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Benjy Bluman, Group that Saved his Life Honored; Flames Outlast Spartans in Thriller

It was a night and basketball game like any other, until it shockingly wasn’t.

On Dec. 28, just 2 minutes, 52 seconds into the first quarter of the Five Guys Tournament finals between Williamsville East and Williamsville North, tragedy struck when 74-year-old referee Benjy Bluman suddenly collapsed onto the court, and appeared lifeless.

“I was watching my son, he’s a senior, play the game against East and there was a lot of commotion, and when I looked over, I just saw Benjy. I didn’t know it was Benjy at the time, but I just saw the referee had fallen over,” said Takesha Leonard, a family nurse practitioner who was one of the first people to reach Bluman. “I ran over, assessed the situation, tried to see what was going on, and saw that Benjy was pulseless and not breathing.”

After Leonard and a group of other medical professionals got to Bluman, they began performing CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation which helped him regain consciousness. The final shock of three from a defibrillator thankfully regained Bluman’s pulse.

“Every breathe that you take, you’re just giving it all you have,” Leonard said. “It wasn’t looking good, and then he opened his eyes. It’s a miracle, there’s no other word for it.”

On Wednesday night, prior to the resumption of that same game, Williamsville North head coach Chuck Swierski led a touching ceremony that honored Bluman, who was greeted with a standing ovation from those in attendance at Williamsville North High School, and the six individuals who assisted in saving his life.

“I’m saying that [the crowd] came out to support the people that saved my life,” Bluman said. “I believe that tonight isn’t about me … its for the people, the guys and the girls, the doctors, the nurses, the people that I didn’t even know for what they did to go out of their comfort zone, go out of what they normally do when watching a basketball game, to keep me here.”

Among those honored were Leonard, Dr. Jeffrey Neu, Dr. Ray Ogra, Heidi Neu, Keith Hopkins, and Paula Browning. All six, among others, did their part, and by the time paramedics arrived on the scene, Bluman miraculously had a pulse after going into cardiac arrest.

“Dr. Neu and I have worked together for many, many years, really since the beginning parts of our careers … I’d say that this actually rises to the top of one of the most affected circumstances for us,” Dr. Ogra said. “To see that he was still able to come back, especially come back like this where we’re able to have a conversation and we’re able to laugh and actually get to know him … it’s a blessing. It felt like a miracle.”

“Benjy is such a great guy, and just a pillar in the community and in the basketball community especially,” Swierski said. “It was my honor to be able to say words, and hopefully I did the entire event justice.”

As for Bluman, he confirmed he would not be refereeing anymore basketball games this season, but did not rule out returning to refereeing eventually, but that it would depend on advice from his doctors.

“They’ve told me to go to the gym and start doing what I normally did and just go on with my life,” he said.

Following the touching ceremony, there was still three and three-fourths of a basketball game left to be played, as the matchup between the Flames and Spartans resumed with East leading 9-5 with 5:08 to play in the first.

But, as time would tell, the crosstown rivalry belonged to the Flames, as they were crowned champions of the Five Guys Tournament with a 66-63 win in overtime over Will North.

“They had their backs against the wall a couple times tonight, and guys would make plays,” Will East coach R.J. Killinger said. “We’re finding a way to win these close games against quality opponents.”

A back-and-fourth affair, with neither side jumping out to a lead larger than six points all night, culminated in a thrilling sequence over the final three minutes, where East’s Cal Shifflet, who led all scorers with 32 points, and North’s Breht Swiech traded 3-pointers to tie the game 56-56 with just over two minutes to play.

After East’s Joe Mack tied the game with a layup with eight seconds left, North was stonewalled in their attempt to win it on the other end, and fittingly, the game made up for its lack of 2:52 at the start with four minutes at the end in overtime.

Thanks to a 7-1 run to open the extra stanza, however, East never trailed in overtime, and despite a valiant late comeback attempt from the Spartans, it was too little, too late.

“Our team relies heavy on team basketball, we don’t want just one player making all the shots,” Shifflet said. “Joe [Mack], Yusuf [Hashmi], they just made their shots when they had to.”

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