Memorable night for Leone, Lyndhurst’s version of ‘Rudy’

A.J. Leone was a manager for the Lyndhurst High School state champion football team in 2019, doing a little bit of anything and everything for the Golden Bears and head coach Rich Tuero. Serving predominately off the field, Leone was a valuable member to the Golden Bears’ squad, handing out water and handling equipment whenever a member of the gridiron needed assistance.

But make no bones about it. Leone’s favorite sport is basketball.

So much so that last year as a junior, Leone, who has autism, tried out for the Lyndhurst varsity squad.

“After I told him that he did not make the team, he was upset,” said Lyndhurst head boys’ basketball coach Tom McGuire. “A.J. was devastated.”

Leone admitted that getting cut from the basketball team was the worst thing that could have ever happened to him.

“It kind of sucked,” Leone said.

But being the big-hearted guy that he was, McGuire offered Leone a position with his team that Leone simply couldn’t refuse – namely a spot with the team as a team manager.

“It was very cool when he (McGuire) told me that he still wanted me to be the manager and be with the team still,” Leone said. “I was super psyched for it.”

“A lot of kids on the team talked about A.J., telling me how smart he is and how helpful he could be,” McGuire said. “Everyone in school knows who A.J. is. He was just happy to be a part of the team. It gave him the chance to be around the game that he loves. And he loves basketball. He knows all about the game and watches it all the time.”

As the team manager, Leone handles a variety of roles. He was asked to make sure that all the basketballs are inflated with the right amount of air. He makes sure that everything is set up and made ready for practices, then game days.

“He’s a huge help,” McGuire said. “He is helpful to everyone.”

So before his senior season began, his Golden Bear teammates had a thought in mind.

“We had a players’ meeting,” said senior basketball captain Justin Sanchez, “And we thought that if we had the chance, we could pay him back for all he did for us by getting him a chance to play in a game.”

“I discussed it with my seniors last year,” McGuire said. “So the idea has been in play basically since last year. That shows the type of kids we have. They said something about ‘Rudy,’ and seriously that’s how it made me feel.”

Last week, with the season winding down to the precious few games, McGuire knew that there was going to be a small window in case the Golden Bears wanted to sneak Leone into a game.

Last Wednesday, when the Golden Bears slated to face Park Ridge in the home finale, McGuire surprised Leone as he walked into the team’s locker room – presenting Leone with a Lyndhurst Golden Bears home jersey, uniform No. 21.

“I was speechless,” Leone said. “I was surprised and super happy.”

“It was really nice,” McGuire said. “When he picked up the jersey, you should have seen his face. He was amazing. He’s the kind of kid who really makes you smile. He really was astonished. Until he got the jersey, he really didn’t think he would actually get the chance to play. But once he got the jersey, it was game on.”

McGuire almost did the unthinkable.

“The Park Ridge coach (Adam Kaplan) was very helpful in this,” McGuire said. “He even suggested that I start him in the game, but I thought that might be difficult.”

And Leone didn’t flinch.

“I was super happy that I was finally getting the chance to play,” Leone said. “At first, I was nervous, but while I was sitting on the bench, but then I was ready to go. I was focused. I was ready to score.”

With a little more than a minute left in what had become a one-sided affair and with the Golden Bears holding a comfortable lead, McGuire looked down his bench and spotted No. 21. McGuire called for Leone to enter the game, much to delight of the crowd, who was anticipating Leone’s opportunity.

“He said all along that if he got the opportunity, that he would be ready,” Sanchez said. “He’s in the gym all the time practicing his shot. I see him shooting the ball well. He wanted to get that feeling to play.”

With the crowd in a frenzy, the Golden Bears all worked to get Leone the chance to make a bucket.

Park Ridge helped with the situation, as the Owls and the Bears watched Leone fire his first shot. He missed. His teammate ran down the rebound. The clock kept ticking. Leone got another shot. He missed that one. Another rebound from Sebastian Ribaniera, who snared four rebounds in like 40 seconds. Another miss.

Tick, tick…Leone got another shot and misfired on that one as well. Park Ridge snared the rebound this time and fired it back to Leone.

“I just had to get to a certain spot,” Leone said.

“When he dribbled the ball to the top of the key, there was no doubt it was going up again,” McGuire said. “He was lining that one up.”

Finally, with four seconds remaining, Leone got one last chance from behind the top of the key.

“I knew it was going in,” Leone said. “I saw it on line toward the basket. My teammate Carson Rodriguez told me that I had to get a three [3-point shot]. In the pregame warm-ups, I was warming myself up and making that shot. I was confident I could do it.”

So were Leone’s teammates.

“We all watched the clock as it ticked toward zero,” Sanchez said. “He was practicing that shot, so I knew he could do it.”

As the ball left Leone’s hands, the last shot of the game proved to be Leone’s best. It swished through the nets as the buzzer sounded.

Leone’s teammates rushed the court to embrace him. Fans rushed on to the court. The kid who hit the big shot took two steps running back to play defense – like a good basketball player does – then stopped, realizing that the game was over, Lyndhurst won 66-37 and A.J. Leone was in the box score forever.

“My friends were all jumping up and down with me,” Leone said. “It was insane. When something insane happens, you can’t explain it.”

Nope, ranks right there with inexplicable.

So for his efforts and for obvious sentimental reasons, Leone has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

The legend will always question whether Leone’s shot was a two-pointer or a three. Leone insists that he lived up to his teammate Carson Rodriguez’s demands and was behind the circle.

“Yes, sir,” Leone said about the question of it being a 3-pointer.

Officially, it was only a two-pointer.

Still, it’s a moment that will last a lifetime.

“It was very heartwarming,” said team captain Sanchez. “It really meant a lot. To see how excited he was. A lot of times, we take so many things for granted. You don’t realize how much something means to people. It was fun to give him a try. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. We were able to do a good thing for someone who always does good things for us.”

The heartwarming story went viral on YouTube on Thursday.

“This took on like crazy throughout the school,” McGuire said. “You could see how much he’s loved by everyone. It was a really good moment. You see these kind of things happen on television. I never really thought we would be part of it.”

The story also just exploded like wildfire, spreading to the media. CBS-TV Channel 2 and ABC-TV Channel 7 Eyewitness News sent full mobile trucks and field reporters to talk to Leone and his teammates. A handful of local newspapers also called upon Leone. He became an instant celebrity.

“It’s been the most fun I had in my life,” Leone said. “It was the greatest achievement in my life.”

Leone doesn’t know what the future holds. As a special needs student, his options are a little limited.

“I would hopefully like to work in a sneaker store,” Leone said. “Sneakers are like my favorite thing.”

Besides doing interviews for a local Athlete of the Week feature. That’s another favorite.




Lyndhurst senior A.J. Leone. Photo by Jim Hague


Lyndhurst senior A.J. Leone (third from left) is pictured with some of senior teammates after his exciting 66-37 victory as the senior team manager got to play and score a basket for the Golden Bears. From left are head coach Tom McGuire, Joe Nichols, Leone, Justin Sanchez and Anthony Lembo. Photo courtesy of Linda Comppen





Learn more about the writer ...

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”