The Altoona Lady Lions might have come out on the short end on the scoreboard Friday night, but they came out on top in the game of life.
Forty Lady Lions representing 42 years of Altoona girls basketball turned out at the AAHS Fieldhouse as part of a fundraiser for 20-month-old Jack Grassmyer, the son of former Lady Lion Cassie (Thompson) Grassmyer who is battling lissencephaly.
"This is just unbelievable. It's like coming home," said Cassie Grassmyer, a 2001 Altoona graduate. "Being a Lady Lion has always been something special to me. Just coming back here and having all the girls here and Coach Helsel, who was my assistant coach when I was a senior, there's no words. It's really just humbling."
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Friday’s game helped raise funds for the ongoing care of Jack Grassmyer, the son of Jim Grassmyer and former Lady Lion Cassie (Thompson) Grassmyer.
The gym was packed, with many fans wearing yellow T-shirts honoring Jack - more than 2,100 were sold. The former Lady Lions were introduced between the JV and varsity games, following which a number of girls from the Altoona junior high and elementary programs were brought out.
Former Lady Lion coaches Art Taneyhill and Craig Long also were on hand.
"I think this just speaks to the tradition of Lady Lion basketball and what it meant to all of our lives," said Ann Hymes Wedel, who graduated in 1992. "I loved when they brought out the future Lady Lions. Then the current team ran through our line. It was great to look across and see them. That was us at one point."
Some of the past Lady Lions came in from as far away as Pittsburgh.
"Hoops for Jack: A Night for Honoring Future and Former Lady Lions" was the brainchild of Helsel, now Altoona's head coach.
"There are so many cancer games and things like that. It started out with Cassie, and we wanted to give back to one of ours, and it turned into 'let's make it about bringing people back.' Then we added the younger kids," Helsel said. "It all started with Jack. What an amazing kid."
Jack was carried out by his parents, Cassie and Jim, and presented a large Big Bird stuffed animal wearing a yellow shirt. Yellow is Jack's favorite color - children with lissencephaly can only process certain colors.
Money taken for the halftime halfcourt hoop shoot also went toward Jack's care, as did all proceeds.
Children with lissencephaly are born with a smooth brain and rarely survive past the age of 10. They are developmentally delayed and have seizures and difficulty with aspiration. Jack has a feeding tube.
Still, Cassie is upbeat, and Friday's celebration made her all the more so.
"The prognosis is not great, but we have a lot of hope. It's all up to Jack," Cassie said. "He's made so many gains already. He's holding his head up better. He's just a happy guy. He smiles at us. He laughs at us. He knows our faces. He knows our voices. My mom taught him to high-five. Every little step he make gives us hope."