The Uniondale boys basketball team will get to play a season and dedicate it to the memory of exceptional sophomore point guard Jo-Jo Wright, who was killed in an automobile accident last Wednesday.
The Uniondale Board of Education gave approval for the high school to compete in boys and girls basketball and wrestling at an emergency meeting on Tuesday, reversing a decision made in December to cancel all winter sports programs amid concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wright, 15, was the top public school player in Nassau County and averaged 19 points and nine assists as a freshman, leading his team to the county title game. He was selected to Newsday’s all-Long Island boys basketball team.
"This season is going to mean a lot [because] we’ve lost one of our teammates," Knights senior Zaronn Duncan said. "Getting to have a season means we get to represent him the way we can and the way we want to. We’re going to dedicate this season to him."
"It will affect us, knowing he’s not there physically, but he will be there spiritually and in our hearts," Knight senior Jordan Evelyn said. "We will play as he’d want us to: We will outwork the other teams and be true to who we are."
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran announced on Jan. 26 that the county would approve playing the sports the state deemed high risk -- boys and girls basketball, wrestling and competitive cheerleading. That decision prompted an outpouring of support for playing those sports at the regularly scheduled board of education meeting that night.
The winter sports approved on Tuesday morning may begin practice immediately with competition to begin next week. Uniondale High is not playing low-risk sports, including track and bowling because those sports seasons already have begun.
Knights boys basketball coach Tom Diana realizes his team is going to be in for an emotional ride through a compressed season. This week will bring the team together at school for only the second time since last March and first since a grief counseling session last Wednesday night. And they will all be attending a private funeral for Wright.
"Today’s decision is bittersweet," Diana said. "I am glad the kids will have a chance for normalcy and to heal together. This tragedy is hard for each of us to go through, but doing it together might make it a little bit easier."
Knights senior Tristan St. John said that there have been informal discussions among teammates about how the team might commemorate Wright at basketball games, "but there are a lot of ideas floating around and we have to make it a team decision regarding Jo-Jo. But I am sure we will do something."
Others already are. The Long Island Nets, the Brooklyn Nets’ G-League team that plays at the Coliseum, will drape an empty seat on their bench with a No. 10 uniform jersey in honor of Wright. And UCLA – the school always considered Wright’s favorite – will offer him a full scholarship posthumously. Curran is introducing legislation to rename a portion of Uniondale Avenue "Jomani (Jo-Jo) Wright Way."
In the days since his death Diana said there have been a couple of candlelight vigils at the corner of Maple Avenue and First Street in Uniondale, site of the car accident where Wright was killed.
Uniondale will play an eight-game schedule, just as all the other teams in Nassau. The Knights opener will be sometime next week. Athletic director Jonathan Jefferson said Monday that should a season be approved, he did not anticipate home games would be anything like in a typical season.
"A Uniondale game is a big show where people come out and our band plays an important role," Jefferson said. "It won’t be that atmosphere because health and safety measures are the most important thing."
He added that the school does hope there is a way to share all of the Uniondale winter sports with the community through some sort of live streaming platform, but "we aren’t yet outfitted for that."