HAMMOND | The tears were forming, but they never fell down the cheek. Not in the following conversation anyway.
Clark senior guard Bernateau Jean-Michel had trouble speaking after his Pioneers lost to Gavit 50-42 in the opening game of the Class 3A Hammond Sectional inside the beautifully redone Hammond Civic Center.
Yes, his team losing brought sorrow, but that was not why his heart was heavy.
“She was there for everything,” Jean-Michel said. “She wanted me to win. I wanted her to be proud of me.”
“She” was Jean-Michel's mother, Gail Strong. The 52-year-old died from cancer on Sunday. Two days later her son was battling in the 103rd IHSAA boys basketball state tournament.
There is one thing Jean-Michel needs to know. Losing to a good Gavit team means nothing. Not in the real world. I am sure his mother is extremely proud of the way her son played and the way he conducted himself the last four years in Robertsdale.
“He's one of the best players around that no one has heard of,” Clark coach Joe Delgado said of the 6-foot-1 guard, who averaged 15 points, 5 assists and five steals before Tuesday's game.
Tears started to well up in Delgado's eyes.
“It's tough to deal with,” Delgado said. “For him to be here, fighting, praying, giving it everything he's got, it's amazing. I know his mamma is proud of him.”
Jean-Michel scored a game-high 14 points.
His story is not average. His father is from Haiti. He lived in Chicago until his freshman year. That's when the U-Haul truck came and the family became Hoosiers.
Jean-Michel never played organized basketball until he became a Pioneer, but he did go to the park and shoot baskets when he was younger. His oldest brother, Sean Strong, would rebound for his brother. Sean was in a wheelchair, where he's been his entire life.
“He was my guy,” Jean-Michel said. “He was my rebounder. He was like my ball boy.”
The funeral for Gail Strong will be this Sunday in Arkansas, where her family roots are grounded. She was only able to make one game this year, spending most of this winter in the hospital.
“I would take her newspapers and let her know what I'd done,” Jean-Michel said. “She meant everything to me. She was my biggest fan. I was not fully focused (Tuesday) night.”
Gavit coach Brandon Ridenour didn't see anything missing from No. 22. Nothing at all.
“The biggest thing about him is his strength and quickness,” Ridenour said. “He's a very tough matchup. A very good basketball player. The most important thing is he's a nice kid. We've played against him a lot and he never said a cross thing to any of our guys.
“He's a competitor, but tonight, one of our guys fell, and there he was helping him up off the floor.
“He's a class kid all the way.”
This tournament has survived snowstorms, droughts and ice storms through the decades. It has thrilled urban guys named Bootsy and rural fellas named Homer.
Hoosier Hysteria is all-encompassing. It's for undefeated teams with three D-I players in the starting five. It's for .500 teams still trying to find their way, wobbling on March's doorstep.
It's for players that everyone in the area know. It's for players like Jean-Michel, young men wearing their uniform with pride, representing their community, their neighborhood, their schoolmates and their families — and in this case, sweating love out of every pour for his beloved mother.
A few years ago Clark won three consecutive sectional titles. Delgado said players from that team have come back and praised the 2012-13 team. Perhaps they aren't as good as previous versions. They do, though, play just as hard.
Jean-Michel and LaRoi Harmon are two players many people in Northwest Indiana have never heard of. Both will play at Calumet College next year.
“These are great kids,” Delgado said. “They've made me so proud. People don't understand all they have to go through just to make it to practice. It isn't like other schools. That's why I'm so proud.”
It's guys like this, Jean-Michel, that Hoosier Hysteria was made for.
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.