GAINESVILLE — Nicholas Bennett is a crowd favorite at North Hall High School. Being lifted on Trojans teammates' shoulders after he drained his 1,000th halfcourt shot at halftime of Saturday's game against Gainesville was proof of it.
It wasn't just the shot at the half. Bennett also got in after starting the game to score the first points of the night.
"This was such an exciting experience," said Bennett, who has served as the Trojans' student manager all four years he's been in high school. "It felt like I was in heaven."
And the visiting fans from Gainesville were just as swept up in the moment, even though it came in the middle of a rivalry game.
Simply put, it was Bennett's night to shine. The rivalry between the two schools, at least for one night, took a back seat.
The night started just as powerfully for Bennett, who in his first game appearance scored the game's opening basket on a pass from senior Brock Wingo.
However, it was the half-court shot that stole the show. Fans were filming with cell phone cameras. Players were eagerly awaiting their friend making the shot. Then when he flung one underhanded that drained through the bottom of the net without hitting rim, North Hall students stormed the court and put him on their shoulders. Bennett was treated like he hit a game-winning shot in the state championship game.
"This was like nothing else I've ever experienced before," said Bennett, after exiting the court at halftime.
For Bennett, it's been a moment four years in the making.
He's worked steadily toward this mark every day before school and practice with the other guys on the team. Even though he was introduced to basketball in elementary school by his father, Tim, it never took until his ninth-grade year. As a freshman, North Hall teacher Bruce King whet Nicholas' appetite for basketball by letting him shoot around in the school's old gym before classes began.
Nobody knew at the time an unbreakable bond with the North Hall boys basketball program was about to be forged.
Nicholas' obstacles early in life were many. He was born with autism, fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Tim and Nancy Bennett adopted the 9-month-old boy from Russia and gave him a more promising future in Hall County.
Since being welcomed into the North Hall basketball family by its coach, Benjie Wood, during the 2011-12 season, Nicholas has found his identity as a young man.
"I've been blessed to be around Nick," said Wood. "He's a kid who has an outstanding outlook on life."
To mark the occasion, Nicholas' father said about 30 family members were in attendance for the game.
Wood, who now coaches at Gainesville, and Trojans coach Tyler Sanders hatched the plan to recognize Nicholas and let him take center stage in the second meeting playing against one another this season. Longtime friends, Wood was coach at North Hall during Bennett's first two years of high school, when Sanders was his trusted assistant.
Now Sanders runs the show at North Hall but wanted to recognize Nicholas on a night on his home court when Wood could also take in the moment.
Even though Saturday was his first game action, Nicholas is far more than just a student manager for the North Hall boys. He can hang with anyone on the team when playing the one-on-one shooting game H.O.R.S.E. He's their motivator to keep the energy level high in practice and during games. He even takes pleasure in doing the chores most would avoid like homework, such as making sure basketballs were properly inflated and the backboards were squeaky clean.
"I guarantee you that North Hall has the cleanest backboards in the state because of Nick," said Wood, who coached the Trojans from 2006-2013.
When he was coaching at North Hall, it even became habit for Wood and Bennett to do the same handshake before every game.
His first two-years of high school, Bennett became a source of good luck for North Hall, accumulating 41 wins with him on the bench — home and away. Sanders insisted on keeping things the same when he took over as head coach last season.
"It's been amazing to have Nicholas part of our program," said Sanders. "He was a quiet, shy kid at first, but now he's like an assistant coach."
Bennett has been a proud fixture around the Trojans since latching on as a shy freshman. His assimilation onto the Trojans' bench as student assistant happened rather rapidly after Christmas 2011. As the story goes, Tim wanted North Hall's players and coaches to sign a basketball to give his son for Christmas. He knew that Nicholas would cherish it, as the two attended every game together.
Wood took it to the next step and asked Tim if his son would like to sit on the bench for the game just three days after Christmas. Both Bennetts jumped at the opportunity.
He didn't know Nicholas was about to be North Hall's motivator on the bench.
For his first game, Bennett sat quietly in a chair by the team, wearing an old jersey the coaches and players presented him before the game. It seemed to be a natural fit for everyone involved. That night, North Hall picked up a 69-58 home win against West Hall, the third win on a 14-game winning streak. Shortly after the game against the Spartans, Bennett quipped to Wood that he needed a road jersey to wear, too.
Nicholas has been a fixture in the program ever since. After being knocked from the playoffs during the second round his ninth-grade year, North Hall made a run to the Class AAA state semifinals the following season, thanks to both Bennett's loyalty to the program in every facet and 20-point-per-game shooter Ebo Smith.
Since his introductory freshman season, Nicholas emerged from his shell, Wood said. Not only does he help with basketball operations for North Hall, Nicholas is also a great shooter, after countless hours practicing in the gym, which is where he perfected his trademark shot behind the half-court line. At home, Tim said there are also countless places for Nicholas to practice his shot, ranging from the swimming pool to multiple rims in his bedroom.
In addition to his love of music, primarily the guitar, Nicholas has a very strong desire to share his Christian faith with everyone he meets. Following graduation, Tim said his son plans to attend the Gainesville Baptist College & Seminary, an accredited ministry with the Hillcrest Baptist Church in Clermont.
Now a comfortable and gregarious senior, Nicholas is as much a member of the team as anyone else. He's got a spot in the scorebook to prove it.
"I couldn't have asked for anything better for my son," said Tim.