Category: Human Interest- Olympics

The Champaign Flyers:
by Dr. Jeffrey G. Bettger, Alice B. McGinty, Brendan M. McGinty

Chapter 8: Paducah

Jeff: The highlight of the previous year had been our trip to the tournament held in Paducah, Kentucky. As a result of the money we had earned from raking leaves and Alice's organizational prowess, we were able to make the Kentucky trip again this year. Before going to the tournament, however, the coaches had one more special event in store for the players. On the last practice of the season, we had a special guest in attendance.

Tony Wysinger--February 24, 1988
Brendan: All of the players on both teams followed the University of Illinois' Fighting Illini basketball team with great interest. Our athletes referred to the Illini players by their first names (e.g., Did you see Doug (Altenberger) shoot those three-pointers?"). The Flyers really looked up to the Illini players. That is why the coaches decided to try and get an Illini player to come to a practice.
I had been playing basketball with some of the Illini players for years. They came to the big intramural gym on campus to play during their off-season, and a lot of us gym rats got to know them pretty well. One of the guys I got to know was Tony Wysinger. The fans referred to him simply as "Tony Y." A quick 5'11" sharp-shooting guard, Tony Y ignited the Illini offense on many occasions. All of the Flyers knew of him. So, the next time I saw him in the intramural gym, I asked Tony if he would come to one of our Special Olympics practices. He enthusiastically agreed.
A few weeks later, the date we had arranged finally arrived. The players knew about it, and everybody came out to see Tony Y. Tony arrived at the practice a little early and agreed to say a few words to the team after warm-ups. He and I sat in the bleachers watching some of the players during the warm-ups. I wanted to brag about our teams, and I was lucky that everybody was hitting their shots.
I said to Tony, "Watch Richard. He can really shoot." Richard proceeded to hit a right-handed free throw, then a left-handed free throw, then an underhanded (like former NBA and ABA great Rick Barry) free throw. Tony Y shook his head. "Man," he said in amazement. I then directed his attention to the other end of the court, where Dick Blume was practicing his "Jens Kujawa" sky hook. (Jens was a teammate of Tony's.) D.B. then sky-hooked one in from the free throw line. Tony could not believe his eyes. What he did not realize was that 1) these guys practice those particular shots a lot and 2) they happened to be hot that day. The last guy I asked Tony to watch was Greg Winfrey. I said, "Watch Greg. He's good from way outside." Greg then turned from about 30 feet and threw his one-hander through the net three consecutive times. "Man." Tony shook his head again.
After warmups and laps, we sat down at halfcourt and I introduced Tony Y to the teams. Tony opened by saying that he did not know what to expect when he came to this practice, but that he was really impressed with the talent that he had seen. He said that with hard work, it looked like we could have a great season. That really pumped the teams up. Tony then talked about what makes a team great, and how Lou Henson, coach of the Illini, always stresses teamwork. He described it as the coaches being the engine and the players being the pistons (no, not Detroit) of the engine. He explained how it took all of the pistons to be operating for the engine to reach its maximum power. Afterwards, the players were given the opportunity to ask Tony some questions, and he answered them all with great enthusiasm.
During practice, Tony helped with some of the drills, gave the players some advice, and had a good time. Afterwards, he signed autographs and had his picture taken with the teams and with some of the individual players. The parents were prepared with their cameras. It was a memorable practice. Without knowing what to expect, Tony Y had come to our practice and had done a great job with the teams. He thanked us for having him and said that he had a great time. I know the players did.
Jeff: I will reiterate that Illini players are superstars in the eyes of our team members. For Tony Wysinger to take time to come to our practice really added a sense of importance to our team and inspired the players. Besides remembering Tony Y as a "very cool guy," I remember something that he said to the team about attitude. He said that he stayed in shape by always running and working hard regardless of whether he was playing in an off-season scrimmage game, a practice, or an important Big 10 conference game. I used his remark to motivate the Flyers on many occasions when they seemed satisfied to give only 80% effort instead of 100% effort.

