On Feb. 26, the Lower Richland Diamond Hornets were pursuing a dream at Florence Civic Center, facing Hartsville in the Class 3A Lower State final.
Late in the game, senior point guard Eric Eaves Jr. was clipped out of the air and fell on his head.
In that moment, Deborah Eaves was forced to confront the biggest fear of every athlete’s mother — catastrophic injury.
After seeing her youngest child bleeding from the back of his head, Deborah fainted on the court.
Eric Eaves leaves the court but returns when called for by his mother.
The pair became the focus of an arena full of prayers and well-wishes.
After several minutes and attention from a crew of medics, the Eaves exited to a standing ovation.
Two weeks later, the staples were removed from Eric’s wound, and despite their disappointment over Lower Richland’s loss, the mother and son are full of gratitude.
It could have been so much worse.
There may be no bond stronger than the one shared between Eric and his mother, Deborah.
When Eric was 10 years old, his father went to sleep and did not wake up. He did not have uncles, brothers or a grandfather. He had three older sisters, and he had his mother.
And he had basketball.
He had begun playing at 7 years old, when one of his sisters was playing in middle school.
“He would play with boys and girls that were twice his age and so much bigger than him,” Deborah said. “He’d play in the rain, in the snow. From the time he was young, EJ only ever wanted to play for Lower Richland.
“It’s done my heart all the joy in the world to see him doing what he loves,” she said.
But, of course, she worries.
In the Diamond Hornets’ third-round game, Eric took a hard knock to the head. Deborah had doctors check to be sure he did not have a concussion before getting him cleared to play in the Saturday semifinal.
It would be one of the biggest games of his life.
“He wanted to win a championship so bad, and I just hoped and prayed that that would happen for him. I kept saying, ‘EJ, please be careful,’ but he has to give 100 percent, that’s what I’ve always taught him, and that’s what he was doing,” Deborah said.
It was the third consecutive semifinal appearance for the Diamond Hornets, who have not been to the state finals since 2004. Eric and his fellow seniors were determined to break through this time.
“We got tired of getting to the game before the championship and it ending there,” he said.
Normally a playful kid, Eric got more serious as the season drew to a close.
“We were working all season, planning for a win, and my attitude changed by the end of the season,” he said. Against Hartsville, Eric planned to play his best game.
“It was big because they beat us twice (in previous years) by big numbers, and we knew it was going to be hard,” Eric said. “I thought I was going to go out there and play my game but it didn’t work out that way.”
Instead, his game ended suddenly when a Hartsville player hit him in the legs midleap as he picked off a pass.
“It was a scary experience in the air, and when I first came down, I blacked out for a minute. I came to and they were still playing,” Eric said. “I tried to get back up.”
He was not surprised to see his mom beside him.
Deborah Eaves is hardly faint of heart. A nursing technician for the Department of Mental Health, she is accustomed to being a rock.
“I’ve lost my husband, my mother and mother-in-law, and I was there for all of them,” she said, her voice clear and strong. “But that’s my son.”
It was a nightmare something inside her refused to attend.
“I just don’t think I could face it, at that moment, that he could be seriously hurt, that he might not be OK, that he might not be OK again for a long time,” she said.
For the first time in her life, Deborah fainted.
The arena went quiet, save for the whispering of prayers and the echoed conversation of the medics on the court.
Eric did not know what had happened, but seeing his mother lying on the court, he had only one hope.
Mom had to be all right.
After she was revived, Eric trailed Deborah on her gurney to a waiting ambulance, while crews prepared the court for the final minutes of the last game of his high school basketball career.
“When I was walking out, it was a bad feeling, that I wasn’t going to be able to help my team try to win, that I missed those last minutes, but I was only worried about my mom,” Eric said.
Eric rode with his mother in the ambulance, the pain of his bandaged head wound not registering. She could not talk, but she could see that he was OK, and he could see that she was getting better.
“I appreciate so much, everything, all the care and concern that we’ve gotten,” Deborah said. “God answers prayers, and it could have been worse. But so many people have been so nice and so caring. To see that has done my heart glad.”
“When we were in the hospital, a nurse said to me, ‘I don’t know who your son is, but they must really like him.’ She said the waiting room was overflowing with people asking about him,” Deborah said.
More than anything he has done on the basketball court, the man that Eric is becoming is Deborah’s greatest source of pride.
“It just gives me joy to know that he is the kind of man he is,” she said.
“I give him a lot of credit, because he could have gone such a different way after we lost his dad,” Deborah said. “He’s been a complete joy, a really good son.”
Despite her joy over his quick recovery, Deborah was sad that Eric’s big game ended the way it did.
“I had to tell him I’m sorry, because I think I scared him more than he scared me,” Deborah said.
No apologies necessary, Eric said.
“She’s my mom, she cares so much about me and she has never seen me fall like that. I know she was really scared,” he said.