Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Special Day Of Basketball

TigerBlog assumes that he has the same reaction as most people when they first meet Lucas Erickson.

He noticed the hair.

Lucas Erickson has a lot of hair. He wears it in an Afro. When he walked onto the court at Rider's Alumni Gym wearing his green Oregon jersey, Erickson was in full 1970s mode, with the Afro and a red, white and blue head band.

Erickson is a few weeks away from having all that hair go away, TB supposes at least. Why? Because Erickson, a recent high school graduate, has enlisted in the United States Navy. 

For now, the hair is easy to notice.

It's also easy to notice that Erickson gets it, gets why he was on the court at Rider yesterday, on Day 1 of the basketball competition for the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games. TigerBlog couldn't help but notice that either.

Erickson was competing in the unified division of basketball, as opposed to the traditional. In the traditional division - whose games were being played at The College of New Jersey and the Hun School as the Games have taken over Mercer County this week, including competition at Princeton - teams have five Special Olympics athletes on the court at the same time. In the unified division, teams have three Special Olympics athletes and two "partners" on the court.

The partners, of which Erickson was one, are there to facilitate the play, not to dominate it. There is actually an anti-domination rule, one in which the refs stop the game when they see it, even if it's not clearly defined as to what exactly dominating is.

It didn't matter yesterday. None of the partners on any of the teams in any of the games that TigerBlog saw overdid it.

It's not easy for the partners, TigerBlog figures. Should they shoot ever? Dribble fast up the court? Steal the ball from the athletes?

It was clear from the start that Erickson was fully invested in what was going on and what his role was as Oregon defeated South Carolina 23-7. Oregon and South Carolina, by the way, were two of the four teams that Princeton defeated to win the 1975 NIT.

This wasn't about that, even if Erickson's hair would have fit right in back then. TB isn't sure he ever took a shot, but he did do what partners are supposed to do. He kept the ball moving. He set up the athletes. And, more than anything else, he played with a spirit that took over the whole gym.

This was a day for playing with spirit.

It started in the first game, when Louisiana beat Maryland 33-24. Maryland's Nick Krohn, one of the athletes, knocked down a shot and then fist-bumped everyone on the Louisiana bench. It wasn't the only time that fist-bumping broke out among competitors, and even the refs got involved.

TigerBlog was there in the role of public address announcer, and he worked at the scorer's table with about six or seven others. Several times athletes would come by and fist-bump (interestingly, there was little high-fiving) with all of the people working.

Erickson had never been to the Northeast before he flew to New Jersey Saturday. The word he used to describe this part of the country is "big."

The best game of the day was Arizona vs. New Jersey, as the visitors from the West came back and beat the home team by two. Washington, DC, had a nice win over Washington in another close game. TigerBlog thinks Louisiana was the best team he saw.

The Oregon team is the youngest in the field, made up of high school-age players. Erickson got involved with Special Olympics through his mother, who worked in Special Ed at his high school.

And through another family that was close with his own. The Knight family.

Erickson described Dony Knight as his "brother," even if they aren't actually related. And there they were yesterday, after the game, in a hug, Dony the athlete and Lucas the partner.

It was the kind of hug teammates often have after a nice win to start a tournament. It wasn't a wild celebration. It was just a recognition that Game 1 had gone well and was in the bank.

Dony had knocked down a basket in the game. Maybe more than one.

So did Alex Hoppe. Alex in this case is a female, as the teams in this division could be co-ed, though not all were. Alex appreciated, among other things, that TigerBlog pronounced her name correctly - "Hoppy."

Special Olympics is about spirit, and the triumph of that spirit. It's also about competing.

The athletes have wildly different levels of athletic ability - and general physical coordination. They all loved being out there yesterday, playing on a Division I basketball court, "like playing at a real college," as one player said.

The event going on in Mercer County is a massive effort, one that had to require ridiculous amounts of planning and coordination. And thousands of volunteers. Rider was jammed with them yesterday, all there at 6:30 a.m., none of them making a penny.

Princeton Athletics is well-represented. The volleyball matches are being played next door to basketball at Rider, and TigerBlog saw Princeton's two head coaches - Sabrina King and Sam Shweisky - as well as Mary Beth Dittrich from campus rec and Carolyn Cooper from the Princeton Varsity Club, all before 6:30.

TigerBlog volunteered to see it up close himself. He has plenty of time this week left to continue to do so, with events continuing throughout the county. In addition to basketball, TigerBlog will be at flag football at Lawrenceville Prep.

Mostly what he saw yesterday was joy. On the part of the athletes. The coaches. The partners. The volunteers.

It was real joy, legitimate joy, at being part of what was going on.

TigerBlog couldn't help but think of what it took for the athletes to reach this point, what they had to go through physically and mentally to get there. And what it was like for their families.

After he left Rider, TigerBlog took Miss TigerBlog to her Monday night field hockey league. This was a league of middle school athletes, not that much younger than Alex Hoppe.

It would be too trite for TB to say that he would no longer take for granted the ease with which MTB and her teammates can play sports and that what TB saw all day at Rider puts other sports - like Princeton's or his own children's - into a different perspective. That wasn't really the case anyway.

It was more a feeling that TB had about sports in general.

People play them for a lot of reasons, but No. 1 has to be because they love to play. Whoever it is. Whatever is at stake.

If the athletes don't love to play, what's the point? A scholarship? A big pro contract? Those don't happen for most athletes, and the ones who do get to the point could never get there if they didn't love it.

And for the overwhelming numbers of others who play? It's because it's what they want to be doing.

And that's what yesterday was all about. On the surface, the juxtaposition between the middle school field hockey girls and the Special Olympics basketball athletes might seem glaring, but it really wasn't.

It was just athletes doing what they loved doing.

That's the whole point.

So go watch the Special Olympics if you're in the neighborhood. You'll be glad you did.


Shawn said...

Thank you for writing this. I have a hard time explaining to friends how partners on a unified team work. This article nails it! BTW I am the very proud father of Lucas.

Hailey Shakota Johnson said...

I go to school with Lucas, Alex, and Dony. Needless to say, people don't get to be much better than them. :D

Kerry said...

It was a such an honor to be able to watch and coach against these 2!! You can see the true spirit of Unified in them! Team Michigan!