One of the most important members of the NCAA Tournament-bound Northeastern basketball team hasn’t taken a shot, made a pass, or even set foot on the court.
Max Plansky is a 16-year-old from Danvers who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 9 months old. He is nonmobile and mostly nonverbal. He requires the kind of round-the-clock care and attention that only compassionate people can provide.
Yet Max is identical to his peers in at least two very vital ways. He loves sports, and he longs to be part of something.
Which is why, when the Huskies gather for Thursday’s NCAA Tournament opener against Notre Dame, Max is expected to take his usual spot with his teammates. That’ll be Max, in his wheelchair, at the end of the bench, cheering.
“He’s an official team member,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “We had a national letter-of signing for him, he’s been a part of the team, he comes to practice — snow days included — he’s in the locker room pregame, postgame. He wins and loses with us.”
Inclusion for someone with disabilities can boost confidence and self-esteem. It can help establish an identity. In Max’s case, it can also improve the health of a young boy who already has spent far too many of his nights in a hospital room.
The relationship between Max and the Huskies began two years ago, and has evolved over time, growing closer. The Planskys made the 400-mile drive on March 9 to Baltimore, site of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, arriving at the arena an hour before that night’s championship game. They flew with the team to Pittsburgh for Thursday’s NCAA Tournament opener against Notre Dame.
Basketball is in Max Plansky’s blood. His uncle, Mark Plansky, played on Villanova’s 1985 national championship team (he started three games that season, and played — but didn’t score — in the national title game win over Georgetown). His father was a college coach for 14 seasons at five schools: Brandeis, Iowa, Saint Michael’s College, Salve Regina, and Endicott. Four months after Max was born (prematurely), Michael Plansky became the head coach at Salve Regina. Five months later came Max’s diagnosis.
For six years, Michael Plansky coached and Max was part of those teams, appearing in every championship photo. But life eventually steered Michael Plansky away from coaching — he spent time at Marblehead High School and Dedham High School as an athletic director and assistant principal — and that took Max away from the basketball players he loved being around.
Needed to be around, as it turned out.
“Before we joined Northeastern and after I got out of coaching, he was sick on a yearly basis,” said Michael Plansky. “Three weeks at Children’s, one week in ICU — going to make it, not going to make it — and we couldn’t really tell why.
“His demeanor had changed. He didn’t like to go to school. We were like, ‘What’s going on here?’ As he was getting older, I realized, ‘He doesn’t have a group.’
“I went into every IEP [individual education plan] meeting with one goal: Can we have social opportunities with able-bodied people? We never reached the goal until Northeastern came along. Then we knew what he had been missing.”
Michael Plansky reached out to his brother, since Mark was involved with an organization called Team IMPACT, which connects children facing life-threatening illnesses with college athletes. Michael Plansky also contacted Coen at Northeastern, whom he’s known for many years through the coaching fraternity.
Coen realized the value of having Max around.
“I’m so proud of the way our team has accepted him, embraced him, made him feel welcome and special. In return, these guys get so much more,” Coen said. “He’s been an inspiration to these guys.”
For Coen, it’s about much more than teaching his players x’s and o’s.
“If the only thing they learn from their time at Northeastern is to be better basketball players, then it’s probably been a waste of time,” he said.
Indeed, it has been a partnership. In addition to attending games and practices, Max has helped the Huskies host recruits during their visits to campus. He was part of the celebration after the Huskies won the CAA title, with a team staffer climbing up the ladder to cut away a piece of the net for Max. But Max also has been visited by his teammates at the Children’s Center for Communication/Beverly School for the Deaf, where he studies.
“He has a big heart, and just seeing his face really inspires our whole team. He wants to be here every day, he shows up for every home game,” said junior forward Quincy Ford. “He was there at the conference tournament, and just seeing how happy he was just raised the level of happiness in every one of us. He’s truly a light to our team.”
Max’s involvement with Northeastern not only gave him what had been missing, it also gave Michael Plansky an idea.
“I sat in the IEP meeting after he joined Northeastern, around this time last year, and all I kept hearing was, ‘Since joining Northeastern, Max’s achievement has improved. Since joining Northeastern, his attendance has gotten better because he’s been more healthy. Since joining Northeastern, he’s got more self-esteem.’ Then it started to click, and we said we need to offer this to more people,” he said.
The result is You’re With Us, an organization that connects people with disabilities with able-bodied groups. Plansky, who founded the company, said he’s anticipating between 10 and 15 young adults to participate in the program at campuses that initially could include Brandeis, Endicott, and Northeastern.
Based on Max’s experience, Plansky wants to provide a similar opportunity for some of the 170,000 students in Massachusetts who are designated as IEP students. The goal is to not only allow them to be part of something, but to think ahead, and broader: perhaps go to college, or eventually hold a job (Plansky said approximately 85 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed).
Through his involvement with Northeastern, Max has his own dreams. He’s interested in being a sports reporter, and would like to work with the school’s sports information department to blog about the Huskies’ baseball team.
First things first, though. Thanks to Northeastern’s conference title, it’s still basketball season, so Max and his fellow Huskies have at least one more game.
“His identity is that he’s a Northeastern basketball player,” Michael Plansky said. “Because of that, he’s got more self-confidence, he’s more of a leader. It’s given him a sense of belonging.
“The other thing it’s given him is hope. He comes over here and he’s like, ‘Maybe I can go to college. Maybe I can be part of this.’ ”