The Road to Paducah--February 26, 1988
Brendan: After losing but playing better in Districts, both teams looked forward to the annual Paducah, Kentucky tournament. We knew that Paducah would be the last basketball games of our season. With both teams playing so well going into Paducah, hopes ran high. For Jeff's team, a winning record could be obtained with a victory or two. For my team, a winning record was possible only by reaching our goal of winning the tournament. The year before, both teams were beaten badly and left the tournament feeling a little down. However, because of our improved play in recent weeks, both teams were feeling like they could win it.
Alice: Our annual trip to the two-day Paducah tournament was the only overnight trip for the teams and the part of the season which we most looked forward to. Because the tournament was scheduled for late February, it was a great way to end the season.
Brendan: The Paducah tournament is a big deal to players and coaches alike. There is the traveling in the vans together. There is the stopping for a bite (or more) to eat along the way. There is the huge hotel. And then there is the city of Paducah itself. During our trip to Paducah the previous year, we had seen a woman covered with black leather and tattoos walking down the street. We had jokingly decided that she would make a suitable wife for Jeff.
Jeff: Getting to and from Paducah is half of the fun. This season, everybody met at the parking lot of one of the Park District's meeting centers early on Friday morning. From all of the big suitcases being loaded into the vans, you would have guessed that we were going away for a year, rather than for just a weekend. DB was sporting a new black leather hat and jacket. The coaches complimented him on how fashionable and "cool" he looked. It was obvious that all the players were feeling good about themselves. Soon, all of the players and luggage were loaded and we were off.
Unfortunately, Eddie Cole and Ernie could not go. Eddie Cole could not get the day off from work and Ernie had accidently hurt his eye (a tree branch had poked him while he was playing football). As mentioned in Chapter 4, all of the players worked. Because we would be gone on a Friday and a Saturday, the players had to plan ahead to get those days off from work. The community's awareness of Special Olympics increased as bosses and co-workers were told about the event and work schedules were rearranged.
Brendan: My biggest regret going into our second Paducah tournament was that big Ed Cole would have to miss the action because of work. If anyone on Jeff's team deserved to participate in that tournament, it was Eddie. He helped the coaches and his teammates so much with his good nature and caring attitude that the coaches along with the players agreed to dedicate the Paducah tournament to Eddie and vowed to come back with a trophy for him.
Jeff: On the road, many of the players were listening to the Walkman's which they had brought along and were eating snacks which were supposed to last for the entire weekend. After two hours on the road, everybody was relaxed and having fun. The coaches began to see different sides of the players' personalities. For example, DB did an excellent lip-synch to the Michael Jackson song which came over the radio. When we asked whether Michael Jackson was his favorite singer, DB informed us that "Glen Campbell is the sexiest man alive." The coaches started to laugh at this comment coming from the otherwise serious DB. It was as if the players now trusted us enough after this long season together to open up and let their real personalities show. It was clear that an undeniable bond had formed between the coaches and the players.
After four hours on the road, we stopped at a nice Arby's for lunch. Because there were so many of us, the manager was kind enough to give us some discount coupons. I felt very relaxed as I sat there eating my lunch. I had been working hard at school lately and this trip was a much needed vacation for me.
After filling up our stomachs and the vans' gas tanks, we were on the road again. As we entered into Kentucky, it started to rain slightly. We crossed the big bridge over the Ohio river and soon saw the exit signs for Paducah. Everybody was nervous, excited, laughing, and joking as we entered Paducah and drove by one of the gyms where some of the tournament games would be held.
We were soon in the parking lot of the Executive Inn in Paducah, Kentucky. One is immediately impressed with the enormous size of the hotel. It has a full indoor swimming pool, several shops, a large lobby, a game room, several large banquet rooms, and hundreds of bedrooms. The many basketball teams from the south central United States who attend the tournament are comfortably accommodated here each year.
After unloading all of the luggage and equipment, we entered the hotel's main lobby. This was an especially exciting moment for me and for the players. Walking into this hotel with our basketball equipment and seeing other teams arriving from different cities and different states made us feel special and important. It was the closest any of us will come to feeling like professional basketball players who travel around the country. There was certainly a little extra pride in everybody's stride as we entered the lobby.
