By David Willis
---- — As the ball left Michael Briggs’ hands and sailed through the net, the entire packed house at Dunn Gym erupted into cheers.
It didn’t matter that the junior varsity game between Andover High and archrival Central Catholic on Jan. 10 was well out of reach.
The gym was already stuffed with a sold-out crowd of more than 1,000 fans prepared to watch the varsity game when Briggs took the court in the closing moments of the JV game.
Briggs, a 16-year-old born with Down syndrome, took a pass and knocked down a short jumper
The shot sent the capacity crowd into hysterics. The Andover student section loudly chanted “Michael! Michael!” and fans of both teams rose to their feet and applauded as if he had just won a state championship. More than a few spectators had tears falling down their cheeks.
“It was unbelievable,” said his mother, Kim Briggs, her eyes misting with emotion.
“You are already so proud of what he did. But then the crowd reaction and (the Andover High student section) The Jungle chanting his name, it is just something you never imagine. You knew he had done something special. There is no stopping Michael.”
About the only one not celebrating was Michael. The Andover High sophomore got back on defense like any real basketball player would do.
“I still have goose bumps,” said his father, David Briggs, who coaches Michael’s Special Olympics team.
“This is something we never expected. Michael has scored in games before, but never in front of a packed house like that. I was so happy for him. It was really incredible.”
His family members weren’t the only ones touched.
“I know I saw a few tears in the stands,” Andover JV coach Alan Hibino said. “I was so proud to be his coach and the kids were proud to be his teammates. For the entire Andover community to support him like that was really special.”
One of the guys
For Michael Briggs, playing basketball for Andover High has been a dream come true.
“I love to shoot and when I can make a swish I am really happy,” he said. “And being out there with my friends is fun.”
The team loves him right back. Why wouldn’t they? Briggs’ smile is heartwarming, his laugh and energy infectious. His joy is natural, without a hint of insincerity.
“Michael is amazing,” Hibino said. “He brings such a positive energy and enthusiasm to this team. He has a love for this game and a love for this team that is really inspiring. He is here every day, working with the kids and interacting with them.
“He loves the team and the team loves him. He perfectly represents what it means to wear an Andover basketball uniform.”
Basketball from birth
Michael Briggs was bound to fall in love with basketball.
The year he was born, his father, a lifelong basketball fan, purchased his first season tickets for the family to the Boston Celtics.
“The first year I bought them was the year Rick Pitino was hired as head coach,” said David Briggs, who played basketball at Lexington High and whose Boston Cafe & Catering worked with the Celtics for many years. “That didn’t work out, but we have had them ever since.”
By the time Michael was 3 or 4 years old, his parents started bringing him to Celtics games and he has been going ever since.
“He goes to every weekend game and we sneak him into a few weeknight games. He doesn’t miss a beat during the game. He knows all the players on every team and he does every cheer,” David Briggs said.
“His knowledge of basketball is amazing. If he isn’t playing basketball or at a basketball game, he is probably watching a game on television or playing basketball on X-Box. He truly loves basketball.”
A Warrior’s beginning
Early in Michael’s childhood, his parents placed a strong importance on integrating their middle son into the Andover community, where the family has lived since 1986.
They found a perfect match for Michael in Andover’s Hooptown basketball camp, run by Golden Warriors varsity coach David Fazio.
“We have always pushed for Michael to be in the mainstream because that is the world he will have to live in when he gets older,” said Kim Briggs, a speech language pathologist at The Professional Center for Child Development in Andover. “We felt like Hooptown would be a perfect testing ground. Michael loved basketball, why not start with Hooptown?”
Any early concerns David and Kim Briggs had about how their son would be welcomed into the Andover basketball community were allayed when Michael arrived at the basketball school.
“The kids were just unbelievable to Michael,” his father said. “You never know how anyone is going to act. You never know how the kids or the program are going to react. But they accepted Michael as a member of the family.
