Category: Human Interest- Olympics
The Champaign Flyers:
Chapter 5: Early Season
Jeff: After a month of practices, both teams had improved greatly and looked ready for some competition. In this chapter, we will describe our first games and some special events which took place during the early part of the season. These special events increased the unity of the teams and gave the coaches opportunities to see different aspects of the players' personalities.
Leaf Raking--November 14, 1987
Alice: Like many Special Olympics teams, the Champaign Flyers had to work within a limited budget. Even though we were lucky enough to have the use of the Champaign Park District's facilities for practices and games, we still had to pay tournament entry fees, transportation costs, and hotel costs for the tournament in Paducah, KY. I felt that it was important to have the players involved in raising the money to cover some of these costs because their participation in Special Olympics was free. Because the season began in early Fall when all of the leaves were falling from the trees, we decided to raise money by raking leaves.
Through paper advertisements left in mailboxes (which we subsequently found out was illegal) and word of mouth, we scheduled a Saturday and Sunday's worth of lawns to rake. A local business donated leaf bags, the Park District lent us rakes, transportation was arranged, and each player and coach volunteered to work on either Saturday or Sunday. We were ready! In addition to raising money to cover some of the costs of the Paducah Tournament, the value of the leafraking fundraiser went far beyond the monetary benefits.
Because it was early in the season and we had several new athletes on the teams, the leafraking fundraiser gave everyone a chance to get to know each other. The process of raking and bagging leaves is not only great exercise, but it also calls for teamwork and cooperation. As coaches, we were able to see the individuals on the Champaign Flyers in a different light. For example, before the fundraiser, I knew Marvin Strader only as a moody player who had been expelled from the team during the season last year. However, as we worked together bagging leaves, I learned that Marvin had a young son. I heard about the hopes and dreams he had for himself and for his son. Along with the rest of the athletes (some of whom may have been intimidated by Marvin), I quickly found that Marvin's long arms were able to pick up entire piles of leaves. Marvin became a central part of our leafraking team and was the only player to volunteer his time during both days of the leafraking fundraiser. From that time on, Marvin was known to everybody as "Arms".
Another benefit of the fundraiser was that it introduced many members of the community to the Special Olympics athletes. A majority of the population has had little, if any, exposure to the mentally challenged members of their communities. Such lack of exposure usually tends to encourage fear and avoidance. The leafraking fundraiser gave members of the community the opportunity to get to know our team members as individuals and as valuable members of society providing an important service to the community.
Jeff: I was particularly impressed with how hard and long the players worked. Raking leaves is not a fun activity; it is tiresome and the weather was cold on that particular day. Nevertheless, the Flyers worked hard and with relatively good spirits.
Illini Practice--November 16, 1987
Alice: There comes a time in every season when motivation begins to fade and players (and coaches) begin to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Sometimes it takes a little something extra to spur on the team's spirit and drive, so I arranged for the Flyers to watch a University of Illinois Fighting Illini basketball practice. The time it took to talk with secretaries at the athletic association about practice schedules and arranging rides was well worth the effort. The Special Olympics athletes had an opportunity to see first hand the hard work and discipline which goes into making a winning team. The Flyers saw their heroes on the Fighting Illini basketball team jogging laps and running drills--just as they did during their own practices. Needless to say, this experience provided the teams with new motivation and appreciation for the work it takes to become a winning player and a winning team. The Flyers were now ready for their own games.
Flyers Orange vs. “Coaches”--December 11, 1987
Brendan: We had been working up to this day for a month. The players were anxious, and yes, so was I. We were scheduled to play "The Coaches," a squad made up of the Blue team coaches--Jeff, Joanne, Max, and Jamie--as well as four friends of mine that I knew from high school and/or from working on computers--Hari Rao, Mark Zvilius, Niraj Aagerwal, and John Sfondilias.
Earlier in the day, John and I had gone to play some one-on-one basketball together. I knew that it was not going to be a good day when John ("I haven't played in three years!") Sfondilias proceeded to beat me three straight games. We had fun, and if it helped to wear John out before he had to play against my Orange team, all the better.
First game jitters are unavoidable, so when I arrived at the gym I could see that the players was nervous and tense. Our practices had been going well. The egos of the players seemed to be pretty well under control. Arms and Greg were even periodically passing the ball to each other in practice, so my hopes were high. However, Arms brought along some bad news. A cousin of his was going to be in the audience for the game. The reason I say that this announcement was bad news is because when Arms has an audience, he puts pressure upon himself to put on a show. Being an excellent athlete and a tough inside player, he could play an outstanding game when he was relaxed and playing within himself. However, when he tried to show-off, he tended to forget about playing as a team member. I figured that having a relative in the audience would distract Marvin. Unfortunately, I was right.