After Alice had everybody checked-in, it was time to pass out the room keys. Because the rooms were offered to the teams at a discount rate, we could afford enough rooms so that there would be four players per room. Of course the issue of who would room with whom was a big deal to the players. Obviously, many of the players had discussed this amongst themselves for several weeks before the trip. Therefore, Alice had only a few arguments to settle and room assignments to make. One person in each room was responsible for the room key. As testimony to the maturity and responsibility of the team members, no keys were lost and nobody was locked out of his or her room during the entire weekend. (I am sure that the same thing could not be said for college undergraduates during their first weekend in the dorms).
Alice: Many of the players had participated in the Paducah tournament in the past and were aware of what was expected of them in terms of behavior. Jeff and Brendan had done a wonderful job of teaching the players proper behavior on the court. Before stepping off the vans, I reminded them of the proper behavior off the court. For example, nobody was to leave the hotel unless accompanied by a coach. Also, anyone leaving the group for any reason needed to let a coach know first. I felt it was important for the athletes to be allowed as much independence as possible since this was a vacation for them. For some, it was also a chance to experience being away from parents or group home "house parents" for a little while and experiment with being on their own. However, since it was also my responsibility to assure everyone's safety and well being, I remained close by, took head counts, and kept an eye on everyone. It was really nice to have the other coaches there to help. The players always knew where to find us if they needed us.
Mrs. Murrell: When I asked Scott what he learned from being on the basketball team, he responded, "How to get along." That is no easy task for the coaches but we have seen much progress and maturing in our team members. I asked Scott what he enjoyed about being on the basketball team and he responded, "The Kentucky trip." He has really gained confidence and independence as he has made this "road trip" each year.
Jeff: Because neither team was scheduled to play for a couple of hours, Alice suggested that some of the players might want to try out the large swimming pool inside the hotel. Charles came out of his room wearing a racing swimming suit and everybody teased him about how sexy he looked. He smiled and went for a quick swim. As the players returned to their rooms to get ready for our game, I asked Becky, "Are you having fun, Becky?" "Yes, I am having fun, Jeff!" Soon both teams were loaded in the vans and we drove to the sight of our games.
My team played first, so with Brendan's Orange team in the stands cheering us on, the Flyers Blue team began our first game of the Paducah Tournament. It turned out to be a very frustrating game. Their quick guard would simply dribble for awhile, stop, start to dribble again, stop, and then dribble until he worked his way under the basket and got a layup. I could not believe that the referees were allowing this to happen. I double teamed him and I triple teamed him. But when this guard was trapped in the corner, he would merely take a few running steps to elude my players and then start dribbling again. Nobody on my team did this (except for Vonna, but she never moved more than two feet before passing or launching a shot).
As will be discussed later, such leniency was perfectly appropriate for our second game of the tournament, but was completely inappropriate for this game between two relatively high-functioning teams. It was evident that the player on the other team was a talented player and was certainly capable of understanding the rules. He had obviously not been coached at all. I told the referees that the players on my team and the rest of the players on the other team were not making such obvious rule violations, therefore they needed to start calling traveling on this player. The referees, however, were inexperienced and thought that they were doing a good job because they had "adjusted" their calls by allowing this player to travel. Because of this inappropriate "adjustment", the referees allowed this one player to turn a basketball game into a schoolyard keep-away game.
Brendan: Because the referees allowed players to just pick up the ball and carry it downcourt without having to dribble, Jeff was virtually helpless. All year he had worked with his players on dribbling to get down the court and his team did it very well. Now the refs deemed it OK to do exactly what Jeff had been preaching against all year long.
Jeff: I did not know what to do. After working all season on the fundamentals of basketball, I could not ethically tell my team to forget the rules for this second to last game of the season. We ended up losing that game by a narrow margin but I had felt that my hands were tied throughout the game. We definitely missed not having Eddy Cole and Ernie. I consoled the players by assuring them that we were guaranteed to have at least one more game. We gathered our gear and went to watch Brendan's team play.

