The impact that senior Antonio Siegel has had on the Logan High School boys basketball program becomes crystal clear the second his name is mentioned around coach Andy Fernholz.
In this particular instance, the Rangers had just been defeated by Onalaska at the Logan fieldhouse.
Fernholz wasn’t happy with the outcome or the performance of his team, and the game was the last thing he wanted to discuss as he answered questions about it.
“I also wanted to talk to you about Antonio Siegel,” I said after the final query about the loss.
The disappointment of what had just happened on the floor melted away. Instantly.
“It was a no-brainer to have Antonio be part of this,” Fernholz said with a smile. “He is a solid basketball player, and people who have seen him play can see that.”
Antonio isn’t Logan’s leading scorer or rebounder. He doesn’t start or even play in every game.
But basketball is life for Antonio, who is autistic and in his second season with Logan’s varsity team.
The Special Olympics program has given him exposure to a number of other sports — softball, flag football, bowling among them — but none have touched him like basketball.
“Antonio lives for basketball and has for as long as we can remember,” said Antonio’s dad, John. “He has had exposure to a lot of other sports, but it always goes back to basketball. Everything revolves around basketball.”
Antonio is a regular at the Boys and Girls Club of La Crosse. After attending school at Logan for half of the day, that becomes his home until the evening hours. It’s where he eats lunch and and shoots and shoots some more, sometimes until it closes at 8 p.m.
Antonio is comfortable at the Boys and Girls Club and was at the La Crosse YMCA before that, and his friends join him there for games whenever they can.
“I like basketball and hanging out with my friends,” Antonio said while wearing a LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers jersey during a break from a basketball game with friends on Friday. “I like to watch basketball, too. Sometimes we watch NBA games.”
John, an investigative sergeant for the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department, didn’t know that would get Antonio — who stands 6-foot-3 and wears a size 15 or 16 shoe, depending on the brand — the chance to play varsity basketball, though.
Antonio was adopted by John and his wife Regina — a former director of pupil services for the La Crosse School District and current assistant vice president at Trust Point — when he was just over a year old.
John said they knew Antonio would have special needs and embraced the situation. He also said having an older brother like CJ and younger sister like 16-year-old Jasmine have helped balance Antonio’s life.
Fernholz used to be a neighbor to the Siegels and knew Antonio before he got to high school. He saw the good days and bad days and knew Antonio well by the time he got to Logan.
CJ, who plays football at the University of North Dakota, was a star in football, basketball and track and field. It only made sense for Antonio to want to play basketball with his brother, who was only a year ahead of him in school.
Antonio spent his sophomore season on the bench and wearing a practice jersey before Fernholz came up with a new role for him as a junior.
“We really didn’t know that would happen,” John said. “Before last season, (Fernholz) said, ‘Hey, let’s put him on the varsity roster, and I will get him in games when I can. That was awesome. Antonio got into a handful of games.”
Antonio has appreciated the opportunity.
“It was really good because I got to play with my brother,” Antonio said. “He was a senior, and I was a junior, and it was fun.”
Antonio, who practices with different levels within the program depending on the day, also understands his role with the team and that he won’t play in every game. That isn’t always easy to accept, but he does and knows Fernholz will put him on the floor in the right situations. Antonio made a 3-pointer late in Logan’s loss at Central on Tuesday.
“He will give me the look when he thinks it’s time to get in the game,” Fernholz said. “He has that look when he thinks the time is right.”
Antonio said he just gets the attention of his coach and smiles.
He went to different lengths when he teamed up to play with CJ in AAU basketball. The two played for the Wisconsin Playmakers and Brad King, who coaches at Caledonia High School.
King said Antonio’s role as a teammate was a definite asset to the team, and that the encouragement he provided in situations — both good and bad — was essential for the program.
But Antonio also wanted to play.
“There was a time when I was standing there coaching, and he was sitting on the bench,” King said. “I felt a tap, and he had our clipboard. He showed it to me, and he had written ‘Let’s put Antonio in.’
“We used him when we could, and when we put him out there, we would try to get him a shot.”
King would sometimes be given potential starting lineups before games.
“We could be getting ready for a semifinal game or championship game at a huge tournament, and he would give me a piece of paper with what he thought our starting lineup should be,” King said. “He was always on there with four other guys.”
Antonio’s positive basketball experience has also brought with it extreme fanhood to James. Antonio has accepted Michael Jordan as a superstar, too, but no one can touch James in his mind.
“Don’t ever say anything bad about LeBron,” John said. “(Antonio) will become physically upset because he likes him so much.
“He always has. He has the jerseys from when LeBron was with the Cavaliers the first time, to the (Miami) Heat to the Cavaliers the second time and now the Lakers.
“He loves them.”
Just like he loves the sport of basketball.