LAWRENCE, Mass. -- Hector Paniagua strode into the Lawrence High gymnasium Thursday afternoon, slowly pumping the wheels on his wheelchair as he quietly strolled up and took a place behind a row of chairs laid out along the scorer's table.
The 23-year-old commuter student at Merrimack College is shy on his best day, but can only conceal his tight face underneath a black hoody and gray fitted Red Sox cap for so long before the usual array of daps and claps, what's-up's and how-you-been's make their way over.
Before long, the Lancers' affable assistant Jose Rodriguez -- nicknamed "Lego" around these parts -- has made his way over with suggestions on what to wear for tomorrow night's Division 1 North final at the TD Garden, against heavily-favored St. John's Prep.
"How you gonna come tomorrow?" Rodriguez playfully prodded Paniagua. "Wear a suit. Come in a Gucci suit, man."
The two exchanged laughter as Rodriguez continues, his voice trailing off, "Gucci suit, man. Just be like, 'Hey Coach'..."
Paniagua, for the unfamiliar, received a call from head coach Paul Neal following Wednesday night's win over Lynn English, with a special invitation: come be a special assistant on the bench at the Garden, site of his last game as a Lancer (in a Division 1 Eastern Mass Final loss to Newton North) before he was tragically shot and paralyzed early Easter morning 2005. Neal told ESPNBoston.com following the game that "it's been a personal goal to try and get back [to the Garden], and then invite him to be the assistant coach at the last place he ever played basketball, and probably ever will."
The former Lancers great, a 2005 Boston Globe All-Scholastic who was committed to Merrimack for basketball at the time of his accident, accepted Neal's invitation. At yesterday's practice, he remained upbeat in spite of life being turned upside down that fateful night.
Asked about his emotions being in the gym and watching the old coach lead a new group of young men, as they prepared for their first appearance in the Garden since that 2005 season, Paniagua was his usually reserved, shy self.
"I'm used to being in the old gym, so it hasn't really hit me yet," he smiled.
When would it hit?
"Probably tomorrow when I get to the Garden," he laughed sheepishly.
Later, he pulled aside senior Yadoris Arias -- the younger brother of one of Paniagua's closest friends, William Rodriguez, and an eighth-grader at the time of the tragedy ("Emotional, we went to see him at the hospital...it was very sad") -- and offered some words of encouragement.
And as usual, he kept it simple with Arias -- "Just pretend like it's at the YMCA, five on five with the rest of the team, and go out and play. Don't play for the crowd, play for yourself," he told him -- and in a way, simplicity what always makes his words that much stronger when he pays a visit during the year.
Nearly a half-hour after his arrival, Paniagua pointed to the court and quickly strolled to the exit signs, slipping away almost as anonymously as he had arrived. And then as fate would have it, Paniagua had last-second thoughts about the invitation and opted instead to sit in the stands as the Lancers took an 87-73 loss to the Eagles before an ecstatic crowd that filled the entire lower bowl of the Garden.
"I looked up and saw him, but he's always been like that. Shy kid," Neal said. "I've driven with him two hours, just me and him alone, and probably exchanged two words. He won't talk unless he has to. That's Hector.
"I was thinking it would be an opportunity to come down, but he's a low-key kid. I hope in the back of his mind it meant something to him, and I think it did."
At various times over the last few days, Neal has drawn comparisons between Paniagua and the Lancers' waterbug senior point guard, Jaylen Alicea, the breakout star of this tournament. Alicea once again lit up the stat sheet last night, going off for 30 to give him his fourth 30-point performance in five playoff games this postseason.
For him, it seems, the name is enough.
"He made us believe," Alicea said following the loss. "There's not a lot of kids that are ever gonna play on this court. I'm down that we lost, my dreams shattered before my eyes, but I'm happy of the accomplishments we got, and where I got my team.
"We always want to do it for him, because we know it means a lot to him. This was the last court he played on, and he talks a lot about this, he tells us about this. We want to win for him."