Special Olympians take to the court

Crowd cheers every play made during the basketball game

Players from both team look on as South Suburban player Emily Phipps puts the ball in the special basket held by Southsiders player Shawneen Cooney during the Feb. 5 Special Olympics basketball game at Englewood High School. Special rules like the special basket are included for the game. Photo by Tom Munds
South Suburban player Alan Kovacs brings the ball up the court during the Feb. 5 Special Olympics basketball game against the Southsiders. The crowd and the players cheered for each play no matter which team make the play. The game was competitive but the main focus was the fun of playing basketball. Photo by Tom Munds

The Special Olympic athletes battled for rebounds and went to the floor to capture loose balls during the South Suburban-Southsiders Feb. 5 basketball game at Englewood High School.

Both teams draw players who range in age from teens to individuals in their 30s and 40s who live in surrounding areas, including Littleton, Englewood, Centennial and Highlands Ranch.

In Special Olympics basketball, the idea remained to put the ball into the basket but rules changed to accommodate the needs of players. No one is called for traveling if he or she runs down the court holding the ball or if a wheelchair-bound player has the ball in his or her lap.

Scoring is a goal but there is a lot more emphasis on participating and having fun. For example, a player who might not normally get the basketball is given the ball and moved into the lane to take a shot. But, if he or she doesn't' get the ball through the hoop, the ball is returned to the shooter for a second shot whether the shooter's teammate or a member of the other team gets the rebound.

Another difference is everyone on the team gets equal time on the court as the entire lineup on the court is replaced halfway through each of the four quarters.

The crowd at the Feb. 5 game made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers as everyone cheered loudly for every play made no matter which team's player made it.

“This (game) is a lot of fun. Basketball is a lot of fun,” Shawneen Cooney, a Southside player, said during a break in the action. “I get to meet new people from other teams and I get to have fun with my teammates. I like to shoot the ball and it feels good, real good when the ball goes into the basket.”

Marilyn Jordan, mother of South Suburban player Michael Jordan, said her son loves basketball season.

“It is a physical and emotional outlet for him and he really looks forward to the games,” the Littleton resident said as she watched the game. “He is very competitive and, as you see, he often ends up on the floor but that is how he plays.”

She said he became a Special Olympian after, as an 8-year-old, he underwent the first of a series of operations to remove a large brain tumor. His mother said other problems have developed but her son refuses to let them hamper him or keep him off the basketball court.

“The Special Olympic sports are wonderful for me too,” Marilyn said. “I love to watch him have fun out there on the court. I love to see him as he enjoys taking part in the competition. The sports are good for him and they are good for me.”

On the court, it was a challenging battle as both teams sought to put the ball in the basket. But there was always time to make sure every player got to take shots and hopefully to put the ball into the basket.

During the game, all the running and battling for the ball stopped for a minute so players like Beth Pasterkamp could shoot or so Emily Phipps could guide her motorized wheelchair into position while another player held a basket in place so she could roll the ball through the hoop.

Bob Kovacs was on hand to watch his son Alan play for the South Suburban team.

“Basketball is my son's favorite sport. He attended a Nuggets camp for players today to learn from the pros,” Bob said. “The Nuggets are his favorite pro team and, for some reason, Duke is his favorite college team.”

Bob said watching his son play basketball is a blast for him. He said he enjoys not only watching his son play but watching the way his son helps teammates and players on the other team.

“Alan has been playing Special Olympics basketball for about 15 years,” he said. “He loves the game and so do I. Alan likes to take three-point shots. He doesn't hit a lot of them but, when he does, his smile lights up the room.”

The score didn't seem important to players and fans but the Southsiders hit a late basket and won, 60-58.