As a member of the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters, Handles Franklin has visited 74 countries and counting.
But despite getting to travel the planet “dribbling a basketball for a living,” as he put it, Franklin had to look no farther than his native Pennsylvania to find the inspiration of a lifetime.
Franklin was in Paris when he was alerted to the wonderfully inspiring story of Kevin Grow, a member of the basketball team at Bensalem High School who is affected by Down syndrome. Grow recently became a national celebrity after news of the fourth-year-team-manager-turned player entered the Owls’ game on Senior Day last month, sinking four of five three-point attempts and finishing with a team-high 14 points.
It’s the kind of heartwarming thing you see every now and then on SportsCenter, offering a calming belief that there are still good people in the world who choose to stand up and fight for those society deems “different” due to a physical disorder or disability. But when the same type of scenario plays out a stone’s throw from Northeast Philly, the inspiration balloons like a mushroom cloud reaching skyward to the heavens.
Just ask the Philadelphia 76ers and Harlem Globetrotters. Members of these organizations also took notice of Grow’s story and took matters even further, signing the teen who loves dishing out hugs and taking selfies with supporters almost as much as he loves practicing his jumpshot. When the Globetrotters followed the Sixers by making Grow a ceremonial member of their team, he became the first – and only – person since Wilt Chamberlain to lace ‘em up for both squads.
World class company for a world class young man.
On March 5, Franklin and teammate TNT Maddox, just the ninth woman to ever play for the Globetrotters, visited Bensalem High School for a special assembly to further celebrate Grow’s remarkable journey. Their stop at the school was multi-purposed: they put on a vintage Globetrotters show, displaying nifty ball-handling moves and impossible trick shots, all while inviting Grow, his basketball teammates and some Bensalem students from the crowd to join in on the fun.
Franklin and Maddox also preached to the overflow crowd of roughly 2,000 people on the “ABCs of bullying prevention,” which are “action, bravery and compassion,” the latter of which has been beautifully displayed by Grow’s teammates, who, instead of focusing on what made him different, welcomed in with open arms a young man who was exactly like them, someone with a passion for life and the game of basketball. When a Bensalem student from the crowd converted a trick shot before one of the school’s basketball players was able to do the same, Grow, the man of the hour, participated in the “punishment” the same way as everyone else did: running an up-and-back from baseline to baseline.
“You are national leaders now,” Franklin told the crowd. “I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve yet to see an amazing act of kindness the way this school did for my buddy ‘KG3’ (Grow’s nickname, which he wore proudly on the back of his customized Globetrotters jersey). How amazing it is for him and the team and the coach and this school to make noise for yourselves. You’ve allowed KG to achieve his goals and dreams, and by doing that you’ve put this school in the national spotlight. This young man is showing that dreams really do come true.”
Before the assembly, Grow was diligently practicing his dribbling skills in a hallway adjacent to the gymnasium. When he met with Maddox and Franklin for a pre-assembly routine rehearsal, Franklin gushed to the large gathering of print and television media members, “Is he perfect or what?”
Maddox, who knows full well how hard it can be to fit in as a woman in a predominantly male sport, was visibly moved by the overwhelming outpouring of support for Grow.
“It’s hard to be different,” she said. “The way they have embraced him has touched our hearts.”
Grow’s parents, Earl and Dorothy, were always close by with permanent smiles pasted on their faces, their elation over the community’s support of their little boy palpable. When Franklin introduced Grow, the energetic youngster ran to join the Globetrotters at midcourt while the crowd roared. Maddox used her backside to bump a pass to Franklin, who spun the tri-colored basketball around his back and on his index finger, all while a transfixed Grow kept his eyes on the rock, like an anxious puppy waiting for a treat.
When Franklin softly elbowed the ball into Grow’s mitts, the crowd cheered. Then, when KG3 unleashed his own ball-handling skills and trick-dribbling maneuvers, they cheered even louder.
When the assembly was over (Grow swished the only attempt he took, a foul-line jumper that he drained with ease), he signed autographs and took pictures with adoring fans. After all, it’s not all that often that a classmate moonlights as a dual member of both the Sixers and Globetrotters, so the desire for keepsakes was through the roof. (A few days later, on Sunday, Grow joined the Globetrotters on the court at the Wells Fargo Center, the same place he had suited up as a Sixer against the Cleveland Cavaliers last month.)
Kevin doesn’t say all that much, but that’s just fine. He doesn’t have to. His enduring passion for life in the face of adversity should serve as a beacon of hope for any kid who has ever felt different, lost or confused in those vulnerable, sometimes unforgiving teenage years. The actions of Grow’s teammates, whom Franklin called “The Bensalem Dream Team,” spoke louder than any words ever could.
And despite all the media attention, Kevin is still the same Kevin he’s always been, the same young man those close to him have always adored so much. It hasn’t changed him or his outlook on life, which always came with a smile and a hug even before the Sixers and Globetrotters came calling.
But he has changed all of those who have been lucky enough to witness his story. It’s safe to say everybody in the gymnasium that day left inspired and uplifted, hoping to bottle up Kevin’s unbreakable spirit to take part of him home with them to keep on a shelf for when they need it most.
Handles Franklin sure will, no matter where in the world the Harlem Globetrotters take him next.
“If I’m going to tell you anything real, it’s this: believe in yourselves, and believe in your dreams,” he said. “TNT, she plays every single night against professional males. She’s a tribute to the fact that you can do anything you put your mind to, no matter what. I heard about the Harlem Globetrotters when I was 6 years old on a Scooby Doo cartoon. I said that’s what I want to do with my life. I would dribble the ball everywhere, and people would say it’s impossible. Now, I travel around the world, dribbling a basketball for a living.
“Believe in yourself. Believe in your dreams.” ••