Brendan: I gave my team a simple goal for the tournament. Win it. Despite losing both games in Districts, I thought our progress as a team was outstanding. Marvin stopped talking about how many points per game he had. Steve Cain stopped talking about how "BAD" we were. Greg and Rodney stopped talking about how they never got to shoot the ball.
We were playing well and playing to win as a team. If we lost, it would be no one person's fault. If we lost, it would be because we did not play well collectively. If we gave up an easy basket, it was not the fault of our defensive man. It was everybody's fault because nobody came to help out. We were all intense but still getting along with each other. The team was constantly reminded to stay upbeat and to keep running. If we did this, good things would start to happen. All I asked for was maximum effort from the players. When they became tired, I would take them out. Our bench allowed me to shuffle players in and out of the game whenever needed. I hoped to wear the other team down. If the score was close near the end of the game, hopefully we would have the fresher players to win the game. Sometimes this strategy worked for us, sometimes it did not, but our team finally started to come together at Paducah.
Everything went right for us during our first game at Paducah. The details of the game are unimportant. We won by more than 20 points, and we were not trying to rub it in. We simply played outstanding basketball by running at every opportunity and therefore scoring easy baskets. The reason we were able to do this is because we played to our team's strengths.
Marvin was an outstanding inside scorer and offensive rebounder whose defense left a little to be desired because he lost concentration at the defensive end of the court. Therefore, I gave him the freedom to get out on the fast break after a missed shot. He was a terrific athlete with good foot speed, so why not?
Greg Winfrey was a handful underneath the basket--a real horse. When a shot went up, Greg would use his big body to box the opponent off the boards and grab the rebound with his one good arm. As soon as he had the rebound, he would immediately look for Richard or Rodney to start the fast break.
Richard and Rodney were the ballhandlers. These guys could push the ball up the court. They both had good control of their dribble and good court vision, though Rodney liked to take his own shot a bit more than Richard did. They were in charge on the court for me. I trusted their decisions and let them run the show during a fast break situation.
These guys were the key to our fast break. Defensively, it is important to create missed shots to get those running opportunities. Steve Jacobs, Scott, Steve Cain, and Keith were the defensive players who made it difficult on the other team by constantly waiving their arms and blocking shots. And there was Mike Kearney, our designated long-range bomber. He would come into a game without a warmup and I would set up a play where Richard, who always drew the attention of the defensive players, would drive into the middle and force several players to guard him. Meanwhile, Mike would set up about 30 feet away from the hoop. Richard would then dish the ball back out to Mike who would launch one of his bombs . . . SWISH! It seemed like he shot 75% from out there.
Those were our strengths, and we tried to utilize them as much as possible. Our running game was often weak, but when it was working, our running tactics gave the team confidence that they could win. After that victory in the first game on Friday, it seemed as if the players had received an extra boost of confidence. I pulled most of the starters out of the game for a large part of the second half of that first game. They wanted to play, but I wanted very badly to give all of the guys a chance to contribute and a chance to feel good about themselves playing basketball. We were now playing as hard as we could for as long as we could. If someone did not hustle, he came out of the game. They would come out if they got tired, but sometimes it was hard to tell who was tired. Scott was always good at informing me when he was tired. He would run past me on his way down the court, still hustling, and say, "I'm pooped!"

