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Dan Zalewski, a helping hand for Trojans' basketball team

March 23, 2010

Based on the outpouring of love shown for Wauwatosa West boys basketball coach Mike Landisch this winter in his battle with kidney cancer, there are not any East-West boundaries when it comes to caring.

The Dan Zalewski story is another example of Tosa East and Tosa West coming together, this time to make a young man feel part of something this winter.

If you attended Tosa West basketball home games this year, you probably noticed a familiar face under the basket during warm-ups, in the huddle during timeouts and helping clean up the empty Gatorade cups after the game.

It's hard to miss Mike Sylvester - or "Sly," as his friend's call him - as he stands well over 6-feet-2 inches and weights about 250 pounds. Sly is a Tosa East guy, who coaches in the Jr. Raiders basketball program. So why was he hanging out at the Trojans' home games this season?

The reason for his attendance was the young man by his side, his nephew Dan Zalewski, a freshman at Tosa West. Danny has Mowat-Wilson Syndrome and has trouble communicating.

"He has absolutely phenomenal parents," Sylvester said about George and Kathy Zalewski. 's wife, Mary, is George's sister. "One might take a look at Danny and say he is the most unlucky kid in the world based on his additional needs.

"But I look at Danny, I look at his parents and I look at his support network and say: 'This kid might the luckiest kid in the world, because of where he could be with all the stuff going on in today's society, the neglect and everything like that. But Danny's in a loving home, with two extremely loving, caring and extremely intelligent parents that care for his well-being."

Coach, team welcoming

George and Kathy wanted Danny to get involved with something at the high school level, something where he can be connected to the school. So they came to Sylvester because Danny has a special connection with his Uncle Mike.

So Sylvester reached out to Mike Landisch, who has worked with students with special needs in the past, to see how Danny could get involved with the program without interfering with student manager Alou, one of Landisch's students at Eisenhower.

"Mike Landisch has the biggest heart in the world," Sylvester said. "The first thing he always talks about is life is bigger than basketball. Mike was a special-needs instructor in his day. …

"Danny's parents were always concerned that the team should come first," Sylvester said. "They said: 'We don't want to get in the way of anybody. We don't want to be a sideshow.' So I sat down with coach Landisch and we had a very candid conversation. I expressed all these issues, and he said 'Mike, I think we can make this thing work.' "

Landisch went to his team, explained the situation and Danny was accepted by the team through unanimous vote.

Danny was excited about helping, but he needed a helper - and that's where Uncle Mike came back into the picture.

Part of the team

Before the Tosa West games, Danny stood under the Trojans' basket with Sylvester and chased down basketballs that got away from the players. He also lined up on the basketball floor with the team during the national anthem, high five the starting lineup when they were introduced and then take part in the group huddle cheer before the game.

During the games he sat with Sylvester on the bench, getting ready to help in any way during timeouts. After the games, Sylvester and Danny cleaned up the empty cups scattered around the bench.

"I ask myself, how did a guy from Tosa East end up in their (Tosa West's) locker room, on their bench, picking up their cups? It was a combination of the passion of a boy who wanted to be a part of something and the compassion of a team who accepted him and let him be a part of their team.

"In many ways when I started attending the Tosa West games, people starting telling me: 'Hey, you're on the wrong side, aren't you? Did you go to the wrong gym?' It gives me a chance to tell the story about my nephew and the Tosa West team."

Eye-opening experience

And Sylvester also learned something from his involvement.

"I've really enjoyed it," he said. "I've gotten to know the kids over there. I've gotten to know the program. I'm telling you, from a personal standpoint I've learned that you can't judge a team by its colors.

"I know there will always be an east side and a west side, but with Danny and what happened to Mike Landisch, the barrier seems to disappear and there becomes a human side."

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