Underestimating your opponent as an athlete can be a grave error on the part of any competitor. Judging them based on their initial appearance, however, can be an even greater mistake.
April 17, 2018 – Practice at the “Y”
We entered the YMCA: six of my Special Olympic full court basketball athletes and myself. We were entering our third year as a basketball cohort in Rochester Area Special Olympics. Grown from a small half court 3-on-3 team of four players all the way to a group of 22 athletes that comprises the two full court teams that would be competing in the area games in St. Peter, MN this next weekend. Rochester Blue Omega and Alpha. Along with that, this would be the first year we would represent Rochester with a Unified basketball team, Rochester Blue Upsilon. Unified basketball is a Special Olympics sponsored sport in which those athletes with and without intellectual disability get to play together, which is good news because that means I would get to play! The students from Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences (MCSHS) have also helped coach track and field, helped out at a polar plunge fundraiser, and played some Unified flag football.
As we entered the crowded YMCA gym, bustling with middle and high school aged locals playing pickup games and shooting hoops, it was difficult to secure a basket to practice with my athletes. When I asked a group of the middle school kids if they would play on a side basket so that we could practice opposite them on the other side basket, they scoffed at my request, giggled while looking at a few of our players, and continued to play. You can imagine that this did not sit very well with me. However, I kept my composure and began to coach my team, crowded at a side hoop. I told them, “We are going to work on a few things here, and then we are going to challenge those kids to a game. And we will win.”
After about 15 minutes of practicing, I meandered back over to the group playing, still crowding us, at the main basket. They jumped at the opportunity to play against our athletes, quickly choosing which of my athletes they wanted to guard. The game began; it wasn’t even a competition. We crushed them 21-12. The sloppy, flashy, individual play of the other team made the organized, incorporated, and team play of my athletes look mechanical. We stole their passes, out-hustled them on rebounds, and more than anything, we played together as a unit. When we finished the game, and the other team sulked away, shocked, with their tails drawn between their legs. I couldn’t tell my athletes how proud I was of them.
To me this was one of the truest examples of not judging a book by its cover. That book might turn around and kick your butt (aka surprise you). Now, why do I write so much about Special Olympics? Because I like sports? Well, I do, but that is not even close to the real reason. I write about this organization because it has taught me more about how to interact with people and patients of all different walks of life and has given me a fast track in numerous different forms and strategies in education. This group of 22 athletes spans the spectrum of both physical and intellectual ability. Finding ways to help and educate all their various personalities and skill sets in the game of basketball has helped to fast track the soft skills that I use in the clinical setting with real patients. Throughout the three years I have been involved with this, our Mayo Doctor of Physical Therapy program has consistently sent 8-10 students to assist with coaching every week. One student in particular, Nick Beise, even took over the 3-on-3 half court league when last year’s head coach decided to step down. Our teams have won the gold medal at the State Games in our division the past two years. We will hopefully continue this stretch of dominance at Area Games this weekend. Stay tuned.
Brief accounts of the Special Olympic Rochester full-court basketball competition results.
April 21, 2018 – Unified Basketball’s First Games: Go, Upsilon, Go
Unified basketball: a sport that pairs athletes with and without intellectual disability together on the same team. This was Rochester’s first year in a while sponsoring a unified basketball team, Rochester Blue Upsilon. There we walked into the gym, 6 Special Olympic athletes and 4 unified partners. The unified partners were comprised of three first year PT students – Michael Wilshusen, Jeremey Houser, and Tanner Knutson – and myself. It was on, and I felt a not so surprising twinge of nerves approach my gut before the game started. Our first opponents, the Phoenix, were rivals of ours from traditional full-court basketball the year before. We were to follow that game with a matchup against the PAW Tigers.
