The noise inside the Washington Park High School fieldhouse was deafening Thursday when Melvin Bedford took to the court to score the first points of Park's final regular season game against Kenosha Bradford.
Opening tip was mostly symbolic as Park took possession and the ball was passed to Taron Edwards. Starters from both Bradford and Park hung back as Edwards dribbled a couple of times and then passed the rock to Bedford.
He moved toward the basket, paused for just a second and then released the ball in a perfect arc. It hit the rim, but the crowd cheered wildly anyway.
"Shoot it again, Melvin!" people shouted. "Shoot it again!"
Bedford took the ball from Edwards once more, lined up, and this time, he scored.
The answering roar from the crowd nearly shook the walls. Bedford was embraced first by his teammates and then by his family on the court. After the hugs and an acceptance of the game ball, Bedford turned to jog back over to his teammates as if this were any other game. Instead, Edwards escorted Bedford over to the Park bench, to a seat next to his coaches.
His night, and career, were complete.
Bedford’s Miraculous Survival
Bedford’s deuce never should have happened. The Washington Park High School student and basketball player had a massive heart attack in June 2010 while playing ball with his friends. Because his heart stopped, depriving his brain of oxygen for too many minutes, Bedford suffered from global brain damage.
A miracle that he lived, it’s even more amazing that Bedford returned to school just seven months after his heart attack, taking classes and looking to the future. He is enrolled now as a special education student, but will never again play the game he loves.
Still, Bedford attends practice to watch his teammates and best friend, Edwards, and he never misses a game if he can help it. To honor his recovery, continual improvement and commitment to his team, Jim Betker, Park's coach, wanted to do something special for someone he clearly thinks is special, too.
"He's an amazing young man," he told Patch before the game. "He's never not been a member of this team even though he can't participate."
‘I Knew He Would Not Be a Vegetable’
Bedford has an infectious smile and an easy-going manner that his father says hasn't changed despite the brain damage from which Bedford is still recovering.
Jamie Bedford is Melvin's mother and she said it was her faith that pulled her through, but it was the prayers and faith of so many others that helped pull Melvin through.
"I thank God for his recovery, but I knew, somehow I just knew that he would not be a vegetable," she said. "A mother knows her son, and I had dreams that he was walking and talking, but when other people told me they were having dreams, too, I knew he would not be in that hospital for long. I knew someday he would play again."
Bedford's father Billy Craft, Jamie and the rest of the family were so sure of Bedford's recovery that they made sure his hospital room was full of joy.
"He's so positive that we had to be the same way," he said. "I know that's part of why he pulled through."
Craft was near tears talking to his son before the game about how far he's come and how proud he is of his improvement, but Craft and Jamie both said there's a ways to go. Bedford still has some issues with his memory and his eyesight, but the family is working with doctors and the school district to help Melvin move toward a future.
"He talks about working," Craft said. "But he might need a little more academically before we can move him into programs that will help him learn to be more independent." Still, Bedford will walk across the stage in June with the rest of his class.
Craft said he wants to be sure to thank the paramedics who refused to give up that fateful day, the doctors at Wheaton Franciscan who did everything they could to prepare Bedford for Flight for Life to Children's, and, of course, the staff at Children's Hospital for saving his son's life.
"They pulled an angel down from heaven that day," he nodded. "They just did so much and now look. My son is back home and going to school."
Coaches, Schools Worked Together
Betker said he's wanted to do this for Bedford almost since he learned about the heart attack. When it seemed like Bedford had reached a point in his recovery when he could participate, Betker contacted his good friend, and Bradford coach, Damon James.
"Absolutely and immediately," James said when Patch asked how he answered Betker's request. "And my team was all for it as well. We have to remember that this could happen to anyone. We're proud to be part of an event for Melvin that he will always remember."
Jeff Miller, Park's activities director, took care of the administrative tasks needed to get permission for the night to come together while Betker handled the athletic side of things.
"I've heard about things like this," Miller said. "But I've never been a part of something like this. I can't tell you how great the support has been from Central Office, from WIAA and from every person in this school."
Because of the heart attack, Bedford will never again participate in strenuous activities. In fact, doctors had to clear Bedford to play as much as he did and even then, they only gave him about 10 seconds.
"Yeah, I was excited when Coach told me I could shoot," he said a few minutes before he joined his teammates in the locker room to don a Panther jersey. Teammate Devon Hall agreed to wear 42 for the night so Bedford could wear his old number.
The attention he received before the game was overwhelming, Bedford admitted. But he was also looking forward to putting on his jersey again. Right before he went into the locker room, he promised to make the shot.
Edwards said he was humbled by Bedford's request that he get the ball from him. They've been best friends since they were in second grade.
"It means a lot to hand him the ball," he said. "For him to ask for me to hand him the ball, it means everything."
Park did go on to win 62-49, with Bedford’s name and statistics — 1 field goal, 2 points — appearing in the boxscore.