“Our only regret is that we didn’t take him to Hooptown earlier. But we are glad we did because of all the joy that it has brought to not just our family, but the entire basketball community.”
Becoming a Golden Warrior
Now a fixture at Hooptown — first alongside older brother Christopher, now 19, and eventually with younger brother Jonathan, 10 — Michael had a new dream when he arrived at Andover High as a freshman last year.
He wanted to play basketball for the Golden Warriors.
After some initial questions about whether there would be a spot for Michael, his father decided to be proactive. They went directly to Fazio, who had no reservations about making him part of the program.
Michael would need a coach to work with him as a one-on-one aide, a job that was happily taken by Sanborn Elementary School physical education teacher and freshman football coach Ben Gibson.
“Mike is such an awesome kid,” said Gibson, who Michael calls “Gibby.” “Him being here is something that is great for Michael and great for all of the kids on the team. They all work together as a team and learn from each other. Mike is a goofy, likable kid. Plus, he has been in school with these kids since elementary school.”
As a freshman, Briggs played on the Andover freshman team, coached by Michael Votto, seeing playing time at the end of games already decided by lopsided scores.
“Freshman year was a great year,” David Briggs said. “Michael had a great time. In a game against Phillips, I have never seen anyone get up so many shots in such a short time. But he showed his basketball knowledge because he was keeping track of the clock. He made sure to get a final shot off right before the buzzer.”
Once this winter arrived, Michael, now a sophomore, followed many of his classmates to a new challenge on the court, playing for the JV team.
“He is a sophomore and the natural move was for him to go to the JV team,” Hibino said.
“We are thankful he wants to be part of this program. He loves the game and has worked so hard to earn his spot on the team.”
On the court
Anyone wondering if Michael is simply along for the ride would be mistaken.
As a recent practice kicked off inside the Collins Field House, he joined his teammates in sprints and agility drills.
When the practice moved to low post work, Michael started every rep by passing the ball into play. When the team worked on rebounding, Michael fired up shots, and on a pick play, he played defense.
Exchanging words and embraces with his team, Michael isn’t the boy with Down syndrome. He is just one of the guys.
He also found time to work on his favorite part of the game, his shot. Michael hasn’t stopped shooting since the Central game. Entering contests when the game is out of reach, he recorded two baskets against Lawrence on Jan. 24, and last Friday he sank a shot against North Andover.
“The most fun thing about basketball is shooting,” Michael said.
“I love to shoot the ball. I shoot a lot with Gibby. He is cool. And coach Bino is nice and Coach Faz likes to kiss me on the head every time he sees me.”
See his story
For a video feature on Andover’s Michael Briggs, visit andovertownsman.com or youtube.com/user/theeagletribune
EMBRACED BY CELTICS NATION
Longtime Boston Celtics season ticket-holder David Briggs still lights up at the memory of the moment his son, Michael, touched the heart of Celtics legend Paul Pierce.
The family was traveling with the team thanks to donations it had made to the Jimmy Fund and Shamrock Foundation.
“Pierce was walking out of the arena looking very dejected after a loss,” David Briggs recalled.
“Michael and I were sitting in the front seat of the team bus. Pierce walks on and sees Michael smiling and waving to him, and it just put the biggest smile on this NBA star’s face. To see that human side of him is fantastic.”
The Briggs family has owned season tickets to the Celtics for Michael’s entire 16-year life. And, over time, he has become adopted into the Celtics family. They are friendly with many around the team, including longtime Celtics broadcaster Cedric Maxwell.
Michael — who learned math from keeping Pierce’s stats — takes his fandom very seriously.
“He has to be there before the tip-off and won’t leave until the final buzzer no matter how the game is going,” said his mother, Kim. “He has his ritual of always getting the chicken fingers and wears a different jersey every game. This year, he has mostly been (Brandon) Bass, (Jeff) Green and (Avery) Bradley.
“Everyone around the team loves him. They practically know him like the Andover community does.”