I knew that when we played against "The Coaches" it would be unreasonable to expect a victory, and I let my team know that. Sure, I wanted them to play to win, but they were also well aware of the fact that they were playing against basketball coaches and players whose knowledge of the game was superior and whose patience and execution as a team would mean the downfall of most good Special Olympics teams. We had realistic goals for this game. It was only our first game and it was only an exhibition, so we wanted to concentrate primarily on employing a total team concept during the game. We wanted to spread the ball around, make smart passes, play a conservative, but aggressive zone defense, and hope for the best. I knew we had an excellent shooting team, but I did not expect much in the way of shooting accuracy on this night. The jitters would certainly get to us, so our hustle would have to make up for poor shooting. Because our players were also still getting into "game shape", I knew that I would have to shuttle players in and out often during the entire game.
Well, as it usually happens, my pregame preconceptions were wrong. The players came out shooting the ball extremely well, hitting several perimeter jump shots while also taking advantage of the coaches by pushing the ball up the court after a defensive board. Because many of the coaches had never played together before, they were slow getting back on defense. We started out hot and against most teams that would usually mean an early lead. However, as expected, against a team as intelligent as "The Coaches," our defensive shortcomings were painfully obvious. "The Coaches" tore our defense apart by perfectly executing a patient passing offense. They were getting many open jumpers and back-door cuts. Our lack of defensive preparation as well as the solid execution by our opponents caused frustration and a general defensive breakdown as the game progressed.
While I was dissatisfied, but not surprised with our defensive play, our offensive play was for the most part a pleasant surprise. The skill of our opponents caused an unusually high number of turnovers, but I knew we would not face another team of this caliber again during the season. However, I have always felt that the only way to reach your full potential is to practice against those who are much better than yourself. I knew this night would be a valuable learning experience for the team. It was indeed a learning experience for Arms.
Feeling the pressure to succeed because his cousin was in the crowd, Arms tried to force the action a little too much. He took shots that were out of his range and completely forgot about the team concept. The smart inside play of "The Coaches" was frustrating him because he usually dominated the inside during games, especially the offensive boards. He started shooting long shots, and that certainly is not his strength. As the missed shots started to accumulate, I could see the frustration begin to set in. I substituted for him and met him as he came off the court. I told him not to get frustrated, to keep his head up, and to keep playing hard. When I reminded him that this scrimmage would make him better against our normal competition, he nodded in apparent acknowledgement. After he cooled off a bit, I sent him back into the game.
Unfortunately, he must have felt that by taking him out of the game I was embarrassing him in front of his cousin. When he went back in, he was even more determined to make up for lost time and continued to play out of the realm of the team concept. I felt that I had to set an example in this first game. I brought him back to the bench shortly into the second half. He was hot under the collar and there was no way I was sending him back into an exhibition game if he was going to act in this manner. He was complaining about everything and I explained to him that he could not let things bother him so much. I told him that he knew his role on the team and that he should just go out there and do his job.
John, one of "The Coaches," had to leave before the end of the game and in a nice gesture, came over to our bench during a timeout to thank all of my team for a great effort and to praise them on their performance. He went to shake everyone's hand, and when he got to Arms, Arms refused to shake his hand. That was it for me! If you play poorly, that is one thing, but in Special Olympics basketball, as with all sports, sportsmanship should always be the most important part of the game. When Arms refused to shake John's hand, I told him that if he wanted to be that way, I did not want him on the team and demanded that he leave the court.
Now, this may sound a bit harsh, but you have to know Arms. He is a very bright guy and an excellent athlete. He lives and breathes basketball. He has determination that very few other athletes (at any level) possess. He is a great player who is very hard to defend against when he has the ball. He also understands the game, the players, the other teams, and the statistics. Basketball knowledge notwithstanding, Arms' most serious downfall is how hard he rides himself. Nobody is harder on Arms than Arms. When I say something to him, he does take it in and understands the consequences of his actions. After telling him to leave the gym, he did just that--picked up his stuff and left--which did not surprise me. As I had hoped, he came to the next practice with a new attitude. He was fired up, but in a positive manner. When he got fouled hard, he did not lose his cool. He was playing with a controlled determination. I was not too surprised at this transformation because I knew that Arms was sharp. I knew he would come through for the sake of the team.
The rest of the game against "The Coaches" went well. Sure, we committed our share of turnovers and our defense was porous at best, but we got the first game jitters out of the way. "The Coaches" played hard, and that is exactly what I had wanted. The game did not count in the season statistics and we had time to improve before our first regular season game. Everyone shook hands at the end of the game and congratulated each other on a great effort by both sides. The guys who needed conditioning--like Greg, Rodney, Scott, Richard, and Steve Jacobs--worked up a good sweat in the game conditions. Mike Kearney and Keith got more valuable game experience, and Shoes hit the boards hard. Everyone, including Arms, had worked hard. During the postgame talk with the team, I explained to the team that what went on with Arms was what had to go on--that teamwork and sportsmanship will always come first on this team. We could not have a one-man team. That is simply not what the game is about. They understood. I told them that a loss against a good team like "The Coaches" was a valuable learning experience. We all accepted it for just that.
Flyers Blue vs. Piatt/Illini Halftime Exhibition--December 12, 1987
Jeff: If you are an actor, you want to be on Broadway or in Hollywood. If you are a baseball player, you want to play at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. If you are a musician, playing at Carnegie Hall is the pinnacle of your career. But if you grew up in Champaign-Urbana and like basketball, then playing at the University of Illinois' Assembly Hall in front of a sellout crowd is the ultimate experience.
Alice: While the season had many highlights, one of its most exciting features was the Orange and Blue teams' participation in halftime exhibition games during Fighting Illini basketball games. It was a part of the season which we all looked forward to and which gave the team and the players individually a real sense of importance. We felt like real celebrities as we entered the Assembly Hall through a special entrance, waited for our escort to take us to our seats and then later wandered into the depths of the Assembly Hall to the locker rooms so the teams could change into their uniforms. And of course when we marched out onto the Assembly Hall floor and played basketball in front of a cheering crowd, there was no feeling quite like it.
The halftime exhibition games were simple to organize. I first had to set up dates for the games with the Illini Athletic Association and then find teams to be our opponents. Because many coaches enjoyed giving their teams this wonderful experience, it was never hard to find competition for this event. The athletic association had a policy stating that when a group scheduled events for an Illini Men's game halftime, they must also schedule an event for an Illini Women's game halftime as well. They did this to ensure a full schedule of halftime events for women's games, which were not as popular as the men's games. Since we had two teams, we had one team play an exhibition during an Illini Men's game and the other during an Illini Women's game. Because the Men's games were more popular, we rotated each year which of our teams would play at which halftime to be fair. During this season it was the Blue team's turn to play during the Men's game and the Orange team's turn to play during the Women's game.
The exhibition games last for six minutes and were officiated by referees which we supplied. As the teams were preparing to come out onto the court, all of the names of the players and a short explanation of Special Olympics boomed out over the public address system. I feel that at least equally important to the excitement we felt in playing these games, the recognition given to the players for their hard work and the boost in confidence which we got, was the fact that the crowd received an education and awareness of Special Olympics. Chances are that many members of the Illini crowd were not familiar with Special Olympics and had had no contact with mentally challenged individuals. The Illini halftime exhibition games served the important purpose of showing members of the community the high capabilities and the "normalcy" of the Special Olympics athletes. Just as one of the purposes of this book is to clear up any misconceptions about mentally challenged individuals, it is my hope that the exhibition games did the same.
Jeff: Our opponents for the halftime exhibition were from Piatt County. Because the exhibition would only last six minutes and because they had travelled to Champaign, Alice had arranged for us to play them in a full-length game at the Douglass Center before we went to the Assembly Hall.
It is easy to summarize the game. We were beaten badly! One of the players on their team was extremely good and completely dominated the game. I was very tempted to sneak into the game some of Brendan's players who had come to watch the game. I spent the whole game hollering at DB to stay under the basket on defense and get rebounds. As mentioned in Chapter 3, I was still trying to make my team run set offensive plays during this early part of the season. Zach would dribble the ball up to half court and then try to make his designated pass to DB, even when DB was being guarded by three players and Charles and Eddie Cole were completely open. The good player on the other team would neatly intercept the pass, dribble down the court uncontested, and make an easy lay-up. From this game I realized that set offensive plays would probably not work for my team and that my players needed to hurry back on defense. All in all, the game was a tremendous learning experience for me.
Dividing Special Olympics teams into divisions is not an easy task. For example, a small town may only have enough players to form one team. The best player on such a team is usually much better than some of the other players on that team. On the other hand, a medium-sized city like Champaign-Urbana may have enough players to form two or three teams so that all members within a team have comparable skill levels. However, mismatches can still occur. Suppose that the skill levels of the six players on Team 1 are rated as follows: 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5. Furthermore, suppose that the skill levels of the six players on Team 2 are: 1, 5, 5, 5, 5, 9. Notice that these two team have the same average skill level. However, if these two teams meet in a game, the Team 2 player rated at a 9 will most likely dominate the game, while the Team 2 player rated at a 1 will most likely never even touch the ball.
