Available in Recreation) in Bloomington during the Special Olympics, is an ISU basketball veteran, his mother said.
Getting a chance to step onto the court and play himself, however, was a closely guarded secret.
“We didn’t tell him until this morning or he wouldn’t have slept last night,” Tricia Lambert said. “The ISU is his favorite basketball team. He knows all the players by studying the roster. He can tell you how tall they are.”
Tricia Lambert said Leslie made a “special connection” with Nick Zeisloft, who played for the Redbirds from 2011 to 2014 before moving to Indiana.
“Nick would pick him up after games and take him to the stands and do the school song with him (after the wins),” said Tricia Lambert, who added that they keep in touch with Zeisloft via Facebook. .
TJ Lambert, 6, watched his older brother on Doug Collins Court with their mother from the stands. TJ’s biggest concern seemed to be why Reggie Redbird wasn’t there, but he quickly found his way into the middle of the action.
It was then time for TJ Lambert to make his own basket. So Kendall Lewis lifted the blond-haired boy near the edge to score while receiving applause from the ISU players.
The Redbirds have resumed preseason practice and will officially begin preseason practice in late September in preparation for their Nov. 7 home opener against Western Illinois.
They were the fans on Saturday, posing for a “team photo” with the attendees afterwards.
It was clear the Redbirds couldn’t have enjoyed the experience more.
Photos: Illinois State welcomes new basketball head coach Ryan Pedon
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Contact Jim Benson at (309) 820-3404. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_Benson