Dakota Barnes settled into the deep right corner and waited for the basketball. He already had missed two shots, and less than 10 seconds remained in the game. He’d only get one more chance.
His mom, Denise Zuzu, sat in the stands, anxious and excited. Dakota had come into the world early, six weeks premature and weighing only 4½ pounds, but his body had caught up and now he was a typical teenage boy, all arms and legs, his 150 pounds stretched over a 6-foot frame.
Everyone at Tempe Marcos de Niza loved Dakota. A heart of gold, they said. It made no difference that Dakota had a learning disability, was in special-education classes and read at a sixth-to-seventh-grade level. He was socially adept and made friends easily.
Dakota loved basketball, too. He played in the Special Olympics and on a YMCA team. But this was his senior year at Marcos, and he told special-education teacher Matt Courtney that he wanted to do something new. He wanted to try out for the Padres’ varsity basketball team.
Courtney talked to varsity coach David Stark, and the two men came up with an idea: Dakota, 18, would try out for a day and then be asked to be the team’s manager. One of the perks: He’d have the chance to suit up and play in a game at Yuma on Jan. 18.
Dakota was thrilled. He was at every practice and every game, handing out water, videotaping drills, collecting basketballs. When Marcos de Niza broke into shooting drills during a workout, Dakota would jump in and launch a few 3-pointers.
“He was so excited,” Denise said. “It made him feel really good. He wasn’t bitter or disappointed he didn’t make the team. He felt like he could be a part of something that was really important to him.”
Finally, it was the week of the Yuma game, and Stark kept his word. He gave Dakota a uniform, No. 44.
MORE: 5 Storylines of the Week
“He was so pumped and excited to get in there,” Stark said.
Denise and her boyfriend made the three-hour drive to Yuma. It had been a tough week. Dakota’s older brother, Jimmy, had suffered two grand mal seizures — doctors told Denise a combination of Alka-Seltzer and cold medicine may have caused the seizures — and spent days in intensive care before being released that Friday morning.
“Dakota was scared to death, but he didn’t cry, he didn’t miss school or the practices,” Denise said. “He dealt with it. Even amongst all the pressure and stress, he did what he needed to.”
The game began, and as expected, Marcos de Niza pulled ahead. Every so often Denise would glance at the Marcos de Niza bench and notice Dakota taking deep breaths, the heaving of his chest signifying his nervousness.
With one minute and 49 seconds remaining — Stark remembers the time precisely — Dakota checked into the game.
“He gets the ball, passes it and a little guy for Yuma steals it,” Denise said. “I saw him kind of like go, ‘Oh.’ He got the ball again, shot and missed. He got the ball again and went for the basket, but it hit the rim and bounced out.”
Marcos de Niza got the ball one last time. Dakota ran to the right corner and waited. The ball found his hands and with one second left he let it go. As the buzzer sounded, the ball dropped through the net for the final points in Marcos de Niza’s 80-63 victory.
Dakota’s teammates sprinted from the bench and mobbed him. Denise stood and stomped her feet. Stark took in the scene and smiled.
“It was pretty cool,” Stark said. “I told him, ‘You did a great job.’ He was like, ‘Coach, can I get in the Westwood game (on Friday)?’”
The coaching staff made a video of the shot that’s entitled, “Dakota’s 3-pointer.” Jimmy and Dakota will watch it more than a few times.
“It was just one of those special, special moments in time that he’ll hold forever,” Denise said.
And what did Dakota think about the 3-pointer and his teammates’ reaction?
“They mobbed me like it was an actual game-winning shot,” he said.
“It was fun. I had a good time.”
Reach Bordow at scott.bordow @arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-7996. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow.