The horrible news came on March 6, just minutes after the Madison East boys basketball team had finished celebrating a convincing playoff victory over a crosstown rival.
Every single moment since has rushed by in a blur for all the Purgolders.
But they have persevered — through the heartbreak of a friend’s death, and through the joy of a run to the WIAA Division 1 state boys basketball tournament. And they have done so with calm determination, focused effort and, most of all, togetherness.
By doing so, the young men of East have set an example that has done their families, their school and their city proud.
They have taken something as thoroughly standard-issue, high-school-kid stuff as a run to the state tournament and turned it into one of several unifying forces that have held together a community that — as incidents elsewhere have shown — might have come apart at the seams.
“If I was their age and this had happened, I don’t know how I would have processed it,” fifth-year East coach Matt Miota said. “My wife says this has been like a movie, with all the highs and lows.”
The ending hasn’t been written yet.
“We all believe that we’re going to be all right,” Purgolders junior guard Deang Deang said.
• • •
On the evening of March 6, the East boys beat Madison West 76-61 in a WIAA regional semifinal game at home.
Unbeknownst to the players, by the time the game began at 7 p.m., 19-year-old Tony Robinson had been fatally shot by a police officer in an incident at an apartment on Williamson Street.
Robinson was a graduate of Sun Prairie High School, but he was an acquaintance of several East basketball players and had been close friends since childhood with senior players Jordan Chester and D’Angelo Millon. Tony Robinson’s brother currently attends East.
“Tony was a brother to me,” Millon told WISC-TV this week.
Chester, who met Robinson through youth football, frequently hung out at the Williamson Street home where the shooting occurred.
“Since sixth grade, we’ve hung out. He was one of my close friends,” Chester told WISC.
East’s victory over West put the Purgolders in a regional final against Middleton, scheduled for the following night. After the game, the players quickly turned their attention to a late-night film session.
And that’s when they got the news.
“Jordan came in and he was really upset. D’Angelo had a phone call, and he was crying,” Deang said. “We figured something must be really wrong.”
“Our two teammates who were pretty close to (Robinson) stormed out of film, and another teammate and I went and comforted them,” said senior guard D’Shawn Burks. “I made it clear to the rest of my teammates that these guys lost somebody who was close to them.
“Right away, everybody said whatever we need, we’re here for them.”
According to Miota, school administrators determined early Saturday that the regional final could not be played at East that night.
Moving the game to Middleton or a neutral location was considered, but instead the decision was made to delay the game until Tuesday night at East.
• • •
Miota had a tightrope to walk. He knew students were extremely upset and recognized the potential large-scale volatility of the situation.
On the other hand, he had to counsel his students and athletes to think about their actions — because they could have consequences that could affect their futures, their families and their teammates.
“Coach definitely sent his condolences out,” Burks said. “He gets it. But at a crucial moment like this, Coach wanted us to know we can’t lose our heads, because this is what we worked so hard for.
“He said, ‘At the end of the day, you’re going to do what you’re going to do.’ He wasn’t telling us what to do, and he supported us, but he made it clear that we needed to think about what could happen.”
On Monday, hundreds of students — from East and elsewhere — marched to the state Capitol to carry the message “Black Lives Matter” to the attention of the state and nation. Miota said one East player joined the march.
“To see the community come together like that, it made an impression,” Burks said.
The next night, hundreds of East students and fans wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts — including the players and coaches — and the energetic Purgolders beat Middleton 56-53. The tense, emotional game went down to the final possession.
“We dedicated the game to Jordan and D’Angelo and to Tony Robinson,” Deang said. “We knew we couldn’t give that game away.”
• • •
But the hard work was just beginning. Miota and the Purgolders had two days to prepare for a sectional semifinal against Verona, which had beaten East twice in the regular season.
The result this time, though, was a 66-36 Purgolders romp.
That victory sent East to Beloit for a Saturday night sectional final against a Kenosha Indian Trail team that had made a dozen 3-point baskets in a 60-57 victory over Big Eight Conference champion Madison Memorial.
Minutes before the team bus was to leave for Beloit, Tony Robinson’s 4 p.m. funeral began in the East gymnasium. Chester was one of those who stayed there as long as he could.
“It was hard, but I got my mind right, got ready to play and got on the bus and got the job done,” he told WISC-TV.
East rose to the occasion with teamwork and defense. Playing for the third time in five days, three players (Burks, Deang and junior guard Tre’vone Irby) scored in double figures and the defense held Indian Trail to three 3-pointers.
East dominated after a small slip early in the second half, rolling to a 65-39 victory that sent the 20-6 Purgolders to the state tournament for the first time in 25 years.
“When they had that little (10-0) run on us in the third quarter, we were absolutely calm,” Deang said. “We were patient … (and) we believed in each other.”
• • •
And now, people all over the East Side — and others across the area — have Purgolders fever.
“The school has just been buzzing,” Miota said. “The first morning that tickets went on sale, we sold more than 1,000 right away.
“The guys are starting to understand, from all the outreach around the community and the buzz, how big a thing this is for everyone.”
And instead of playing three games in five days, East has six days to prepare for a Goliath of a foe. At 8:15 p.m. Friday, it will take on 26-0 Germantown, the three-time defending Division 1 state champion.
After all the Purgolders made it through last week, intimidation is the furthest thing from their minds.
“We know Germantown has a good program and a good team. But we can’t look at ’em like that,” Burks said. “They’re just another program that we’re up against. It all starts on the defensive end, and then listening to Coach and taking care of all the little things.”
Chester has Tony Robinson’s name written on his basketball shoes and will think of him frequently during the game.
“I’m happy. I’m happy because I know Tony’s happy,” Chester told WISC-TV.
“I know if Tony was here, he’d be happy,” Burks said. “I know he’s looking down on us, and we’re making him proud.”