James Franklin Jr. is no stranger to adversity. In many ways, it defines him.
The 18-year-old has struggled with epilepsy since he suffered a stroke at birth, when doctors predicted he wouldn’t survive for more than 24 hours. In the sixth grade, according to his mother, he had seizure so severe that it rendered him unconscious on his school’s playground. Another seizure during his sophomore year took place on the basketball court — prompting surgery to remove part of his brain.
But he returned to the court two weeks later.
Now, James is a senior at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis and starting point guard on the varsity squad. Considering what he’s endured, taunts from opposing fans typically don’t faze him. But during an away game on Friday, his mother says, some students at Center Grove High School took things too far.
A video posted by James on Twitter shows what he and many others have interpreted as a Center Grove High School student mocking his epilepsy by flailing around on the ground — as if he was having a seizure. The student started the dance while James was shooting free throws.
“He thought it was coo to act as me having a seizure smh,” James wrote in the tweet.
James’s mother, Tamieka Franklin, told The Washington Post in an interview Tuesday that she and her family were in the stands during the game. They weren’t initially sure if the dance was intended to make fun of her son.
She said things became more clear afterward. James told her that later in the game, while taking the ball out of bounds, he heard students yell out: “Have another seizure. Have a seizure for me!”
Franklin said that while watching the game she’d observed her son turn around and say something to a student — which was surprising because players are instructed not to interact with fans.
“He said he told the fans, ‘Hey, chill out, what that,’” Franklin said.
His mother’s suspicions were reaffirmed when a concerned parent approached her and James’s father about the taunting. This led to a confrontation between James’s father and the student shown dancing in the video, who Franklin says simply told him “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” before leaving.
Franklin said that James was in disbelief when he saw the video. It was originally posted to Twitter by a Center Grove basketball fan page — which is run by parents and community members — with a caption containing the hashtags #TheDistractor and #NewCenterGroveLegend. She said James recorded the video using his phone when he realized the tweet would likely be deleted.
“He couldn’t believe it, he was in shock,” Franklin said. “He said to me, 'Who does that?’”
Franklin said the incident took a toll on her son, even bringing him to tears. James was not available for an interview with The Post Tuesday because of his class schedule, however, he told ABC affiliate RTV6 that the students who made fun of him likely don’t understand what he’s been through.
A look through James’s Twitter feed shows numerous examples of him attempting to raise awareness about epilepsy.
“If they knew what it is like to not be able to drive, not to be able to go anywhere by yourself, be left alone, can’t even use the restroom without closing the door,” James said. "You wouldn’t make a mockery of such a thing.”
Cathedral High School has declined to comment on the incident. James’s coach, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, told the Indianapolis Star he doesn’t doubt the student’s intent was to make fun of James.
Center Grove Superintendent Rich Arkanoff did not respond to an email and phone call requesting comment Tuesday afternoon.
The executive communications director at Central Grove High School did not directly respond to a request for interview, but did refer The Post to a letter sent out Monday to students, faculty and staff regarding Friday’s incident, which said the student’s reported behavior “tarnished” the community’s image.
In a Saturday tweet, the school wrote that the situation “does not represent our school and our values.”
They continued this assertion in the Monday letter, which was signed by Arkanoff and other top Center Grove leaders. School officials wrote that the student shown in the video said “he was not aware” of James Franklin’s history of epilepsy, and that his dance was an attempt to distract during the free throw by flopping “like a fish.”
“The reports state that students in the crowd mocked the student-athlete about his seizures and that one student acted out a seizure on the floor. This occurred in the second quarter of the game. That student says his intention was to “flop like a fish” to distract during a free throw. He has said he was not aware of the student-athletes condition until after the game when he was approached by the athlete’s father. He apologized to the father at that time. The administrators monitoring our students did not hear any references to seizures. However, the student-athlete has said he heard those comments and believed the flopping on the floor was mocking him. We take all allegations seriously and are continuing to investigate who may have made those comments.”
Center Grove High School administrators
“As you know, children don’t always understand the potential perceptions and implications of their actions,” the letter reads. “As parents and educators, we can view these kinds of situations as opportunities to teach our students how to show respect for others and consider the consequences of their actions at all times."
Tameika Franklin said she and her family aren’t buying the student’s excuse. When the student apologized to James’s father after the game, she said, he did not say anything about the taunt being related to “flopping like a fish.”
“Nobody believes it,” Franklin said.
In an interview with Indianapolis-based WTHR published Monday, the Center Grove student in the video, who identified himself as senior Fred Lyons, called the incident an unfortunate coincidence and rejected any accusations that he was mocking James.
He said his actions were part of a “fish out of water” routine as he worked desperately and enthusiastically to distract the point guard.
“I just wanted people to know that I really didn’t have any ill will intentions,” Lyons told the NBC affiliate. “I was there to have fun at the game and to have other people have fun. I’m just really sorry that it went this way.”
He added, “I had no idea he had epilepsy until after the game when I was notified, and I did my best to apologize.”
Lyons said in the interview that he successfully taunted another Cathedral student moments before tried to distract James. He accomplished this by taking off his shirt and displaying his chest — which featured a large photo of that student’s mother. That distraction caused the student to miss two free throws.
This admission, however, made Franklin skeptical of Lyons’s claims that he didn’t know who James was until after the game. If Lyons did enough research to know about another player’s mother, she wondered, what would have kept him from seeing the various news articles detailing her son’s epilepsy?
Cathedral and Center Grove arranged for Lyons and James Franklin to meet in person and hash things out, but Tamieka Franklin says her son was not interested. Lyons told WTHR that he intended to apologize in person at the meeting. He said the incident has caused others to attack him on social media.
“It makes me upset because they don’t know who I am,” said Lyons. “I don’t know who they are either. I can’t be mad at them for being mad at me.”
Franklin says James aspires to play basketball in college, though offers from schools have slowed since his brain surgery. The outpouring of support he’s received since Friday’s incident, however, has demonstrated just how many people are behind him.
“That’s his dream, that’s his passion,” his mother said. “He just wants to play.”
James’s team lost Friday’s game 63-60, his mother says. But despite Lyons’s attempts to distract him, James knocked down the two free throws.