Special Olympics uses a mathematical formula when calculating team levels and assigning teams into divisions which helps avoid this situation. However, when the number of teams in a competition is limited, mismatches are difficult to avoid. The importance of preventing mismatches (by collecting SAT scores) cannot be emphasized enough. As we found out with our teams, losing by a large margin can be detrimental to the confidence and attitudes of the players. To lose a close game in which you played well is not as bad as losing a game by 50 points. Just as a person who wins at everything might become spoiled, a person who never wins might stop trying. If nothing else, Special Olympics provides these athletes with a fair chance at winning.
After the game with Piatt County, we quickly shook hands, loaded up in vans, and were off to Assembly Hall. As we entered through the player's gate, all of our names were on the security check list. We proceeded to our seats and watched the exciting first half of the Illini game. Some of the Flyers had been to an Illini game before, but I could tell that none of the players from Piatt County had. Everybody was excited.
With five minutes left in the first half, both teams headed for the locker rooms, changed clothes, and waited for halftime to begin. One of the highlights of the day was when the Illini players came off the court. We were lined up against the wall and the Illini players had to pass by us to get to their locker room. As the Illini players approached, the Flyers and the players from Piatt County held up their hands and shouted their favorite Illini player's name. I thank the Illini players for slapping hands with our players as they walked by.
Now it was our turn. The mood turned from excitement to utter disbelief as we walked on the court and heard our names over the public address system. After the initial shock wore off, we soon got the exhibition under way. Actually, the players and I were so excited to be playing basketball in front of this many people, that I do not remember exactly what happened in the next six minutes or what the final score was. I do remember telling my team to make sure that every player had a chance to touch the ball. After a very fast three minutes had expired, we substituted in the rest of the team. Before we knew, the exhibition was over. As we proudly walked off of the court, the capacity crowd gave us a wonderful ovation. For six minutes, the Flyers were famous!
Flyers Blue vs. Danville--December 19, 1987
Jeff: Our next game was scheduled for December 19 against Danville. Unfortunately, I had already bought my plane ticket home for Christmas break. I was scheduled to leave on December 18. I knew that Jaime, Joanne, and Max were perfectly capable of coaching the team, so I called Brendan and Alice on the 20th to find out what had happened. Brendan told me that we had lost by a wide margin, but one of the highlights had made the whole game worthwhile.
Mrs. Whittle: Brad's 3-point basket from center court during this game is still discussed when we remember our year in Illinois. After Brad made that shot, the coaches had to work hard for the rest of the game preventing Brad from heaving every shot from halfway down the court!
Flyers Orange vs. Bloomington/Illini Halftime Exhibition--January 8, 1988
Brendan: After the Holidays, we were ready for our first official game. We had been working on improving our team play since the exhibition game against "The Coaches" almost a month before. We had a tough task ahead of us, however: Bloomington. They played in a division ahead of ours, but because of the geographic proximity of Bloomington and Champaign, we had to take what we could get.
Bloomington had an extremely tough starting five. They were all good athletes who could shoot the ball well. One exceptionally talented player had a sweet jump shot that was virtually impossible to defend against because he faded away from the basket (and the defender) as he shot the ball. Bloomington also had the quickest point guard that we faced all year--and she could really shoot the ball. Bloomington had crushed the Orange team during both meetings the previous year, so our realistic goal was simply to play them tough.
In addition to revenge, we had another incentive for wanting to play well against Bloomington. Immediately following the game, both teams would go to The Assembly Hall in Champaign, watch the first half of University of Illinois women's basketball game, and then play an exhibition game during halftime. Obviously, the team who won the game before going over to the women's game would have momentum going into the exhibition game on the floor of The Assembly Hall in front of all those fans.
If we had any advantage during the first game, it would be the fact that we were playing at home on our practice court. The floor was not particularly clean, therefore I hoped that Bloomington's quicker players might have trouble getting their shoes to stick to the floor at the Douglas Center gymnasium. On the other hand, we were very familiar to these conditions and because my players were not particularly fleet of foot, we would not have to worry about slipping and sliding as much as Bloomington's agile players.