Banquet and Dance
Brendan: With a win under our belt, we had the annual banquet and dance to look forward to that night. I wanted my team to keep thinking about the games to be played tomorrow because I wanted our goal to be reached, but I also insisted that they cut loose and have a good time at the party. Did they ever! They came out of their rooms wearing their suits and ties with pride, and smelling like they had dropped half a bottle of cologne on their bodies. They looked ready for action! The banquet was a formal affair with introductions, speeches, thank you's, and a cheerleading competition intermixed with the main course and the dessert. After dinner, a DJ cranked up some music and the dancing began.
There was a separate room reserved for the coaches away from the loud music where we were able to meet other coaches from around the country and talk with some of the organizers of the tournament. Alice, Jeff, and I stopped by to say hello, but returned quickly to the party because we wanted to dance and talk with the players and parents. Brad's mother, Mrs. Whittle, had come to Kentucky, as did Brian's parents, the Weakly's, who had brought along a video camera.
Jeff: As a side note, I was amazed at Brendan's knowledge of basketball. While in the coaches' hospitality room, we were talking to a coach from Kentucky about college basketball. Brendan seemed to remember most of Kentucky's starting players from the past several years. I could understand why he might remember past players from Illinois, but I could not understand why he remembered players from Kentucky and from other schools. I later found out that Brendan had written sports trivia games for his friends and a computer program which simulates the job of an NBA coach. He is true sports fanatic!
But more important than his knowledge of sports trivia is Brendan's knowledge of the techniques and strategies for playing basketball. Many people can run a team through practice drills, but it is much more difficult to accurately diagnose a losing game situation, call a time out, and make the necessary corrections. In my opinion, this was Brendan's most valuable gift to the Flyers. His knowledge and intensity guaranteed that the Flyers were indeed playing high-quality basketball, not just walking out onto the court for some exercise. On many occassion, I overheard the players analyze among themselves their team's performance in terms of advanced basketball concepts. The players had obviously gained basketball knowledge, in addition to basketball skill, from Brendan.
Brendan: For the players, the dance was a great time. Everyone stayed downstairs to dance for a couple of hours except for Greg and Richard, who went up to watch the second half of the Sixers-Hawks game on the TV in their room (which did not surprise me at all.) Alice, Arms, and I tried to convince Steve Cain to ask this one girl to dance. Becky and Vonna were really swingin', as were Mike Kearney and Charles. Jaime and Joanne were not without attention as they danced with just about every player. The time went quickly as we talked and danced. Before we knew it, it was 10:00 pm and time to get some sleep before our games the next day.
Jeff: My favorite thing about this night was that the players were free to choose how they spent their time. They could dance, go watch TV in their rooms, or go to the videogame room. After following the coaches orders all day long, this was their vacation time!
The dances held at Special Olympics events are always great. With all of the smiling faces and laughter, I always regret not taking my camera. Many moments of the these events are etched into my memory like a photograph, but two memories stand out above the rest. The first memory came from this year's dance, but did not take place on the dance floor. It is the memory of Randy and Brian (Bulldog) talking and laughing as they sat at the banquet table. This may not sound like a momentous occasion to you, but realize that during the course of the season, Randy's longest sentences had been, "I'm hungry" and "Thank you," spoken softly and with his eyes looking at the floor. Now, here he was having a real conversation and laughing with Brian. There is definitely something magic about Special Olympics dances!
My second favorite memory did occur on the dance floor, but it happened during the previous year. I had mentioned to Alice that many of the athletes were not dancing because they could not find partners. Before long, Alice and I had twenty athletes from various teams forming a large circle, holding hands, and doing the simple pattern of steps which we had quickly made up to go with the music that was playing at the time. The spontaneity and exuberance of that moment perfectly symbolize the qualities which Alice brought out in all of us.
During the Paducah Tournaments, I also learned to appreciate all of the organizational tasks which Alice did for the team. When the teams were on the court, Brendan and I were in charge. However, as soon as we stepped off the court, Alice was responsible for taking care of us all.

"Alice, when is our next game?"
"Alice, where is the locker room?"
"Alice, I can't get my suitcase open!"
"Alice, is my tie on right?"
"Alice, where is Jaime? I gave her my watch during the game."
"Alice, how does the phone in my room work?"
"Alice, do I have time to take a shower before the banquet?"
Alice: From an organizational standpoint, the Paducah trip during our second season was a triumph. During my first trip to Paducah the year before, I was presented with many problems. Basically, almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. First, I misunderstood a very subjective registration form and signed our teams up for divisions which turned out to be way above their level of play. When we got to the tournament and realized the mistake it was too late to change divisions so we combined our teams and entered them in the lower division. Even then the level of play was too competitive and the teams ended up losing most of their games.
Another problem presented itself when the teams, all spiffed up and excited, entered the banquet room for the much anticipated Paducah Tournament Banquet. There we stood, right on time, and with nowhere to sit. Although all of the other teams were not yet at the banquet, they each had representatives saving them seats and tables. We ended up standing through the first half hour of the banquet while the hotel staff set up another table for our teams.
While we still managed to have a good time and come away from the first Paducah tournament with many good memories, I was determined to make this trip go more smoothly. The coaches were prepared for the level of play which we would encounter and I was prepared to not repeat any mistakes. We signed our teams up for the correct divisions and they played some very competitive games. When the time came for the banquet, I got ready quickly, told the players to take their time and I went to the banquet hall to reserve tables for our team.
Everything worked out wonderfully. Between dinner, watching the cheerleading competition and plenty of dancing, we all had a great time. It was fun to meet Special Olympics athletes and coaches from many different parts of the country and to get to know them in a fun social setting rather than in the usual competitive setting of a basketball game.
It was also fun being able to talk with the players and other coaches from our team in a social, relaxed atmosphere. I think it helped us develop friendships which would last for long past the end of the season. It was during our first trip together to Paducah that Brendan and I developed our friendship with Jeff. We were able to get to know each other during the five hour drive to and from Paducah and during the times at the tournament when neither team was playing in a game. Although we had spent much time together during the season, the relaxed atmosphere of the trip allowed us to develop a friendship which has since become very special.

Paducah: The Next Day--February 27, 1988
Jeff: The alarm clock and Scott Murrell woke us up early the next morning. Scott wanted to tell us that he had already been out to look at the Ohio river. The river was located directly behind the hotel and was filled with many big barges carrying goods to and from the Midwest. Still half-asleep, Brendan and I then knocked on all of the remaining players' doors to tell them that we had to leave by 8:00 a.m. for breakfast and that we would not be coming back to the hotel after today's games. Once again, I was amazed by the team. Like Scott, most of the players were already dressed, packed, and ready to go. Then I remembered that most of the players had to ride buses everyday to jobs that started early in the morning. They were used to early mornings! Brendan and I, on the other hand, were more used to the late night and late morning hours of a student's schedule! I was also amazed at how responsible the team members were. The rooms were left relatively clean, no clothes were lost, and the appropriate players had remembered to take their medication (high blood pressure, epilepsy, etc.). As we collected the room keys for check out, Brendan and I were hit with a barrage of questions and commentaries.

"He snored like a train!"
"Can you help me put in my eye drops?"
"I had fun at the dance last night! Did you see me dance?"
"Can I wear my sweatpants underneath my uniform today?"
"He talked in his sleep all night."
"I was still hungry last night, so I ordered a pizza."
"We watched some TV before we went to bed."
"If we win our game today, will we be the champions?"
As we left hotel, we saw Willie Nelson's tour buses parked outside. Because he was scheduled to perform that night in the hotel, I jokingly told the players that I was going to stay in Paducah for one more night, watch the show, and then run back to Illinois the following day. The unanimous reply was, "Good idea, you need some exercise!"
Brendan: We had one of the later games that morning, so we had a chance to stop and get a bite of breakfast before going to the gym. Orange juice, milk, cinnamon rolls, and biscuits were provided for the players and coaches at an Easter Seals workshop at which clients assembled and packaged small goods. We wolfed down some food and reminded the players not to eat too much since they would have to play soon.

Jeff: I do believe that there is justice in the world. After a narrow loss during our first game of the Paducah tournament, we were ready for our last game of the season. The game started and I knew right away that we were going to win. The other team was much lower-functioning than the team we had played in our first game. After DB had scored the first 10 points of the game, I realized that Charles and DB would have to sit out most of this game. As usual, DB was not too happy about being taken out, but I explained that I did not want to run up the score too much and that the rest of the team deserved more playing time. So with a rotation of Randy, Brad, Bulldog, Vonna, Becky, and occasionally Zachery, I saw five new stars shine.
To give you the flavor of the game, let me describe some highlights. At one point, the other team put in a guard that did not know how to dribble. Thanks to some great officiating, even this player was allowed to be involved in the game. In this case, "adjustments" by the referees were perfectly acceptable and commendable because all of their players and all of my non-starting players were playing at the same level. The best part of this game was watching the menacing expression on the Bulldog's face as he played incredible defense on the guard who traveled up and down the court carrying the ball. Just when Bulldog stopped him and waited for him to pass, the guard would just take off again and either hand it to a teammate or start heading the wrong way back down the court to our basket. I believe that he scored a total of 4 points for our team.
My second favorite player on their team was their center. He was tall, fast, and well coached. Whenever we stole the ball, he would sprint down to his end of the court, raise his arms, and position himself perfectly under the basket for defense. However, once in position, he just stood there. Obviously the coach had spent a lot of time teaching him where to go, but not what to do once he got there! I just about had a heart attack from laughter as I watched Bulldog (5'1") shoot, miss, rebound, shoot, miss, rebound, shoot and score while their 6'0" center stood in his spot two feet away and watched.
Another highlight of the game was watching Vonna play. She gets so excited when she plays. By this point everybody, and I mean everybody, had scored. I really wanted Vonna to score, so I told Zachery to try to give her the ball when she was in scoring position. Well, she got the ball and shot, but she was too far from the basket. A few plays later, the ball came bouncing into her arms and her face lit up. However, the best player on the other team literally took the ball out of her hands. A mad expression appeared on Vonna's face, as if someone had stolen her favorite coat. So at 5' tall, she took off after the opponent with malicious intent. When I could control my laughter, I had to call a timeout and explain to her that what he had done was perfectly legal. Within five seconds, she had forgotten the whole incident and was cheering again.
As the game ended, Bulldog, Brad, and Randy had each scored more than six points, Becky had scored, and Vonna had enjoyed herself. The last highlight of the game happened right after we had finished shaking hands with the opponents. The Bulldog came up to me and said, "This was the greatest game of my life!" And it was the last game of our season. Now we could sit back and cheer for the Orange team.

