They met a little over 12 years ago, when their boys, both just 7 years old at the time, were playing basketball at the Wakeman Boys & Girls Club.

Helen Smaldone was watching her son, Chris, play against Mirella Brancato's son, Giacomo. The game went back and forth from start to finish.

It was close. It was intense.

"They were on opposing teams and it was the most competitive game and Chris's team lost by one point to Giacomo's team," Helen Smaldone said. "And ever since that, Chris and Giacomo have been like brothers."

Both Chris and Giacomo are juniors now on the Fairfield Warde High School squad. They have come up the ranks together, freshmen, junior varsity and now, the varsity. Together, the mission this season was to lead the Mustangs into the state tournament, an important goal considering the team won just two games last season.

But for the time being, winning games and qualifying for postseason play are the last things on anyone's mind. Especially Brancato's.

Because Giacomo Brancato was recently diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the body's auto-immune system. Brancato had been suffering from a sore throat and at first, doctors felt it was a severe case of tonsillitis.

It wasn't.

And when Mirella called Helen to tell her friend the news, it hit Smaldone -- and the entire town -- like a ton of bricks.

"We were all dumbfounded. My children were all very affected because we're so close to the family and we're all trying to wrap our heads around it," Smaldone said. "I know he's going to be all right. I just know it."

If prayer could cure cancer, Brancato already would be healed. On a cold Tuesday night in archrival Fairfield Ludlowe's gym, a standing-room-only crowd chanted and cheered for Brancato as the Falcons held off the spirited Mustangs 70-64.

Hundreds of T-shirts with Brancato's basketball (11) and baseball (23) numbers on the back and the words "undefeatable" on the front were sold. Both Warde's boys and girls teams wore green socks to honor Brancato's Italian heritage. The Ludlowe boys donned those special T-shirts in tribute to not just a competitor, but a friend.

Over the past couple of days, Smaldone's phone has been ringing off the hook. People that she hasn't spoken to in years are calling. People she hasn't spoken to in years are mailing checks to the American Cancer Society in Brancato's name.

"The way everyone is showing their support is incredible," Warde head coach Ryan Swaller said. "A lot of the other coaches in the league (FCIAC) have called me, they've reached out to our (athletic director Seth Fry) offering prayers and support. It just shows that we're always going to be there for each other when the situation is away from basketball. To see these teams here and this town come together ... it's special."

Seeing that packed gym. Hearing those cheers for Brancato throughout the game, it took some serious control for Smaldone to fight back the tears. But she did, with the help of Mirella Brancato, who stood by her side for a while as they took turns patting each other on the arm.

"He's very strong and very positive," Mirella Brancato said. "He's doing well. He's going to be starting treatment (chemotherapy) soon, and we know that he's going to be all right."

With that, video camera in hand, she walked away to try and find a good spot to film her son as he came onto the court with his teammates.

"I know Mirella has such a strong faith, the power of prayer can work wonders," Smaldone said.

Giacomo Brancato, who Swaller said expected to play, started and scored 9 points in the game. But for the coach, the whirlwind that's been the past few days still hasn't quite sunk in.

"As time goes on, I know it's going to hit home more, and I know this is going to bring us closer together," Swaller said. "As player-coach, as teammates, this is something that we're going to be there for him all the way until he's back fully healthy. He's a fighter, I call him my warrior. He loves to attack. He's not going to let anything change his way."

"It puts a lot of things in perspective, and that hit home with my girls," Mustangs girls basketball coach Dave Danko said. "We know he's going to beat it, and we know he's a battler and a competitor, but my kids learned a lesson about how valuable things are and what obstacles that people have to overcome at such a young age."

"You look at someone like him who's in such great shape, he works so hard and in the prime of his life, that makes it difficult to believe," Fry said. "That's the great thing. People are coming together to support him and his family through what has to be an impossible time. He's handling it as well as can be expected. It's tough. His brother's a freshman on the team, and it's difficult for him, too, but everyone is rallying around him and supporting him and I know that the family appreciates that. We're going to be there for him."

With 33 seconds left, Swaller took Brancato out of the game as the entire gym stood and applauded.

This time, Smaldone let a few of the tears come. She believes that Giacomo is going to beat this. Thanks to strength, support and the power of prayer.

celsberry@ctpost.com http://Twitter@elsctpost.