The first game was a battle. Our team held the lead the majority of the game. Unified partners and Special Olympic athletes on both teams battled their way through until the end of the game. It wasn’t until the end that adversity struck our team. As a squad, we allowed three turnovers that gave the Phoenix a 1-point lead. Our team was even able to muster up a last second shot that went in! But it was after the buzzer… Now, it would have been easy for us to complain about a few calls that didn’t go our way at the end (and I definitely did), or to say the individual controlling the clock started it too early at the end of the game (which I think they may have). But ultimately, we congratulated the Phoenix on their win and prepared for our next game.
The game against the PAW Tigers didn’t prove to be as tough a match for our team. We were up quickly and had nearly a 30-point lead by half time. This was also a 30-point lead that could easily have been a 50-point lead. At half time, I looked at all the players on our team and said, “this next half is going to be about their team, their players, and how much fun we can all have together.” My heart lit up throughout the rest of the game as my players helped to get their athletes set up for manageable shots. They gave the other team the ball after missing their first, second, or fourth shots. Our players allowed for the skills and ability to shine from within all players that were on the court. We ended the game only winning by 26, but I took this game as the greatest victory of the day. The purpose of the game transcended competition in this moment.
We may have ended the day 1-1 with second place in Area Unified, but did so while taking in a huge lesson in celebration of unique ability. Also, our growing rivals, team Phoenix, were on our schedule first for traditional full court games the next day.
April 22, 2018 – Alpha and Omega on the Prowl
Team Omega and Team Alpha. First games together as full-court teams to be played out at the Area Games in St. Peter, MN. They would be playing in the first and third divisions respectively. These also represent the divisions at the highest and lowest physical ability levels. First up, Omega had their two games.
Our first opponent was Phoenix, the thorn in our side from the previous day. Our athletes took the scouting work from the previous day. From the start of the game, I could tell we were ready. We jumped out to a quick 8-point lead and never looked back. Late in the game, the players grew that lead to 11 points and closed Phoenix out. In the second game, we played a team that challenged us much more, New Ulm. Again, we came out to a quick lead, but not one we were able to hold on to long. New Ulm pressured our ball handler all the way up the court the whole game. Even with two timeouts, the pressure would still get to our ball handlers. It wasn’t until the end of the game that two athletes on our team pressured their ball handler, stole the ball, and scored a quick bucket to go up by 4 with less than 30 seconds to go. We had done it; Rochester Blue Omega was the Area champion of the top division in full court.
The other full court team we have primarily been helping coach, Rochester Blue Alpha, had its competition up next. They had two games, the Filmore County Eagles and the Flash Gold. These games generally look a little different than the highest ability division. These games are focused more on celebrating the successes of all the athletes, no matter what team they are on. You see, athletes give high fives to players on the other team that have just scored. Not to say you don’t see sportsmanship in the other divisions, but this is on another level of celebration of sport. The Alpha team did lose both of their games. However, based on the demeanor of the athletes after the day, you could not tell if they had gotten first or last.
Coaching these two teams (with the help of a staff full of incredible coaches) continues to amaze me. It is very humbling for me to work in an organization that allows me to help and coach a group of individuals that truly are individual in every sense. It has helped me appreciate that, in the same way, no two patients that I encounter in the clinical setting are the same. I do not care if they are the same age, height, weight, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, and have the same diagnoses as the previous patient. They still have their individual experience. The way in which I attempt to apply intervention and education to them may be vastly different than the previous, similar patient. I may choose to use a completely different approach overall. These Special Olympic athletes have helped me to realize that, and I feel they have made me a better person and practitioner as well.
Acknowledgements: Huge thank you to all of the Rochester Special Olympic athletes and coaches for all of their hard, continual work. Thank you to the Special Olympics Rochester Area organization for sponsoring all of these incredible athletes. Final thank you to all those out there that celebrate human beings as individuals and respect them for their differences.
Author Bio: Domenic Fraboni is a third year Doctorate of Physical Therapy student who will be graduating at the end of May. He has been a coach/volunteer for Special Olympic Organizations for 7 years and is now helping to foster the national Special Olympics and American Physical Therapy Association partnership through coordinating student volunteer events at our national conferences.