EAST HAVEN >> The shot that finally sank through one of the nets inside the East Haven High School gym was an unassuming one, a moment that turned into the unexpected apex of months of planning.
It was just a bucket for Dejon Knight, but for everyone else who supports him, the shot meant more than just two more points on a scoreboard. Knight has cerebral palsy, a condition that his mother, Kristina Fox, said he was diagnosed with when he was 2.
“My friends’ parents were crying. I was just like, it was just a bucket,” Knight said.
As indistinguished as it looked, the shot Knight made on Feb. 24 was earned, even lobbied for. Knight didn’t wait on the sideline hoping for the moment that finally came during the last game of the season.
Since December, the 16-year-old freshman had spent the majority of the season playing the role of special assistant to freshman team head coach Frank Lyon. He had worn a shirt and tie instead of the white, navy and gold jersey of the East Haven Yellowjackets.
But on Feb. 24, against Platt Technical High School of Milford, Knight shucked off the businesswear and climbed into sportswear. He had been asking Lyon all season long to put him in a game, seeking a few minutes on the court with the boys he now calls his second family.
“He’s always been determined,” Fox said. “He’s seen other kids do the things they’ve wanted to do, and he’s wanted to that too.”
Knight said he nearly persuaded Lyon to play him in the game before the team met Platt Tech, as he managed to dress up with the rest of the team.
“He was so relentless,” Lyon said.
With the game against Platt decided — the Yellowjackets would win by a wide margin — Lyon decided it was Knight’s time. There were two minutes left on the clock. Knight checked into the game — and promptly missed most of his shots.
“I went one-for-seven,” Knight said with a grin. “It was a lot of pressure. I didn’t show that I was nervous at first.”
And on the seventh try, he nailed the bucket — and the celebration began as elated teammates erupted into cheers.
His teammates rushed to his side at mid-court, ready to hoist him into the air, an action usually reserved for players responsible for last-second, game-winning heroics. The crowd erupted in cheers and, as Knight noted, some tears fell as well. It didn’t matter that the game’s ending had already been written.
Unbeknownst to Knight, his appearance had been in the works for months thanks to Lyon, who spoke with the Hive, a student organization at the school, to ensure high attendance. Students showed up in droves for a freshman game that usually draws only parents and close friends.
“Everyone knew Dejon was going in except for Dejon,” schools Athletic Director Anthony Verderame said. “Everyone came out for Dejon and to support him.”
According to United Cerebral Palsy, an educational and advocacy organization, cerebral palsy refers to several disorders of the developing brain that affect body movement, posture and muscle coordination. It is estimated that 764,000 children and adults have one or more symptoms of the disorder.
This means swift movement is difficult for Knight, as it affects his legs, keeping him from being able to walk for long periods of time. Surgeries are required to lengthen his hamstrings to match his growing frame, Fox said. Knight is due for another surgery after having a growth spurt.
Knight was also bullied, but that was “a long time ago,” before he moved to East Haven, he said. Knight has been playing basketball since he was 5, honing his game at the Boys and Girls Club in New Haven. That’s the same age Fox said Knight had his first surgery.
Fox said Knight didn’t fully understand his condition until he was 9, and he said he initially felt confusion and sorrow — but it didn’t do much to deter his desire to keep playing.
“You can do anything as long as you put your mind to it,” Knight said. “It’s not about what other people say. Just do it if you want to do it.”
Lyon, who coaches the 17 members of the freshman team and is also an assistant varsity coach, had been keen on making sure Knight felt part of the team, and the student practiced with the freshman, junior varsity and varsity squads throughout the season.
But he was also cautious about allowing Knight to play a game that is very physical. He was hard-working and encouraging to other players, Lyon said, yet he also wanted to ensure Knight’s safety.
“He’s great to be around every day,” Lyon said. “He can’t physically keep up with the rest of the team, and he knows that, but he doesn’t want to be looked at any differently.”
The path to the shot in February started in the fall. Drills started in September: Knight would practice ball-control drills by himself, dribbling and rehearsing his layup. His mother was supportive, but had concerns about him getting hurt.
She eventually gave coaches permission to play him, but didn’t tell Knight so as to ensure the surprise.
Indeed, Knight fell once during the game, but got back up determinedly and made the shot that sent the crowd in the gym into an uproar.
Knight’s efforts and work ethic have turned him into a role model of sorts, and Lyon said his determination can be motivational to other players. The older players also looked out for him, Lyon said, as Knight made friends throughout the season that helped him crawl out of his shell.
East Haven High School has an enrollment of 883 students, with 550 of them participating in sports, Verderame said, many of whom dream of playing beyond the school’s confines.
“He’s a basketball player,” Verderame said. “I sat him down before tryouts and let him know that no matter what, he has a future in basketball. The passion he has, whether it’s sportswriting or announcing, whatever — coaching — the young man, he has a future in basketball.”
Knight, who watches basketball highlights as one source for motivation, which he said improved “my basketball IQ too,” has already set his goals for next season. He’s looking to make more than just shots. It seems his unflinchingly positive attitude won’t let him do anything else but stay ambitious.
“But next year, I’m looking forward to being a captain of the JV team,” Knight said, before looking at Verderame and laughing. “Probably, probably. I got it, I got it.”