Brendan: Jeff's team had finished second in their division and took home a big trophy for their efforts. They had many reasons to be proud. Jeff had successfully taught his players all of the basic basketball skills. They dribbled the ball well, they passed and shot extremely well, and they were an active team defensively. He coached team ball and team spirit, and it showed in the way his team developed over the course of the year. We had coached the Blue team together the year before, and it was obvious how much of a difference one year of experience had made in Jeff's coaching abilities. He did a terrific job along with Jaime, Joanne, and Max to bring that team to heights that I honestly thought were unreachable. Watching the Blue team win their final game gave my team added incentive to win our division.
Our second game of the tournament was much like the first. We won easily, sat out many of our starters for much of the second half, and coasted to an easy win. It was very satisfying because we played well for almost the entire game. We were a notoriously slow-starting team but had developed a method of warming up to get us started a little quicker. Before the game, we would play a simulated version of the old game "hot box." The players would form two circles, and each circle got one basketball. While running in place, the players would make either firm chest passes or firm bounce passes to each other. The benefits of this drill were threefold: it warmed-up the players' legs while not risking injury, it improved the players' hand-eye coordination (thus reducing early turnovers on bad passes or catches), and it focused the players' concentration because the ball was being passed so quickly. By the time the game started, it was like we were in the second quarter; all warmed-up and ready for action.
With two wins behind us in the smaller gym, our sights were now set on the championship game to be played in the big high school gym. It was the nicest gym we had played in all year long aside from the Fighting Illini's Assembly Hall. Our winning percentage was at an even .500 now, and one more win would give us the winning season we set out to have. One more win would give the Flyers their first tournament win in several years. The players were excited, and I had to settle them down.
There were a couple of hours between games to sit back and relax and watch some other games. I reminded the players to keep their concentration on the task ahead. We had to keep running and running and running. We had to keep up on defense and stay light on our feet. We had to box out on the boards to get our fast break going. The players had these things ingrained into their heads by now and were ready to play.
Now it was almost game time in the big gym. There was a good crowd on hand and our players were fidgety. The game started and Marvin was scoring almost at will inside giving me a great deal of confidence from an offensive standpoint. However, the other team brought back memories of Districts in that they had one great player. This kid was about 17 years old and a super-quick point guard who Richard, at 46, had to try to cover. At the end of the first quarter we were doing well--up by a basket. Richard, however, got into foul trouble and Rodney came in to try and guard this kid. The kid was quick and his shooting was deadly. Rodney picked up a foul and I called a timeout. This kid was making absolutely all of his foul shots and was going to the line often (because our team continued to be called for fouls.) How was he getting to the line so often? It sure looked to me like we were not fouling him, and I was upset at the referees. During the timeout, I heard one of the official scorers say that all the kid does is run into the middle of the lane, throw the ball up towards the basket, and scream for a foul. So far in the game, the refs were buying his act, but with this unexpected tip, I helped the refs a little.
I called one of the refs over and said, "Watch that kid. All he does is run into the middle and scream for the foul. Sure, he hits the deck (i.e., the floor) like he's been fouled, but nobody touches him." The ref nodded. I told the team, "If you get the chance, try to predict where he's going. Step in his way and if he touches you, fall straight backwards. Try to draw the charge." Now, I did not expect the team to hear all of those instructions during the excitement of a close game, but then again, my team's concentration was good and they heard me.
Next time down the floor after the timeout, the kid took the ball toward the hoop and there was Rodney, smartly predicting where the opponent was going to go. Already in foul trouble, as he had been most of the year, Rodney was nonetheless a bright player who was capable of making the big play. His timing was perfect. The kid ran right into Rodney (who had established his position), causing Rodney to land on his behind and slide straight backwards. The whistle blew and Rodney was afraid it was on him. So did I. But the referee's hand went to the back of his head, signaling a charge on the kid. The kid had already picked up two other fouls trying to guard ol' savvy Richard, so he had his third foul near the end of the half. We were down by six at that point in the game, but Rodney's great play turned the game around.
We played hard going into the half and came out ahead by two. During halftime, I stressed the importance of playing defense with the feet instead of the hands. Playing defense with the feet means moving your body quickly in an effort to establish position defensively on an opponent. Playing defense with the hands means reaching and grabbing for the ball and consequently picking up unnecessary fouls. We had now started playing defense with our feet. Our only hope of winning the game was to continue doing so in the second half. My team understood and they were ready. They believed that they could win the tournament.
The start of the second half brought a hard fall by Greg. However, he was tough and continued to make big plays. Marvin was scoring inside and having an outstanding game. Richard continued to give the youngster a lesson or two on slyness.
Their coach elected to keep his star in the game despite the three fouls against him (a player is only allowed five fouls per game.) Midway through the third quarter the kid picked up his fourth foul going for a steal against Richard. With about a minute left in the third quarter, Scott and Rodney planted themselves in front of their driving star and as he made contact, Scott fell backwards as the referee signaled charging on their player. Their star was incensed and I was very proud of Scott for taking that hard hit. The other team's only hope had fouled out and we were ready to take control of the game.
We were ahead by about 10 with around 5 minutes remaining and I called for the four corners offense to take some time off of the clock. Rodney, Richard, Greg, Steve Jacobs, and Marvin started it out. Rodney's ball handling was tremendous as he dribbled through tough double teams. Richard saw Marvin cutting to the hoop wide open, hit him with the ball, and Marvin put it in. Two minutes had elapsed and we scored a layup. In came Steve Cain, Keith, Mike Kearney, and Scott. They continued keepaway after a miss by our opponent. After two more minutes went by, Greg made a layup, and we had won the championship at Paducah. Our poise and good decision-making during the final five minutes of that last game of the year told me how far we had progressed during the year. Our passes were crisp and smart, we boxed out well and ran the fast break at every opportunity. Virtually without offense during the entire final quarter, we pulled away easily to win by 18. We were playing as a team, and now celebrating as a team.
We had come back from losing twice at Districts to win the final tournament of the year in convincing fashion. We were praised for our smart play. The opposing coach hailed Greg for his tough inside play and we all congratulated them on a fine effort. I went straight to the upset star of their team and told him that he had played well. He nodded and thanked me. Jeff's team and all of the other coaches and parents applauded in the stands as we walked off with the huge first place trophy.

Going Home
Brendan: It was a weekend to remember for both teams. We had both finished the season with much improved records and attitudes. The season had ended up on such an upbeat note and everyone was pleased with the outcome. Everyone had matured quite a bit, and I was very proud of them all, from Alice to Zach. We had taught the team to work hard, to play clean, and to be good sports. The teaching had obviously worked.
Jeff: As is usual at large Special Olympics gatherings, the players and coaches were provided with a light lunch. The food for these events is often donated by one of the national fast-food chains. Local volunteers then distribute the sack lunches and sodas.
By this point everybody was tired, but happy. After loading up the equipment and trophies, we had six hours of driving between us and home. I offered to drive and we were soon on our way. I found a country music station on the radio, and after initial griping from everybody (especially Alice), everybody was soon asleep except for me. We had left in the early afternoon and were lucky to have a sunny day. After four hours and one restroom stop, the troops were wide awake again. Alice turned the radio to a pop music station and led the team in "sing-along-to-the-radio" for the remainder of the trip.
Alice: It was obvious during the drive back from Paducah, when both players and coaches were joking around, reliving memories from the tournament, and singing, that many friendships had been made and that the team felt closer than ever.

Previous Chapter


Next Chapter