The high school basketball team manager was right where he wanted to be, in his high school gym, shooting baskets. It's the place Mike Slonina feels most comfortable, able to wash away all his troubles, focus only on the rim and fire. For years, he has toiled in silence, perfecting a jump shot that would never be seen on the varsity level because of a debilitating ankle injury suffered years earlier. None of it stopped him from pushing every ounce of his being into becoming the best basketball shooter and 18-year-old armchair coach the Boston area has seen.
Yet, for these 24 hours in particular, Slonina wasn't alone: He was surrounded in the Catholic Memorial (Mass.) School gym but 20-30 supporters at a time, there to help push him toward his goal of shooting baskets for 24 consecutive hours in a marathon one-man fundraiser for brain cancer research, which he anointed "A Shot for Life." The touching benefit effort was inspired by his mother's scare with a lesion on her brain which was thought to possibly be a cancer tumor. It has since been confirmed that she is completely cancer free.
From noon on April 9 to noon on April 10, Slonina shots baskets nonstop, pausing only for occasional medical attention and, as often as not, to talk briefly with ESPN Boston writer Brendan Hall, who documented Slonina's touching charity tribute from inception to final shot.
And, when it was all over, Slonina had accomplished something which was truly remarkable: He shot baskets for 24 consecutive hours, he raised nearly $40,000 for charity, and he hit an incredible 72.6 percent of his 8,101 shot attempts.
"I can't even [expletive] walk right now," the Watertown teen told ESPN Boston shortly after hoisting his last shot.
"I worked really hard to prepare myself for this. The rest of my body was prepared. My legs are good, my shoulders, I worked really hard. But, my wrist... starting in hour four, I could barely flick it. I mean, that was all heart, to keep flicking it."
He also refused to stop for anything, despite that wrist malady and any lingering issues with his left ankle, which was left with permanent nerve damage after a freak broken ankle suffered in only the second game of his middle school basketball career.
That injury kept Slonina from playing high school basketball, but it couldn't keep him from being involved in it. For four years he was Catholic Memorial's team manager, and last summer he even ran the school's summer league team, a task that included coaching and analyzing his peers and scouting future opponents.
His impeccable hoops insight is so valued by his senior season that the Catholic Memorial coaches considered him more a part of the staff than the team's manager.
"You could see what a junkie he is," Catholic Memorial coach Dennis Tobin told ESPN Boston. "[At CM] it progressed to the point where he was like an assistant coach. At halftime he hands me stats, he's not afraid to say, 'Maybe we should do this.'"
For 24 hours, all he could do was keep his focus on a singular goal: Surviving the ultimate basketball marathon. He did it thanks to incredible personal fortitude and a core of friends and classmates who volunteered to provide everything from continuous rebounding service to real-time updating stat analysis, at a level that would make even a longtime team manager proud.
And by the time his last shot hit the net, Slonina had made plenty of people proud, not least of all Boston Mayor Tom Menino (who paid him a visit early in the fundraiser), his mother and Slonina himself.
"I let a lot of frustration go with that final shot in particular," [Slonina] said. "That was a great moment in my life."
So where does it go from here? Slonina says he's going to take a month "or three" to recover, and then move on to another adventure. What? He's not sure yet.
"I mean, I don't think I'll do this again," he said with a laugh. "I don't know why anyone would put themselves through this twice. But I want to turn 'A Shot For Life' into something national. I think other kids across the country will take this challenge. I'm a very competitive person, and there are kids like me out there that would want to do this, that would want to prove something. And I feel like I proved something today."