Scott Hamilton traded shots recently on a Cambridge basketball court with Malik Gayot, a lanky 16-year-old wearing a backwards baseball cap. Hamilton is 40 years older than Gayot, but he held his own on the court.

Eight years ago, Hamilton started volunteering with the Big Brothers program and began visiting Gayot for lunch and recess. He saw Gayot's challenges in the classroom and helped get him into a program that was more at his speed. And they started meeting up outside of school.

Gayot grew up without a father in the picture. These days, he and Hamilton do all kinds of things together – camping, canoeing, amusement parks. “He just got me out of my comfort zone of trying new things and meeting new people,” said Gayot.

“Being a big is really being a friend,” said Hamilton. That means really listening, and sometimes having conversations that aren’t shared with Gayot’s mom. “Because he has to find that it’s a safe and trusting relationship,” he said.

Hamilton and Gayot are one of about 2,000 Big Brother matches in Massachusetts. But Hamilton points out there’s a waiting list of 1,500 kids in the state who would like a Big Brother. “It’s really about having willing adults come forward,” Hamilton said.

On the basketball court, they alternated taking shots, and Hamilton looked pretty good, considering he was doing something that doesn’t come naturally – shooting with his left hand.

He first noticed something was wrong with his right hand on a cold wet day nearly two years ago when he was camping with friends. “And as I was trying to zipper the fly on the tent, I was noticing I was having difficulty between my index finger and my thumb and I couldn’t hold the zipper,” he said.

After doctors’ visits, tests, and second opinions, the diagnosis was clear. Hamilton had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The news was devastating.

He started letting his family and his friends know. And then it came time to tell Gayot.

“So we sat down in the kitchen, and I explained to him that unfortunately, what would happen was that my muscles would stop working in various parts of my body, and that over time I would be bound to a wheelchair, and that many of the activities we had done in the past and were doing at that time would become impossible for me,” he said.

As he talked, the only visible indication of the disease is a slight twitch in his right arm. He told Gayot that he would die from the disease, likely in two to five years. Hamilton said he could see the news really hit Gayot hard. “The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘well, who’s going to be there to listen to me?’”

“When he first told me that he had ALS, like, I was just like shocked and I was just, like, hurt," said Gayot. "Because someone that good should be …” Gayot struggled for a moment to find the right way to say it. “Like, live on,” he said.

It’s hard, he said, knowing what’s going to happen to his friend. “Sometimes I just, like, cry in my room because of that.”

Malik Gayot (right) and Scott Hamilton play basketball in Cambridge.
Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

Hamilton and Gayot had been talking about taking a road trip at some point.  "I said, ‘we’re going to have a road trip.'" Hamilton recalled. "It’s going to be sooner rather than later. I’ll make sure that it happens.’”

Gayot picked New York City. And Hamilton said the two had a fabulous weekend there. That’s pretty much how Hamilton is approaching everything these days. He’s not waiting to do anything, he said. 

“I am going to try to find a way to do as much as possible, and balance that with spending time with Malik, my kids, my family, and all of my friends that share a lot of passions with me,” Hamilton said.

Every year, Big Brothers honors one person in each state for the impact they’ve had on a child’s life. This year, the Massachusetts group has chosen Hamilton as their so called “big of the year.” And he’s in the running for the national title, which will be announced later this month. But for now, Hamilton said he’s just focused on making the most of each day he has, and staying active in Gayot’s life for as long as he can. 

(Disclosure: Reporter Craig LeMoult is also a Big Brother)