Because Jake's teammates were so supportive and involved in his treatments, Jake wanted them to be just as involved in his wish experience. Jake wished to meet the NY Knicks with his basketball teammates by his side! With help from the Garden of Dreams Foundation, we granted Jake's wish in celebration of World Wish Day.
This wish story was written by sports writer Greg Tufaro and printed in The Daily Record:
NEW YORK — A stretch limousine bus carrying team manager Jake Koppel and the rest of the Spotswood High School boys basketball squad pulled in front of the “World’s Most Famous Arena” during a once-in-a-lifetime road trip.
The Chargers stepped out of their fancy ride and strolled into Madison Square Garden through the employees’ entrance on 33rd Street last Wednesday. They made their way into the venue as the Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers took the floor to warm up before New York’s regular-season home finale.
Spotswood players, clad in their blue and white uniforms, entered the hardwood through the same tunnel Carmelo Anthony and company use. They took front-row seats along the baseline for a prime view of the teams’ shootaround.
Former Knicks captain Larry Johnson, now New York’s basketball and business operations representative, walked over to greet Koppel, whose courageous three-year battle with leukemia is the reason for the Chargers’ visit.
“Jake had a good response to chemotherapy but developed severe complications — pneumonia and sepsis — and was in intensive care,” said Dr. Stanley Calderwood, chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at The Children’s Hospital at Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick.
“We didn’t know if he was going to make it. But Jake has strength of character, determination and a will to carry on. He’s now in remission and near the end of his therapy.”
In one of the most unselfish requests Tom Weatherall, president and chief operating officer of the Monroe-based Make-A-Wish Foundation of New Jersey, ever heard, Koppel asked that his family and the Chargers receive red carpet treatment at a Knicks’ game.
What Weatherall and the Knicks’ Garden of Dreams Foundation, however, had in store for the entourage was beyond Koppel’s wildest imagination.
“Over 10 years, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of over 4,000 wishes in New Jersey alone,” said Weatherall, whose non-profit organization, which celebrated World Wish Day on Sunday, fulfills the dreams of children with life-threatening medical conditions.
“Just when I think I’ve seen every wish, a new one comes in and crosses my desk. What’s so unique and special about this is for Jake to not only include his family, but for him to explain to us how important it would be to bring the team that he manages from his high school and his coach and a couple of other special guests.”
Spotswood dedicated last season to Koppel, who three years earlier received a varsity lettterman's jacket from the Chargers as those players honored their hero during a halftime ceremony at a regular-season game.
Wednesday’s wish was Koppel’s way of giving back to “teammates,” who were instrumental in giving him the strength to beat cancer.
“They always held a special place in my heart,” Koppel said. “They helped me get through the tough times during my treatment. I have a lot of friends on the basketball team, and I just wanted to experience the same wish with my teammates.”
Surprises at MSG
Weatherall leaked to Koppel only part of Wednesday night’s itinerary, which included several surprises.
Spotswood took part in a pregame intrasquad scrimmage as fans settled into their seats; Koppel accompanied the New York and Los Angeles captains onto the court before the opening tip; the Chargers were an integral part of the Knicks’ player introductions; Koppel and his friends posed for a group photo with the Knicks City Dancers; and former New York star John Starks greeted the Spotswood contingent when it arrived in a luxury suite to enjoy a buffet dinner while watching the game.
“This is like a dream come true for Jake and all of us here,” said Ike Ejikeme, a 6-foot-5 senior center and Koppel’s best friend since the two were fourth-graders. “Jake has come a long way since (being diagnosed with leukemia). He’s doing well and I’m really happy for him.
“With everything he’s gone through, he’s taught me perseverance is key and that if you believe, anything is possible. I can’t even believe I’m having this opportunity to be here tonight. I’m just really at a loss for words.”
Wearing an Anthony jersey and a Knicks hat, Koppel led his entourage through the tunnel.
Several Knicks, including Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields, interrupted their pregame routine to shake players’ hands. Johnson escorted the Spotswood contingent onto center court for a group photo.
Moments later, the Chargers, with the 10-member squad equally split into white and blue jerseys, took the floor for a six-minute scrimmage. There was plenty of showboating and about as little defense as one might find in an NBA All-Star game during a fast-paced run-and-gun scrimmage with coast-to-coast action. Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” blared over the public address system and the game aired live across the Jumbotron. Spectators cheered a couple of dunks and one no-look pass. The teams combined for 34 points.
“Being a New York guy and getting out on the floor is just a tremendous thing,” Brooklyn-born and bred Spotswood coach Steve Mate said. “It just brought a thrill to me. These kids have played all season for Jake. This is something we did as a team. To put an ending to the season with this, I can’t even describe it in words.”
The players exited the court for a makeshift locker room in the bowels of the arena. While changing into Knicks’ T-shirts, some caught a glimpse of the Knicks City Dancers rehearsing about 15 yards away. The transfixed teenagers regained their focus only when starstruck Mate noticed former Knicks player and broadcaster Cal Ramsey rolling by in a wheelchair.
On the court
The Chargers received last-minute instructions on how to form parallel lines, with six team members — including Koppel and his sister Meaghan — on each side for the Knicks to pass through during player introductions.
The Garden went black and a spotlight shone on the Knicks’ bench as the starters were introduced for a nationally televised game. Koppel and his teammates will never forget exchanging high and low fives with Baron Davis, Tyson Chandler, Amare Stoudemire, Shumpert and Anthony before a raucous sellout crowd of 19,763 on Fan Appreciation Night.
The Chargers had an unobstructed view to The Garden floor. Their suite was positioned beneath New York’s Eastern Conference championship banners. They took in the game amid a huge bouquet of blue and yellow balloons, announcing Spotswood’s presence at the arena with the school’s colors.
New York won the game as Millstone native and former Lakewood High School star J.R. Smith scored a team-high 21 points. The Spotswood contingent cheered the Knicks, but were at The Garden to celebrate an even bigger victory, Koppel’s remarkable triumph over leukemia.
“Through it all Jake has still managed to attend high school, will graduate on time and he attended all of his therapies,” Calderwood said. “It couldn’t have been easy. It was all he could do some days to just drag himself out of bed. It’s an incredible comeback.
“We’re very proud of what he has accomplished and will accomplish in the future.”