Login |  Register |  help

Two kids from Pearl River inspire others

Posted Sunday, January 11, 2009 by Rick Carpiniello - The Journal News

Luke Houston had never started a game for Pearl River's basketball team before. The sophomore guard was usually the sixth man who saw a lot of playing time off the bench.

This was his first start, Thursday afternoon against Hastings. Now the game had just begun, and Houston launched a 3-pointer. From where his coach and uncle, Jerry Houston Jr., was sitting, he was blocked out by another player on the floor. He could barely see Luke's body, but he did get a view of the ball leaving Luke's hands. "And I had a very strong feeling, just based on the way that the ball came out of his hands, I could tell it had a very good chance," the coach said.

"I think there was a feeling (in the gym), when he let it go, maybe kind of an awkwardness, hoping it would go in for his sake and it would be a nice way for him to start the game. I don't know if it was guarded emotion from the crowd. But when it went in, the place kind of exploded. It was a nice moment."

In stories like this one, of course it goes in. It has to go in.

"Yeah," Luke agreed. He would make his first three shots of the game, two of those 3-pointers, and finish with 13 points in a 69-66 win. Earlier that day, Luke's family had buried his mother, Liz, who passed away last Saturday from complications of scleroderma, a chronic autoimmune illness she'd been battling since 2004. So here was Luke, providing one of those great inspirational moments - the kind you expect from adults, but more often seem to get from kids - that sometimes rise out of sports.

- - -

Last night, a chapter in another great inspiring story for Pearl River High was postponed. Before the Pirates' snowed-out hockey game against Nyack at Sport-O-Rama, they were going to retire the uniform No. 36 worn by Joey Pennisi, who died at age 19, last Jan. 23, after a three-year fight with bone cancer. The ceremony has been rescheduled for Feb. 21.

"It's incredible," Joey's dad, Tom, said yesterday. "You know, it's the worst thing that I could ever think I could go through. And to have the community here to lift us up by doing something like this, it's just unreal. "If anybody knew Joey, if they knew what hockey meant to him ... For him to have his number retired, I just hope to God that he hears about this or sees this. ... I couldn't even put into words how he would feel about this."

Maybe the way we who know this story feel about Joey.

Two years ago in this space, Tom told us how he and his wife, Barbara, and Joey were getting the news from his doctor.

"I have to be very blunt with you, Joey," the doctor said, and then he added the details.

And then he said, "I want to emphasize how serious this is. Do you understand the severity of this?"

Joey nodded his head. His father was so upset he couldn't even nod. His mom, who is a nurse, understood better, and had tears in her eyes. The doctor left the room to give the family a moment.

"The door had just slammed and Joey goes, 'God, Dad, can we get out of here?' I thought he was breaking down," Tom said. "I said, 'What's the matter?' He said, 'I'm not going to make my game at 3:30 if this guy keeps talking like this.' " Pennisi brought a community together. He was told he could no longer play ice hockey, so he played in a roller-hockey league instead. There probably was no difference, except nobody told him he couldn't play roller hockey. So he did.

"He amazed me, where he was giving back to us what we were giving to him," Tom said. "You know how you try to make your kid strong, to be able to deal with the people you're going to deal with in your life, the situations you're going to come across? He was giving back to my wife. He was saying to her ... "

Tom stopped, choked up, and wept as he told the story.

"He said, 'I can't believe somebody like you has to go through something like this.' He told Tommy, my second-oldest son, 'You've got to take care of Mickey (the youngest son).' And he gave me strength."

Joey's girlfriend, Siobhan Pearson, and his buddy, Matt Pogweit, would come over and watch the TV show "One Tree Hill" with Joey and his family. And for a year since he passed, they still come to the house to watch the show.

- - -

Luke's 3-pointer hadn't yet hit the bottom of the net when the crowd roared for him. He had been on vigil at the hospital with his father, Kevin Houston - who once led the nation in scoring playing for Army - and his family since Dec. 30. It wasn't unusual for Liz to be hospitalized during her illness.

She had been at both of the team's own tournament games, in her wheelchair, just the week before.

Now she was gone. Irvington High postponed its game against Pearl River Tuesday, and Hastings offered to do the same Thursday, but the Pirates decided it was time to play. Jerry Houston Jr., whose dad is the freshman head coach and a varsity assistant, told Luke he didn't have to play. Luke said he wanted to try it. He made it through warm-ups feeling nervous. He made it through the moment of silence before the game.

"I had a lot of support from my family and the Pearl River community to play," Luke, 16, said. "And my mom would have wanted me to play.

"Right before warm-ups started, I felt at home, so ... "

So he started and hit that dramatic shot.

"I was relieved at the time because I was so nervous; it broke the ice for me," he said. "When I first hit the shot, I was thinking about my mom, thinking about (making) it for her."

Even though the shot relaxed him, it never felt like a normal game.

"I sort of felt something was missing," he said.

Yet he was so glad he made the decision to play. And so were his family and friends.

"They were just telling me my mom was really proud of me, which I'm sure she was," he said.

- - -

And there were hugs all around, just as there were at Joey Pennisi's funeral last January.

That made Tom Pennisi feel "we were all going through this together."

"I don't know what would have happened to me if I didn't have this support," he said.

By Rick Carpiniello
Journal News columnist • January 11, 2009

 Reach Rick Carpiniello at rcarpini@lohud.com.

This page was created in 0.0938 seconds on server 132