As soon as the game started, I knew that we would be in trouble. Bloomington simply had the better team. Despite our excellent practices leading up to the game, our team was outmatched. Our effort and attitude was good, including Arms', but Bloomington was the better team. To make things worse, Bloomington had an incredibly hot shooting streak that night. I even went so far as to set up a triple-team situation on their star player. Nevertheless, he proceeded to hit three straight jumpers, including one of the toughest shots I have ever seen made in Special Olympics basketball or any other league for that matter. Despite being triple-teamed, this guy dribbled into the deep right-hand corner of the court and went up for his jumper. My three guys went up with him and each of them had either a hand in his face or near the ball. As this guy was literally fading out of bounds, he let the ball go with an inch clearance over my three defenders, and hit nothing but the bottom of the net. He then ran to the other end of the court, with an unaffected expression, as if to ask, "What's the big deal? I do this all of the time." Talk about demoralizing!
Despite keeping our composure relatively well throughout the game, we were outclassed by a better team. However, something bothered me near the end of the game. We were obviously blown out (the final score was 20-40) but even near the end of the game, the Bloomington coach still had all of his key players in the game. Needless to say, I was not happy and did not think that running up the score against a beaten team was in the spirit of Special Olympics. So, after the game, I let the opposing coach know my opinion. Not only was it demoralizing for my team to have to face the best that they had to offer for the entire game, but it was unfair to the second- and third-string players on the Bloomington team to have only limited playing time in blow out game such as this one. The players on Bloomington's bench could have come in and gained confidence by playing, while giving my players more confidence by providing a more evenly competitive situation. I explained all of this to the Bloomington coach and we left the court, not only as friends, but also being well understood.
After the game, it was on to the home of The Fighting Illini from Illinois to watch the women's team play and to play the halftime exhibition. Despite the bad loss, my team was still psyched to get even at halftime. Everyone on the Flyers was loosened up by the time the women's game started. We knew that in a six or seven minute exhibition, anything could happen. This would be our chance to show all of the fans in Assembly Hall what a good basketball team we were.
Mrs. Murrell: For several years our team has played a six minute game during half time of an University of Illinois basketball game. I asked Scott if he was nervous to go out on the Assembly Hall floor. He looked at me like I was dumb to even ask. "Of course not," he said, "I'm used to being there." The fans who sit near us in the stands all compliment him and the other players as they return to their seats after half time is over. The joy of playing continues for several days as people at work and at church who saw him play compliment Scott the next time they see him. He beams with pride and has learned to say "Thank you" when complimented.
Brendan: As you might have guessed, everybody wants to be a star in front of all of those fans. Our concept of team play simply ceased to exist during the exhibition. Because of my coaching experience from the year before, I knew that trying to shout out instructions would be fruitless. Therefore, I sat back in my courtside seat and enjoyed the action like everyone else.
The exhibition was close and exciting. The teams ran well and played even. My team was running some nice plays, mostly passing to Arms or giving Greg a short jumper. Richard was the master at driving in and dishing off to an open player who had an easy shot. He made defenses collapse when he got into the middle, thus creating offensive opportunities for the team. As he got into the middle, he could be double-, triple-, or quadruple-teamed and still be able to dish the ball off for an easy score. The score was tied near the end of the exhibition when the little point guard for Bloomington drove the right side against Rodney and got bumped. And when you get bumped by Rodney, you know it! As she was falling backwards, she threw up a desperation shot. The ball swished through the net as she hit the floor hard. She bounced right back up to the roar of the crowd. She converted on the three-point play, giving Bloomington a slight lead which they never relinquished.
Despite being dejected over losing both games, once again the Flyers knew that they had simply run into a team out of their league and must use this as a learning experience. Their attitudes had remained positive through some tough and critical (but positive and upbeat) comments from their coach. With some extra individual attention, even Arms remained upbeat, thus contributing to the overall positive team attitude. There was nowhere to go but up from here, and we were ready to meet the challenge.
Mrs. Kearney: It was extremely good for Mike to play at halftime. We as parents could see the self confidence in each of the players as they walked on the Assembly Hall floor. To play before sixteen thousand plus fans during the men's game the following year takes courage. The crowd seemed to enjoy the two teams playing and were very supportive. Being Illini regulars, it was thrilling to hear the crowd cheer for our Special Olympic basketball team.
Jeff: As I watched the Orange team at halftime at Assembly Hall, I could not help but notice how proud the players were. They all had an extra strut in their walks as they entered the floor. I was also reminded of a scene that had happened during the previous year. After playing the halftime exhibition, the Flyers were sitting up in the stands, enjoying the game, when a young boy came up with his program and asked for the teams autographs. I will never forget how easily the Flyers were able to assume the role of fame. They signed their names with an incredible air of importance: Steve Cain #23 Champaign Flyers; Marvin "Arms" "Dishes" Strader. I will bet that boy was surprised when he got home to find that he had Larry Bird's autograph (Brendan could not resist!).
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