- Wright Thompson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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Last weekend in Charleston, S.C., a bus carried the Summerville High basketball team to the state 4A semifinals. It also carried the memory of a man you've never heard of, a man who meant everything to the boys on that bus. His name was Louis Mulkey, and he was an assistant coach in football and basketball and, everyone says, life.
His day job was as a firefighter for the city of Charleston. He worked on Engine 15. His world revolved around Summerville High and B Shift. Then, on June 18 last summer, he and many of his colleagues responded to a fire at the Super Sofa Store. Some of you know what happened. The blaze grew out of control. A flashover, firemen call it, and when that happens, you've got two seconds to escape.
A Mayday call went out. Then, a short, unidentified radio call. The voice, several firefighters believe, carried Louis Mulkey's last words.
"I love you."
Two seconds wasn't long enough for Mulkey. He was gone, leaving behind a fire department, a family, a wife and a group of mourning athletes.
"It was a really tough summer," says Chris Digby, a basketball assistant and friend of Mulkey. "We had a lot of hearts to mend. We had to spend time with them and help them understand."
They held ceremonies. They made sure Mulkey's wife, Lauren, came to football games and then, as fall turned to winter, basketball games, too. They did their best.
"It's so touching to see the impact that he's had on these boys," Lauren Mulkey says. "Gosh, they were the closest thing we had to kids. They mean the world to me."
Still, something was always missing. Digby felt it most on the bus rides, when everything was just a little too quiet. The players felt it when they needed a boost of inspiration. Louis was always so good at saying and doing just the right thing at just the right time.
"We've got some seniors who try to do that, who try to replace that, and provide the energy. But it's just not the same," Digby says. "When things aren't going well for us, that's when we miss him the most."
During the course of the season, some members of the student section bought plastic fire helmets and painted "L.M." on them. The Charleston Fire Department donated a real firefighter's helmet, and the team carried it faithfully, putting it on an empty chair on the bench, where Louis would have sat. Last Friday on the bus, with the season winding down, Digby looked at the bag carrying that helmet and had to hide his face so the players wouldn't see him cry.
Lauren was a few minutes behind them. She wouldn't miss this game. And, in front of her was a Charleston fire truck, Ladder 4, part of the crew who'd been with Louis that night at the fire. They'd lived, but they hadn't forgotten. So tonight, dressed in uniform, they'd come to a gymnasium to honor a friend.
The game began. Summerville pulled ahead, taking a commanding lead in the third quarter. But Sumter High chipped away, making defensive stops, getting rebounds. In the final minutes, Sumter came all the way back, taking a lead. Louis' boys looked done. Digby could see it from the bench. This is when they needed Mulkey. And this is when it happened.
The student section began the chant, the words growing louder and louder.
Clap. Clap. Clap-clap-clap.
The crowd joined in.
Everyone sensed what was happening. There, for a few moments, inside a gym he loved so much, Louis Mulkey lived.
"The change started coming up through the crowd," Digby says. "It completely changed. You could see it in their face. They weren't gonna lose that game. Our kids, it lit a fire underneath them."
Summerville took control, putting away the game. Afterward, the team posed for pictures with the firefighters and Lauren. Some of them wore fire helmets. Others held a sign with Louis' initials on it. Everyone smiled.
In a few short hours, they'll play again, this time for the state championship. They won't be alone. The helmet will be there, and the firemen, and Lauren. Watching over it all will be Louis Mulkey, who would have loved it so much.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.